How’s Your Spider Sense?

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Over several years of roaming around other countries, I’ve worked at amping up what I call my “spider sense”.

This is something we all have, in varying degrees. It’s that queasy little feeling you get when someone is trying to scam you, or when you’ve stepped into an unfamiliar neighbourhood and something isn’t quite right.

Last summer, I put my spider sense to the test when I went to Bratislava. (Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country that came about when the former Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993.) I’d never been in eastern Europe, so I was very excited but also a little bit cautious.

I found what looked like a really nice hotel (at a great price), and started figuring out how to get there from the airport. Since I was arriving at 10 PM, it looked like I might have to break one of my primary transport rules and take a taxi. I justified the extra expense based on my safety, and knowing that I could walk to the train station for my departure the next day.

At the same time, I’d started poking through the  Lonely Planet Guide to the Czech & Slovak Republics. I checked the taxi section for Bratislava, which talked about an “unofficial English-speaking surcharge” followed by a reference to “skulduggery”. This looked to me like polite Lonely-Planet-lingo for “thieving cab drivers”. I hit the web and found a current online guide to Bratislava — with an article charmingly titled “Taxis – How not to get cheated”.

Decidedly nervous by now, I checked my hotel’s website and discovered that they had a driver service. Brilliant! I wrote to them and we made arrangements for the driver to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hotel. This would cost me 23 euros. Not cheap, but not outrageous. I was all set.

I arrived in Bratislava, got through the customs line-up and looked around for a guy holding up a sign with my last name on it. Nope.

So I went outside to the front of the terminal and waited. Nope.

I tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. The lady who’d been sitting beside me on the flight tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. I went back into the airport to the car rental kiosk, to see if the car rental guy could try the hotel on his land line. And … he couldn’t get through.

A British couple was also at the kiosk, waiting for their rental car, and asked what had happened. When I told them, the wife shook her head and said “Well, whatever you do, don’t take a taxi. They’ll rob you blind.” I smiled and thanked her, but my inside voice was busy muttering obscenities.

Car Rental Guy told me to take a bus to the train station, and even showed me how to buy a ticket from a ticket machine. I figured out the bus schedule and then I checked my spider sense. Was this really a good idea? My spider sense seemed pretty calm. I checked again. Still calm. So, I caught the bus. I reasoned that if I got to the train station and things were too scary, I’d be able to find a last-resort taxi pretty easily. Plus, I had a map. A rudimentary map, but still a map.

Here's my goofy little photocopied map

Here’s my funny little photocopied map

By the time the bus got to the train station, it was 11:30 PM and very dark. My hotel was at 4 Stefanikova Street and according to my little map, Stefanikova Street was right off the train station. I walked a few steps and checked my spider sense. I was feeling a little more cautious, but still OK. So I just started walking, looking for street signs and building numbers. A few minutes in, I found a building that claimed to be 8 Stefanikova Street. That seemed encouraging. Lo and behold, 4 Stefanikova Street was another 50 steps away. Ta dah! It was that easy.

Doing stuff like this will momentarily make you feel like Marco Polo. It doesn’t last, but it sure feels awesome in the moment. What does last, though, is a newer spider sense, made stronger by experience.

Your spider sense is a gift, and the time you spend learning to listen to it will pay off handsomely. It will warn you when you’re heading into trouble, as well as reassuring you when things are actually OK. And don’t tell me that you don’t have one, because you do. We all do. You can trust me on this one. Just ask your spider sense.
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