“Are you sure you’ll be safe?” This is a question I got asked a lot during my year abroad, given all of the solo trips I took around Europe.
When I announced that I would be including Athens on my spring break trip, some people voiced their concern. It was right around the time when Greece’s economic problems were making all of the headlines, and some of my family and friends were worried that Athenians who were fed up with the government would take to the streets, and that I would be caught in the middle of a full-blown riot.
While I didn’t spot any riots as I walked through Athens, I did manage to find many other interesting things as I wandered down the peaceful streets.
From the moment I entered the city, I noticed a fragrant smell that followed me wherever I went. I soon realized that the scent came from orange trees that lined many of the streets. A local later told me that the fruit is very bitter, so nobody eats them; however, rioters sometimes throw those oranges at police officers during protests.
Stray dogs are another common sight in the streets of Athens. I had the pleasure of having a few very friendly pups follow me around one day as I wandered from ruin to ruin.
And speaking of ruins, those can be found in abundance almost anywhere you go in Athens. The Acropolis can be seen at a distance throughout the city, and the crumbling remains of ancient libraries, markets, theatres, temples, and arches are scattered around the urban sprawl that makes up modern Athens.
After wandering down one of the shopping streets in Athens and haggling for souvenirs in a market, I cautiously made my way toward Syntagma Square; after ascertaining that there were no protests taking place there (only the chaos of pushy tourists and fearless pigeons!), I got closer to the Presidential Mansion to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
While Athens’ streets offer a great slice of history, culture, nature, and politics (try to find a street that doesn’t have the anarchy symbol graffiti’d onto one of its walls), it is also a nice place to grab a snack and relax. Corners were dotted with vendors selling pastries and other delicious goods. I didn’t have a problem finding a bench in the shade of a fragrant orange tree so I could nibble on a chocolate pastry.
My peaceful time in Athens is proof that travel warnings don’t mean you should stay away completely. There are, of course, a few places throughout the world that travelers should avoid, but Greece doesn’t deserve to be on that list. As with travel anywhere I made sure that I was always aware of my surroundings, talked to locals about what parts of the city might be too unsafe to visit, kept track of my belongings, and didn’t venture out too late at night. With a few riots making front pages in the month before I went to Athens, I also made sure to check the news frequently during my time in the city. It turned out that Athens didn’t pose any more of a threat than any other place, but it didn’t hurt being a little more informed.
I know the thought of traveling the world can be intimidating for many people, but I have found that many cities abroad are safer and a lot less problematic than my own. In just the past year of living in Cincinnati, I had to make three police reports. I also lived through a half dozen floods in my apartment that destroyed most of my possessions before my rental agency finally agreed to put me in a new building. Before I moved out of the leaky apartment, by the way, two people were shot and killed on the street just in front of my house. (While pepper spray is illegal in many of the countries I’ve traveled, female residents of Cincinnati are encouraged to attach a small thing of mace to their keychains.) In comparison to Cincinnati, my issue-free year of traveling through Europe practically seems boring.
Staying at home doesn’t guarantee safety, anything can happen no matter where you are in the world, and there is too much of the world to see for me to not seize every possible opportunity to get out and experience it. There are risks everywhere, so while I am always careful, I don’t think that entails never leaving the country. And for my family and friends who are concerned about my safety over the next year in Indonesia, you can rest assured that I will take every precaution to ensure that I make it home in one piece!