I had an amazing 2018.
But as great as it was, it wouldn’t have been a full year of travel without a few mishaps. None of them were gigantic, life-altering moments – but that’s fine. I don’t need to have been robbed five times or died in a freak blimp accident to be able to claim some bad times. And when I started thinking about it I realised that actually, the year wasn’t all roses, ponies and cheesecake.
I believe it’s important to shed light to the less pleasant sides of travelling, too. Often we only see the “best of” – the mountains we conquered, the exotic foods we tasted, the people we met – without realising that it’s only a highlight reel. What we don’t see are the blisters, the food poisonings, the broken hearts.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sound negative or ungrateful or even turn anyone away from travelling. But focusing only on the good parts can be surprisingly harmful. When travel bloggers gloss over the bad times, it’s easy to think that they never have any. And when you experience something that makes you doubt yourself and your decision to go travelling – because it will inevitably always happen – you’ll feel twice as bad for not enjoying every moment of every day. If all you see is other people having fun, it’s easy to think that there’s something wrong with you.
And of course that’s not true.
My life, while no doubt amazeballs, is not all glossy and glittery. (I was that, though, for a short moment in Split when a girl I met at the hostel gave me some glittering sunscreen.) Has this intro been long enough yet?
So here, in no particular order, are my ten worst travel moments of 2018 – and how I got over them:
Missing my flight to Poland
When I moved to Krakow last spring, I was ecstatic. I was finally moving out of Finland!! I had been working towards that goal for years.
I took a night bus straight to the airport and spent an uncomfortable night contorting myself over airport seat arm rests. I was flying early from Helsinki, connecting through Stockholm. Or so I thought.
In the morning, a blizzard was raging. Snow was everywhere. And even the Helsinki airport, possibly the airport most prepared for apocalyptic snowfall in the world, kinda went, ‘Oh my gosh.’ My flight ended up being delayed for four hours, first for a technical fault, then because of the snow.
By the time I got to Stockholm, I was informed there were no more flights to Krakow that day. I’d have to fly to Oslo at 6 the next morning and connect from there. In the end, I’d get to Krakow exactly 24 hours later than intended.
How I got over it: Luckily, Norwegian was a sweetheart and paid me a lunch at the airport, an airport hotel, a dinner and a breakfast. Because I had scheduled to arrive in Krakow a few days before my internship started, one day’s delay didn’t end up screwing up my plans.
Hiking back to Lake Bohinj in Slovenia
In June, I set out on my first overnight hike of the summer. I started early in the morning in Bohinj, a tiny town by the “other famous lake” in Northern Slovenia, and made my way up the Slovenian Alps. It was the first time I was out with all my baggage, but I wanted to practice for the few weeks of long-distance hiking I had planned for later.
I accidentally took the wrong route and ended up on a super steep section of the trail. No worries (even though the people passing me by – all day hikers – kept looking at my heavy backpack with a mixture of horror and admiration. Or that’s what I’d like to imagine it was). It started drizzling when I got to the top, I ran out of water, and once I finally made it to the mountain hut, I found out it was closed.
Luckily, a smaller winter hut adjacent to the main hut was unlocked, even though it meant that I was surviving on nuts and small rations of cup soup instead of the hearty meal I had imagined to find. I got more water straight out of the glacial lake by the hut and made friends with a Danish couple who’d also found their way there, so it wasn’t all bad.
The next morning I set out to hike back down to Bohinj. I had barely done any training in the spring, so even though I wasn’t exactly dragging myself along, I wasn’t going quick. And it was starting to show.
The way down was some of the longest hours of my life. My backpack felt like it weighed a ton, and every step I took felt like a hot needle piercing my foot. I stopped to rest every hundred metres or so, but nothing alleviated the pain in my feet. I returned to Bohinj limping and crying, and as soon as I spotted the first restaurant, I flopped down at a table, the smelly, sweaty mess that I was.
On top of it all, the Couchsurfing host that I was supposed to stay with in Ljubljana suddenly cancelled on me and immediately blocked me.
How I got over it: I sat at that restaurant for a few hours and had a good meal. You know, TREAT YOSELF. After the couchsurfing fell through, I decided to get back to the hostel in Bled where I’d spent a few nights before the hike. The next day, I hitchhiked to Ljubljana without any problems.
The weirdest hostel experience in Slovakia
The trip to Bratislava had been hard enough. I had hitchhiked all the way from Krakow and just after the Slovakian border, managed to get a lift from a friendly truck driver who was going all the way to the capital. A few hours in, we ended up getting stuck in an endless traffic jam though; a lorry had capsized on the road, leaving everyone on the road in the grips of near road rage.
It was late when I finally got to Bratislava. I had already texted my Couchsurfing host to let him know what’s up and we’d agreed it’d be better if I checked into a hostel since I was going to be staying just one night anyway and he’d have to leave pretty early in the morning. So I found the cheapest hostel I could and booked it about 15 minutes before arrival.
What kind of a travel god might know what went wrong? I got the email confirmation, but the hostel was clueless when I barged through the door huffing and puffing and slightly freaked out by its dodgy location right by the train station. After a bit of back-and-worth, the receptionist checked me in anyway and told me I needed to go to the next building over to get to the dorms.
When I went to unlock the door, an older man reeking of alcohol tried to get in at the same time, so I asked if he was staying there too and if he had his key. When I’m sober, I don’t speak Drunk so fluently, so I can only imagine his response was something along the lines of ‘my dear lady, how may you be so hurtful as to doubt my pure intentions of simply getting back to my lovely bed for some beauty sleep?’ Or, you know, it might have been ‘stupid girl, don’t ask any stupid questions.’.
He followed me in but I rushed up the stairs to get to the dorm first. And wouldn’t you know it, my wonderful gentleman companion was headed for the same dorm. He had just got the end of the stairs when I closed the door on him, yelping out a quick “sorry!”
Turns out it was his dorm after all. The room was divided into two parts and his bed was in the first section, but he followed me to yell some more, then raged: ‘Well now you get to be so safe!’ and slammed the door between the two rooms.
I don’t feel bad. He was drunk and rude and I am right to be worried for my personal safety.
All in all, even though the hostel where I moved to the next day was a lot nicer, I ended up hating Bratislava. It was an accumulation of loneliness – no one else in the hostel and my original travel buddy having flaked on me -, stress over handing in my Masters thesis, a planned tattoo appointment falling through when the artist designed something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than what I had asked for, and an overall strange, creepy feeling the city gave me – I felt like every person I met on the street was giving me the side eye, and somehow the whole city felt like I’d stepped into some parallel Kubrickian universe.
How I got over it: After Bratislava, I went to Nitra for a night where I couchsurfed with a really nice guy. We talked about Finland where he’d spent one semester as an exchange student and got beers and played Mario Kart in some basement bar. From there, I hitchhiked to the beautiful town of Banska Bystrica where I had some super delicious, super cheap food. So, all in all – Slovakia wasn’t all terrible.
Getting sexually harassed on my birthday in Macedonia
Out of all the times I hitchhiked last summer, would you guess that my worst experience happened when I wasn’t even hitchhiking?
I spent my birthday in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and wanting to make the day memorable, I decided to hike the 16 kilometres to the Matka Canyon. The day ran long, though (which might or might not have something to do with starting out late because I was hungover), and by the time I got down from the mountain, it was almost dark.
I had the bus timetables written on a piece of paper and braced for a long wait with a phone battery at 5% when a red car stopped next to me. The guy spoke almost no English but I managed to understand that there would be no more buses to Skopje that day and if I wanted, he could take me to his town that was on the way. I figured why not, it would be easier to hitchhike back to town from the big road – his was the only car there, minus the taxi I’d passed a while back. Besides, he pointed at the uniform he was wearing and I saw that he was a security guard at one of the restaurants. So for sure it would be safe to travel with him, right?
Because of the language barrier, we didn’t talk much, but I saw him glancing at me a few times. I kept my eyes on the road. When we got to his town, he decided that he could take me all the way to Skopje because it really wasn’t that far. My alarm bells went off. But maybe I was just paranoid? In the Balkans, people just are nice like that. Besides, to my knowledge there were no more buses, so I would have had to hitchhike in the dark anyway.
Since my phone was dead and I didn’t know my way around Skopje yet, I asked him to leave me at the train station. For some reason he decided that I was staying at the Holiday Inn and took me there. I had no clue where we were in the city; but at least it was the right city, so I figured, good enough, and made to jump out.
He extended his hand, and the polite girl I am, I gave him mine to shake on it. But instead of doing the normal person thing and shaking my hand, he pulled it to his face and tried to kiss it. When I pulled back, horrified, he leaned in and tried to kiss me. I had to push him away. I jumped out of the car yelling ‘What the fucking fuck???’ types of pleasantries at him.
He sped off, and I managed to find my way back to the hostel by asking around. Turns out I was barely a five-minute walk away.
The real kicker, though? When I got back, I asked the hostel about the bus schedules and they confirmed my original timetable. That guy literally lied to me to get me in his car.
Next time I’ll just pay for a cab, thanks.
How I got over it: I got back to the hostel angry and a little shaken up, but then I went to have a nice, super cheap three course meal with a friend from the hostel. Later we went to a small club to get slightly drunk and listen to live music, and in the end, it was a great birthday.
And, you know; I’m glad to know that if I’m ever again in a flight-fight-or-freeze situation, my first instinct is to fight back like the bad bitch I am.
Spending the night sick at the airport in the Netherlands
In January, I went to visit my very tall, very Dutch friend Sophie in Amsterdam. It’s a city I hated and continue to hate but she’s a sweetheart so it was worth it. (Don’t say I wouldn’t do anything for my friends.) While there, I stayed at her roommate’s empty room because a) private room and b) screw paying for hostels if you can leech off of a friend for free.
The night before my flight back, though, she needed to go back to her parents’ town and unfortunately her roommates were not cool with me staying over alone without her. No biggie, I’ll just skedaddle my way to the airport, my flight’s early anyway.
The only problem? I was sick with what was probably malaria, swine flu, ebola, testicular cancer and snufflewumps at the same time.
(It might have also just been a regular flu, but when I get the flu, I become a giant baby, so there’s that.)
I’ve spent many a night trying to catch sleep on uncomfortable airport benches, but this night was probably the worst ever. As I lay there hallucinating and speaking in tongues (uhh, I mean, feeling sorry for myself), I don’t think I caught one full minute of sleep.
But the worst was yet to come.
When I could finally check into my flight and got into the departure hall, I discovered a whole relaxation area equipped with Barcaloungers, bean bags and reclining chairs set in a pleasant green area. Or, you know, a perfect place to sleep at an airport.
How I got over it: I was on my way home so I didn’t really need to. I just suffered through the rest of the journey, then probably spent a few days curing myself through ice cream and re-runs of Friends.
Getting dehydrated, attacked by dwarf pines and almost lost on suspected mine fields in Bosnia and Herzegovina
My hike in Bosnia and Herzegovina seemed cursed from the start.
- I had to buy a new camping stove since I couldn’t find gas for the one I’d been sold in Krakow
- On the morning of the hike, my computer’s battery had spontaneously emptied
- My maps were not working on the GPS and I started hiking half a day late to fix them
On the second day, I was determined to make the most of the hike, though, and turn my luck. After ascending steeply for the whole morning, though, it was clear that I was going seriously slow. I kept losing the trail markers which freaked me out since Bosnia has the most unexploded land mines in the world and I really didn’t want to die on some stupid Bosnian mountain. The temperature was in high 30’s and I was running out of water.
My breaking point came when I was faced with a dense forest of dwarf pines. They scratched at my bare legs and tore a huge hole in my tent bag. Losing my way was so easy, and going was slow; the sun was starting to set when I got stuck at a particularly bad spot – literally between a rock and a hard place – and I solved that crisis by pretty much screaming at the sky like a toddler having a tantrum at the candy aisle.
How I got over it: After I calmed down, I forced my way through the last of the pines and hurried on. I was worried I would have to hike to the next hut in complete darkness – the path was rocky so there was no place to put up my tent, and I couldn’t stray for fear of the goddamn landmines – but by a miracle, I came across an emergency shelter that wasn’t marked on any maps. AND IT HAD WATER. It ended up being one of the most beautiful sites where I slept during the hike.
The driver who wouldn’t stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina
(If you’re my mum, don’t read this. Actually, you shouldn’t read any of this, probably.)
I spent four and half months hitchhiking all over Balkans, and nearly every driver and fellow traveller asked me the same question: Aren’t you scared?
And I always told them that I was a little nervous at first but then I realised that the people who stopped for me were some of the most caring, wonderful humans who pick me up not only to help me out and keep themselves company but because they were worried for my well-being.
Well, almost everyone.
It took me a while to get picked up leaving Sarajevo. When someone did stop, though, it was a man in a beater of a car that seemed like a good kick could get it to fall apart. He had grey hair and teeth missing, and there were stains on his shirt. A typical country boy, as you’d imagine. Something about him seemed… off. But I didn’t want to assume. Any other time I’d have listened to my instinct but this time I discounted my discomfort to some sort of prejudice about his shitty car and poor man’s appearance. Besides, he had a friendly smile, and I’d been waiting for almost an hour. So I got in.
His vocabulary in English was just short of a two-year old’s but he managed to explain that he was in property business. As we were driving through villages, he pointed out holiday houses for Arabic tourists that he had helped buy and build. After a while I couldn’t say ‘interesting’, any longer, so I tried to steer away from the subject, but he always kept coming back to the holiday houses. Like, weird flex but okay.
We’d been driving along the highway for a bit when he turned to a smaller road. Immediately my guard went up, but when I checked my maps, I saw that we were still heading the right direction, just through a bizarre detour. I asked him about it and he said that it was a better route.
The road was small and winding, barely wide enough for another car to pass so that when one did, he had to steer almost off the road to let them pass. It went uphill and downhill and around tight curves, and soon we were in the forest, occasionally passing tiny country villages where he pointed out more Arabic holiday houses.
Then he asked me if I wanted to see one. Knowing what he had in mind I just kind of laughed it off and said no. Getting propositioned wasn’t so uncommon; being a young Western female traveller, locals liked to talk me up a bit, but it felt more like a game than anything else. They had to try their luck and I had to say no, and after that they’d give up. Once in Albania I even got proposed to through Google Translate, and when I said no, he asked if I had any friends who might marry him.
But this guy wouldn’t give up. I tried to change the topic of conversation but he’d go right back to it. He wanted to “relax” for a while and I kept saying no, my friends were waiting for me in Mostar and I needed to get there as soon as possible. This guy hadn’t once touched me nor did he have a menacing air to him – which made me think he wouldn’t hurt me – but I was getting beyond uncomfortable.
We were still a good drive from the town he was supposed to drop me off when I told him that actually, it would be fine if he just left me somewhere around there. On a petrol station or a bus station. Anything like that.
He passed by the first few possible stopping points, so the next time a petrol station came up, I suggested he drop me off there. No, no, he said, he could take me where we originally agreed. And I insisted that I was fine right here. God, I hate how nice women are brought up. Whether we’re worried about a man lashing out on us or us upsetting them, we just don’t want to speak harshly if we can avoid it.
But I had had enough. Would this guy actually do me harm? I had repeatedly asked him to stop, yet he was still driving. I saw that we were getting close to an entry to the highway again, and getting off there would be almost impossible.
He had to slow down for some other traffic in front of him, so finally gathering my balls I proclaimed that I was going to stay there. I opened the door when the car was still moving, and I guess he knew he’d lost, because he finally stopped on the side of the road and after I’d got off, sped away without saying a word.
How I got over it: I stood there shaking for a bit and then collected myself and put up my thumb again. The next car who stopped for me was a lovely older couple that made me feel completely safe and reminded me again that most of the humanity is good.
Almost missing my bus in Ukraine
There are a few honourable mentions from Ukraine. I could have recounted the bus trip from hell that a) left Krakow over an hour late, b) had me sitting right in front of some teenagers that kept humming, singing, screaming and beatboxing behind me, c) had the most bizarre announcements. (‘We now have 30 minute pause because we have a problem with the autobus. Please don’t go in the autobus.’ But I’m already in the autobus??) I could have also mentioned that I spent the whole weekend sightseeing with the most annoying, painful UTI. But, you know, maybe that would’ve been TMI.
But the worst (best?) part came the morning I was leaving. I had an early bus out so I went to get breakfast from the only 24-hour restaurant I knew in town. Unfortunately, they didn’t start cooking breakfast menus before later, but they could whip up a minestrone soup for me? Cool, I said, forgetting that I don’t actually like soup. Then I spent a frenzied twenty minutes trying to find an Uber because this was the exact moment the app stopped working for me.
Finally, I managed to get a driver, and when the app showed that he was just a minute away, I made my way away from the safety of the wifi. Just me and my minestrone soup in a plastic bag at 6 in the morning in Ukraine.
The driver never showed up. At this point, the bus was leaving in 15 minutes, and I was 20 minutes away from the station. I stopped a taxi and with what I can only imagine sounded like ‘DRIVE, DRIVE FOR YOUR DEAR LIFE!’, jumped in the back seat.
Oh, one more thing. I had no more cash left.
The driver was an absolute trooper. He took me to an ATM but it didn’t work. So he took me to another one that only spoke Ukranian. With pure luck genius, I managed to get out enough to pay him, and off we went, speeding through the night both fast & furiously.
We got to the station just as the bus was pulling out of the lot. The taxi probably just parked on the other side of the street and told me to hurry, but in my mind it felt like he’d pulled a screeching halt right in front of it, heroically stopping the bus just in time. I frantically waved the bus to stop and they did. So I finally boarded, minestrone and all.
How I got over it: I laughed about it. Honestly, what else are you supposed to do when you’re sitting sweaty on some Ukrainian bus with half a litre of cold soup in a plastic bag? Besides, I had a few episodes of Gilmore Girls downloaded from Netflix.
Experiencing travel burnout in Montenegro / Albania / Macedonia / Greece
TRAVEL BURNOUT IS REAL, YA’LL.
This summer I discovered something that I’d never known before: long-term travel is actually exhausting.
I spent four consecutive months travelling the Balkans. It was the longest time I had spent continuously on the move. Even on my previous long stints of travel, I had had breaks like staying in one city for a few weeks or working somewhere for a month. And travel burnout snuck up on me without a warning.
The first time I realised what it was, I was in Zabljak, Montenegro. I had stopped there for a day of rest and resupply in the middle of my three-week hike, and I suddenly realised that I had no desire to go out and explore the town. (Not that there was much to see anyway.) I missed home. All I wanted was to eat junk food, talk to my friends and watch horror movies. So that’s all I did that day.
But travel burnout cannot necessarily be cured through a day’s rest. When you reach the point of exhaustion, it is like you’re running on old batteries: they still work, but every time you charge them, they run empty a little bit faster. I felt lazy and uninspired. Talking to new people at hostels was tiring, and I was no longer excited at the thought of getting to a new city or a new country. I questioned whether there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
How I got over it: I was kind to myself. When I first felt the exhaustion taking over, I booked my flight home to Finland. Even though the return date was still two months away, it did help to know that there was an actual date to look forward to. In Albania, I allowed myself to take a beach holiday; I spent almost a week on the coast laying in the sun, reading, and drinking beer in the evening. In a word, I did nothing.
The exhaustion that followed intense backpacking did make me slow down and re-evaluate my trip. Because of it, I ended up missing some important sights – for example, I skipped the monastery of Saint Naum in Ohrid even though I spent three days in the area –, and in Thessaloniki, I did little else than shop for new clothes and sit in the sun eating cake and swiping Tinder. I don’t regret it. Forcing yourself to go out and do things when there isn’t an ounce of energy in your body sucks. You might end up seeing some dusty old coins in some super important museum but you’re not going to enjoy it – and honestly, it is still better to eat cake tindering on a rooftop in Greece than at home.
The (near) demise of my laptop
Technically not a travel moment since I was already living in Spain but still one of the worst things that happened last year.
Since I’m a freelance translator, I depend on my laptop for my livelihood (read: beer money and travel funds). On top of that, most of my hobbies revolve around the screen: blogging, editing pictures, Netflix. So when I went to power up the thing one fateful Saturday afternoon and found that half of the keyboard wasn’t working… Well, that was kind of a Big Deal.
Back home I could have just strolled into any shop. But here in Spain finding a Finnish keyboard proved to be a Herculean task. (And I needed that keyboard – how else would I type such fine words as hääyöaie, mäyrä-äiti or ötökkäkesä?) After defeating 12 computer nerds in a battle in 12 different shops, I finally found one that knew how to use Google and found my keyboard on the manufacturer’s website.
How I got over it: With a lot of stress and anxiety. Jk, I decided there was nothing I could do to make the situation any better so I simply… didn’t stress about it. While the laptop was being fixed, I messaged all my (possible future) clients that I wouldn’t be able to fill in paperwork or do test translations while my computer was in the shop. It was an agonizing three weeks and in the end I was nearly a hundred euros poorer, but now I’ve got a functional laptop and some more work lined up.
Oh boy. It really wasn’t that bad of a year, was it?