Having just came back from a 2-month solo trip to Eastern Europe one week before the end of the fasting month, Raya this year was filled with entertaining multiple trip-related questions from family and friends: where I went, what I did, was it safe and wasn’t I scared. That last question was one that particularly stood out; most of the people I met seemed to think that I was brave (some too brave, others probably stupidly brave) for attempting such a trip as a single unaccompanied woman.
To be honest, I didn’t quite understand it when they called me brave. It was not like I wasn’t scared when I first started the trip; I was in fact quite nervous as it was only my second time backpacking to anywhere, and first time visiting Eastern Europe (practically unknown territory to me) and travelling for such an extended period of time. I didn’t know what to expect aside from my very badly-done research about the region in general and about safety travelling through the region as a solo female traveller (read: googling the following words: “eastern Europe, solo female, safe” and reading blog posts returned by the search engine). I was not being brave; I was being stubborn in refusing to give in to my fears of the unknown and losing out on the experiences I could have. I simply did not want to regret not trying.
Making memories, collecting experiences and turning unpleasant incidents into meaningful life lessons
To me, travelling solo through Europe was more than just about visiting new places and trying out local food when I could. It was about making memories and collecting experiences, and the long extended trip gave me more than enough time to experience both pleasant and unpleasant incidents multiple times. And while nobody likes going through unpleasant experiences (me included), in retrospect, those experiences were the ones that I remember well and treasure more.
First incident: Getting conned/ scammed
The first time I got scammed on my Eastern Europe trip was on Day 2 of my 63-days trip.
I had just arrived in Santorini, Greece after an early-morning 8-hour ferry ride and was trying to find the public bus to take to my hostel. Little did I know that the public bus blended in with all the other tour group buses, and that there was only one bus to/from the port per day. Needless to say I missed the bus and had to find an alternative method to get to my hostel. In my tired and confused state, I got pulled by someone offering a shared minibus transfer to my hostel for a hefty price of €90. He tried to sell me a private taxi for twice the amount but I adamantly refused, and good thing I did because a taxi ride to my hostel should have only cost about €30. Way to start my trip.
You see, the thing was I knew I was being ripped off for the hostel transfer (my hostel had shared the estimated cost of the transfer on their website). However it was only the second day of my trip, I was sleepy and tired from the long ferry ride, I did not know what the Greeks were like, there were very little transfer options left outside and I definitely did not want to be left stranded at the port and forced to climb up a very steep cliff to get to town. So I gritted my teeth, paid that ridiculous price, ranted about it on my travel diary, and forced myself to be thankful for reaching my hostel safely and to forget about the negative feelings within the next hour. But from then on, before every flight, train or bus ride, I made sure I knew exactly how to get from the train/bus station to my hostel before I reached my destination.
I wish that was my only experience getting scammed on the trip, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. What was certain though was that I never got tricked by the same scam twice. Personally experiencing them provided me with first-hand lessons on the danger signs, ways to handle the matter and more importantly manage my feelings afterwards, and these are things that I simply could not have picked up from merely reading travel guides. And I definitely learnt not to repeat my mistakes again.
Second incident: horrible hostel Stays
Less than 2 weeks into my trip, on my last night in Bucharest, Romania, two rowdy guests decided to have fun smoking, drinking, conversing loudly and basically making a great nuisance out of themselves in my 6-bedded shared dorm all the way into the wee hours of the morning. They even refused to leave when the hostel management asked them to and the local police weren’t of any help, resulting in the rest of us choosing to sleep on the couches in the common rooms instead (unfortunately the hostel was full that particular night hence there weren’t any other beds available).
While the experience was decidedly horrendous, it set in me a lower comfort baseline for future accommodations and made me more appreciative of having a clean bed and a quiet night’s sleep (which could sometimes be a rarity when staying in shared dorms). It definitely made me miss having the comfort and privacy of my own room and served as a great reminder to have more consideration and not be a nuisance to others in any situation.
Third incident: Uncomfortable conversations and situations
My 10-hour sleeper train from Bucharest to Timisoara, Romania came with a rather inquisitive and borderline flirty train conductor who could only speak Romanian but was trying hard to converse with English-speaking me through Google translate for about 20 minutes.
While the conversation started out mostly about my travel journey (for example where was I from, where was I going, how long am I travelling for etc.), there were some questions that got my female instincts tingly. Like when he asked if I was attached or unafraid of travelling alone, or if I had painkillers in my bag as he had a sore back. One good thing about not knowing Romanian was that I could pretend not to have understood his questions and hence only replied with a confused face. I also did not feel guilty giving white lies for other questions (I was not opening my bag if it wasn’t necessary) or pretending to be uninterested in the conversation when I felt that it had dragged on for too long. Anything would do if it would help me feel more secure of my safety.
My couchette from Bucharest to Timisoara. I was lucky to be the only passenger in this cabin the entire ride and was able to lock the door while I slept.
To be honest, I do think the train conductor was simply being curious (and he was nice enough to inform me about our final stop 30 minutes before we arrived so I could get my things ready), but being in a situation where I could only depend on myself did made me learn to trust my instincts and manage my safety as a solo female traveller. That is also why I preferred to return to my hostels while there was still light outside and avoided late night or early morning train trips unless absolutely necessary.
Fourth incident: Going uncontactable
About 4 hours before my train was due to arrive in Zagreb, Croatia, I realised to my dismay that I was left with less than 5% phone battery, there was no place to charge my phone on the train and my power bank decided to choose that exact moment to not work even though I had fully charged it the previous night. In an inwardly panicky state, I opened Google Maps, located my hostel and quickly copied down the address and route to the hostel (from the train station) into my notebook. Within the next 10 minutes, my phone died and for the next 4 hours, I was left completely unconnected and uncontactable until I reached my hostel in Zagreb.
It was a very uncomfortable feeling to be technologically unconnected. I didn’t previously consider myself as someone who’s addicted to my phone, but being in that situation made me realise just how much I depended on it during my trip. I didn’t just lose access to Facebook and Instagram, I also lost access to my clock, maps, contact numbers, booking confirmations, location trackers, train schedules, journey planners and so much more. I spent those hours being unsure of where I was (night had fallen outside and it was getting difficult to see the train station signs), having no idea if the train was on schedule or late, feeling like a sitting duck and praying every time we stopped that nothing would happen before I reached my destination. And once I was in Zagreb, I had to rely on my scribbled notes, street-smart and directional skills to find my way to my hostel (thankfully it was a straightforward 15-minutes walk through the main streets). A mini adventure perhaps, but I definitely gained a new respect for people travelling during the land before the Internet and learnt not to keep everything I needed in only one device. Oh and guess who decided to show up with full power at my hostel? Yep, my lovely little power bank. Thanks little gadget for the ride!
My Instagram story detailing my tribulations reaching Zagreb.
Fifth incident: Falling sick while travelling
There was little that made me feel more lonely than falling sick while travelling. I had tried some local potato pancakes for lunch on one of my days in Budapest, and soon after my stomach started feeling a little unsettled and queasy (I think the meal was a little too greasy for me). It started out as just an uncomfortable feeling that I tried to ignore, but by the end of the night, I found myself making a few visits to the washroom to throw it all up. It was in those small moments that I found myself wishing I was home, able to complain and act like a sick person in exchange for some (annoyed) pampering and comfort. Alas, I could only have an early rest and wish for the discomfort to disappear the next morning. I also never ate another potato pancake for the rest of my trip.
Potato pancakes sold at a street fair in Budapest, Hungary.
Being open to experiences and overcoming the fear of the unknown
The unpleasant experiences I had were pretty minor compared to the stories I’ve heard from other solo female travellers. Yet what we all agreed was that our experiences made us stronger individuals less afraid of tackling unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. If we could manage those situations that we had been through, we could manage anything else that could come our way.
I have often heard my female friends sharing their apprehension in travelling solo as they were worried about their safety, afraid of getting lost in a foreign country (especially if they didn’t speak the language), of being pickpocketed, feeling lonely, and many other fears. Personally, I feel that many of these fears can only be overcome by going through the experience itself. My advice to them has always been to travel with an open mindset and be welcoming of both positive and negative experiences. It also helps not to anticipate danger at every turn, but to learn to take the necessary precautions, recognise the signs and be well prepared to handle it when an unpleasant experience happens. After all, it’s not fun to travel while constantly feeling stressed anticipating being pickpocketed at all times. Another advice was to choose somewhere familiar for their first solo travel destination. Perhaps this advice may be helpful to others wishing to try travelling solo too!