As T-Day approaches, I frame what’s to follow in past travel experiences outside my home country, Slovakia. These seven memories stand out. When I pondered why, I realized they were all transformative in some way.
- Ukraine, Soviet Union, August 1984 (the first and only trip to the USSR). Trial-running my family’s new Škoda 105L, we took a forbidden and very potholed route through villages where pigs roamed the streets; I remember hearing my father say ‘fuck’ for the first time. I saw the Black Sea for the second time (the first had been in Bulgaria), again happy it tasted salty but disappointed it wasn’t actually black. In Kishinev, Moldova, I saw a shriveled woman in mourning black sitting in front of an empty appliances store with her hand stretched out and head bowed. I had never seen a beggar and struggled to square what I saw with what I knew.
- Vienna, Austria, July 1992 (the first trip to the West*). The train rolled by half-dismantled border fences, ditches, and Czech hedgehog anti-tank obstacles. Wide-eyed, I walked through the downtown streets, marveling at the sights. The colors, the lights, the wealth of it all overwhelmed me and I realized how duped we all had been. The dream-fulfilling digital watch my parents bought me at a cheap electronics store by Südbanhhof rusted within a year.
- United States of America, September 1996 (first time in the U.S.). After two months working at a summer camp I joined two new friends on a road trip from Boston to Los Angeles and on to Seattle. It felt like a movie: I got drenched by the Niagara Falls; I dozed whirring past the corn fields of Kansas; I backpacked and camped in the Grand Canyon; I walked through a tree at Yosemite; I ran out of money with the view of Alcatraz; I spent three days on a Greyhound bus from Seattle to New York; I craned my neck up at the World Trade Center.
- Croatia, March 1998 (first time in the former Yugoslavia). At a Zagreb hostel I awoke in the middle of the night to a pair of prosthetic legs leaning against a nearby bed. My girlfriend and I hiked across the deserted Brač island countryside to a closed monastery tucked under a cliff. We hitched the return ride from a Lada Niva driver who cracked jokes to distract from the dried blood on his hands, the rifle between the seats, and the stench of a dead animal coming from the back. Later we had the Plitvice Lakes National Parks all to ourselves.
- Camino de Santiago, Spain, July 1998 (the first and only pilgrimage). Departing O Cebreiro, where the thatched roofs of round stone houses topped the 1,290-meter hill, I gazed into valleys filled with the morning inversion mist. An atheist early into the final 210-kilometer stretch of the Catholic religion’s most famous pilgrimages, I stood above the clouds, surprised at discovering spirituality. A few days later I arrived in Burgos under cover of 5 a.m. darkness to walk through the empty streets and watch the city awaken into a sunny Saturday.
- Croatia, September 2001. Hitchhiking to Venice, night forced me to pitch my new one-person tent in a roadside orchard outside Karlovac. I woke up to heavy rain dripping through the cheap tent walls. In pitch black I packed up and ran down the road to find shelter in a house under construction. When I began to shiver, I kept walking and found an inn where a wedding party was in full swing. I entered the bar and asked the waitress if I could warm up for a while. She brought me tea, a shot of rakija, and some desserts from the wedding. I left with the last guests, knowing that I would find good people everywhere. I returned from the trip to see my parents glued to CNN’s coverage of 9/11 terrorist attacks.
- Albania, October 2001. Tirana, where I was visiting for a month, was intense enough with its half-neglected, half-rebuilt disorder and roaming dog packs. I joined a group of United Nations staff and their local driver on a trip to monitor a border crossing to Greece, through the Ottoman town of Gjirokastër and back up the coast. We bumped along the bad roads through an empty country pocked with hundreds of concrete bunkers left over from the Communist regime. On the tourist-less coast we stopped at a village off the main road that had just been robbed by men with guns, and ate fresh fish at a restaurant perched on the shoreline.
What are your favorite travel memories?