The anxiety I’ve felt for 2 and ½ years during the pandemic has largely disintegrated since I’ve been traveling. I’ve always said traveling is the surest cure for my anxiety, and it’s proven true again. Even the worry I had about Covid didn’t dampen my excitement on this trip. Things that would typically cause me to feel anxious felt easy. That is, until we started taking buses through the Balkans. I am perhaps the world’s most anxious road passenger. For most of Western Europe, I was taking trains from city to city because of time and convenience, and because I had a Eurail pass that I’d tried to make the absolute most of. But as soon as we arrived in the Balkans, trains were no longer an option. There aren’t passenger trains connecting most cities, so car rental or buses are your only options. And while I knew about the landscape of individual cities we’d be visiting I’d (kind of deliberately) not looked too much into what the terrain situation would be like between them because it would do me no good to dread it. Other than one short (but gorgeous) train ride from Sarajevo to Mostar, we traveled entirely by bus throughout the Balkans from when we left Budapest to when we arrived in Sofia, and 90% of our driving was through mountains.
Even if you’re at ease in vehicles, traveling by bus in the Balkans can be stressful. Bus routes are only sometimes posted online, and when they are posted, the times are often incorrect. You typically have to pay for your tickets in person with cash, but if you wait to do this until near departure time, the bus might be sold out. Most of the bus station attendants speak a little English, but half the time you need a translation app to help with the communication, and you leave the station holding a ticket that you only guess you’re reading correctly. You can’t pick a bus company based on reviews because they ALL have terrible reviews–you have to take what you can get and try not to think about it too much. On the inside, they’re a bit like school buses that are sometimes air conditioned and sometimes not. None of them have Wi-Fi or bathrooms or seatbelts. That’s right—no seatbelts. (They will advertise themselves online as having bathrooms and Wi-Fi. Do not believe this for one second.)
Michael and I perfected the logistics of Balkan bus travel during our 2-week journey through the Balkans. When we arrived at our destinations, we’d go straight to the ticket window to buy our next bus ticket. If we had to buy in cash (which we usually did), we’d already calculated on the previous bus how much local currency we’d need in that city. (We never had more than $3 USD leftover, so we got very good at this), and we’d go straight to an ATM machine near the station. If we arrived after the ticket windows were closed, we’d go back to the station when it opened the next morning so that we could ensure our bus not selling out. We learned to keep spare change for luggage fees and platform fees that ticket offices don’t warn you about beforehand, and we kept enough change to use the bathrooms in the stations (which cost a dollar or so to use). I learned to carry Kleenex in my pockets because the bathrooms NEVER have toilet paper. We really did a good job of making it as stress-free as possible for ourselves, and I’m quite proud of how well we managed. Even on the day that Michael had food poisoning, I walked a mile to the bus station and begged the woman to change our tickets to the next day for free. And she did. We were quite lucky, too—we never had a breakdown or huge delay or left anything on a bus accidentally. We were a model for how well this could go… the only problems were the drives themselves.
The mountains started gradually on our drive from Belgrade to Sarajevo. It wasn’t long after crossing the Bosnian border that we were in these lush mountain forests in fog so thick I wouldn’t have been able to seen the end of my car hood. Michael was totally unbothered by the situation and pointed out cows walking down the roadside next to us as I panicked and peeked out from under his jacket. I thought surely things couldn’t get much worse than the mountain-fog road, but they did. The mountains got bigger with every ride, the cliffs got steeper as the roads got smaller, and the guardrails seemed to either shrink or disappear entirely. I tried to focus only on the views, which also got better, but I was still terrified. I was not loving the drives, but I was hanging in there fairly well until the drive from Kotor, Montenegro, to Tirana, Albania. We picked up passengers in Budva and then headed higher into the mountains. The views of the Adriatic were stunning. We were so high in the cliffs that it was hard to look but impossible not to. And we kept getting higher, and the drop down the cliffside kept getting steeper, and all of a sudden, we were higher in the cliffs than I’d ever been in my life, and so very close to this tiny ledge with only a 2-foot guardrail between us and the drop. And I completely and totally panicked.
I was in an almost-bus-wreck once. I say almost because it’s weird to claim it as a wreck when nothing bad ended up actually happening. Our church’s youth leader was driving us in our church bus back from a spring break mission trip to Mexico. We were only like 5 miles from our town when the driver’s side front tire blew out, and our youth leader lost control of the bus for several seconds. It was probably only like 4-5 seconds, but I still remember how long it felt. We were on a small bridge on the interstate when it happened, and our bus tilted horrifying over the edge of the bridge until the back of the bus slammed against the guardrail and straightened us up. We swerved from lane to lane until a few seconds later when he finally got control back and we landed on the steep shoulder of the road. Everyone get off NOW, he told us, worried the bus would tip from the incline. I still have the book I was reading when it happened—the spine is detached from the hardcover because of jolt of it. I remember the tire looked like it had gone through a meat grinder. But we were all fine. A bad thing could have happened, but it didn’t. Everyone’s parents came to pick them up from where the bus still sat, and we didn’t even get home much later than we were supposed to.
I wonder now if anyone else on that bus with me even remembers it. And if they remember it, is their memory of it anywhere near as dramatic as mine? Because the thing about anxiety is that it’s not about what happened—it’s about what COULD have. I think I gradually lost trust in vehicles and machinery after that. What if someone had been in the lane next to us? What if someone had been in front of us? What if we hadn’t hit that guard rail? What if he hadn’t gotten control of the bus?
These are the types of “what ifs” that bombard my mind as we careen around these billion-foot-high cliffs while I try not to hyperventilate. What if the tire blows out, what if the driver is sleepy, what if he has a heart-attack? What if the driver next to us loses control and hits us… A college-aged boy in the seat next to me laughed nervously to his seatmate—Dude, do you think about, like… what if we went off a cliff?? I tried not to listen as they then debated exactly what the result of such an event would be (it was a graphic imaging). It’s better if I assume I’m the only one thinking these thoughts because then I can assume they are too improbable for anyone else to think of. Michael tried to encourage me to concentrate on breathing like a normal person, but I couldn’t make myself concentrate on what he was trying to tell me. I was in a complete panic until a half hour later when we dipped into a valley and the mountains towered over us.
It’s amazing what people can get used to. We would continue to ride on seatbelt-less buses through the mountains for another week, and even Turkey (and then Greece and then Croatia) had its share of mountain drives, but that drive was the worst of them, and everything afterward felt bearable by comparison. I started downloading terrain maps on my phone so I knew what to expect. I started having Michael sit in the window seat when I knew it would be a particularly mountainous drive. I started being able to calculate the times until we descended from cliffs into the next valley, and I stared peeking at how beautiful the views were up in those cliffs. I’d look at pictures my mom sent me of Chewie. Sometimes I’d take a photo of the view without looking too closely so that I could have the view to appreciate after we were off the bus. Once we started our group tour in Turkey, we got to know our two bus drivers and trust them. (Also we had seatbelts.) And in those mountains, I barely felt afraid.
My fear didn’t magically go away, but unlike the fear of flying that I had to endure to get here, it wasn’t an “overcome it once and you’ve made it” sort of thing. There’s a level of panic your body can’t sustain for too long before it calms down, and each unpleasant drive kept being worth it once we arrived. I don’t have a tidy moral of this story except to hopefully supply some helpful tips for the logistics of bus travel in Southeast Europe and also to remind you that the things we’re afraid of don’t have to be insurmountable. You can still be afraid and find a thing worth it. You don’t have to feel like you bravely conquered a fear to get through it anyway. You get to decide which things are worth pushing through.