I’ve long known that my comfort zone acts like a box with moveable sides which I must regularly push out, or they will slowly move in on me. One of the more profound times I pushed out had an amazing payoff, though I look back now and realize it wasn’t entirely safe. I ask myself, if I had it to do again, would I?
I needed to meet up with the team in rural Romania for a project; they’d been there a week already, and I was traveling alone. Traveling in Eastern Europe is very different than traveling in Western Europe…few natives speak English, and signs and menus don’t have the familiar Latin roots which can help you muddle through. I landed in the chaotic Bucharest airport, withdrew 200 Romanian leu to get me to Podari, a farm town over two hours away by train, and knew to avoid all of the shouting men harassing me with calls of “taxi” in favor of the official taxi stand. Not everyone who takes one of those unauthorized taxis makes it to their destination whole. When I got to the hotel, I learned that my train would leave bright and early the next morning at 08:00. I also learned that my 200 leu wouldn’t go go very far, when an email from the project lead said their American, non-chip credit cards were not working in the card readers at most places. His note was dire: “Bring cash, lots of it.” The concierge told me there was an ATM a couple of blocks away, so I set out on foot. As I wound my way alone through a quiet residential neighborhood in Bucharest, I realized that if anyone wanted to accost me, no one would ever know what happened to me. I could just disappear. I walked faster and finally found the ATM twice as far as what a “couple of blocks” is to me…to no avail. I walked hurriedly back to the hotel and wondered just how dire our financial situation was.
I got up at 05:00 the next morning heavily jet lagged and hopped into a cab for the train station. Here’s where the adventure really began. As we flew through the dark streets of Bucharest (and “flew” is not a literary exaggeration), I began to wonder, again, if my goose was cooked. My first fear was that I was going to die at the hands of a Romanian-speaking cab driver’s erratic driving (I soon learned that seat belts are an unnecessary cost in 2nd-world Romania). But after Formula One racing through the streets of Bucharest for the 15 minutes the hotel told me it would take, with no train station in sight, a new fear took hold. Was he just pulling the universal taxi scam of taking me for all the fare that he could? Did he really know where I needed to go? Did he intend to take me there at all? Once again I felt all of the vulnerable, lone female traveler that I was. As 30 minutes went by, and my adrenaline level climbed pretty high as I pondered my limited options, we suddenly stopped (again, “suddenly” is not a literary exaggeration)…in front of the train station. I got out hugely relieved and feeling a little guilty for my thoughts about my driver. But my ordeal was not over.
Trying to buy a 2nd class train ticket (to save my meager cash reserves) without speaking the language was tricky (I guess she thought my two fingers were some kind of haggling ploy). I finally managed to get my ticket bought after some ridiculous pantomiming, and went into the station. It was a foreboding place. Dark, dirty and neglected, it was busy and active with the same bootleg tax drivers at the airport and ordinary Romanian commuters. Covered but open to the outside, I was grateful it was September and warm. I quickly found a clean and bright beacon in a blessed McDonald’s (it looked like it had a halo over it, I still hear angels sing when recalling it) in the center of the station. It wasn’t busy, likely out of the financial reach of most of my fellow commuters. I nursed my Coke in its safety for well over an hour. The downside of the Coke and the time, however, had me looking for a water closet, thinking I’d be better off in the station than on the 2nd class car on the train. I was wrong. After descending the dark, narrow steps into the basement restroom, I found I had to pay a couple of leu for a dark, dank concrete stall with no light on the women’s side. It would have made a perfect prison cell in any B grade horror movie. I did my business as quickly as I ever had, while trying to touch absolutely nothing (in the dark, I couldn’t even see what I wasn’t touching, likely a small blessing). When I emerged back into the dim light, I felt literally liberated. As I found my way to my train line, I saw an ATM and tried my luck again: still no luck and sure that I’d be filing a fraud claim with my credit card company when I got home for trying to use it in such a safe public place.
I was beyond relieved to finally board the train. I’ve written about the rest of this trip before…it was a highlight of my life. This is the way life often is: you must be willing to get outside your comfort zone to have some of the best experiences. You must risk getting hurt, or it was never a risk in the first place. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The Belgian member of our team had a European chip credit card and ended up with an enormous expense report. I didn’t need to file a fraud claim on mine. And I saw amazing sights and ate wonderful food and met interesting people, none of which I will ever forget. And I pushed my box walls out again, at least for awhile.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch