At 29, I decided to finally take my first big solo trip. I sold my car and all my possessions, left my apartment of 7 years, family and friends and an amazing boyfriend to travel without any plans around Europe. Before I left, I spent hours seeking advice from people who had undertaken similar trips, or even taken the plunge and moved overseas. Almost all of their responses were positive and encouraging, and none of them prepared me for my first crisis: barely able to move and nowhere to stay for five days after an overnight 15hr bus ride from Paris to Barcelona. As the inevitable panic set in, I couldn't believe people had failed to warn me about this shit! Nothing was working out the way I had expected, every thing was more expensive than I budgeted, I was fucking sad and lonely. Was this normal? Or was I just having the trip from hell?
Of course once I recovered and contacted those same friends, I discovered that this was as normal as could be - everyone had travel horror stories. So my question was, why didn't anyone talk about it? Why does everyone feel compelled to sell traveling as this soulful, spiritually enlightening experience when they reality is mostly stressful and expensive? So here are the seven big things you need to know before traveling...
... about your health
I just recently saw an article that said “How traveling makes you happier, skinnier and fitter!”, and I wanted to punch the screen: bullshit! What with all the new food that you are eating, airplane circulated air, emotional stress of not knowing or having a definitive plan or support from friends, and the time zone lack of sleep, you're likely to stress your body to the point of developing some kind of illness, one which may linger for longer than it would if you were at home. Depending on where you go, you will probably get the shits or the opposite... traveling isn't great for your colon. If you're a long-term traveler or backpacker like me, you most likely don't have the luxury of spending money on good food, or have an area to prepare your own, so prepare your skin to take a beating from all the gluten, dairy, sugar and alcohol (it's a hot look for summer on the Mediterranean). I seriously started having dreams about green smoothies and salads, and what I wouldn't have given for a fresh juice and some real breakfast that wasn't a biscuit and coffee. I personally went from having a cider once a month to drinking everyday with my meals and on one particular night in Bologna, vomiting in between two mopeds. Be careful of free pour drinks and substances that may not necessarily be the same strength that they were in your country. Oh, one really practical tip: before you go anywhere, know the emergency numbers for each country, and pack a car first aid kit. You never know when it will come in handy...
...about privacy and intimacy
You will have neither. And it sucks. At home most of us sleep naked or in underwear, you may even languish in your apartment nude, or at the very least a midnight toilet run down the hall without clothes. There's also some "grooming techniques" (ladies) that may require awkward poses and personal space. You will have none, if you are not in a hostel, you will probably be in someone's house which means that's their room, not yours, you forget what you look like naked, until you catch yourself in a car window headed to the beach and think wtf happened?!! At times like this, you will desperately want a hug. You'll meet so many new people while traveling, but don't expect the same level of affection you would get from your peeps or partner at home. Coming out of a long distance relationship, I thought no sex was hard, but I really just wanted affection. Now I understand why babies die without touch. I wanted to scream SOMEBODY TOUCH ME ... but I felt that might be inappropriate.
... about money
This is a big one. I left Australia with $8,000, only to end up in Europe with a little over 4,000 Euro... ALMOST HALF!!!! And no one reminded me about all the little expenses. I had planned on doing, Woofing & Workaway, using ashrams, Help-Ex and sustainable communities, so I thought my money will be really only spent on travel, that's it. What I didn't realize was that traveling (the actual act not the metaphorical one) is bloody expensive: you rarely have to take one train, you have to take two or three and a bus to get to where you are staying. You find out quickly that planes are cheaper than trains, but you still have to take a train and bus to get to the airport. Movement is expensive, staying still is expensive, I tried walking everywhere, but when you have a years worth of clothes, ranging from -14 degrees to 40 degrees, you literally can't. The second thing is, as a girl, it's way, way, way more expensive! Razors, shampoo and conditioner, tampons or pads, tissues, soap, deodorant, toothpaste and if you have the room, some “special” products like make-up or perfume, all cost money.
... about language
Even if you learn the language, or are in the middle of learning, when people of native tongue around you start talking to each other, it will most likely be too fast, full of in-jokes and slang. You try and try to keep up and put in your two cents but at some point it just gets too hard to keep up and you just zone out. This can be very isolating. Your phone becomes your best friend, you finally get your monies worth on Netflix and all those lonely nature walks become mundane, life can start to lose it's sparkle. Connection, being seen and heard and understood is vital to life and travelling can be very very isolating, I've spent days in a row without leaving my house, it's completely normal, it sucks. Not to mention humour. They don't speak your language, you can't be sarcastic, or ironic, use puns or cultural references, even really really really famous people are sometimes completely unknown. You won't belly laugh until you cry, you won't wet yourself with joy and you won't banter and riff with someone in a really intellectually stimulating way, until you get home. Or, if you are fortunate enough to run into someone who speaks your language randomly, at which point you become the most ironic, dry, sarcastic, sassy son of a bitch out there. 6 months worth of puns and references spewing forth until, they walk away because you sound like a crazy person.
Don't let anybody tell you everything will be the same at home. They are lying. Everybody relates differently and has different coping mechanisms to distance. You will lose contact and connection with some friends (particularly non-technology friendly ones) others step up and you have a deeper connection that you ever thought possible at home. Some people just can't do connection via technology, they need the physical in front of them, you might not understand it, but you will have to accept it, to try and force that same connection will only push you further apart. You have to let it go, people move on, it sucks, because whilst you are changing in many ways on your travels, you're not progressing along with your home environment, so for you, home feels exactly like how you left it... it's not... which leads me to homesickness. I had never understood homesickness, I thought it was feeling sad because you missed something. But when I was traveling, I realised it's more a feeling of a loss of sense of self, who are you on this side of the world without your support network and all your familiarities, trying desperately to explain yourself and be understood (in a foreign language), you can start to question everything you know about yourself to be true, which can lead to a feeling of loss of purpose in who you are and what you want, again leading you to the age old “WTF am I doing here?! I miss home”... what you mean is, you miss who you were at home. A friend summed it up perfectly when I asked what the worst thing about traveling was for him “Loneliness and missing family and friends. Combined with a realization that I was forever more disjointed from them because there was no way they could ever understand the experience I was going through. A terrifying disassociation from societal norms if you will.”
This one, nearly broke me. I had this amazing trip planned out, where I was going to visit over 20 different countries in one year, to visit international intentional communities off the tourist track, and learn from the real people who lived there and bring that knowledge home for my tribe, expand my mind, have zero plans, flow with whatever I was given, expand and have the time of my life. But nothing worked out the way I wanted from the second I arrived. In my bid to not have plans, I hadn't researched enough, and it turns out most of Europe shuts down in winter: I couldn't even get people to respond to an email, let alone have me stay with them. Having spent half of my money meant to last a year in just 3 weeks I had to make a drastic decision: have a very expensive 6 week trip and go home (how disappointing and embarrassing); OR drop all my expectations that I was trying to force into reality shift my focus. I chose the second option. I decided to stay and spend the rest of the year in Italy, work the summer here and then travel more afterwards with more money. Instead of seeing all the places I wanted to see, I've been immersed in one new place, and what I've discovered is that it's pretty much the same as my life back home. People in small Italian beach towns go to work, complain there's nothing to do, shop at the supermarket, fight with their families, gossip (sometimes about the new foreigner in town with bizarre accusations), and get drunk on Friday and Saturday nights in the same place. Some days everything is EXACTLY the same, and you wonder, why am I here? I can see now that we are all one earth and one people, no matter where we live, so why am I traveling again?
I'll let you know if I figure it out...
Lauren is a world traveller and optimist from Sydney. Studying sexology she explores cultures past and present to help facilitate the best way for humans to connect.