If ever you could use a fresh mint tea to calm your nerves, it’s after watching a bus holding all your belongings turn onto a motorway without you. Like those who recount near death experiences say time seems to slow and one knows instinctively what to do to maintain the best chance of survival, it seemed vitally important to me while sprinting behind this bus to keep the tea upright and save its contents, minus the collateral drops now scalding my hands, chest and legs, at all costs.
The buying of this tea from a rest stop McDonalds somewhere over the Czech border was an easy scapegoat of blame for the pickle Billie and I now found ourselves in, but in that moment it provided sweet, if small, relief. I knew I only had a few seconds before staring down the slip road and not confronting the problem or comforting my girlfriend would be seen as unhelpful, so I decided to take full advantage. After waving the cup under my nose to steal any relaxation hiding in the fumes, I sipped and took the moment to feel better before preparing to pretend to Billie that I had a fucking clue what to do next. Although it fought every stereotypical instinct I had as an English male, the only option was to ask someone for help.
As we know our backpacks and lack of familiarity in our new environment make us an easy target, we have always erred on the side of caution when it comes to security. Our bags have a padlock on each zip, we put our tablet back in the bottom of the bag every time after checking directions and at times hesitate to trust those offering to take our photo with our camera. By no means do we never feel safe and pack a cricket bat with which to arm ourselves every time we turn onto a dark street, but it pays to be vigilant.
Almost everyone we told about our travels offered the advice to “stay safe and look after each other”, and for anything to happen to us would break countless promises.
We also, to a fault, feel an overwhelming urge to tackle problems independently even if this takes thrice as long as reaching out to others. There is nothing more demoralising to a stubborn person than admitting defeat and asking for directions to a museum or restaurant after searching for an hour, only to be 10 yards from its door. Taking the plunge to embark upon this journey is without question the most challenging and independent thing either of us have ever done, and showing that we need help can sometimes feel like we bit off more than we could chew. Of course asking for help is actually a sign of strength, but everyone who has ever had to do so knows that that’s not always how it seems.
But this situation was different. All we had with us was a debit card, a phone without mobile data with 6% charge and the clothes on our backs. This wasn’t getting lost trying to find a statue or an ice cream stall, it was not being entirely sure which country we were in.
There’s being out your depth, and then there’s full on drowning.
What we were met with after admitting we needed assistance was more than we ever could have hoped for. Kindness, by nature, can only happen in a situation where it would be easier to do nothing, but the people we met that day were willing to help us when they simply didn’t have to. They were busy, communicating in a language which was not their own and offered no reward, but could see we were in trouble and took that as the only reasoning required.
The first person we met was Jakob, a Polish man transporting film equipment across Europe who fortunately spoke English and German and offered to call the bus company for us and try to explain our situation. It would eventually come to nothing (as a strongly worded email to the customer service department would later show) but the weight lifted off of our shoulders now that there was a plan in place was immense. Already full of gratitude and humility, we then learned that Jakob was actually on the first day of a new job, and had prioritised us at a time when most would have not taken any risks with time at all.
Waiting for a call back from the bus company that would never come, the next six hours were spent nursing drinks and trading sympathetic looks with staff. We were beginning to lose hope until Eliška and Dominik, who were unlucky enough to be looking after us purely because they spoke very little English, offered to drive us the 60km we were short of Prague at the end of their shift. The tears we had both been fighting to hold back in those hours started to flow as each frantic “are you sure????” was greeted with a smiling nod. They would not even accept money for fuel and dropped us off at our correct bus stop a mere seven hours later than expected. Buoyed by a renewed faith in humanity, but anxious as to whether we would get any of our things back, we checked in to our hostel for a sleepless night.
After some frankly incredible detective work honed through dozens of tv cop dramas and several angry phone calls, we managed to find out when and where the same bus would be leaving Prague. Unshowered and in the same clothes as the day before, we staggered to the bus station smelling like that bottle of milk sitting in every university halls fridge who’s owner has long been forgotten.
The length of time we had to kill was longer than gut wrenching worry can stave off an appetite, so camping out for a platform floor picnic seemed the only option. Eating Alpro yogurts with toddler spoons bought from Tiger provided one of the most special photos of our journey so far, and an attitude that we were getting drunk on cheap Czech lager whatever happened that night made the situation much more bearable. The station pianist playing ‘Yesterday’ while we were waiting may have felt like a sarcastic personal attack, but we powered through and were eventually reunited with our bags. Jubilant with victory, the evening consisted of a shower, mini golf, a drink in the ice bar and lots and lots of much needed sleep.
It’s in a crisis where you realise the good nature of most people. If it hadn’t been for Jakob, Eliška and Dominik’s kindness that day, our travels could well have ended with a hefty bill and an even heftier sense of regret for ever getting off that bloody bus. With this newfound confidence in the kindness of strangers, we’ve met some incredible people on our trip that we never otherwise would have. From new friends in hostels offering tips, tricks and recommendations to the happiest man in all of Tokyo walking us straight to the door of a ramen shop half a mile down the road, backpacking as a couple has no longer become a journey just for two. Whilst you should never lose your wits and always be careful, a stranger is often just a friend you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting.