Today marks a full year since I sold everything and have been travelling. From Mexico down through to the southern end of Chile and now taking my time through South East Asia. For most of it, it’s been a trip of a lifetime, and still continuing. As clichéd as it sounds, it has been somewhat life changing – learning about other cultures, how I perceive others, myself as well as a new improved sense of patience and tolerance of others in general.
Here are eighteen lessons learned from travelling the past twelve months . They are in no particular order but I think that they’re all equally important.
1. Slow is better and less is more I felt pretty burnt out by the end of last year. Before I left I had a plan of getting from Mexico to the southern tip of Patagonia. How hard could it be right? I had everything planned by week and knew where I’d need to be by when. The problem with this approach was that I’d treat everything as a constant. I didn’t take into account that I may enjoy a place and also, some places just take longer to get to than others. Before I knew it, I was meeting new people who were recommending places to go and as a result I ended up spending over double the intended time in Mexico.
By the end of three months I found myself skipping cities and towns that I wanted to visit just to make up time. In the eight months in Latin America, I probably should have spent the entire time just in South America.
2. Stay in a place for a month or more, save money and make more friends. Coming off the first point, the faster you travel over greater distances, the more expensive it becomes. You’re constantly arriving in new cities, and doing things out of convenience: Catching cabs, eating a restaurants that look safe/expensive and you’ll catch cabs because you don’t know how to get wherever you need to go.
Staying in a place for a longer period of time allows you to establish a wider group of friends, meet more locals and develop a routine that enables you to learn language and the trust of people like what I did in Medellin, Colombia. You get to know how the public transportation system works, where the cheaper places are to eat equally important, where not to eat. The general experience was whatever time I planned to spend in a place, 90% of the time, I felt like it wasn’t enough and didn’t want to leave .
3. Learn the language I can remember the first time that I was able to communicate in Spanish with a taxi driver, asking him to drop my friends off to their hotel after I got out. After a couple of months of learning new vocabulary and verbs, I was finally able to string together a sentence without failing and I was feeling quite chuffed about it. Making an attempt to speak in the local language closes the cultural gap between yourself and those who you come into contact with.
You don’t need to be fluent but try to at least learn hello, goodbye, thank you, where, how, why, when and count 1 to 10 and then you can develop your language skills from there. There will be the odd person who won’t care where you’re from but most of the time, people genuinely care that you’re making an effort. Most important is to be able to have a laugh at your many failed attempts.
4. Different things make you happy than at home and there is no need to buy stuff Being removed from the daily grind of work made me realise that I was probably taking things way too seriously at work. I’d bust my balls every day just to get a presentation properly formatted, over analysed and negotiate the best deals. If everything went according to plan then I felt like was only then entitled to be happy. I had done this for long enough for it to become a defining part of what made me happy. As a result I’d buy things to tell myself that this is the reward the hard work. Now, by having everything I own fit into a backpack, it’s become second nature for me to not worry about buying anything else except for things that will serve specific purpose. My extravagant purchases now tend to be experiences that leave lasting memories.
5. People are nice everywhere Media outlets sensationalise and paint a dangerous world that we live in. Yes there are bad people and bad places everywhere you go but most of the time I felt safe and humbled by how nice everybody has been. People genuinely like to know more about you and at times at the start of the trip I had to talk myself out of thinking that there were other motives behind their friendly manner. Sometimes they may want to sell you something but that’s just the way life is for some.
6. Happiness starts with action If we let outside influences our decision then we will live partly somebody else’s dream. Travelling solo has made me realise that if I’m going to enjoy and make the most out of it then I will need to make the decisions myself. Yes it’s good to tag along and have some company but ultimately if you’re going to do get the most out of a trip then you need to have a goal and make an actionable plan on how to do it.
7. My liver says NO MORE. Health is more important The typical gringo trails are notoriously known for the drinking and partying. All evening happy hour and drinking challenges are the standard. The drinking stamina of some people astounded me everywhere I visited in Central America and after a while, I learnt that these things are best left to the 21 year olds. Falling sick when you have to pack and move on is also a major pain.
At any sign of being worn down was to throw back a handful of Vitamin C pills and get a good nights rest. Daily probiotic capsules also managed to keep my stomach in check and I haven’t had any major issues so far *touch wood*.
8. Eat the street food. I love street food. You get to chat to the owner, know more about them, see them cook the food and it’s the closest representation of the local cuisine. Here in Hanoi, then street food is incredibly fresh and cheap allowing me to graze all day pretty much. I’ve only been to a handful of restaurants only to be disappointed. Since then I’ve been sticking to a philosophy of “the lower you sit to the ground on a stool, the better tasting the food will be.
9. Try to say yes more. Travelling long term for me is about challenging my current perception. The simple act of saying yes is the gateway of discovering new things that I thought I would never enjoy. Saying yes, got me to tango (badly). hiking more and also trying my hand at camping. Overall, it has gotten me enjoying the outdoors more and being able to scuba diving in Central America and hiking and trekking in South America has made me a lot more conscious of the environmental issues that affect us as a planet.
10. You’re never alone but it’s ok to have your own space The first thing I tell people about solo travel is that meeting people can be challenging and intimidating at times but everybody has their own approach. Mine is through using food as a way in. The way good hostels are set up are so that it’s easier to meet people. Large common rooms, happy hours and tours are all designed so that you walk away having made a handful of friends or acquaintances. On the other hand though, it’s ok to feel like you don’t need to meet people constantly.
Earlier on I learnt that I’m naturally an introvert and sometimes when conversations become the same over time it feels forced and I get bored easily. I used to notice the lone person in a corner reading his book and think what’s wrong with him, but I find myself becoming more and more like that guy and realising there’s nothing wrong. He’s just comfortable with who he is and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.
11. Travel goals make it worthwhile. For me, I quickly found out that I was half decent at photography and waned to make it a focus of my trip. I met others who just want to party or get their divemaster qualifications or climb the highest peaks in each country. Setting goals makes the early morning starts, freezing your arse off or travelling on a bus for 30 hours worth it. My goal for this year is to focus on being a better writer as well as taking better photos that can be used commercially.
13. Technology is great but can be counter productive. Technology can aid in removing the boredom out of travel or closing the geographical distance between yourself and home. I’ve used it to learn everything I know about photography through Youtube clips and online tutorials but at times I’ve found myself getting into a groove and spending way too much time learning more or re-touching the one photo to get it right.
I’ve seen digital nomads working ridiculous hours whilst on a beach just to get a job done whilst neglecting what an awesome place they are currently in. The most productive time for me is early in the morning so I try to get most things out of the way then and spend the rest of the morning and late afternoons being outside.
14. Do some volunteering If you really want to get to know the place, the people and really dive in and understand the issues that affect a place then a good way is to volunteer. I always wanted to volunteer in South America but with the time constraints and the constant travelling, it would prove impossible. So when it came to SE Asia, I knew that I had to make loose plans and that I would have to volunteer somewhere.
I’ve just finished three weeks volunteering in Sapa for Sapa O’Chau who are a social enterprise, organising treks as well as fund a school so that children can improve their literacy skills to find work and further education and training. Most people teach english but my skills were best put to use in developing content for the new website. After three weeks of living and eating meals with the students, you develop a close bond with them, the staff and the locals who you meet regularly. If you’re interested in volunteering then check out Grassroots Volunteering which is the site I used to find my Sapa O’Chau placement.
15. We are all travellers. Up until recently I use to be “that guy” and think that everybody HAD to have a stint at backpacking, doing it cheap staying in hostels. Like as if they had to pay their dues or something like that so they be qualified as a “traveller”. I don’t know what I was thinking and I must have been on the crazy pills to tell you the truth.
I don’t know at what point that I changed my mind but, everybody is a traveller whether you prefer solo, tours, hotels, camping or hitchhiking. We’re all in search of that something that will inspired us to be more curious to learn more about the world. How we go about getting it done shouldn’t matter in the end don’t you agree?
16. You’re never too young or old to travel. All you need is a sense of adventure. I was surprised at how many older people in their 50’s and 60’s were traveling. In Patagonia, I met a couple in their 60’s hiking the nine day “Circuit”. Here I was complaining about an injured knee on the four day trek but seeing so many older people trekking like pros gave me the motivation to keep walking.
17. Don’t be a tight arse in public. Being prudent with money is something that we all need to become good at when travelling long term. Finding the cheapest bus tickets, where has cheap food and to take advantage of the cheapest flights that come up is what we do to keep costs down. However sometimes things just shouldn’t be worried about especially in public. We’re taught to haggle over everything especially in the developing countries. Yes you don’t pay full rate but why spend so much time trying to squeeze every cent out from that poor stall owner over the difference of less than a dollar. If you really want it, just pay for it. $1 is not a lot for most of us in the scheme of things.
18. Have a break and do something you’re familiar with. I thought that I’d be the ultimate traveller and power through 13 countries in eight months and then keep on going. By the end it felt like a full time job with the constant travelling, packing (70 times), finding the best route to get from A to B to C, finding the right bus company, how to get to the hostel and what to do. It can become tiresome after a while and I needed some familiar time where I could chill out and see some familiar faces. That’s why I came home for six weeks, worked nine to five for three of them, ate lots of Asian food just to have the break from the travelling.