This is a story about learning to wander from one of the most interesting people I have ever met while traveling.
My first trip to Europe began in a customs line in Prague, where I met Shep, a tall, dark and handsome fellow who was carrying a backpack and a guitar. At all of 22, Shep was a far more seasoned traveler than I was. For starters, in contrast to his medium sized backpack, I was carrying twice my weight in luggage for a term abroad. I had only been outside of the US once before and not ever on my own. I was equal parts scared and excited, but I was trying to channel calm and collected. Shep seemed to sense my ignorance as we proceeded through customs, offering instructions and comfort in the face of my wide-eyed ignorance.
We quickly deduced that we were both in Prague to be a part of the same study program at Charles University.
Where did you learn to play the guitar? I asked, making conversation and trying to sound casually interested and slightly removed at the same time.
He began to tell me how he had spent two years previously in Prague, where he learned to play the guitar at the same time as he was learning the Czech language. He had loved it so much that he was back for more.
I responded with something really clever like,
And followed that up with this impressive remark.
I totally want to learn to play the guitar.
Oh don’t worry. You will.
The following week I followed Shep into a music store in Staroměstské náměstí where I bought a Czech guitar for about 400 korunas ($20 back then) and proceeded to begin both informal guitar and Czech lessons on the seventh floor of our Soviet bloc building complex in the sixth district of Prague.
It was an amazing time to be in Eastern Europe, and I was fortunate to have Shep as my guide. Czechloslovakia had been free from communism less than three years, so we were watching Czech businesses emerge around us as people began to try on capitalism. Foreign markets were flooding the city and a group of us were there to study this history in the making. Our nontraditional schooling consisted mostly of being immersed in this evolving nation. We were there when the Czech Republic and Slovakia became two separate countries from one. We witnessed the current peaceful transitions while studying the violent chapters of the country’s past.
For my first few weeks in Europe, I went everywhere with Shep. At 19, I was a young, naïve traveler. Partly because I did not grow up in the city, I was, in many ways, like a small child. I was constantly staring up in amazement at buildings, not looking where I was going. Shep stopped me being run over by a tram so many times that it became sort of a joke.
Don’t they have cars in Arkansas, honey?
Our less than rigorous coursework ran from Tuesday to Thursday, so we had lots of days off for traveling. I followed Shep to Český Krumlov on one of our first weekends in Prague to see what I still remember as the most beautiful castle in the world. Perfectly situated in a forest, Hluboka Castle was all white stone and classic Baroque turrets. Shep translated the tour guide’s descriptions for me quietly as we walked through the rooms of the most enchanting building I had ever seen in my life.
A whole group of students on the tour ended up back in the nearby town at a local hostel, staying up all night telling stories. As we talked, I discovered that Shep had learned Czech so well because he had come to Czechoslovakia on a Mormon Misson. I was completely taken aback to learn he was Mormon, as he was nothing like the stereotypes of Mormons I had in my mind. He was so, well, normal.
Back at school, we spent long hours comparing our backgrounds and asking each other questions about theology. I loved hearing all about his family and how they had traveled to faraway places. His own journey had given him a deep-seated desire for discovering the world that I admired and envied. He seemed fearless.
After I had seen the city and much of the surrounding area through Shep’s eyes, I was inspired to strike out on my own. I took a train to a small town north of Prague all by myself one weekend. I practiced my language with Czech construction workers in the train car, and I read schedules and maps all by myself. I walked the small town alone. I found a place to stay.
The next day I hiked trails in the area. I breathed in the mountain air, realizing that I had been missing the countryside and having wide open spaces in which to think. As I walked, I dreamed of all the traveling I would do in the months and years to come. I wanted so much to be an experienced traveler like Shep, with several languages under my belt and the ability to travel light.
I had a wonderful adventure all by myself, getting only a little lost in the hills. By the time I made my way back to Prague on the train a few days later, I was ready for the company of Shep and the other students. I was super proud of myself, and couldn’t wait to get my film developed so I could show off my pictures of hiking in the hills.
I began to do more traveling on my own apart from Shep, not being as afraid of my fumbling language skills. Still, I was always armed with a list of suggestions from Shep for wherever I was headed next. While I evolved as a student abroad and made my way on trains to anywhere safe within a few hours from Prague (Budapest, Krakow, Vienna), Shep’s wanderlust took him on crazy adventures of his own. Having already been to many of the common places the foreign students were visiting, one weekend he sneaked into the Ukraine, which was strictly forbidden by our program, as a visa was required and our safety could not be guaranteed.
When we all rolled back into town from our weekend adventures, we would compare stories and travels. Shep’s tales were always the best. He inevitably would have had to talk himself out of a situation that would have rendered me a puddle of tears. I just loved being around someone who took on the world the way he did.
At the end of our study program, while the rest of us were flying home to Mommy and Daddy, Shep boarded a train for Russia. I got a letter and photo from him that summer. He had a grown a long beard and was in a city I did not recognize the name of. I was back in the swing of my comfortable life at home (sitting by the pool), and I just had to laugh.
Though I would continue to travel (and love it!), I would never be quite the adventurer that Shep was, but I was grateful for the opportunity to have met him and to have shared part of his world for a season.
The picture featured on this post, Streets Of Prague, taken by Scott Krycia, is available for purchase here.