Lessons learned from traveling the world
I thought that living abroad for the majority of the past six years and traveling widely around Europe and Asia during that time would have prepared me, at least a little, for a year-long trip around the world. After 50 days, I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned a thing or two about long-term travel. Having a “home” in a foreign country or taking two-week trips here and there simply don’t prepare you for the madness that can sometimes be your round-the-world journey.
Choose your backpack (or travel bag) wisely. To say my relationship with my Osprey Farpoint 55 is contentious is an understatement. I foolishly thought that because I was backpacking around the world, I needed to buy a “backpacker’s” backpack with a matching daypack.
I was wrong. Forget all of the blog posts you read about what kind of backpacks work best for the professional travel bloggers you’ve been following for the past year. I would give anything for my trusty leather shoulder bag and my grade-school style Jansport backpack I used to travel with. Go with what is comfortable for you. The only rule you need to keep in mind is that you and your bags must be able to fit on the back of a motorcycle when you need to hitch a last-minute ride.
Choose your travel partner wisely. (That is, if you intend to have a partner.) I knew I picked a winner when he humored me — and my food poisoning issues — throughout our trek in Sapa, Vietnam. Before the two-day trek, he assured me that I would not poop my pants. This was followed by, “You can at least make it to a rice paddy!” Luckily, neither happened, but being able to joke about either possibility makes for one stellar partner.
Don’t leave your first aid kit behind while you’re trekking days away from modern medicine. I knew I put some meds in my daypack, but assumed some of it was Imodium. Wrong. It was all Claritin, and I was in trouble. Which leads me to …
Don’t be afraid of the Vietnamese pharmacy. Furthermore, don’t be afraid of holding your trekking group up as you duck inside to explain to the pharmacist what’s wrong. They will sell you the drugs you need, let you read the English label before you go, and you will get better.
Maybe it’s not such a good idea to buy and wear barefoot shoes for the first time when going on a 15-kilometer trek. I thought: “Oh, these will be perfect water shoes!” while failing to see the big barefoot shoe label upon purchase. Oh, for the love of calf muscles! I have never appreciated Tiger Balm more.
Don’t pick the mattress closest to the stairs or hostel bed closest to the door. The one in the back, the furthest one away from the stairs, door and general foot traffic is bound to be quieter and less used, therefore less smelly.
Don’t buy it unless it’s exactly what you want, and you know exactly how you’re going to get it home. I’m a souvenir junkie. I once carried a 15-pound bronze Buddha statue around China for two weeks because I simply couldn’t leave the country without it. When my mother brings this up and rolls her eyes at my admitted problem, I staunchly say having sore shoulders for two weeks was totally worth it. Buying something that is close, but not exactly what you want is not worth it.
This trip around, I couldn’t leave a parade-style dancing dragon in Vietnam. Unfortunately, I was forced to carry my newly purchased giant dragon costume from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh because it wouldn’t fit in the largest Vietnamese surface-mail box. Obviously, buying smaller, lighter items is to your advantage. After two months, I have noted, but haven’t exactly learned this lesson.
Don’t expect things to move as fast as you would like when you show up to volunteer at a legitimate organization. No expensive enrollment fee? A friend recommended it to you? That doesn’t mean they are 100 percent organized or even prepared for you to be there. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and help build a new school, or cultivate a vegetable garden, or drop some serious knowledge on some English students. But even as reputable as the organization was, things moved at a much slower pace than I expected. In addition, volunteering for one week simply was not enough time.
The list goes on.
I should have set up a different bank account that didn’t charge an exorbitant fee every time I took money out of my account. I have no need for the doorstop that travel inventories told me to bring. My two cotton scarves that morph into blankets and towels (even a cover-up at the public shower) when needed might be the most versatile things in my backpack. Haggling in a market is much more fun when you realize it’s just like playing a round of Texas Hold ’em. Patience is a virtue until you find yourself on a local bus that stops every few meters, making the trip three hours long instead of the 30 minutes you had calculated. You quickly learn that patience is much, much more than a silly virtue when you’re traveling around the world. It’s a way of life.
If you become a bit tired of this way of life, which happens, even though you know it’s all worth it, break down and order something continental instead of local. Skype your mom, followed by your best friend. Sleep in late at your $5 guesthouse, don’t do anything Lonely Planet recommended, and download an episode of the “The Walking Dead” to get you through. See you at the airport.
About the writer: Follow Elizabeth as she goes around the world at www.thiskentuckygirl.com, on Twitter, elizadele, or Instagram, thiskentuckygirl — Ed.