Travel is riddled with stories of challenging situations leading to some kind of enlightenment.
For us, enlightenment came in the form of gratitude after a stressful, stormy night in northern Italy. We had just reached Monterosso, the first of five villages that make up Cinque Terre, Italy when the sky turned dark and ominous. An impending storm wouldn’t be an issue, except we had no idea where we were staying. A month into our travels, we had wholeheartedly thrown ourselves into a new figure-it-out-as-you-go lifestyle. True vagabonders do not make prior reservations. At least not in low season.
So far our spontaneous approach to travel had worked fine. We’d show up in a new town. Pick a few lodging recommendations from our guide book. And within a half hour, we’d be checked in somewhere, unpacked and ready to start exploring. Off season almost always ensures a vacancy. Not planning also helps when choosing how long to stay in a place. Unlike advance reservations, it’s often possible to negotiate the price of a room down on the spot in person.
Our day began early in the morning in Nice, France. We caught the train to Italy, making our way through the towns of Ventimiglia and La Spezia. It was a beautiful day for a train ride. We dined on one last crusty French baguette with cheese from a local market.
Sipping coffee, we enjoyed views of the Mediterranean, blissfully unaware of our impending predicament.
By the time we reached our stop, Vernazza, the sun was quickly setting. Torrential rain began to blanket the entire area. Spontaneity? Not looking so good. Option 1: Search for a room in a volatile storm, in the pitch dark and attempt to speak Italian for the first time. Option 2: Spend the night on the floor of a cold, empty, tiny train station.
Zipping up our rain jackets, we covered our backpacks with waterproof covers and set out into the darkness. Heading in the general vicinity of our guidebook’s suggestions (translation: we had no clue where we were going), we spotted a “Rooms For Rent” sign. We quickly ran to knock on the building door. An elderly Italian mother answered. We stared blankly at one another. Realizing communication was an issue, she promptly led us across the street. Holding a rain jacket over her head like a tarp, she navigated the slippery, wet terrain effortlessly. She yelled to a young man (her son?) who appeared at the entrance of a building.
“Camera doppia?” we asked. (We were very proud we managed to recall “double room” in Italian.) Thinking we could speak Italian, he replied with an extended answer only to see we clearly could not understand anything. Instead, he led the way to a lavish room, complete with marble floors and original art on the walls. Right away, we knew we couldn’t afford to stay there. “Trenta (30) euros?” we feebly asked.
Gracefully kicked to the curb, we found ourselves back in the raging storm.
Running and sliding in the mud, our backpacks feeling heavier by the minute, we spotted another “Rooms For Rent” sign. We hurriedly rang the doorbell. No answer. As the rain came down harder, we began to panic. Just then, a man at the window of an adjacent building saw us and yelled out across the way, “Martina!”
We turned our heads in the direction he was yelling. Opposite where we stood, a little bar was packed with people. A man came to the window. The two men yelled back in forth in Italian. The man at the bar disappeared and suddenly, a young woman (Martina?) appeared. She ran out into the rain and motioned for us to follow her. Before we knew it, we were inside her charming, empty four-room guesthouse.
“Camera doppia per trenta euros?” we feebly asked. She hesitated, but seeing us pathetically soaked to the bone, agreed on the price tag. IF we stayed at least two nights. Little did we know we’d become so smitten with Cinque Terre that we’d end up staying an entire week.
Gratitude. That’s what we immediately felt when we finally knew we had somewhere to lay our heads.
As a vagabonder, the moment when you’re finally able to take off your backpack is a wonderful feeling. A burden lifts, both literally and figuratively. There’s a sense of relief and accomplishment. You look around at the humble abode you’ll be calling “home” for a few days (or maybe just for the night), and you feel gratitude.
We changed into dry clothes and when the rain finally let up, headed out for a late dinner. At Antica Osteria Il Baretto, a humble family eatery, we enjoyed our first meal in Italy. It was incredible. We dined on delicious Trofie pasta (short and twisted), cooked to perfection, with homemade pesto and house red wine. We felt overwhelmingly content.
That’s when we realized that long term traveling, especially on a budget, is hard. Adjusting, adapting and dealing with constant inconvenience can take a toll. But when things finally come together, no matter how insignificant, gratitude emerges. A scenic train ride. A clean place to stay. A homemade meal. A much needed glass of wine.
Simple things we take for granted in our “normal” life suddenly become treasured moments.
Vagabonding inherently means living life with more difficulties and discomfort. That’s because the very nature of vagabonding is inconvenient. The key to traveling long-term successfully is finding gratitude on a daily basis. We can honestly say that the greater the hardships in our travels, the greater we appreciate the good things that come our way. And minor inconveniences, like searching for a room on a stressful, stormy night, become a small price to pay for the sense of deep gratitude we get in return.