Samuel Lee / Contributor
My brother, Isaiah, chauffeurs me to the airport and has a puzzled look on his face.
“Hey, are you alright?”
“No,” I respond.
I hadn’t had a chance to process this until now. Three countries in 12 days – this is insane. I can’t even think clearly, and my petrifying journey of uncertainty is just now setting in.
“Do you want me to pray for you?” he asked.
The trembling terror eases up a bit. We exchange brotherly goodbyes and I commence the first leg of many, of my Amazing Race, solo edition.
The next day I arrive in London. I have the address to the hostel in hand and no plan. I study the intricate tube map and make a decision. Oh-la-la London I say, so cloudy and much warmer than I anticipated in the month of December. As soon as I arrived at the hostel, I became a typical American wall-hugger – desperately charging my mobile devices. With much remorse, I let 2-3 hours go to waste. The sun set at 3 p.m. and my brief 36-hour stay became even shorter. The following morning, I ate next to a super chill Californian. His remarkable steadfastness of exploring the city after his flight (with a dead phone) provided me all the encouragement I needed. I checked out of the hostel after our scintillating chat and hit the ground running. London was conquered by yours truly in a five-hour period. On to country number two!
Rome was fascinating – a city built on multiple empires. This is my all-time favorite city. I was the only American in my hostel room. My roommates were from Algeria, Colombia, Argentina, Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom. Naturally, I got along splendidly with the Argentinian and the Colombian due to my Spanish speaking abilities. We hung out a lot and ended up at this incredible nightclub. Our trio expanded to nearly a dozen that chilly Roman night. While in line to get in, I spotted a young woman strikingly similar to my little sister. She has the Tracee Ellis Ross au-naturale hair and the same stature as Meri. My stupor lasted nearly five minutes as the young lady was rapidly speaking Italian with her friends. My group mates encouraged me to speak with her, but I refrained. Taking random pictures with strangers is an American occurrence. I skeptically believed it would be taken lightly here. Moreover, I didn’t speak Italian so that just escalated my reluctance. I was in awe primarily because there weren't a lot of black people in Rome. While in Rome, I never experienced any unforeseen discrimination. They were surprised to see a well-dressed person of color, but they were very polite.
My favorite anecdote was when I was shopping at H&M near Piazza de Popolo on my way to il Vaticano. An associate was speaking to me in Italian and I engaged in Spanish. Despite not speaking the same language, we understood each other perfectly. Is the coat I bought a gift (Italian). Yes for me (Spanish). Did you want it in a box (Italian). I kindly decline (Spanish). Forty percent off ties (Italian). No thanks (Spanish). After leaving the store, I felt so accomplished. Definitely held a brief conversation with an Italian without having to speak any Italian. It was incredible because they aren’t always comfortable speaking in English. Eighteen years of Spanish were thus not in vain! I boarded the train for country three.
If you want to travel Europe without breaking the bank, I highly recommend visiting the Balkans. Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, portions of Greece and Turkey. They are really cheap countries to visit and very accessible via bus. The reason for visiting Macedonia (of all places) was because my good friend Bryce was living there for the Peace Corps. I arrive in a country that dates back to biblical times. Strangely, Macedonia has only been an official country for 25 years. At the airport in Skopje, I get approached by multiple cab drivers. I picked the millennial one and we head off to the hostel. His English was really good. Unbeknownst to me, he picked it up by playing multi-player on his Playstation 4. I immediately think of my little brother, and am continually impressed with the world we live in.
"We exchange introductions, and the host dad blurts out, “Mr. Obama!”"
Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was only for a night due to the 1 a.m. arrival time. Bryce’s village of Kicevo was merely a bus ride away. The coordination and planning was discussed prior to my arrival, and again the following morning. The next day arrives. I wielded a spreadsheet of Macedonian phrases and felt confident. My high hopes weren’t diminished despite not having Wi-Fi or Google Maps at my disposal. I manage to find the bus station. Being pressed for time however led me to take a cab. I get swarmed by cut-throat competitive cab drivers. American? American? They asked, frothing at the mouth. I give you ride to Kicevo for (insert number) dollars. I become attentive to the prices they desperately shouted. After attentively listening to the numbers, I start to counteract with my own fare prices. As I paced around the drivers I shout a ridiculously low price. The drivers dispersed quickly. No one was willing to go as low as I asked. I wait a beat, and this old man steps up for the challenge. I sigh with relief and we’re on our way. The driver was super dope and happened to be Greek. Half-way through the journey, we make a pit stop at a bakery. He eagerly answers my questions with his somewhat-limited English pertaining to the descriptions of the baked goods. I pick something and we feast upon the Macedonian delights. We arrive at the Kicevo bus station. I pay him, shake his hand and thank him profusely. We depart ways and I begin my search for Bryce.
I freak out after waiting for just a half hour. I politely ask a native and in Macedonian if he could launch a Hotspot so that I could call my friend. Surprisingly he agreed, but Bryce didn’t answer. Exasperated, I sit for a bit and see some white guy walking my way. It was Bryce. The reunion was remarkable, and we were delighted to see each other.
Upon arrival to his host-family’s home, his host dad as well as a friend of the host dad, are seated in the front yard. We exchange introductions, and the host dad blurts out, “Mr. Obama!” I respond with full-on laughter and relief. Out of all the names to call me, this was definitely the first. The customary rakija shots are earnestly poured. Before enjoying the shot like an American, Bryce interjects and adamantly exclaims to not chug it. “It's considered rude, and you're supposed to sip it.” I'm suddenly taken aback but manage to adjust. I ponder over how in the hell I’m going to sip this very strong liquor as the host dad claims that it will lead to my unconsciousness (points at me and pretended to pass out while cackling in Macedonian). Imagine having to take a shot of scotch but were told to sip it and make it last indefinitely. That's the conundrum I was in. The drink had quite the kick. After getting a few down my body temperature warmed up to the brutal Macedonian winter. I kid you not, at night I wore two coats and two scarves just to walk around comfortably.
"Get out and travel! So what you're traveling alone in two countries? I did!"
Morning is upon us and the fire in the room is out. We could see our breath as we spoke to one another. Central heat is a luxury in the states we take for granted. That day I had the pleasure of seeing Bryce in action at one of the satellite schools he taught English. The grade school kids were adorable. Their euphoria was hysterical. I had the honor of being the first black person they've ever encountered. It was exhilarating and a very humbling experience. Meeting other members of the Peace Corps, Bryce had planned a trip for Christmas weekend. I got to meet other people from the states and learned each one of their stories. Frankly I'm not a fan of Christmas (gasp), but that Christmas Eve was for the books! It was a pot-luck dinner, but Bryce and I saved the day with our cooking competence. Everyone drank themselves merry and according to Bryce, I was the life of the party. Nevertheless, the group gets together the following day and we go on an epic hike.
Travel is important. It broadens our horizons and makes us appreciate of what we have or don't have. Cultures are different, but human nature is quite universal. The trip made me realize the goodness of mankind. I traveled to a country where many people had never seen a person of color. They didn't taunt or point, they were entranced. It was fantastic and being moreno shouldn't hinder you from doing anything or going anywhere. I don't consider travel a luxury; because it's a necessity that everyone should be a part of. Get out and travel! So what you're traveling alone in two countries? I did! You're bound to meet great people in hostels and can piggy-back on someone else’s plans, also did. In Rome, one of my hostel roommates mentioned that he was going to Naples to see a soccer match. I expressed interest and was suddenly invited. I encourage traveling alone. Getting lost in the city is the best way to take it all in. Be emboldened to travel and all the best!
You can follow Sam's adventures on Instagram.
June 19, 2017