Alarm at 4 am. Another sleepless night. I was taking the bus from a small town in Macedonia (second largest city, so a small town) to Sofia, Bulgaria at 5 am – not my idea, it was the only option. In a daze I brushed my teeth, tied my shoes, stuffed the last things into my backpack and flung it over my shoulder. Downstairs the guy from the hostel was waiting for me.

– do you need me to call you a taxi?

– no thanks, I’ll walk.

It was only a 20 min walk and I wasn’t lugging around a backpack everywhere just to be driven around –  you know, adventure and all that. When I looked outside and saw it was still pitch black, I started to second-guess this decision. I spun around on my heels and asked him,

– is it safe to walk though?

– yes, yes, don’t worry!

He sounded reassuring enough, and besides, I didn’t have enough denar left in my pocket for a taxi. So I went on my way.

Through the main pedestrian street, past teenagers in sequined dresses and bowties, definitely drunk, probably on their way home. Past some einzelgänger sitting in front of cafés with a beer and cigarette – the last ones standing, or owners of the place?

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Photo by Janne Biersma

The second half of my route was past a park. A dark blur of trees to my right, a road and empty buildings to my left, I picked up my pace. I heard some rushing sound, at two or three second intervals. Footsteps? I looked over my shoulder (meaning I turned most of my body under the weight of my backpack – I swear I packed lightly but there were bookshops and thrift stores I couldn’t resist). No one. The sound picked up again. Oh – just my sleeve rubbing against my bag.

Ten minutes later I was at the bus station. Twenty minutes later I sat down at a window seat and rested my head against the glass. Pink streaks appeared where it had just been black. As the sun rose, I fell asleep.

A cocktail of sleep deprivation, being in a foreign country and scary stories in the back of my mind had me jump at the sight of my own shadow. That morning was just one of several situations where I found myself thinking: is this it? Is this how I’m going to die, on the side of the road next to some abandoned Balkan buildings? Why did I say no to that third shot of rakia last night?

I found myself on night trains, accompanied only by less-than-friendly-looking men, and interrogated by hostile border control police who, upon seeing my Dutch passport, asked me multiple times if I had any marihuana on me. I found myself arriving in a new town at 4 am, with only a screenshot of some vague directions to guide me to the hostel, and about 9% battery left. I found myself shaking off men who kept talking to me, walking two steps behind me, then swearing and yelling when they realised I wasn’t engaging.

I don’t often avoid places just because they might be dangerous. I mean – cycling home alone at 5 am (after a few too many speciaalbiertjes) isn’t without risk, yet I do it on a weekly basis in Amsterdam. I generally have (I think) good intuition about these things and manage to get out of situations when they feel unsafe. Being abroad, though, it’s harder to make that judgement call.

Some say; better safe than sorry. They’re the ones getting the taxis, or foregoing (parts of) the trip altogether. But I’m pretty broke, and I don’t want to let my paranoia get the best of me.

Sometimes I can’t tell if what I’m doing is actually risky, or if I’m making myself crazy. I guess it’s safe until it’s not. It’s fine until it goes wrong. But these stories – of where it went wrong – float to the surface of my mind whenever I’m walking in the dark alone. When the sound of my own footsteps has me imagining my funeral, and I laugh about how silly that is. But I don’t know if it is. How much fear is proportionate? How much is necessary? How much is helpful?

The line between paranoia and naïveté is a thin one. I guess I’ll just keep trying to strike a balance between the two. I’ll keep taking the 5 am buses, but I’ll pack a little lighter next time. Just in case I have to, you know, run for my life.

Text: Charlotte Nijhuis
Photo: Charlotte Nijhuis

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