How getting lost on my first solo trip abroad changed my life and travel style.
It was my first real trip abroad, I was traveling solo in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I was traveling from the United States to Greece.
I got lost before making it to my hotel and what transpired is one of my favorite human travel stories.
Internet capable devices weren’t a thing yet when I started traveling abroad. No GPS, Googlemaps, or offline maps were at my fingertips.
It was me, my printed map from Barnes & Noble, and adventure of new terrain. I also didn’t speak any other languages except English.
Other than two cruises to Mexico, I hadn’t been abroad. It was also my first trip solo.
All I had to do was get from the airport to my hotel. I was scheduled to meet a tour group later that evening.
Somehow, that simple task proved challenging…
How I Prepared My Directions
In preparation for the trip, I bought a hardcopy map of Athens from my local Barnes & Noble, I looked up my hotel address online, and checked Mapquest a few times for the train route and walking directions.
I also wrote down the directions, hotel information, and train names down in two locations. My main one and a backup. I even confirmed my train stop was on my printed Athens map.
It was a simple route. A single train direct from the airport to my hotel’s stop, follow the street as it curved, then at the T intersection make a right.
My hotel would be a few blocks down on the right. Easy peasy.
Or so I thought…
How I Got Lost
Navigating from my arrival gate to the airport’s train station was easy enough.
Once aboard the train at the Athens airport, I looked at the list of stops. I couldn’t find my stop.
Some of the stop names listed were familiar enough to know I was on the correct route, but my stop wasn’t listed.
The stops were listed in Greek English and Greek, not American English like they were in my online research. Similar to how in American English, Germany is Germany, but in German its Deutchland.
The variations of the train stops listed was too confusing for my naive eyes.
I stared at the list of stops bewildered long enough for a gentleman from my flight to ask me if I was lost. I explain my predicament and he happily assisted me.
Whew- thank goodness!
I settled in and excitedly watched as the Mediterranean landscape wizzed passed my train window.
Two hours later, the train arrived at my stop. I exited and easily found the curved road I was to follow. Yay!
I was back on track… I follow the curved road, and as my research predicted, I hit the T intersection for the road my hotel was on.
I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to turn right or left and my written directions were now missing. Did I leave them on the train distracted by my excitement? Not sure where the second set is either.
All good; I had my printed Athens map for just this reason. I pull out my map, and find my train station location. With my finger, I follow the curved road I was on and then the map ended…
My T intersection wasn’t on the map. Neither was my hotel. Umm…
Ok. I had lost my directions, and for some reason, my map ends just feet before my T intersection?
I had a 50/50 chance- do I and my large luggage turn right or left?
I turned left. (the wrong way)
I couldn’t read address signs on buildings because they were in Greek and couldn’t tell I was heading the wrong direction.
Asking for Directions When You Don’t Speak the Language
After walking far enough with my luggage in tow to start realizing I may have made an error, I decide it’s time to ask for directions. I find a bodega selling newspapers and candies and go to ask for directions.
The keeper didn’t speak English.
I kept walking; found a store. Same. No English.
I found myself in an area of commercial strips and a gentleman was standing outside a door along the sidewalk. I approach and I ask him for help.
He too, didn’t speak English, but he understood me enough to tell me someone in the office spoke english. The english speaking coworker was on a call and would be able to help me after the call.
Absolutely, I’ll wait!
The Greek gentleman waited with me outside the office for the English speaking coworker.
What transpired in the following minutes is one of my favorite travel stories.
Who Needs Words
This Greek gentleman and I, complete strangers with no shared language, began finding alternative ways to communicate. We used hand gestures, body language, general vocal tones, and imagery drawing on our hands with our fingers to have a conversation.
This gentleman was a kind person who wanted to help and I think he appreciated the distraction from his work.
I appreciated his patience and willingness to help.
Within minutes, this man understood my struggle, and helped direct me to my hotel without a word of English being spoken.
We didn’t need to wait for the English speaking coworker. This Greek man and I took the time to understand and communicate without words.
We parted way and I was at my hotel within minutes.
The Experience Was Amazing and Life Changing
It can be easy to panic when in unfamiliar territory and being lost in a place you don’t speak the language, and no one speaks yours, was definitely unfamiliar territory.
The fear of getting lost in a foreign country, or not being able to communicate in your native language is scary enough to prevent many people from traveling abroad.
But I learned a number of lessons about travel that day and I take them with me even when I am back home:
- Most people are good and genuinely want to help if they can.
- Strangers are willing to help and give you their time if you appreciate them.
- Verbal communication is not needed to have a conversation if you’re willing to take the time to understand each other.
- I can only prepare so much before I have to make a leap of faith and trust that if I stumble along the way, in travel or life, others will be there to help if I have the courage to ask.
- Pay it forward. When I get annoyed by tourists visiting my hometown interfering with my busy day, I try to remember what it meant to me when I was the lost one and needed help. Most people are kind people, and I want to pay forward what that Greek Gentleman did for me and help others too.
Who knew my first experience abroad, would be a lesson that would impact the rest of my life both at home and in my travels? Maybe it’s how I caught the travel bug?!