As promised in my last post about homesickness and long-term travel, I wanted to publish a follow up about the more practical side of my time on the road. I started out having no idea if I had packed the right things in my bag, worried about losing my passport (I tend to be slightly scatterbrained on the best of days) and curious if I’d last the full year around the world. 4 years later, I’m still moving – though I’m doing so quite a bit differently than when I first started out. I’m travelling much more slowly, opting to spend more time learning and eating. Where possible, I rent an apartment for a few months to really get a feel for the place and to get work done. Over the years, I’ve found myself disagreeing with my initial packing strategy and also learning a bunch of tips that I keep using as I go. I wanted to share those tips for world travel here.
For those who are just starting out or reading from home or mulling over what they too have picked up along the way, some practical tips from 4 years of travelling around the world.
If you’re looking for more (way more) world travel tips and resources, head over to my 10,000 word and counting World Travel Resources page, which is updated every quarter and includes information on packing, planning, insurance, visas, and much more.
1. Being a solo traveler does not mean that you are lonely.
One of the most frequent questions I receive is “are you lonely travelling alone?” This is a natural assumption; before they visited, even my parents envisioned my sitting alone and singing myself to sleep. But when they met me in Bangkok, they quickly realized there was a vibrant community of journalists and writers and photographers and almost instantly, I had a group of friends. The nature of travel is that it intensifies human experiences, transcending social rules that would apply at home. So when I meet a great group of people we end up spending days talking, sharing meals and exploring – despite the fact that if this was New York and I said “hey, let’s share lunch, dinner and drinks for the next seven days straight“ I’d be deemed a stalker. Those rules don’t apply. Most people are open to meeting others and learning from them as they travel. With the exception of #12, below, I don’t ever feel lonely.
2. Be a travel parasite.
No, this does not mean mooching off friends or family. What it means is learning how to use guidebooks to your advantage. While they are useful to have for the history of a place or the basics in itinerary planning, I rarely look to guidebooks for the name of a hostel or restaurant. Instead, I look at their recommendations as things to piggyback on. Lonely Planet recommends a place as “Our Pick”? Great, I go there, and walk two doors down to stay nearby. Rough Guides says “this is the best restaurant in town”? Perfect! Almost every one of those recommendations will spawn another restaurant within walking distance, especially in less developed countries. Industrious entrepreneurs quickly learn that when these books recommend a place, they quickly get overcrowded and prices go up. The solution: they open a place right next door or nearby to handle the spillover. Without fail, those are the places that are cheaper, more delicious and not jaded. Being a parasite isn’t always a bad thing. (Having parasites? Not so much.)
3. There are things you should not leave home without.
Regardless of what climate I pack for, I’ve always got these five things in my bag: safety whistle, doorstop, headlamp, sleep sheet and sarong. I’ve got many other mainstays as well, but these four are there, for shorter trips or longer trips or anything in between.
Additional notes (Apr 6):
- Someone submitted this to MeFi (I’m a longtime reader, so that was exciting to see – *waves back*) with the question “I guess I must be inexperienced at travel but I don’t think I’ve ever found myself wishing I had a doorstop. Can someone tell me what this is about?”. The answer is that I’ve found it a comfort to have if I’m in a hostel room alone because it means you’ll usually hear the door fidgeting if someone is trying to open it while you are asleep. It’s not a failsafe prevention, of course, but it has come in handy and it gives me extra peace of mind when I go to bed.
- Another note to the MeFi thread asked about items like antibacterial gel or earplugs. Yes, of course I have those with me. I wanted to list some items that were less conventional but take up very little room. And yes, I probably am an overpacker, but at 5ft with a 54L pack, that can only mean so much :)
- To those curious about why I recommend a safety whistle, it isn’t to draw attention in uncomfortable situations (I’ve yet to use it in that way), but because it has come in handy while being chased by a group of monkeys or stranded in a boat in Myanmar. I devoted a post to it because I do think it’s great to have for general safety reasons (especially if you are hiking) but I thought it would be best illustrated with some of the ridiculous times I’ve had to use it on my trip.
4. Everything else you can buy.*
I didn’t believe it at first – “what if I forget to pack something!” But I’ve learned that most things can be bought abroad, from t-shirts to bras to new flip flops when a monkey throws yours over a cliff. Toiletries are a learning experience in and of themselves (trying to find non-whitening deodorant in Thailand? Not as easy as you might think) and often teach you a lot about a country in the process. I’ve posted a few packing lists from other bloggers on my world travel resources page and they are great at outlining what you need. But if you forget something, you can usually finagle a suitable replacement on the road.
*If you have prescription meds from home, these are something you might want to plan for during your travels. Also, your passport. Please don’t forget to pack your passport.
5. Food makes the world go round.
You may not be a chef or foodie or spice-obsessed individual, but you cannot deny that in most of the world, the nexus of culture, tradition and family is food. If you don’t want to learn about the history of how spices got there or spend your days stuffing your face with everything you can like I do, take a cooking class. See if you can learn how to cook with a local family. Go to the markets and watch how people eat, how they handle their foods or when their primary mealtimes occur. These rhythms are relevant to your travels because most places are so much more than a list of sights to see; most places tie their food to their communities, to their history. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you missed out on it.
For those worried about travelling with allergies or getting sick along the way, my Food Traveler’s Handbook, now published (yay!) has chapters dedicated to each of these concerns, as well as a long ode to why it is rewarding to see a country through its food options.
6. Your taxi driver knows where to eat breakfast more than you do.
Swap this out for tuk-tuk driver, songthaew driver or rickshaw driver, where appropriate. When I go to a new place, I find the eldest cab driver possible and ask him where he ate breakfast. Once he gets over his shock that this is what I want to know, he tends to break into a huge grin and start talking about food. Eventually, he takes me there. And the food is almost always delicious, fresh and somewhere I’d have never found without his help. Taxi drivers: more than just getting from A to B.
Update: There has been some pushback here, noting that taxis will often take you to a place where they receive commission. I have found this to be extremely untrue, relying throughout my travels on these taxi-sourced recommendations for eats, usually delivered with a big smile. If this fails, consider taxi drivers, then, to be an excellent marker of quick and delicious food. Example: a recent trip to Mui Ne revealed one of the best soups I’ve had in Vietnam, populated almost exclusively by taxi drivers.
7. Stop listening to people who tell you not to pack jeans.
Do you love your jeans? Great, put them in your backpack. I don’t care whether people tell you they won’t dry fast enough (this is a non-starter in warm climates) or that they take up too much room (oh HAI Lycra, how wonderfully compact you make my jeans!) or that they’re not maleable enough. I made the mistake of not packing jeans when I left in 2008 and they were the first thing I bought in South America. I’ve had a pair with me every since. While my quick-dry pants are terrific for hiking, I personally don’t feel fashionable in them, and when I join expats or others for dinner somewhere, I want to feel like I fit in. I also want to feel like myself, and I do wear jeans quite a lot when I am back in North America. If you’re someone who hates jeans to begin with, this isn’t for you. But if you do enjoy wearing them, bring them along. You’ll be happier for it.
8. Oranges are the perfect public transportation snack.
I started bringing a bag of oranges with me for long bus rides, primarily because they quench thirst and smell delicious. I quickly learned that many Thai and Burmese busgoers sniff the peels to stave off nausea, and that kids love oranges. Really: kids LOVE oranges. So for those who want to bring something for the bus ride but rightfully worry about giving sweets to kids, oranges are your friend. You will win over the parents, make the kids happy, occupy your hours and eventually get fed by everyone on the bus. Trust me. You should always have a bag of oranges on hand, the smaller the orange the better.
If oranges aren’t present where you are, substitute a similar peelable fruit. In China, this was longan or lychees, in the Philippines it was lanzones. You get the idea.
9. Cough drops are to cab drivers what oranges are to kids on buses.
I stock up on cough drops before I need to get a cab because cabbies love cough drops. I have no scientific backing for my theory, but I can attest to the fact that in every cab I’ve taken, the driver is thrilled to take one from me. After the initial grumpiness, a cough drop is offered, a smile follows and suddenly we’re singing Journey at the top of our voices and playing air guitar. My cough drop offerings have resulted not just in impromptu karaoke but also a detour tour of the Corniche (Casablanca, where cabs are fixed fair), food (Thailand, of course, where everyone wants to feed you) and attending a wedding (Myanmar and Bali). Even when you don’t receive anything as grandiose as a wedding invite, it lightens the mood considerably and often surprises the cab driver; you’ll be guaranteed interesting conversation if the cabbie speaks English, a great icebreaker to learn the story of his life. Cough drops: making your taxi experiences better, one cabbie at a time.
10. Opening your eyes and mind to connecting with others matters more than getting “off the beaten path.”
I devoted a whole post to this but I want to reiterate it here because I think it’s one of the most important lessons I learned. Remaining open to meeting new people and learning from them goes farther than you think. You can get off the beaten path and have little visceral connection to the land or the people because you’ve insulated yourself in your thoughts to fixating on being different. Conversely, you can remain in one of the busiest places in town and still forge relationships with others and walk away with incredible stories and experiences. This is not a black and white issue: for those who do keep their minds open, getting off the beaten path is usually meaningful and wonderful because they’re piling on additional experiences to an already-open spirit. However the bottom line remains: it isn’t enough to go somewhere secret or dangerous or exciting. It’s important also to look beyond that and focus on the beauty of what you can learn from others as you go.
11. People are more alike than you think.
My preferred way of connecting to people is via food but regardless of your passions or interests, travelling will also open your eyes to the fact that we are all more alike than we think. Yes, there are cultural differences and traditions that differ – vastly – but the basics of human emotions and the kindness in a smile are omnipresent, and a beautiful reminder of our shared humanity. Be it the Laotian woman on my bus to Vientiane who only wanted to talk about how men in Thailand thought they were better than men in Laos, to the soldiers in the Philippines who wanted to know how we in Canada survived without growing our own rice, to the family in Bolivia who asked why tourists didn’t swaddle their babies on their back, Bolivian-style. Threads of common human queries – love, food, parenting, and many more – resurface again and again. Ask questions, encourage people to ask them of you. In the end, these knots of human connection are what makes the world go round.
12. The times when you are sick are the loneliest.
While I said above that I’m almost never lonely, the times when I am sick are the times when I would do anything to click my heels and be at my parents’ place, in bed. I might be 32 but when I’m somewhere foreign and in a cloud of lethargy and illness, I still want my step-father’s famous chicken soup. It’s tough to be hurt and far away from everything that is familiar. But it has made me more able to handle things that go wrong, and technology has enabled me to stay in contact with people (and/or get the “HOLY CRAP help what is this on my arm?” diagnoses from my stepsister, who is a doctor) even when I’m down.
13. Technology helps you meet people and connect others as you go, and keeps parents happy.
When I was in the Kuwait Airport, I tweeted that I had the hiccups during my 7-hour layover, resulting in some strange looks from other passengers. I had seen one, perhaps two, tourists in the prior hours and I thus stood out already. A few minutes after the tweet, a guy from Oregon came up and said “Hi, are you legalnomads?” He had searched Twitter for the airport code to see whether other travellers were tweeting nearby, saw me hiccuping compulsively in the corner and came over to introduce himself. I spent the remaining hours of my layover drinking coffee with his family and talking about social media. (In later years, this same guy popped up once again)
Technology makes it easy to meet people ahead of time, get suggestions and generally forge a dialogue before crossing paths. I’ve gotten restaurant tips, weather warnings and more via Twitter, and made some great friends in the process. When I first arrived to Bangkok in 2010 after my time in Myanmar, there were tweetups galore on the heels of TEDxBKK. In just a few days, I had a wonderful group of newfound friends who could tell me where to eat and what they loved about the city. Of course, in the absence of technology, the tried and true “talking to someone else in your hostel at breakfast” works just as fine as it always did.
Technology also helps keep my family updated. I use a Google Voice number, Skype and email to keep them all in the loop. I’ll send photos of the smaller things, the tidbits of quotidien life they’re missing out on. “This soup was amazing!” or “here’s my new room!” They are mostly appreciative but sometimes less so – the time I sent a photo of the squat toilet in Mongolia was the first time my mother emailed to say “we want you to share, but please not the toilets.” SPOILSPORT.
14. The anxiety and nervousness of newness never goes away.
I want to stress this point because understandably people think that when you do something enough it becomes second nature, an instinctive machination. This might be true for general skills but for travel, I’ve found the rule does not apply. When I go somewhere new, I still get anxious. Before I left for Morocco this past fall, I was worrying about whether I would enjoy it, and whether I’d find it daunting. Having gotten very used to Asia, North Africa was as foreign to me as it would be to anyone else. It’s a fallacy that longer term travellers breeze through the world, comfortable anywhere. Part of what makes something like travel special is that it does push your comfort levels every time you step outside the familiar. In my case, even after 4 years, this hasn’t dissipated at all.
15. Packing does not get easier.
I wrote a piece on long term travel and the things it doesn’t fix. In it, I talked about how, 2.5 years into my travels, I still hated packing. It’s now 4 years into my travels. Guess what? I still hate packing.
16. Not planning too far ahead leaves you the flexibility to need to take the wonderful opportunities that come your way.
I get quite a few emails asking if I opted for a round-the-world ticket or whether I plan as I go. I’ve addressed this in the resources page but I want to reiterate it here because I think it’s important: don’t plan too far ahead. Over and above the undeniable fact that I thought I’d be back in North America by now (and not still travelling), so many of the places I loved beyond belief are the ones that weren’t even on my initial, vague itinerary. There’s nothing wrong with planning, or doing research, or even booking longer-haul flights if you have a set schedule to follow. But leave as much as you can to as-you-go travel. You’ll meet people who wax poetic about a specific destination and want to go there; you’ll decide you need – NEED! – to go to the Philippines with your brother because you’ve become fascinated by a small primate that you need to see in person; you will find yourself and your mind expanded by the sheer impossibility of everything being available to you, if only you could choose where to go first.
It is a scary thing, to leave it open to the whims of your brain as you travel, but a worthwhile one.
17. Portable chopsticks are your friend.
Two options, among many: with wood tips or without. These are great for camping, for eating on the go and for the times that you’re at a street stall and while the food is fresh and turnover great, the cutlery less so. A great fix is to carry your own portable utensils, clean and tiny enough to fit in your bag.
18. Never skimp on your underwear. You do not want them falling apart as you travel.
This is one of the more practical on this list, but really, people please – do not be skimping on the underwear. Let alone the trials of finding underwear that fits when sizing might differ from home (and/or materials might be less … comfortable), this is a basic you don’t want to regret – you’ll be wearing them every day, and they’d better be enjoyable. It’s worth spending a little more so that they don’t fall apart in a laundry machine 3 months down the road.
19. Cockroaches are, in fact, as universal as you feared.
I don’t mind them very much – as I said in my WDS speech, my friend Shannon was on spider-killing duty, whereas I had the cockroaches all to my own. But they’re not endearing either, and they are everywhere. You get used to the scuttling, scurrying, clickety sounds of cockroaches roaming around because you have no real choice. The good news is that they rarely, if ever, bite.*
*Ok, sometimes in the Philippines they bite but you can just pretend I didn’t say anything…
20. It doesn’t feel like work when you are doing what you love.
There is so much talk about finding your passion and doing what you love in life. It’s a tough discussion to have, in part because for many parents and grandparents, it seems an incredibly narcissistic thing to do. For prior generations, doing what made you ‘happy’ wasn’t as mainstream of an option because you were too busy doing what you had to do in life, and supporting families or communities. Those obligations still exist, but within the framework of how we live now, the ability to shift toward happiness has become a more accepted path. I’ve been fortunate enough to have quit my job to travel thinking I’d be returning to the practice of law, only to find that I loved the travel more than I thought possible. And so I’ve tried to build a business and a brand around doing what I love. My worst case scenario? Going back to being a lawyer. As ‘worst cases’ go, it’s not the end of the world.
Despite spending more time at a computer than I anticipated, it doesn’t feel like work the way that lawyering felt like work. It’s great to build something where the foundation remains what you love to do.
21. Reverse culture shock doesn’t hit you less, you just get used to the feeling.
In my last post, I noted that the first time I went back to North America during these travels, I really felt the weight of the changes in me and the correlative disassociation with the place I used to call home. On later visits, I was able to see the reverse culture shock from a more objective place, knowing I would feel this way but being able to digest it more easily. However the underlying feeling – the shock to your system – doesn’t go away. It’s been comforting for me to know that other travellers feel this way too.
* * *
I know April 1 is April Fool’s Day for man, but for me the day has become a time for me to reflect on my travels. Though my family initially thought it might be a joke when I said I was leaving 1 April, they quickly realized I was actually just doing what I said I would do all along: see as much of the the world as I could by living it. While my initial inspiration was a PBS documentary on the Trans-Siberian trains, what followed was a mixture of learning, fascinating connections with far-flung places (and the people in them) and of course, food.
Four years! Hard to believe.
A last update: several people have written asking about what camera I am using. I upgraded my point & shoot in fall 2011 to an Olympus E-P3 Micro 4/3ds camera, which is not as big as a DSLR, but does have interchangeable lenses. I’m really happy with it, and it’s been small enough to remain unobtrusive but give me the depth of field and manual settings I’ve been craving. Many of the photos (e.g. the curry above) were taken with a 20mm, f/1.7 Panasonic lens, some with the kit lens, a 14-42mm. I’ve found myself using the 20mm about 90% of the time.