Leon de Leeuw
Traveling alone through the Balkans as an introvert
At age seventeen I learned about introversion. A lot of things hit home. I understood that I was not the strange guy I perceived myself to be. That I was not the only one preferring to stay home and read, be creative or just relax. I avoided large crowds, gatherings and loud parties. I had always enjoyed the company of one or two persons more. Now that I know that everyone is somewhere on the introversion/extroversion spectrum, I am not ashamed to admit I lean more to the 'introvert side'. It's the way I'm wired. I enjoy my alone time. I found it's all about having a balance. There's never 100% black or white, we need the balance. Everyone has their own point on the spectrum, where they belong. Where they feel at their best and most energized.
It never seemed strange to me to travel alone. As a kid, I thought about venturing into distant places on my own. It was years later that I actually went. This took some confidence. People I told about my plans, going through Eastern Europe on my own, reacted with curiosity. “Wouldn't that be boring, all on your own?” My goal was to experience how absolute freedom feels, weeks on your own without anyone to depend on. Choosing a destination just because I wanted to. No fixed itinerary, staying and leaving as I pleased. But what if it was indeed boring to go alone? Would it really be unsafe? My curiosity, as always, still got the best of me.
My first trip was through the Western Balkans. I landed in Belgrade. A fantastic city. Few things give me a better feeling than arriving in a new place. Having no plans, I just started walking. I sat down for a beer on a sunny terrace and felt happy. I looked at the buildings, the busy streets, buses packed with commuters, people carrying shopping bags. A man on the table next to me reading a newspaper. Someone tying their shoelaces on the pavement. It always seems strange how in big cities, you just blend in. You become part of the scene, like you were always there. People do their thing and don't seem to notice you.
“Welcome to Belgrade”, said the waiter. “We are good people. You will have a great time here. Why are you alone?” I travel alone because I like it. “Go to a party and the Serbians will welcome you. Have fun, my friend”. Some people do notice you. I found Serbians very open and friendly. I enjoyed seeing Belgrade. I found that most days I would just walk aimlessly. I'd think about the fact I hadn't spoken much all day. Just when buying bus tickets or a water. This was new for me. It didn't bother me. In fact, I enjoyed the silence, which was filled up with the city's noise. Cars speeding up, trams passing by and at night the barking dogs and rain against the window. It felt very peaceful.
The train to Montenegro would leave in the late afternoon. It was a sleeper train. They have these all over Eastern Europe, on the long-distance hauls. I'd sleep in a six people cabin. Three berths on each side. As we pulled out of the station, my 'roommates' waved to their relatives on the platform. Eventually, even if people don't know each other, they start talking. Especially in a confined space. I was all the way in the top, high up against the wall. I had to stand on the bed of the guy three metres below me, then on the table, then on the second bed to get to mine. Everyone had slippers, so as not to get wet socks in the toilet. I didn't have slippers.
There was Vasilije, a fifteen-year old boy and his sister Nikolina, a bit older. “Where are you from? Why are you alone?” I replied the same as to the waiter. “We'll be your friends”, said a Montenegrin man in a comfortable tracking suit from across the cabin. Vasilije translated, he was good at English. The Montenegrin man took from his bag a bottle and started pouring. I heard there were more bottles in his bag as he moved it across his little bed. It was a long night. We didn't sleep. Vasilije didn't get why I had come to the Balkans. “Why don't you go to South America?” I like it here. “Well, I want to go abroad for work.” He was interested in me coming to Montenegro and recommended many sights. His sister was just as nice. She gave a full introduction on Montenegro, telling me about the most famous singers. She named each singer and played their songs from her phone. In the end, I was tested. “Who is Koran Zalezic?” A singer? “Correct.” “Who is Boban Rajovic?” I guess, also a singer you just told me about. “Very good! Who is Nikolina Aprcovic?” I really don't know, I said. “That's me, man!”.
After arriving, I found a guesthouse. Hot showers are good after long trips. I wanted to get some sleep and took the battery out of the bedside clock, its ticking made me restless. I notice clocks ticking as I'm not used to them in the bedroom. I count their rhythm until I get enough of them. I woke up and made a way too strong coffee with the pot they had. I let it overcook on the stove twice..
I went to see Ostrog monastery. Transport was not available so I hitchhiked. It worried me at first but there was no other option. It all went fine. A couple picked me up and brought me to the monastery. “You're really out of season, man!” On the way back, another man picked me up. He was on the way to his children. I proposed to pay a little for his fuel but he refused and wished me a good trip. At the main road, he went north and I went south. I waited for another car to pass. While the sun set it started raining. A lady with dark curly hair waved at me to come under her umbrella. Her long earrings reflected the sinking sun. The mountains turned orange and even the raindrops lit up. The lady was going to hitchhike as well. She worked nearby and hitchhiked daily. A BMW with two men pulled over and seconds later we were in the back seat, on the way to Podgorica. 7 Seconds of Youssou N'Dour was blaring through the open windows.
Montenegro is a pretty country. Mountains seem to rise out of the sea. I found Kotor and its bay one of the most beautiful places I had seen. I continued to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where I had a whole hostel just for me. It felt strange but good. I did not miss company. I would just walk into town and have a coffee now and then, to be surrounded by others. I continued. The bus to Mostar was empty, I was the only passenger. The driver asked if he could play his favorite music. Of course, I said, being unaware that he would play his few favourite songs for two hours. As we stopped at the border, he asked me what I was doing alone. “I'm sure you'll have a girlfriend sometime, you're a nice guy.” We'll see, I said. I was curious why he felt a bit sorry for me. I did not feel a hint of loneliness. It's because people in the Balkans take you into their hearts. Even if you're there for a short time, they make you feel like a friend. You're never really alone on the road. Let me rephrase that, you can be alone. I was alone for large periods of time. I haven't felt lonely.
“Ah, you're here!” screamed the hostess of my guesthouse through the window. “Coffee's ready!” I was in Mostar, the second city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A place well known for its dark history, challenging future and on the other side, so much hospitality and beauty. Buildings are scarred and maybe some people's souls as well but hospitality remains unchanged and timeless, I remember thinking. Bosnian coffee really boosted me. It's the best. I got this boost because I was invited for coffee at least three times a day. It was so much yet so good.
I thought; are we ever really alone in this world? There are things that connect us all. Even though my life was not similar to the ones of the Bosnians I met, we still felt a connection. I was interested in their country and they were all too happy to share their stories. About the war. About their children. About their daily life. All these encounters were in between periods of time alone. This time I needed to recharge and reflect on what I experienced.
In Sarajevo I met Tomoki from Japan. He also traveled alone and preferred to do so. We had coffee and went our separate ways, still keeping in touch. I found peace in the silence when I was alone. I traveled in October and most hostels were empty. At least, that was in 2013. I recharged from the conversations and reflected as much as I wanted. I'm not shy and can talk to anyone, enjoying and learning from people's stories. With in the back of my head that I would be able to return to my little corner, write/read or do anything I felt like. It was just perfect.
I continued my trip to Kosovo and Macedonia. The days of traveling, the long bus rides, would make me tired. I'd always bring a headset just to listen to music, sitting in the back of the bus. Transit days were my quiet time. I realized that traveling alone, especially as an introvert, requires self-acceptance. Before going. Accept that you might not want to be around others all the time and accept that you might want to just read or sleep. It's okay. Yes, it might seem strange to others but you only require your own acceptance. Traveling alone is your chance to do what you want. Say no when you feel like it. Some moments are meant to be shared with others. This trip would not have been complete without the people I met. Other moments were just for me, like a sunset from a mountain or a beer at the beach. I crave solitude and this sort of moments. If you consider going alone, do not hesitate. Yes, being alone can be scary, especially if you get sick on the road. But if this happens, you just have a door, a noise-canceling headset or a book between you and the others. If you're lost, arrive in a big city early or anything unexpected happens, you are alone. And it can be good, because in these moments you learn. This is your life experience so do not be afraid. If you are alone and need someone, people are generally very helpful. Do reach out if you need to. The same for if you start feeling lonely. There's no need to be outgoing but just being surrounded by others will soothe this feeling.
The fact that I'm an introvert does not mean I dislike social situations. I love them and need them. Alone time is what I need just as much. I think traveling alone learned me a lot about myself, about introversion and obviously the people I met and the countries I've been. It grew to become my second nature. I take trips alone very often now. I learned to accept myself even though this was not always easy. If you have the urge to go alone, just go. Go all the way. You might feel scared or downright bad at times. Traveling alone has many sides. Another side is the enormous freedom, the choice of going anywhere. Above all, this is your choice to follow your dream of traveling alone. It helps you shape the person you are. The memories and lessons of your trip can keep you awake at night just remembering how good it was. If you can, just go, by all means.
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