by Phoebe Blyth
1) When you travel you have to rely on others – you can’t assume every stranger you meet means to rip you off.
My experiences traveling have taught me that while you may, on occasion, find yourself in unkind circumstances; it is rare to encounter unkind people. One of the great joys of any journey is that you are constantly surrounded by new people - new strangers - and part of the process of navigating through a new city is learning how to interact with these new people. Often you will not speak the same language, or share the same cultural understanding, but at some point you will have to trust in their kindness in order to get by. This means developing some pretty bulletproof skills in assessing people’s motives, and allowing yourself to go with your gut instinct.
My brother and I were on a bus from Nicaragua, where we had experienced a series of unfortunate and unpleasant events (the kind that usually befalls naïve first-time backpackers in the capital cities of developing countries), back to the touristic familiarity of Costa Rica, when a border delay caused us to miss our connecting bus. We found ourselves arriving in San Jose (which, while not as dodgy a city as Managua, certainly has its moments) at 1 am in the morning, with nowhere to sleep, and no way to travel until the morning buses left at 9am. We were debating the relative merits of sleeping in the bus terminal versus potentially getting mugged trying to hail a taxi, when a woman sitting in front of us interjected, and said that we were welcome to come and stay with her. Her son was picking her up from the bus station, and she had a spare room we could use for the night. My brother was skeptical, but I had immediately picked up a good “vibe” from this friendly stranger, and said yes. She and her son took us back to their house, she cooked us dinner, and showed us to our room, complete with fresh linen and hot water in the shower (an unaccountable luxury after three weeks of bunk beds and cold water), and in the morning, her son drove us back to the bus station, our bags filled with snacks and drinks that she had insisted we take. Many a time when I’ve found myself in a tight spot, my instincts about people – good or bad – have seen me through.
2) When you travel, you surrender control – this is a form of freedom
You are relying on unfamiliar currencies, languages, and transport systems, and there is going to be plenty of confusion getting from place to place. Dealing with the frustration that comes with seeing your meticulously planned travel route fall to pieces, because of some inexplicable local road works, language barrier, or stomach bug, is a very real growing experience. I’m one of those people who love to make plans, but time and time again I have had to watch those plans crumble because of some innocuous clerical error, outside of my control. While I have admittedly inflicted the odd melt down on whomever was unlucky enough to be traveling with me at the time, I have learned over the years that nothing can be gained from losing one’s shit when things go awry. You must simply take a deep breath and let go of whatever it is you thought you would do, and be open to what comes instead.
For instance, when my ragamuffin beloved and I were just starting out on the rocky road that is international romance, we decided to get on a plane to Greece and camp for a week. He had found a campsite that was apparently great for backpackers, right on pristine Mediterranean beach, and we excitedly boarded the bus that would take us there from Thessaloniki, without bothering to check how long the trip was. About an hour in, we realized we had a four-hour drive ahead of us. When the bus reached the last stop and we were told to disembark, we still had not reached our destination. Perplexed, indignant and trying to stay calm, we made enquiries, and discovered that we would have to take a taxi to get to the camping ground, but were told that it could be closed, and anyway, there were no more taxis today. We were in a tiny little fishing village turned tourist spot, with a long stretch of umbrella-spotted beach, and not a single person under forty. We decided to make our way back north and see what we could find. We stopped at a small camping ground dotted with pine trees, on a small peninsula that jutted out into the sea. We strung up our hammock and enjoyed three days of complete isolation (there were only three other groups in the entire campsite, all keeping to themselves).
3) When you travel you may have to be bored
Getting around takes time – long bus trips, flights, train rides – and when you get there – the idyllic beach, the countryside, the new city – you may find yourself with a long stretch of empty time stretching before you. And sometimes you just don’t feel like reading another book, or writing in your journal for the third time that day… and there’s no one in your vicinity good looking enough to engage in a game of cards (travel tip number 19: always carry a deck of cards). You have to come to terms with the idea of spending time with yourself, no distractions…and that can be daunting! As a somewhat hyperactive person, I used to fine this part of travel particularly harrowing. I was prone to lapsing into melancholic states of reverie, where I would bemoan the aimlessness of my travels, and berate myself for failing to do something productive and useful. After many, many, many hours of my own company, or the silent company of others, I have made my peace with being in a temporary state of inaction and inactivity. There is something very soothing about allowing yourself to get lost in your own thoughts; gazing out of a window with unfocused eyes; or simply dozing. Yes, it’s true, you could spend these hours being productive… but you could just as easily waste them watching TV or skimming through Facebook in your same old room at home. At least when you are traveling, you are always on your way to something new!
4) When you travel, you make mistakes, and yet you survive
It could be something as small as eating a dodgy piece of street food; or something as monumental as leaving your passport in the hostel and not realizing until you are already on the bus out of town (remember that campsite in Greece? We were this close to getting on the bus back to Thessaloniki without our passports, saved only by the very kind and selfless campground manager, who had been keeping them in his safe, and rushed to intercept us at the bus stop): when you are traveling you will have to deal with the consequences of screwing up. Just like when some ungodly force outside of your control decided to cock up your perfectly planned itinerary, you will find yourself to be the master of your own destruction on many occasions. However, this forces you to be resourceful, for you will have to carry on without whatever it is you have lost/broken/forgotten to pack. Always be as prepared as you can by emailing backups of important documents to yourself; having a good sum of cash as a backup; and keeping a checklist that you can use when you move from one place to another. That said, you might still forget to set your alarm, and miss your 5 am flight from Barcelona to Rome after spending two days cavorting around the city… for example. When this happened, there were a lot of short, sharp words, and even a valiant attempt to call a cab (communicating in very sleepy, broken Spanish), but the efforts were all for naught. A new flight was booked, and we enjoyed the luxury of 24 more precious hours together. Good things can come out of small disasters: don’t beat yourself up about it.
The hardest things to deal with when you are traveling long term, and on a budget, are the times when you screw up and lose money as a result. When you have budgeted your next day, week, few months, down to the dollar, it is infuriating and frightening to lose money, especially when it was through some foolishness of your own. Hospital bills, pickpockets, mis-booked flights, broken equipment, poor planning: I know at travelers who have fallen victim to all these misfortunes, all through some small fault of their own.
I was leaving Thailand after an eight month, multi-continental adventure, eager to get home and see my friends and family, when the airport official told me I had overstayed my visa.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You have overstayed your visa by 13 days madam.”
“But that’s not possible – I’ve only been here for 20 days – the visa was for 30 days!”
“Not when you enter by land madam.”
I had flown into Thailand, but then taken a day trip to Cambodia, and upon re-entering the country, had failed to check if the visa was different to the one I’d been given at the airport. This oversight cost me $250, which at the time I was forced to beg from strangers, because my bank had put a hold on my visa card the previous day for “suspicious activity” (banks tend to do this a lot when you travel). For more information on the couple that shelled out $250 in cash to the hysterically crying girl lugging a smelly backpack through Phuket Airport, see lesson number 1.
While it is tempting to fall back on self-flagellation and hatred; most travelers will tell you that when you screw up, you just have to take a deep breath, hand over the money, and learn from the experience.