Posted April 24th, 2012 by Gina in Bangor, Wales
Over spring break I went on a backpacking trip for two weeks with my friend Sara. We decided to go to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Venice, Verona, Pisa, and Kos. Halfway through the trip another friend, Lindsay joined us. Sara and Lindsay are also in the Central program. It was really nice to have people to travel with because it made the experience much more enjoyable when we were able to share the ups and downs (and there were plenty of both). We had some disasters and many, many amazing experiences. Since this would be a very long blog if I blabbed about our whole trip I’m going to try to narrow it down to the top 5 successes and failures.
1) Having to experience the Greek health care system. Sara, Lindsay, and I were at some ruins in Kos and we were trying to take a picture where you jump in the air. Sara landed on a rock wrong and sprained her ankle. Within the minute it was swelling up, but through a series of hopping and piggy back rides we managed to get her back to our hostel. We got her some ice, but decided that she needed to go to the hospital. Immediately when we walked in a doctor took Sara to perform X-rays. Within a half an hour we were on our way to the pharmacy (there is a funny diabolical associated with this trip, but I’ll save that for later). They have free health care in Greece, so she only had to pay for the medicine and crutches at the pharmacy. It was still a huge bummer for her to have such reduced mobility.
2) Being homeless in Pisa and London. This was our biggest oops moment for me. We had cancelled our hostel in Pisa the second night because we flew in from Kos at 11 at night and had a flight the next morning at 9. Plus our hostel was too far away for Sara to walk to. So Sara, Lindsay, and I settled in to watch a movie on Lindsay’s computer in the Pisa airport when a security guy came up to us and informed us that the airport was closing. I asked if there were any 24 hour cafes around (that is how we spent our homeless time in London), and he said no. The result is that we were outside in the cold from 12:30 to 4. It was awful. To pass time I walked around the car park for about an hour. I have way more empathy for homeless people now – I don’t know how they survive that every night, especially in rain and extreme cold.
3) Changing money in Prague. I have a new pet peeve in life… places that insist that you use change. We ran into this problem several times during the trip, but the worst was in Prague. Sara and I had just arrived in the train station and we needed to get to our hostel. The Czech Republic was the one place that we visited that wasn’t on the euro, so we had to exchange our money but the change station was already closed! We were able to withdraw money from the ATM, but that spit out a 2000 Kc bill (yes, I felt very rich with that bill in my hand). Unfortunately, it only cost 24 Kc – in change- for the subway. Most places were closed at that time, but I finally found a place to buy an orange so that we could get change.
4) The lack of buses due to Easter. The downside to being in Kos for their Easter celebration was that they didn’t have any buses running that day and we needed to get to the airport. The guy I asked wasn’t even sure if taxis were running! Fortunately Sara had taken a taxi to a restaurant already that morning so I knew that they were, but it still made my heart to skip a beat to hear that we may not be able to get to our plane. It was also more expensive for a taxi.
5) Traveling for over 24 hours at a time. It took us over an entire day to get to Berlin from Bangor, and to get back to Bangor from Kos. It always seems to me as thought the worst part about traveling is the actual travel itself. Those days of just trying to “get somewhere” were grueling. We had to switch trains, catch flights, and take buses. On the way home our flight got delayed so we missed our train back to Bangor. We caught a later train but we missed one of our classes on Monday.
1) The opera in Vienna. Sara and I went a couple of hours before the opera to stand in line for standing tickets for the show. We were on the second tier of the theatre and we had to stand for it, but the show was so good! We saw “The Elisir d’Amore”, which we found out later is highly performed a well-known show. They had screens with English translations of the dialogue so we had an idea of what was going on in the plot, and that made the experience really enjoyable.
2) Seeing the Easter celebration in Kos. Fortunately the waiter we had at our first restaurant in Kos told us that it may sound like gunshots or bombs during our stay because they had “some holiday” that weekend and a lot of kids liked to set off fireworks for it. We later found out that we just happened to be in Greece for the weekend of the Greek Orthodox Easter, which occured the weekend after our Easter back home. We also just happened to have a church right next to our hotel so that night when we heard drums we sprinted out of the hotel to catch the celebration. It was the coolest thing. They had a band and a big parade of people walking down the street. They carried a huge tabernacle as they went through the streets of Kos until they meet all of the other church congregations in the city center. Each church had its own tabernacle and they held them up in the air for as long as they could before they marched off in their own directions again.
3) Swimming in the Aegean Sea. The water was cold, but we had a beautiful beach day on our final day in Kos, and I couldn’t resist a swim in the ocean. It was the clearest water I’ve seen. I went in water that was deeper than I could touch and I could still see details of seashells in the sand beneath me. In addition there was a perfect view of Turkey in front of me and miles of empty Kos beaches behind me.
4) Meeting locals through couch surfing. I was very pleasantly surprised by our couch surfing experiences. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I created an account because a girl I talked to back home recommended it because she’d had good experiences with it when she traveled around Europe. I was a little worried about staying in a stranger’s house for the night, but I made sure to check up on their credentials before I sent them a request. It definitely paid off. Our couch surfing experience was way more than a free place to the stay for the night because some amazing people hosted us. In Vienna, two student opened up their apartment to us completely. They let us use their computer, gave us a phone for our stay, and even told us to eat anything we could find in the fridge. One of our hosts showed us around his hometown of Baden, which is right outside of Vienna, and treated us to ice cream there. Then he realized that we were homesick during Easter and, as if hosting us over the holidays wasn’t enough, he made sure that the Easter Bunny left us candy on the back porch. I had to try really hard not to cry when I saw that. When I think about all of this kindness and generosity, I cynically look for a catch, but there was none. They were simply amazing people who were willing to go the extra couple of miles for a couple of girls they had just met and would probably never see again.
5) Getting lost in Venice. I get lost a lot… definitely more than the average human being. I was so excited when I learned that this is a GOOD thing in Venice. You mean I’m supposed to wander aimlessly along the streets? I shouldn’t even bother with the map? What a sacrifice!! But seriously, this is the best way to get around Venice, and through our meandering we stumbled across some really beautiful canals.
I hope I’ve managed to whet your appetite for travel a little bit. Traveling was such a wonderful experience, and I believe it’s something everyone should try if they have the means. I grew as a person because I had to take on more responsibility for myself, my possessions, and my finances. There were many lessons learned about how to deal with people and how to handle unpleasant situations. And, of course, we got to see some of the most incredible sites in all of Europe!