In 2005 my younger sister Miranda and I had the awesome opportunity to travel to Bulgaria. I was 18 with a chance to head to Europe, who wouldn’t go? We would leave the day after my high school graduation and would stay in Bulgaria for five weeks. In hindsight I realize that five weeks is a very long time to be away from home. Next time I travel to Bulgaria it will definitely NOT be for five weeks but I would love to go back. I had never been out of the U.S. (other than Mexico) and I did not have a clue what it would be like. Nevertheless in my five weeks there I learned so much about traveling abroad and what things I should or should not have done to make life a bit easier. Here is a list I’ve compiled of “10 Things I wish I knew my first trip to Europe”.
1. Keep it light and bring LESS luggage.
No one really told me that you didn’t need a suitcase just for shoes. That’s right… I took one whole suitcase full of shoes. I believe in total I had four or five pieces of luggage actually. HOW DUMB. Yes we would be there for five weeks but seriously we were not moving there. What was I thinking?? That means there were four or five pieces of luggage to drag through three airports, multiple bus rides and down the city streets to the apartment once we arrived. NEVER AGAIN.
2. Study the language a bit more prior to arriving.
While I did have a little time to study the language I did not study the correct things. I should have memorized how to say basic things like where is the bathroom, my name is or nice to meet you. Knowing this would have come very in handy in some situations so it was a good thing that I brought my pocket dictionary.
3. Bring an outlet converter. Not just for the country you will stay in most of the time but for any country you have a layover in as well.
So even though our final destination was Bulgaria we had a layover in London. We did not have an outlet converter at all but made it work with a little tape when our phones or iPods needed charging. This is definitely not safe but again.. I was 18 and just needed my music. 🙂
4. Understand basic functional things. Can you walk where you need to go? What is the cost of a normal cab fare?
When you travel pretty much anywhere in world and you are American it is a given that you will usually pay a little more and get a little less than people from other countries. This being said, I think it is super important to make note of what a normal cab fare costs. Not saying I would sit there and argue with some Bulgarian guy but it would be nice to know if I was being taken advantage of and I had no clue. This also helps in situations where a barter is involved. Knowing what people would usually pay is very useful.
5. Enable international calling on your cellphone even if you don’t plan to use it.
This one speaks for itself. When you are in a foreign country it is important to ensure that you have a way to communicate.
6. Find the local market.
This is super important if you are not planning on eating out for every single meal. We stayed in an apartment which allowed for us to buy groceries and cook at home. I really believe in this practice as a way to reserve your money for unique adventures and opportunities. While the spices were in packages with only Bulgarian writing we were able to tell what certain things were by appearance. We even found our way around the weird super tiny half electric half propane stove. GO US!
7. Don’t use internet cafe’s in the basement of abandoned Ice Cream shops. Ever seen Hostel or Taken?
Well.. At the time Bulgaria did not have WIFI capabilities ANYWHERE. Being there for five weeks we had lots of down time and what better way to kill it rather than paying a dime an hour to surf the internet? First we had to find a place with computers and internet. Some local recommended a small internet café and we were dumb enough to trust them. To get to the internet café, you walked into a store front of an abandoned Ice Cream shop with no lights on and down a flight of stairs into a very dark basement. There were twenty or so computers scattered all around and an “attendant” at a desk, he was the guy who took the money. Over the our five week stay there we frequented this internet café. I won’t lie that some days we felt the tension in the room as we arrived. Most of the people in the café were young men playing video games. We didn’t ever really feel threatened but we definitely were out of place. Writing this now I realize just how dangerous of a situation it could have been for us.
8. Read up on safe or unsafe areas of town.
Now there is virtually nothing that isn’t accessible via Google search. After being told to not make eye contact with certain people in certain areas I understood that this was something we needed to get a grasp on pretty quickly. Even if you aren’t travelling to Eastern Europe I believe this is an important one.
9. Bring at least one or two rolls of toilet paper along.
I‘m sure this isn’t the case everywhere but in Bulgaria 99% of the toilet paper is dyed and heavily scented. Not only is this dyed and scented toilet paper killer on any sort of PH balance down south it also smells pretty awful. We learned that in many places you are required to pay for toilet paper. For about $0.15 USD you could buy roughly five squares. This in particular took me by surprise so we carried our own through the rest of the journey even if it was only enough to fit in a small purse.
10. Go with NO expectations and a very open mind. Otherwise finding the fun in the challenges will be pretty tough.
Being a fairly spoiled American I had no prior experience to how other people live in this world. This trip was very challenging and really pressed us to open our eyes and our minds to see what was around us. What a privilege it was for us to see other ways of life in such an intimate way. There were many things that came across our path that made us question our way of thinking. This trip caused us to have perpetual growth and appreciation for our lives at home. We had a once in a lifetime experience and I wouldn’t take back one challenging minute of it.
Wherever you are travelling I hope this post helps you in some way. There is a great big world out there to explore and experience. I’d love to hear about your travels abroad and any useful tidbits you learned in your journey. Please post a comment and share your experience with me and our readers.
P.S. Bonus tip! If all else fails, say you are from Canada. Everyone loves a Canadian. 🙂
Cheers to Travel!