On The Bus, A New Man (or, The Culmination of a Decade of Transformation)

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

How has travel changed your life? Can you pinpoint a single moment – a day, an hour, a split second – when you knew that things had changed? How did that change impact your life, both on your travels and at home?


of all things, a bus ride was my transformative moment, though i don’t think i recognized it at the time. i’ve been contemplating this blog post over the past couple days, and i can safely put my finger on the ride back from český krumlov to prague as the point at which i opened a new chapter in my life.

on the surface, yes, it was the end of a week-long trip, but beyond that, it was the culmination of a handful of disparate, yet intertwined inner changes that started nearly a decade prior.

first, some background (tl;dr: i used to be shy and had low self-esteem)

growing up, i was an introvert; in hindsight i was really insecure and overly self-conscious. that was evident in how i hated going into stores if i was the only customer there (thinking all the salespeople would be staring at me) or eating alone or, well, any sort of activity where i could be judged without the comfort and safety net of being in a group of friends.

i went out of state for college (1995) and, for the first time, starting feeling truly alive. it was there that i started emerging from my metaphorical shell. slowly but surely, i started coming into my own and being comfortable with myself. i was free from the confines of my overprotective parents (excellent parents who first introduced me to travel, but think tiger mom but with church thrown in as well) and high school (where i had a blast, but i was sheltered and pigeonholed in the nerd clique). i finished college with expanded horizons and dwindling insecurities.

over the next couple of years i flourished (heh), to the point of being probably unrecognizable (and unfathomable) to the me of a decade earlier. i learned to be myself, with no apologies.

The view from my hostel bed in Český Krumlov

fast foward to january of 2005

i’m not quite sure what all possessed me to go alone, backpacking and hosteling, at the ripe old age of 27. i think a lot had to do with the way i was feeling (and somewhat still do), that i had to reclaim a lost youth. sure, i enjoyed travel and had been to europe and india and hong kong before, but that was with family or friends, and there was still that whole college backpack around thing that eluded me. i figured a week in the czech would be a fine start. it only made sense to try a solo trip: it was what everything was building up to.

i bought a plane ticket, booked some hostels, bought a backpack, and off i went! who knew it would bloom into a passion for travel and the dawning of a new age! (ok, perhaps that’s a bit grandiose, but really, for me, it  was.)

yes. the bus ride. it was on that ride, in hindsight, since i can now connect the dots, that i proved to myself that i was my own man. i was no longer the guy who would get flushed and sweaty with just the thought of buying clothes at the gap. i triumphed, empowered and emboldened from a week alone in a foreign country, where i made friends with people i never thought i would or could be friends with, where i explored an entire city with no support system save a printout of sightseeing hotspots and a camera. from then on, i knew this was something i had to keep doing.

my seatmate on that three-hour bus ride was the girl who shared the hostel room in český krumlov with me. we talked and listened to each other’s music and laughed and it was just so different, so something i would never have done before. i was a new man.

and i discovered that the new me feeds on travel and encountering the world.

i do not lament the fact that it took me so long to begin to feel comfortable in my own skin, and i love that this continuing transformation is so tightly coupled with getting on a jet plane and discovering humanity (including my own!). the ultimate effect is that with each trip i not only learn more about the human experience, but i prove to myself that i am continually becoming a better person. both of these facets are incredibly alluring for me: there is not one day that passes where i don’t daydream about going somewhere. some might call it unhealthy, but it’s what keeps me sane.

random side note: i still remember passing by this nuclear power plant on that bus, thinking how i’ve never been so close to one before.

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Ex-Bloc Party

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

Have you traveled in Eastern Europe? What did you know about the region before visiting? If you haven’t been to Eastern Europe, what country or city appeals to you most as a place to visit? Or, more generally speaking, how much does knowing about the history of a place inspire your future travels?

first off, what is eastern europe? as a(n american) child of the ’80s, eastern europe meant a combination of poverty, communism, oppressive regimes, this iron curtain thing (which i remember thinking everyone was confused about because the berlin wall was made of concrete LOL), and goose step marches to slow, plaintive music. of course, this is the gross caricature of a pre-teen, and ha, most certainly has not been borne out in my travels to the region.

Besides (East) Germany, I've been to Estonia, the Czech Republic (twice), Hungary, and Slovenia (and passed through Croatia on a train).

in any case, given the very disparate definitions of eastern europe, i’m going to go with my perhaps-distorted notion of what eastern europe is: those countries that used to be in the eastern bloc. of those, the czech republic holds a very special place in my heart because it was the destination of my first solo trip (2005). i really didn’t know much about the area other than vague recollections of CNN broadcasts from over a decade prior, but i do remember hearing that it used to be a cool place for backpackers that had since changed from what it was in those years immediately after its bloc exit. in other words, i was late to the game. ok, fine, it may not have been the cheap backpacker haven of yesteryear, but that didn’t diminish my experience in the least, and that held true for the other former eastern bloc countries i’ve been to as well.

also, it goes without saying that these countries are just as much a part of europe (and deserve a visit) as their siblings to the west. it was pretty cool being in slovenia the year prior to its conversion to the euro (prices were marked in both tolars and euros), thinking that there was still change in the air. (speaking of change in the air, perhaps consider playing this song as the background music to this post.)

back to the question at hand: given what i knew, or thought i knew, and with the understanding that much had changed since the dissolution of the bloc, i really had no idea what to expect.

what i found was a mix of “old europe”, relics from their communist past, and modern and thriving places that are by no means second or third tier.

what i hoped to see (bloc-y)

i have an odd fascination with life under a communist regime. not that i would ever want to live in one (nor wish it on anybody, especially after going to the house of terror museum in budapest), but there is this whole “evil yet unknown” quality about it. i just knew growing up it was a bad thing, and as an adult, i want to understand it more (maybe it’s like watching a train wreck? morbid fascination/can’t look away?). plus, i’m in love with the socialist realism style of art.

Cosmonaut statue, outside Haje station (was Kosmonautů), Prague

Odd communist monument, Tallinn

Paneláky, Jižní Město (I think), outskirts of Prague

what i knew would be there (splendor from a great past)

Interior of Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, Budapest

Ljubljana

Looking across the Danube and the Chain Bridge towards Buda, Budapest

what i was pleased to discover (ongoing vibrance)

Griffin Ice Sculpture, Tallinn

Lennon Wall, Prague (though started during communist days, it constantly evolves)

Street art, Prague

i’m not done with eastern europe yet! if my september trip to georgia goes as planned, i will have a day to spend in warsaw during a layover. also, i went to graduate school with students from bulgaria, romania, and serbia and would love to visit the places they called home as well.

two random facts: