Despite the late October chill christening the air, the sun, streaming through the branches of towering evergreens, warmed my face. I sat atop small boulders lining the riverbed, digging my heals deeper into the stones below. I closed my eyes. The only sounds were the rush of the Białka River and the occasional bird announcing its presence. The air was refreshing, smelling of rich earth, pine trees, and a hint of smoke wafting from the chimneys of remote cabins. My moment with nature was interrupted by a sound of crinkling paper. I looked up and saw Dan rustling through my backpack, retrieving the only snack worthy enough to bring along on this adventure: giant glazed donuts. He passed one over and claimed a boulder near me, stretching his feet out. Sitting back, we enjoyed this moment of solitude in nature, one that we hadn’t even expected to find.
Only an hour earlier we had hopped a mini bus from the small Polish mountain town of Zakopane. We had hoped to travel by bus into Slovakia, making our way to the eastern city of Košice. However, much to our (panicked) disappointment, no public transportation crossed the border after the summertime tourist rush. And so, it was up to us to make our own way to the border, cross the bridge by foot, and wait on the other side for the next (Slovakian) bus to retrieve us… three hours later. So there we sat, in the warm autumn sunshine, on a riverbed in the middle of a forest straddling Northern Slovakia and Southern Poland, eating donuts for lunch; and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I’ve heard all the traveling advice myself: “try the local cuisine, get off the beaten path, take unusual photos, feel uncomfortable… these are things that you’ll remember”. Well, I’m here to vouch that it’s true. As much as I count my blessings and adore memories of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome, the moments that I still carry deep in my heart are the small, personal, and seemingly insignificant moments, like the one above. It may not compare in terms of art, history, architecture, or culture, but it’s uniquely my own. Here are just a few of my favorite, personal, not-so-traditional travel memories, in addition to our border escapade.
Getting Lost in Romania | The one time that our failed attempt to explore the Transylvanian forests at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains led us to a remote Romanian village with flooded ruts for roads.
The only people in sight were a lone babushka sweeping her front step, eyeing us suspiciously, and a father-son team guiding a horse-drawn cart empty from a recent delivery. Our only option appeared to be an embarrassingly long walk to the nearest bus stop. This mistake, however, quickly transitioned into a highlight of the trip.
Our trek took us through vast fields dotted with farmers and horses; wide haystacks wrapped around tall wooden posts creating that iconic bell shape. We passed tiny roadside chapels where earlier visitors left fresh flowers and flickering candles. We followed forests that, despite remaining bare from winter’s cold grasp, still seemed dense and as eerie as you’d imagine. In (just) 4.2 miles, we got to step back in time and really see what traditional and rural Romania looked like, and it wasn’t even on the agenda.
Eating Like a Local in Montenegro | The one time when we dined on locally-caught fish and fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice.
After our second swim of the day, we trekked the hill back to our accommodation. We had spent the last hours of sunlight, before the warmth dipped behind the tall, jagged cliffs that enveloped the bay, floating in the silky summer waters. We decided to brave the intimidating locals-only fish fry in the small hut at the bottom of our street, rather than hike back into the city center. Our host, in broken English and a lot of gesturing, attempted to explain the process. We walked in timidly, but managed to point and smile enough to order. The woman behind the counter scribbled a number on a piece of paper and handed it to us. Too much to be the price, we realized that this was the wait time, an instruction to return in 45 minutes. We watched a tall muscular man with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips slap a few fish on his grill, leaning back and taking a drag as they began to sizzle. Trust the process, I told myself.
Loyal to our rumbling tummies, we returned to collect our loot: two perfectly seasoned and fried whole fish, and a mound of pomme frites, all for less than eight euro. We decided to dine on the outdoor picnic table at our rental. In between eager, savory, and delicious bites, I eyed our host waving from her porch. She was very pleased that we tried the fry, so much so that she delivered us fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice (a local treat) right from her own kitchen. It was one of the best meals of our travels, one that we will never be able to replicate.
A (Free) Private Tour in Ireland | The one time that a 15-minute hitched ride turned into an hour-long private tour of Ireland’s North Atlantic coastline.
While staying in Clifden, Ireland, our sights were set on hiking in Connemara National Park. This area is rich in nature and outdoor adventures, but we only had a few days and needed to prioritize. Our host kindly agreed to drive us the mere 15 minutes to the park. As we zoomed past beautiful vistas of golden fields and rugged coastlines, I noticed that we also zoomed right past the entrance. Normally, panic would set in (where is he taking us?!) but this is Ireland, after all. His hearty voiced boomed over his shoulder, asking if we’d like to see his favorite part of the region, the Killary Fjord. We ecstatically obliged.
The day was warmer than expected, streams of golden sunlight bouncing off the water’s ripples, moving in unison up the fjord. The car buzzed around curves, opening up new scenes of rocky peaks and dramatic cliffs, quaint towns and secret passageways. We stood for a moment admiring the scenery. The wind whipped through my hair, the sun warming my face. It smelled of sea water, something that, at this point in my life, brings me to nostalgically-influenced tears. Our host, speaking nonstop, rattled off facts and tidbits, stories and memories, laughing at his own musings. We eventually made it to the park and hiked up into the Twelve Bens, getting a bird’s-eye view of where we had just explored. This unexpected adventure cost us nothing, thanks to the kindness and generosity of our host.
Some of my most memorable moments are the unexpected ones; the ones that are not necessarily planned or found in a guidebook; ones that happen because of human interaction and letting your travels lead you. I’d love to hear other experiences like these. Please share your story in the comments below!