Dublin: From Solo Traveler to Busker
“Could you spare any change?” a man said as I rounded the corner from York Street to Grafton, one of the main streets in Dublin. “I just need enough money to stay in a hostel for the night.”
I was 19 and had just set off to travel alone in Europe for the first time with only my ukulele and a small suitcase. Though I had horrible stage fright and wasn’t planning on performing with my ukulele, I figured singing and writing would help to keep me sane throughout my travels in eight countries alone.
The man asked again. However young and inexperienced a solo-traveler I may have been, I was still far from unaware of the ruses people played to get money from tourists. While traveling with family in Paris a few years prior, a woman had even dumped some sort of a sticky, smelly concoction of goo on our backpacks and then offered to take our bags and clean them for us. And while in Rome the year before, we’d been handed several roses and hand-made bracelets seemingly for free, until we began to walk away and were harassed for money. I therefore thought it best to ignore the man and looked away, everything to my right suddenly becoming riveting.
He stepped closer, now asking me directly. Finally, I turned toward him and who I assumed to be his family. His clothes hung from bony limbs and pale skin, and a woman similar in age—probably mid-20s—with red grease-slicked hair rocked a baby in her arms. I raised my shoulders and shook my head in response, and eventually blurted out, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me,” before quickly walking away. I hated turning down beggars with dogs or babies, but reminded myself it wasn’t my responsibility. Being a broke college student myself, I had to save money for the rest of my travels. The excuses allowed my guilt to die down long enough for a stroll up and down the red brick-paved pedestrian walkway on Grafton.
It was a sunny and warm summer day with Dublin’s infamous rain having died down after a dreary Wednesday, and the street was brimming with people enjoying the city. Locals and tourists from all over the world were gathered on Grafton; I heard conversations in Russian, Chinese, German, and more as I made my way down the road. It was lined with shops of all sorts—high-end jewelry and clothing boutiques, a Disney store, chocolate shops, fast food chains, and more—in residential-turned-commercial buildings, each one adding to an architectural mix of Victorian, Gothic and even ornate Italian styles.
What really made Grafton come alive, however, were all the street vendors and street performers in front of these beautiful historic buildings. After passing St. Stephen’s Green Park and the homeless family at the start of my outing, I encountered something/someone new on every corner. In a span of about ten minutes, I saw a group of five break-dancers doing flips and tricks to the beat of a boombox with a large crowd gathered around, a florist setting up shop outside a pharmacy, a frail older man sitting on the ground and playing Mozart on a weathered violin, a man in silver metallic clothes and paint standing completely still and dancing only when money was dropped into a bucket beside him, and a band equipped with drums, guitars, and a full sound system playing Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” Later I got to see a band playing Irish music as well, with the lead part played by a man on the flute. The street was rich with energy and culture, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the homeless family. That’s when it occurred to me what I would do.
I quickly walked back toward the corner where the family was standing and was equally relieved and nervous to find that they were still there. I slowed down and began to approach them.
My heart raced and I felt my face flush. No, I can’t do this, I told myself and walked past them once again. Once I rounded the corner and was out of sight, I collected myself. I’m doing this. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I turned back again and walked right up to the man.
“Hi. Listen, I really wanna help you guys out but I don’t have much money. I’m staying in a hostel myself. But I was thinking; I’m traveling with my ukulele so maybe I could play on the street and make you enough money for the night,” I said before I could stop myself.
The man’s face brightened. “That would be amazing! I’ll even watch out for you while you perform and make sure no one tries to hurt you or steal from you.” I hadn’t thought being hurt or stolen from might be a concern, and decided not to dwell on it. I was nervous enough already. “What’s your name by the way?”
“John. Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “Thank you so much!”
“No problem, I’m happy to help. I’ll get my ukulele and meet you back here soon.”
And with that, I was off—and still in disbelief that I’d made the agreement. Is this even legal to do without a permit? I wondered. Even if it is legal, how the heck will I do this when I’ve only performed once before in front of about ten people? What if I lose my voice or it cracks, or I forget the words? I’m gonna sound like crap, especially compared to real musicians who do this all the time. The rush of adrenaline kept me going though, and I jogged back to the hostel to grab my ukulele, now with just two thoughts running through my mind in constant rotation: I’m doing this, and This is insane. There’s no way I can do it. But I couldn’t let John down.
On the way back to Grafton I passed a small pub. The only inhabitants were two older men, one the bartender and the other a customer or friend sitting and chatting with him at the bar.
I marched up to the bartender, feigning confidence despite my heart beating so fast it felt like I was having either an asthma attack or a panic attack—maybe both? I set a few euros on the counter and said through loud, deep breaths, “Two shots of Jameson, please.” Some liquid luck—just enough to calm the nerves and clear the pipes, I told myself.
The men stared at me with a look of confusion, but the bartender complied. With no hesitation I finished the shots in two big gulps. Though I was trying to avoid looking at the men, I’m pretty sure their eyes shifted back and forth from me to my ukulele case the entire time. Feeling extremely uncomfortable (a good reason to keep moving!), I left to find John.
When I got to the corner where he’d stood, he wasn’t there. I wandered further down Grafton in search of John and his family. A few minutes later, they appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” John said. He put a hand on my back and guided me toward the busiest part of the walkway, pointing out places I could perform. Nothing seemed good enough. I had no microphone nor amplifier of any sort, and began to question whether people would even be able to hear me with how busy Grafton was that day. I was convinced I’d look completely amateurish next to the other talented musicians on the street who must’ve done this a hundred times before. There was no more backing out anymore though.
Finally, I found an empty spot less noisy and crowded than the others. I’m doing this—the only thought I allowed myself from there on, because if I’d thought about what I was about to do, there was no way I’d have had the courage to do it. So I sat down, set my case in front of me, and started to sing. John moseyed around, always staying within sight, while his family wandered off.
The first song I sang was “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. When I finished it, John walked over and simply said, “Wow, you can really sing.” That gave me the confidence boost I needed to keep going, and to sing the way I knew I could.
After the second song, a man dropped ten euros in my case and said, “I saw you here earlier and you were really good.” He must have confused me with someone else but I wasn’t going to tell him that. I thanked him and continued.
Throughout an hour of playing, I was surprised both by people’s generosity and especially by the myriad of people who approached me just to ask questions about myself. I met a father and son from New Jersey who had to decided to travel the United Kingdom together. The father had a black circle around his eye, as they told me they’d been violently mugged the day prior. I lamented with them and shared that I was a university student and had just begun travels including medical and research internships in Germany and Switzerland that would help me reach my goal of attending medical school one day. Despite having lost their credit cards, some cash, and identification in the mugging, they gave me my biggest donation at €20 and said, “I think it’s great what you’re doing. Keep going.”
During the next song, an Asian woman stopped and took a video with a big iPad. At the same time a young couple, a woman with tattoos and a flowy skirt and a man with big-framed glasses and a goatee, stopped and listened as well. The young woman closed her eyes and swayed back and forth to the rhythm. They each tossed a few coins in my case and continued on their way after a couple songs. Later on, a young man in dress pants and a button-up stopped and said, “I work around the corner and hear people here all the time. You’re pretty talented. Sorry I don’t have any cash on me, but I wish I did.” He passed me on his way back to work later and simply gave me a thumbs up.
After that hour of performing and conversing with several interesting and gracious people, my voice was raw and I’d run out of songs ready for performance, but had made €51.43. I waved John back over.
“You can take all of it,” I told him.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll just take the nine euros I need.”
I handed him the nine euros. “Are you sure? I did this for you guys and really wouldn’t mind if you took it all.”
John hesitated. He seemed unsure of what to tell me, but finally said, “Listen, you’ve been so nice I feel like you should know…I just wanted this money for some weed.”
Though I was shocked and initially disappointed by his response, I knew it was because of him that I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and met some incredible, kindhearted people. I laughed it off and decided I’d treat myself to a nice dinner that night with what I’d earned.
From Peru to Bolivia and Back
After spending three weeks traveling in northern Chile and southern Peru with friends, we parted ways one morning as I left to take a seven-hour bus ride from Cuzco to Puno, Peru. I was determined to cross the border from Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia the following day, and to see if I could beat the system and satisfy the adrenaline and travel junkie in me in the process. Since I’m a dual citizen of the US and Germany, I planned to enter Bolivia with my German passport and skip paying the $160 reciprocity fee Americans are required to pay upon entrance to the country.
For months I’d dreamt of traveling to Bolivia to see the diverse mountainous landscape, to talk with locals and take in the differences between their Spanish and the Spanish in Chile—where I’d been studying for the previous five months—and to see as much of South America in one trip as possible, considering flights are not cheap. And, to be perfectly honest, having recently turned 21 I wanted to celebrate by crossing into one more country: my 21st country for my 21st birthday. Unfortunately, I had no one to go to Bolivia with. I had gone to Peru with Americans who had agreed to travel together at the end of our semester abroad, but they didn’t want to pay the fee to enter Bolivia. However, we weren’t far from the border, so I decided to travel solo to Copacabana, the most easily-accessible Bolivian destination, only three days before my flight from Chile back to the US. I’m already here so why not? I thought.
That afternoon I arrived in Puno struggling to keep my eyes open and walking on feet swollen from the high altitude and a complete absence of movement. I’d been in a cramped seat with a headrest bent too far forward and only one armrest since the man beside me had taken mine over and snored for about six and a half of the seven hours we spent on the bus. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t get past the man as he was in the aisle seat, preventing me from using the tiny excuse for a bathroom directly behind us. Though I can’t say I’m sorry to have missed using the bathroom on a bus for which I’d paid only $8 to cover over 200 miles of ground.
Needless to say, I was ready to get to my hostel and do nothing but sleep. Cab drivers waited outside of the bus station, ready to charge a price much higher for tourists than locals. No matter how tired I was, I refused to pay $10 for a five-minute cab ride. I had no idea where to go though and with no Wi-Fi or international plan, my phone and its all-knowing maps were useless here. So, I grabbed a map from an information desk and marched right past the drivers as they yelled and walked alongside me, trying to “help” me with my bags. Instead I asked someone on the street for directions since I couldn’t even tell where I was on the map, let alone my hostel.
A woman with straight black hair, tan skin, and a second-hand sweatshirt reading “Varsity Track” along with the name of a U.S. high school I can’t remember, politely looked at my map and pointed me in the right direction. “You need to go to Avenida Titicaca? That’s far. You should probably take a cab.”
I thanked her and continued in stubbornness. A half-hour later, I arrived at the Cozy Hostel tired, grumpy, and on feet that were now both swollen and throbbing. My shoulders hurt from a heavy, overstuffed backpack with days’ worth of dirty clothes and accumulated souvenirs, and my shirt was damp with sweat. I spent the rest of the night in at my hostel after what felt like the longest check-in, instead of leaving my room to explore for the first time in weeks of travel, enjoying (rare) good Wi-Fi and telling myself it was OK not to explore this new destination. It would only stress me out, and I needed the rest to catch my six o’clock bus to cross into Bolivia in the morning.
I cuddled up in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed in a shared room with seven other beds and thought about how nice it would be to sleep in my own bed again in only a few more days. I’d already seen and done so much during my five months in South America, did I really need to do this too? My exhaustion suddenly turned into a lack of motivation and I called my mom, asking if I was crazy to go to Bolivia. What if they turned me away at the border? What if they got mad about my switching passports and held me for questioning? What if I ended up locked up in a Bolivian prison? It wouldn’t happen, my mom assured me. You’re already there, you may as well just try it.
It was still dark and a bit chilly when I checked out and, reluctantly, I agreed to take a cab back to the bus station. I was prepared. I’d bought and printed my bus ticket the day before and arrived at the bus counter with nine minutes to spare. The printed ticket, however, confused the ticket lady, who escorted two fellow passengers to the bus and told me to wait at the desk.
5:56…5:57. Still no Ticket Lady.
Forget her. I’m catching this bus! I thought. I ran outside in search of the right bus and found Ticket Lady standing next to it, speaking with the bus driver, who was already seated, buckled, and ready to go.
“No, there’s no room. You can’t get on this bus,” she told me.
“But I bought a ticket. I have it right here and already paid for it,” I insisted.
“There is another bus at 7:30. You can take that one.”
Great. I stood and watched in disbelief as she continued to allow other passengers to enter the bus. Their things were packed away, the doors were closed, and they were ready to take off.
“Never mind,” Ticket Lady suddenly said, grabbing my bags and throwing them in a storage compartment. “You can sit up front.”
I’d never seen someone sit with the bus driver before. But it was either that or wait another hour and a half, costing me precious time in Bolivia. I climbed in and seconds later we drove off. The driver spoke to me in a Bolivian Spanish I could hardly understand (I was accustomed to Chilean Spanish after spending several months studying there). Despite the language barrier, he tried to make me comfortable, giving me a blanket and sharing coca leaves to chew on to prevent altitude sickness. He asked questions about my travels and told me about himself and Bolivia, where he said he was from. Sitting on the seat next to him was a plastic grocery bag full of the coca leaves he’d shared with me, which he chewed while talking so that little pieces would fly out from holes of missing teeth when he spoke.
The driver treated the 80 km/h speed limit as more of a suggestion as we flew across dusty winding roads that work with Peru’s hilly landscape. Dry, brown mountains could be seen in the distance with the occasional lake showing small mountain towns in its reflection. We were surrounded by tan and brown fields sporadically dotted with green trees.
All too quickly we approached the border, and I began to question the flimsy plan I’d devised to get into Bolivia as the driver handed me the Customs form to start filling out. What do I declare on the form—that I’m American or German? My American passport had my visa for Chile in it, meaning I’d probably need stamps proving I’d exited Peru so as not to raise any red flags when re-entering Chile for my flight out of Santiago. I needed to use the German passport, however, to enter Bolivia without paying the fee, but what would Customs do in Bolivia when they saw I had no stamps proving I’d entered South America at all, having used my American passport for the rest of my travels?
Luckily, a Customs employee on the Peruvian border helped me, allowing me to pay a $40 fee to switch passports instead of paying the $160 reciprocity fee. I’d be able to switch back to my US passport when I came back into Peru, he assured me, and put an exit stamp in my US passport. Though I wasn’t happy having to pay for the passport change, I was more relieved than anything that it was even possible. Step one, done!
I returned to the bus only to be told we couldn’t get back on, yet the bus driver didn’t explain why or tell us what we were to do instead. I waited for the other passengers to return from Customs. Once everyone was rounded up, the bus driver simply pointed at the Bolivian border, hopped back on the bus—which still had all of our things in it—and drove that way without us. We all exchanged a few nervous glances, raised our shoulders, and started to walk. Along the way, we passed several women wearing colorful layered skirts, with hair braided into two strands reaching their lower backs, and woven circular bowler hats sitting atop black hair. Many used beautifully decorated cloths called aguayos that hung over their shoulders and tied at their chests, in which they carried babies or transported materials.
After crossing the border and getting our passports stamped, we loaded onto the bus once more and were taken into Copacabana. It was a small town, and I easily located my hotel on the bus ride in and dropped my things off. I was pleasantly surprised to find my booking included a private room and bathroom. The thought of staying to rest was tempting, but this time I was determined to make the most of my short trip and left to explore town.
Again, I was prepared with a plan for the trip and again, not much went as expected. First, I’d explore town and grab some lunch, which I did. I walked uphill toward the town square and bought a Bolivian-style empanada called an “Empanada Tucumana” from a street vendor. It consisted of peas, carrots, potatoes, pieces of boiled egg, and chicken enveloped in some sort of pie crust-like casing. Juices from the empanada spilled down my hand as I ate and walked past shops chaotically lining the street, each one with products overflowing from the storefront, making it hard to tell which items belonged to which store. Most sold clothing like t-shirts and baseball caps saying Copacabana or Bolivia, and colorful cloths similar to what the women had worn. There were also many artisanal jewelry stores with beaded and woven bracelets and necklaces. Though touristy, the town was alive with locals darting about.
At the top of the hill was the town square, surrounded on three sides by more shops and on the other an enormous white 16th-century Spanish basilica enclosing the square. The simple white exterior of the basilica was in stark contrast to booths full of religious trinkets: cross necklaces, mini statues of the Virgen de Copacabana, framed images of saints and Biblical characters, and much more. The booths spanned the entire length of one side of the town square. There wasn’t much to do in the square, however, and I was already getting tired, maybe from the high altitude, and could only think of the private room waiting for me. But I had to see and do something. I walked down the hill to Titicaca’s lakefront.
This seemed to be where the tourists had gathered on the sunny day it was. The street filled with more and more bars as I got closer to the lake, many with outdoor patios where tourists drank with a view. Other tourists rented canoes or paddle boats and waded in the lake. Most seemed to be from Europe and Argentina. In fact, I met no others from the US—maybe they were unwilling to pay the fee as well, or maybe they thought it was dangerous, as many had insinuated after hearing my plan. What is it about Bolivia that worries everyone so much? Theft? Scams? General crime? I’ll never know; none of these happened to me and I felt safer in Bolivia than I had in much of Chile—especially after having been with a friend who was tackled to the ground for her phone once. Bolivia felt safe and peaceful, and the lakefront embodied that with locals lounging around and their kids skipping about playing games.
I figured I should continue on my way so I could climb Cerro Calvario for beautiful views of the city and the lake. First I would go back to the hotel though, just for a little break.
Five hours later, I woke up on the bed in my hotel room to discover it was dark outside and I’d slept the entire day away. Considering I’d be taking a bus back to Peru the following morning, I had one day in Bolivia and the way I saw it, I had wasted it. A chronic stress-eater, I went out for a nice cheer-myself-up dinner. I ate a churrasco sandwich, a beef sandwich made often with mashed avocado and tomato on white bread and eaten in many South American countries. To drink I had a yungueño, a traditional cocktail made with a mixture of orange juice, simple sugar, and singani, which is a brandy produced only in Bolivia. Luckily for my low spirits, there was a two for one drink deal, and I quickly began feeling better while listening to live instrumental Latin-style music.
A man at another table even joined me for a drink and sat down to talk. I learned he was a 28-year-old Argentinian taking time off of work to travel in Bolivia and northern Argentina. We ended up speaking for over an hour until our drinks were long gone. He eventually walked me back to my hostel and promised we would meet in Argentina one day.
The next morning, I got on another bus and headed back to Peru. There we stopped again at the border where I received an exit stamp from Bolivia in my German passport and proceeded to walk across the border to Peruvian Customs.
That’s when I discovered that the passport switcheroo is generally frowned upon.
“You did what?” the Customs men said. “You can’t just switch passports. Only one passport.”
“Well, some guy told me I could and I need to get back into Chile with the US passport because my visa is in it.”
“Who! Who told you that you could switch?”
“I don’t know but he was standing right there!” I said, pointing toward the entrance where the Customs official had stood.
The men paused and looked at each other. They spoke quick Spanish under their breath so I couldn’t understand and looked back at me. “Fine. We will help you,” they said, and put an exit and entry stamp in my US passport. (This was all in Spanish, by the way.)
After getting back on the bus, the driver saw my two passports and explained, “You know, you only need one.”
Yes, I know. Thank you. I just grinned in response and sat on the bus once more, finally allowing myself a breath of relief and a wide smile spread across my face. I’d done it. I’d successfully gotten in and out of Bolivia and added a 21st country to my list. I’d argued my way through Customs in a language that was not my native tongue. And, I’d done it all on my own while getting a taste of Bolivia, because even though my friends thought I was crazy for going, I knew it’d be worth it.