On various travel websites, you’ll often hear that traveling without a plan is the best way to travel. But you often won’t know if it’s the best way for you until after you’re done traveling.
For me, traveling without a plan is incredibly stressful, but doing so has led to some of the most rewarding experiences.
Since I’m really good at missing flights now apparently, I had to change from going directly to Berlin (where my friend Gunnar was waiting, ready to take me back to Braunschweig), and instead fly to Geneva the next day, some 909 km / 565 miles away! But the promise of adventure was certain, so in my mind the change was justified.
The flight, which ran almost two hours late, landed in Geneva at 12:00am. I had managed to think ahead just a little and booked a very cheap ride share from Geneva to Frankfurt, Germany. The rest of the way, I thought, would be easy to do by hitchhiking. After messaging with the driver a bit, I realized they were leaving from a city 64km/40mi from Geneva. I was also informed that it was unlikely the trains would be leaving after midnight and buses shut down not long after midnight. How was I going to go 40 miles in the middle of the night and get to Lausanne before 11am for the departure? Here’s how my mind worked:
Look for a bus. Then look for a train.
If no luck, walk. The average human walking speed is 3 miles per hour. I have 11 hours to travel 40 miles, which means I need to travel an average of 3.64 miles per hour to make it on time. I could jog a little but walk most of the way… For 11 hours… With 15 extra pounds on my back.
Luckily, that is not what happened.
When you land in Geneva airport, just before you leave the baggage claim area, you can get a ticket for public transportation which allows you to use all public transport within the city of Geneva for free for 80 minutes. I took one and quickly went out to the bus station, frantically reading the city map, unable to figure out which bus would take me northeast.
A French Swiss man was reading the map on the other side of the post, so I asked him for help.
“Excuse me, do you know this city well?”
“Yes, I do. Where do you need to go?”
“Lausanne. Is there a bus I can take that will take me that direction? Just northeast.” My French wasn’t good enough to explain the situation fully, but hoped he would get me started in the right direction.
“Why a bus? Just take the train. It goes directly to Lausanne. The train station is just right here. Go down to the bottom floor and the next one leaves at…” He ran his finger along the sign and jabbed at the train schedule. “…12:22.”
“Oh! I thought the trains wouldn’t be working right now.”
“Of course they’re working, but there’s not much time left. Just go down there and take the train.”
“Okay, thanks a lot.”
At this point I was afraid I would need to pay some ridiculous price for the train. The actual train ticket machine inside the airport had given me a price of 40 francs (more or less $40) to get to Lausanne by train. But maybe I’d be able to use my free ticket to get part of the way. The train was already waiting when I’d reached the bottom floor, but I wasn’t sure it was the right one. There were still 10 minutes until mine was supposed to depart. A family of Latin American Spanish speakers were standing not far from the train, laughing at something.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “do you know if this train goes to Lausanne?”
“Yeah, this is the train to Lausanne.”
“Great! One more question, can I use this ticket? It’s that one you can get at the airport,” I said, holding up the tiny slip of paper with the word “Gratis, 2 class” printed on it.
“Of course,” said a man with tattoo sleeves on both arms. “But is that a first class ticket?”
“Then you’ll need to go back there,” he said, pointing farther down the train. “But you know, kid, they’re exactly the same.”
“Vale vale vale, perfecto. Gracias.”
A few minutes after I took a ‘second class seat,’ which looked exactly the same as the first class section, the family came and sat near me. There was almost no one else on the train. The man with the tattoo sleeves sat across from me, and as the two some who were with him and a teenage boy sat on the other side, he asked, “So where are you from?”
“St. Louis, right in the middle of the United States.”
“United States? You’re American?! How come you speak Spanish like that?”
“I learned in school but I’ve also traveled in Spain some. And where are you from?”
“Ecuador. We’re all from Ecuador. But I live here temporarily and work in Poland where my wife and two children are.”
Switzerland has some of the highest wages of any country in the world. Poland, I imagine, doesn’t even fall on the spectrum. Living in Switzerland is also incredibly expensive; it is the country with the highest cost of living in the world.
Note: names have been changed here.
The two women, who were about 30 and 50, were mother and daughter. Estela was the older woman, who was visiting from Ecuador to see her daughter and bringing María’s nephew, Benjamín. The man across from me was Eric. They were all really curious about my situation,nso I explained the previous 24 hours to them, what I was doing in Switzerland, and the fact that I didn’t have a place to stay yet but would like to find a cafe to work in for the night once reaching Lausanne.
After closer inspection of my ticket, they realized I wouldn’t have been able to use it for the train because it left the city of Geneva, but that it was unlikely someone would come by to check tickets anyway, and that even if they did, I could just speak Spanish and pretend not to understand and probably end up paying the normal price for a ticket.
The ride was about an hour long, which gave us plenty of time to become friends. Just before getting off the train, María invited me to stay at her place.
“I don’t have a lot of book and you will have to sleep on the floor, but you could sleep and shower and of course eat. And when I decide to come to the U.S., you can help me with my tickets and finding a place to stay!”
“Absolutely! You’re sure it’s alright?”
“Yes, of course.”
The walk from the train station back to their home took a good 45 minutes (due to carrying luggage and tacking a couple detours to find something open that sold food, but everything was closed).
María gave me a whole plate of leftover grilled fish and made everyone a spicy pasta dish, filling us with hot tea and spicy side dishes.
“Thank you so much,” I said, “I’m so fortunate to have met you.”
“God brought you to us,” Eric said. But that wasn’t enough to sate his evangelical nature, and so continued for the next half hour on a long monologue explaining his foray into drug sales and hard crime, before finally coming to Jesus and turning his life around. The tattoos up his arms were flames, a constant reminder of the hell that awaited him if he should turn back. He told us a misty-eyed story of his conversion, and the number of men he made cry with his heartfelt repentance. I thought back to just a few minutes before when he was trying to figure out what Icelandic women were like by interrogating me.
It’s nice to hear that people can turn their lives around, but it turned into a religious lecture about God is the only one that could possibly deserve thanks for anything and that we’re all going to hell unless we repent and yadda yadda.
I grew up Southern Baptist, so I knew all the tricks. I just kept agreeing with him. This was obviously not the time to spurt out, “I’m a gay atheist and that has nothing to do with me being a bad person.” So instead I said, “Yes, God is good. God is great. Yes, he brought me to you. How lucky I am to be Christian and to have been chosen specially by God, since all the people who weren’t chosen are shitty people and go straight to hell.” It surprises me how much self righteousness and hatred there is embedded in so-called born-again Christians. I won’t go into more detail, but he seemed to be intent on convincing me everyone who wasn’t a Christian was scum and deserved death. But of course, I’ve been there. I know.
The next morning, he drove me with his friend to meet my driver so that I could get to Frankfurt.
We found his parked car, and I got out, yelling, “Thank you so much! Safe travels! Good luck!”
My driver was a young French businessman living in Geneva and headed for Frankfurt to party through Easter weekend named Geoffroy. I shook his hand.
“So how is it you speak Spanish?” he asked.
“Long story,” I replied.