Today, I’m going to drop some amazing, very secret knowledge on you. The kind of knowledge that is only known by those that have embarked on that adventure known as “study abroad”. That kind of knowledge.
When you study abroad, you have to travel a lot.
Groundbreaking, isn’t it? But seriously, though I knew I’d have to fly across the Atlantic to get here, it never truly dawned on me quite how much I’d have to travel this year. Over the last seven months, I’ve been in eleven airports, and on more trains, buses, and planes than I can count. I’ve become an expert on budget travel. I know exactly what bus companies will get you to a specific part of Chicago in the shortest time and for how much. I know to get my laptop out of my bag and take my shoes off before I get to the security scanners. I know to empty my water bottle out before I go to security. I know that, when I see that one specific security lady in Amsterdam approach me, she’s going to frisk me in such a way that she really should buy me dinner first. I know that that terrifying clunk that you sometimes feel on a plane about twenty minutes before you land is just the wheels coming down, and that I’m probably not going to plummet to my death. I can navigate airports like an absolute boss. I’ve even managed to procure more than one of those elusive $1 megabus tickets. I’m not joking, I could write a book on this stuff (don’t worry, I won’t. But if I did, you’d buy it, right? Right?)
This unwillingly-gained knowledge, however, has done nothing to prevent me from having the worst possible luck of any casual traveller ever.
Have I ever told you about the time I almost got kidnapped? Yes? Several times? Well it’s a fun story, and it’s probably changed since I last told it to you (disclaimer: though everything I tell you is more or less true, I tend to get overexcited in the telling of stories and exaggerate and add details. A pinch of salt is recommended), so I’m going to tell it again.
It was literally my first twenty minutes in America. I’d just finished my 14-hour plane adventure, pinky-promised the guy at customs that I wasn’t a terrorist or a smuggler of disease cultures, and collected my bag, and was that wonderful combination of very excited and incredibly tired. At this point, I didn’t have my budget-travel-knowledge, and stupidly hadn’t worked out how I was going to get from Midway Airport to Urbana-Champaign (a good 120 miles away - my main piece of advice to people who want to travel - plan everything down to the very last detail in advance. The words “I’ll just wing it” should not enter your vocabulary. You might think you’re being spontaneous and exciting. You’re not. You’re going to get lost and die). As I wandered around, looking very much like a lost, lone, foreign, teenage girl, I was approached by a strange man who asked me if I was alone, and then offered to take me to Urbana in his van. In. His. Van. Now, I may have been a stupid, lost teenage girl, but I was not actually in the first five minutes of a CSI episode, and had seen enough television to know that going with this man was going to end with my naked and bloodied body being discovered at the side of the road, so I kind of muttered that someone was meeting me and ran away. I then lunged at the driver of the next legitimate-looking bus I saw and asked if he could take me to Urbana. “Asked” is probably an understatement, as a combination of jetlag, heat (have I mentioned summer in Illinois is hot?), and my recent near-kidnap experience, meant that I was sort of half-whimpering, half-screaming at the poor man. Luckily, this guy was experienced in dealing with confused foreigners, and reacted impressively well to a mildly hysterical and very jetlagged Scottish chick babbling that she didn’t have a ticket but she would give him some dollar-money and could she please come on his bus and I don’t want to go in the van. Long story short, I somehow managed to get to Urbana alive. Success.
And then there was the time when my plane from New York got delayed by a full hour and a half because they needed to change a seat cushion (you cannot make this stuff up) and so I missed my bus from the airport, and my card had been cut off by the bank and I didn’t have any money or internet access and was pretty much stranded in Chicago. Though I eventually managed to get hold of a friend in Urbana who booked me a bus for the next morning (for which I am eternally grateful), I nonetheless ended up spending the night sleeping on a bench in the bus depot of O’Hare with a lot of homeless people who kept trying to give me copies of The Onion, wearing two jumpers to keep warm and reading a Dickens novel, because, as it turns out, that’s what literature students do when rendered suddenly homeless.
Last Friday, I spent over two hours hanging out on a street corner in Chicago during a thunderstorm with sixty strangers waiting for a bus that didn’t want to come. During this time, I very conspicuously eavesdropped on the guys next to me until they let me join their conversation for the next few hours.
This was also the first time I crossed over to a different timezone on a bus. It was exciting and deeply confusing and everyone else on the bus thought I was quite mad.
As it turns out, I am not the only exchange student to experience this terrible luck in travelling. When I explained my idea for this post to my best friend and fellow exchange student (who I am currently staying with) Saskia Dunn, she told me the story of how she almost choked to death on a piece of chicken on a trans-Atlantic flight and the flight crew had to page a nurse after the guy she’d been sitting next to expressed concern that she’d been in the toilet for over an hour.
The moral? If you’re an exchange student, you should probably just walk everywhere.