And it was one. Grand. F*ckin. Adventure.
These past months, some readers have emailed to ask about getting out and about. Let’s start with the umbrella question of the lot. How can you make the most out of your trip?
Go not because you want to travel, but because you need to travel.
Everything is in the mindset of the beholder. This is what we learn in creative writing: two people look at one apple and see two different things. A recently divorced man might see “a lonely red fruit at the corner of the stovetop.” A recently married one might say “a sweet, plump reminder that this kitchen is our home.”
Existence is objective—it’s bland, tasteless. Our mindset is what flavors the information that comes in through our senses, whether it’s sight/smell/taste/sound/feeling or the human experience. And the mindset you need to have when you travel is Need.
This is particularly important for my readers in the 18-25 age range. Academics is far from enough. The problem with university education is that it produces intellectuals. The problem with intellectuals, in turn, is that they are under the impression that they know a lot. It is easy to slip into this mindset when you’ve ingested 25384 syllabi and the 293048029 accompanying textbooks, exams, homeworks, and lectures.
We know nothing. In fact, as university students, we especially know nothing. For most of us, college is a bubble. We all pay money to read, write, and learn—that makes a certain type of community. We all live in America (or China, New Zealand, or Canada; hello my lovely international readers!). That’s one localized culture.
In order to be educated, we MUST leave the bubble. This sentence has two meanings:
- [More obvious] In a post-education sense: even after we’ve chugged through our studies, we need to supplement our bookly knowledge with worldly experience. It’s a matter of using real life to build on top of what we’ve already learned in the classroom. While traveling, sometimes you’ll encounter people and places that make you think, “Oh, this makes sense, based on what Professor So-and-So said in economics/ biology/ anthropology/ history of cowboys/ psychology of pornography/ science of hard drugs!” Other times, you’ll bump into someone or someplace that totally defies a chapter of some textbook. In these ways, academics and travel are not only mutually beneficial, but inextricably intertwined. We can’t even begin to be smart until we have a mix of both—not one or the other.
- [Less obvious] In pre/mid-education sense: traveling the world is the most surefire way to make the most out of our educations. Travel maximizes the payoff for both time (in the classroom) and money (spent on tuition). This is why gap years and semesters are worthwhile. The more I travel, the more I want to study. The more people I meet and places I go, the more excited I am to go to lectures and pick up more information about the world we all belong to—and passion drives everything. Because I’m legitimately excited about my classes, I can stay awake during class, dodge procrastination, remember more, and enjoy my homework, which consequently makes for higher grades and stronger relationships with my professors. It’s like magic. Also, please do not unsubscribe from my blog because it now includes the phrase “enjoy my homework.” Please do not unsubscribe from being my friend. In my defense, I have to physically leave school and scoop alpaca poo for three months in order to “enjoy my homework.”
Traveling. Is. Integral. To education. Whether you want to save or supplement your academics, take a break and GO.
So as young people, we really should regard travel as a need, not a want.
The Want mindset (in opposition to the Need mindset) is unfavourable. Maybe even harmful. My main point of advice is always, “Don’t be a tourist! (!!!) (!!!!!)”
How to NOT be a tourist:
- Try to have a local to meet up with. That’s the most natural way to find genuine friendships and hang out with people who are part of the community.
- Find a host family! WWOOF, Workaway, HelpX, or study abroad are your VERY BEST options. EXTREME recommend.
- Ask around. Most likely a friend will know a friend who’ll know a friend who lives or studies in that country. I was pleasantly surprised to find my friend/family network extends from Cairo to Beijing, Paris to Berlin.
A tourist is someone who wants to travel; a tourist books fancy hotels and expensive guides; a tourist skates the surface of cultures via museums and tours before flying right back out with an armful of souvenirs; a tourist doesn’t speak a word of the language. It is unfavourable because, as a tourist who travels for fun (as opposed to learning and experience), you won’t make the most out of your trip. It is harmful because you risk otherizing locals. On the flip side, you risk getting otherized by locals, and thus lose potential friends.
If this sounds harsh, it’s because this post is geared towards a specific type of traveling: backpacking, hiking, studying abroad, the likes. Vacations (and honeymoons) are a different playing field. If you’re on vacation, tourist away! No judgment. Unless you are a culturally insensitive, culturally appropriative asshole, in which case, judgment. Hard judgment.
It is likely that the more touristy you are, the more relaxing your vacation will be. That’s why I, personally, opt for stay-cations instead of vacate-tions—I lose more energy (and years off my life) going abroad than I do at school and work. The type of travel I do and advocate for is exhausting. I suppose this precautionary notice should have gone in the prepart of this post: if you are looking to travel for an actual vacation, you are reading the wrong! post! in the! wrong! blog!
The type of travel I’m talking about is stressful. Mentally, because you’ll get knuckled around by culture shock, whether you notice it or not. (I usually don’t notice but do feel the effects.) You’ll worry about foreign illnesses from mosquito bites that, inexplicably, swell to the size of golf balls overnight. (It went away after a week.) You’ll worry about your safety. (I once duct-taped my pepper spray to my thigh.) You’ll worry about your budget. (I’m always hungry but never willing to pay for food.) You’ll worry about accommodation and getting lost. (HERE WeGo is the godsend of offline maps. But it doesn’t work in China. So in China I am screwed.) You’ll get FOMO when all your friends get older and closer without you, and you’ll get lonely when it’s 11pm and you want to talk to someone but everyone’s asleep on the other side of the world.
Physically, you’ll be squirming in discomfort over 12-hour bus rides. You’ll get constipated or diarrhea’d if you’re lucky, and food poisoning if you’re not. You’ll get sick. You’ll feel hungry; you’ll lose sleep. And then you’ll worry again. If you’re like me, you’ll worry really hard, because you’ll have neglected to purchase travel insurance, so you’ll refuse to go to the doctor even when you’re convinced that you have Japanese encephalitis. Which you don’t.
A perfect transition to my next point: travel anxiety.
We’ve already discussed the primary benefit of travel, which is the educational payoff of the Need mindset. The secondary benefit is, naturally, the expansion of the comfort zone.
As human beings, our ability to adapt is extraordinary. We often think we can’t do something—no f*cking way—but once placed in the scenario, we discover with shock that we actually can. For instance, you may think you could never go bungee jumping. But I guarantee you that, if you were suddenly teleported to the rail of a bridge in the very moment some rugged-looking yuppie tightens your harness and shoves you over the edge, you’ll open your eyes a minute later and realize that you are still alive, breathing, seeing, feeling. That you still exist.
You may think you could never survive a famine. A famine comes, and suddenly, you’ll find yourself adapting. Surviving. (Maybe not all the way through, depending on how severe the famine is.)
Prior to 2018, I was an intensely anxious person. Even throughout my stay in Senegal, I struggled with abnormal levels of anxiety. I once woke up at 3am and had a panic attack until 3:30, incited by a tiny grumble in my stomach I was certain had to be a fatal attack of food poisoning. [NARRATOR: It was not, in fact, a fatal attack of food poisoning.] I was concerned about every minute aspect of my health, safety, and general wellbeing. Even by the time I started planning my trip to Australia around July, I felt nervous. I’d be getting picked up and taken home by total strangers I had never met before. Most had no online presence. And it’d all be happening in a foreign country.
In October, only days before I left for the Outback, my last farmstay cancelled on me, leaving me homeless for the month of December. That was the final straw. I became extremely anxious, then abruptly, not at all.
Here’s what I realized: all we have to do when we travel is continue existing. First of all, the sole fact that I’m in a foreign country is enough to guarantee my time will be worthwhile. And secondly, “keep existing” is far from impossible.
How do I know this? In China, I developed and carried out an independent research project on Chinese-American race, culture, and identity. I spent most of my time interviewing my grandparents about their lives. They survived the Japanese invasion of World War II, the Nationalist/Communist skirmishes, the Communist takeover, the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and more. The anecdotes they related were unthinkable. More incredible was the fact that the people who kept existing through these times of extremity were there, one foot away, tapping their slippered feet and thumbing their wrinkled foreheads. They are still here. They existed, and they exist.
When I feel the old anxiety creeping in, I think to myself, 外婆 lived on someone else’s floor and ate mainly bear oil for six weeks before walking 25 kilometers home during her first pregnancy . . . and both she and her baby survived. When I get nervous over an allergic reaction or odd illness, I think, 奶奶 raised four kids in the filth of poverty, with an abusive husband and two part-time jobs . . . and everyone survived.
Just talk to your grandparents. Or even read a history book. Humans are capable of so much, and the only reason we don’t realize the full extent of our abilities is that we are lucky enough that we don’t have to. Eating-wise, shelter-wise, etcetera-wise. So, when traveling, do keep your guard up, but also rest assured that you only need to meet one very low baseline requirement by the end of the trip: keep existing.
As you continuously adapt to fill new situations, your comfort zone fills out as well. It makes everything about life easier, brighter, and more precious when you get home.
Actually, not only your comfort zone, but also your empathy, versatility, maturity, and ability to learn. Your kindness. Your wit. Your humor, your passion. Gaining adaptability through travel enhances all the positive traits in an individual’s repertoire.
All this is the mindset you should be in, starting from the moment you click Submit Payment and book a ticket.
What’s it like to backpack alone?
- The independence is exhilarating.
- Loneliness will sneak up and it will hurt.
- That’s natural. It’ll pass.
- And come back.
- And pass again.
- If you’re a girl, it can be harrowing. Fall in with people you meet and trust, if you can. If a man makes icky eye contact, walk away. Know the emergency number in that country. Move with a purpose, like you know where you’re going. Try to get some self-defense classes in. I took krav maga for a year. If you’re just about to leave, though, don’t worry about that; buy some pepper spray on Amazon. Always trust your instincts. Better safe than sorry. If your gut is nervous, leave.
How do you meet people while traveling?
- Hostels. In shared rooms, at breakfast, in the lounge. Fleeting conversations are practically guaranteed. Often, these fleeting conversations turn into “let’s hang out for the day,” and you’ll have a buddy. Sometimes, the day becomes a week. Hostel-goers are generally very lax and open to new friends.
- Bars/pubs. Less common, but you might bump into Americans and end up making plans.
- WWOOFing. Sure, you’ll stay with host families. Sometimes the couples have kids, and those kids will have friends, and everyone turns out to be superf*ckingcool. Plus, you’ll often be working with other WWOOFers: people of all nationalities in their twenties who care about other people, traveling, and the world (usually). These relationships last. I mean, try polishing eggs with somebody for four hours every morning and not ending up with a friend. Or enemy. Heh.
- Travelers are go-with-the-flow. I’ve flitted in and out of ever-fluctuating mini groups; I’m still in touch with most everyone. Many of my close international friends are also random locals I happened to strike a bond with through a strong initial conversation. Hi Salimata. 🙂
What’s a good balance between planning and spontaneity?
- Depends on your connection with where you’re going. Do some research beforehand. If there’s a ton you want to see, plan. If not, pick one or two places to see and leave the rest to fate. Trust me: smile, be flexible, and fate will treat you well.
Is going in the off-season worth it?
Which workstay should I choose?
- WWOOF is nice if you’re exclusively seeking organic farming opportunities. The only downside is that you have to pay for a new subscription for each country. So WWOOF is good for farming within a single country. Workaway/HelpX, on the other hand, covers all countries in one subscription. It also includes far more varieties of work, like babysitting (though that’ll happen sometimes with WWOOF too) or vineyard labor or hostel reception.
How can I minimize expenses?
- University resources: if you peek back at the table in the beginning of this post, peek especially at the little red asterisks. Those opportunities, I didn’t pay a dime—they were 100% funded by the university. Find someone to contact about grants, fellowships, and academic funding. If you can’t find someone, ask Google. Remember, though, that there’s no such thing as free money. Generally, university funding must be university related. Every time I go someplace, I form a list of objectives: things I want to learn and questions I want to answer. Extend that a bit further, write a proposal, and it becomes a research project. Translate your curiosity onto the page, and with some serious hard-ass work, you can translate that page into funding.
- SIM cards: do research online on cheap cell providers before you arrive. Budget your data beforehand. You can go without Internet for a few months; figure out how much you need to check emails and contact family once in a while, plus an emergency Google or two, and cut it at that. I find that a gig per month is more than enough for me.
- Workstays: I keep mentioning WWOOF, Workaway, and HelpX because they’re absolutely stellar. It’s 4-6 hours/day of work in exchange for room and board. So all you have to pay for is transportation. On top of that, 4-6 hours isn’t that long at all. If you talk to your host, you can arrange to do remote work when you’re not doing host work. You can make a profit while you travel.
- Hostels: If you don’t do a workstay, websites like Hostelworld.com offer super prices, especially during off-season.
- Flights: The more flexible you are with departure/return flight dates, the more you save. I use Expedia and Skyscanner to book; both sites allow you to search prices across entire months. Within a two-month interval, there’s generally 2-5 days when prices are abnormally cheap. Nab that sh*t.
- Money: Budget ahead and withdraw cash from an ATM when you arrive. So long as you make sure the money’s safe and stored in a diversified manner across your luggage, purses, and fanny packs, you’ll save on foreign transaction fees. You’ll also be aware of how much you spend at all times. It’s easy to lose yourself when you don’t have an explicit budget, and this cashload keeps you explicit.
- Know your politics.
- Organize your suitcase so that you can open and use it like a closet—so you can reach in and grab something without looking.
- Do not bring a notebook. Do bring Field Notes.
- Non-drowsy allergy meds, band-aids, 1% hydrocortisone. Water bottle. Two copies of your passport’s photo page. Some essentials off the top of my head.
- Brush up on language basics. At least know “hello,” “good morning,” “good night,” “how are you,” “please,” “thank you,” “help,” and “sorry.” Please avoid being an annoying English-is-the-best-and-only tourist.
- OVERBOOKING IS YOUR GREATEST ENEMY. Give yourself space and time to expand into. If you’re trying to do too much, you’ll end up doing nothing.
- Look into offline apps for: currency conversion, maps (hello HERE WeGo), and language translation (use Google Translate’s “download offline languages” option).
I have several more points I want to hit on the topic of travel, but as it stands, I’m seven minutes from boarding a flight to Israel, where I’ll be participating in the Tell Keisan Excavations as a College Research Scholar. It’s an archaeological dig. We’re living in a kibbutz. I’m nervous and my right leg is numb. Those of you who’ve read other posts on this blog may notice that this post in particular is more harried/sloppy than usual. I apologize. I’ll be writing a fuller travel post to make up for it. Stay tuned.
OKAY, WE’RE BOARDING. WE’RE BOARDING NOW. GOODBYE AND UNTIL NEXT TIME!