Early 2011. Still encased in the cotton wool swaddle of a safe New Zealand life, I was unsure what kind of people the grown-up world of Europe would hold for me, curious at how my naievety would be tested.
Sure, there are some rotten people in the world and yes, sometimes you have to be careful who you trust. I have met a tiny handful of characters on my travels who I would trust far less than I could throw – even if at times you could be tempted to attempt to toss them, perhaps straight off a bridge – but I will not dwell on these.
Instead, I want to mention some of the outstanding people I have met while traveling over the last three months. Some of them have already cropped up in previous posts and I apologise to the rest: I cannot mention everyone, for there are simply far too many.
To these people I am the stranger.
Consider: one bearded, shaggy-haired young man carrying a guitar and all his belongings on his back. Would you trust him if you happened to come across him?
The answer: Yes. Kind of. Some people wouldn’t, which is entirely fine. But the others…
You might meet them in the park, ask for directions and receive a guided tour, followed by an offer to stay in their apartment. Once of course they move the skeleton off the bed in the guest room (thanks, my Swedish medicine buddies Anna and Christoffer).
Perhaps they might advise you on the best spot to hitchhike from, then scream to a halt in front of you half an hour later, having conducted a search for you and your hitchpartner just to drive you to the next petrol station on the motorway, regaling you with hitchhiking stories from the swinging 60s all the way (cheers to veteran hitchhiker Leonard).
Or, like last week, a young Lithuanian family might pick you up from the side of the road, park you in the back seat next to their 6 year-old son and, discussing all sorts of fascinating things along the way, drive you as far as and then onto the ferry. Not satisfied, they might also offer you a bed, shower, a refreshing beer and food once you get to the other side, with a bottle of Lithuanian vodka for the road the next day (ačiū again, Eglė, Simas and little man Roy!).
Sometimes the kindness of strangers gets a little overwhelming; not to belittle that of friends old and new and family. When I look back, I have much to be thankful for and many people to whom I am very grateful.
I guess when you first truly learn what kindnesses people are capable of and how easy it is to travel on very little, it’s something which is very tempting to take advantage of. Which, since I’ve been traveling on a pretty tight budget, is exactly what I have been doing for the last three months (and indeed, probably since I left home in April last year, whether I’ve entirely realised it or not).
But now, my wanderlust for this kind of travel is running low.
While it is, in theory, possible to carry on this way for a very long time, taking without being able to give much back aside from a smile and a conversation can be exhausting. I don’t think I can be the only frugal traveler who feels this at some point.
Thus, I am in the process of acquiring a new base for now. A home of sorts in a place large enough to support all sorts of exploration within its city limits, tempting borders easily traversed, more work to earn some more independence (illustrating an interesting contrast between freedom and independence) and perhaps even a couch of my own, so I can happily start paying forward some of this debt of gratitude.
The puzzle pieces are falling into place and the all-important documents making their way through the innumerable fingers of bureaucracy.
Watch this space.