Five years ago today I quit my job to travel the world for a year.
Five years ago today, June 1, I quit my job to travel the world for a year. If you have been following along here then you know that I am still traveling. Here are a few things, a mixture of practical and philosophical, that I have learned during that time:
- Most people are kind and good hearted. Yes there are some bad people everywhere, but most people I meet just want to live in peace and provide a better life for their children. There are places in every country that perhaps are best avoided. But you cannot generalize about an entire people or culture based on this criteria. For example, people said to me, “Don’t go to El Salvador, it’s dangerous.” Well guess what, the civil war has been over for 20 years and most of the younger generations don’t remember it. While I would not wander around the capital alone at night, I found the Salvadorian people to be wonderful and helpful. The country is mostly unspoiled and underdeveloped. The beaches and volcanoes are epic and the street food is cheap and tasty.
People said to me, “Don’t go to Colombia, it’s dangerous.” Colombians are cultured, polite and warm. When I mentioned to a local in a Medellin coffee shop that I had cracked a tooth that morning he insisted on calling his dentist and getting me an appointment. His bilingual dentist studied in the U.S. and has a state of the art dental clinic. He told me he could fill the tooth with epoxy and it would last me the rest of my life (the first words out of any U.S. dentists’ mouth would be we need to put a crown on that–$2,500 please)–my cost $150. I was so impressed that I stayed in Medellin two more weeks and had some other dental work done. In between, I visited a world class museum, salsa danced until dawn and experienced a richness and vibrancy of culture. I could tell many more such stories (and have frequently done so here). The point is, I feel safer in most countries than I would walking around Los Angeles late at night.
- It is better to visit less places and stay longer. It takes awhile to relax into a new culture. Sometimes my first day or two, I never leave where I am staying. Before long, however, I am exploring and integrating new cultural experiences and making new friends.
- One can make deep connections with new people in a short period of time. It still surprises me at times when I meet someone from another land and within minutes we are communicating at a deep and rich level.
- I can live on less money traveling than I can living in California (or Australia or Western Europe). This is the greatest travel secret that is out in the open for anyone to discover.
- I love alternative accommodations, particularly homestays with local families, Couchsurfing and hosteling. It’s the shortcut to connecting with a new culture through the eyes of those that live there.
- I never where jewelry or flash money around while traveling Enough said. Common sense. I have never been robbed or threatened in five years of travel. I’m not saying that could not happen but one can stack the odds in their favor. btw, if you are ever robbed, give them everything they want. (Even if they don’t show it, they might have a gun or knife.) Objects can be replaced and besides, they are only objects.
- Lonely Planet is almost useless. It was good back in the day, but now it is mostly inaccurate, other than some very general information that could be looked up anywhere. Reviewers don’t even visit most of the sites anymore. Prices are never right. Plus the books are a lot of extra weight to schlep around. Wikitravel is a good site when you need some quickie advise on a new place. It’s written by fellow travelers and open sourced.
- WIFI. If you are going to a restaurant, bar or coffee shop specifically to use the wifi, make sure it actually works before you order anything. I cannot tell you how many times I ended up buying food or drink that I really didn’t want just then but as a courtesy to use the wifi and then found out it was not working. Lesson learned!
- Don’t be afraid to try new things. I love trying street food everywhere I go. It is cheap, authentic and tasty. Go to the stalls or stands that are busy. Avoid the ones where no one is waiting in line. There is a reason. Don’t be afraid to try a few adventure sports if you are fairly fit. Ziplining is awesome and does not require any particular skill level. Traveling is a great time to push your perceived boundaries and add new skills.
- Carry duct tape. I always keep a small roll in the outside pocket of my backpack where it can be readily accessed. It has come in handy for so many things. Eg., in the tropics they tend to make the buses freezing cold-go figure. I bit of duct tape is perfect for sealing off those AC ducts right over your head so you don’t wake up with a sore throat or sniffle.
- Have a backup plan if you are robbed or your backpack falls off a boat. Know how you will access funds and communicate with family and friends before an emergency. Then if one happens, don’t panic and calmly execute your plan. I give several suggestions in this area including how to backup and encrypt your personal data in my Travel Tips section of this blog (the page is in need of some organization but there’s some good stuff there).
- If you speak English you will be fine in much of the world. But please learn a few basic words in the language of the country in which you find yourself. Hello, goodbye, please and thank you are a great start and not too difficult to master. I am glad I took the time to learn some Spanish when I started my Latin American Walkabout two years ago. It made for a much richer experience.
You will receive smiles and approval for your effort. And speaking of attitude, try not to get angry or frustrated when communication difficulties inevitably materialize. The other party is trying to communicate just as much as you are. Take a deep breath. A warm smile and a calm patient attitude are the short cut to where you want to be.
- Use Local Transportation. Taking chicken buses and public trains are great ways to interact with the locals. I love how in Guatemala, for instance, the chicken buses are periodically swamped with vendors selling all sorts of yummy eats.
- Try some spontaneous travel. Go somewhere without a return or onward ticket. Try it, you might like it. I do. Then you can stay as long as you want and leave when you want. Try showing up in a town without a booked hotel. You’ll find a place, often better and cheaper than you would have online. (I don’t recommend this in Mandalay where there is a shortage of rooms and a huge recent increase in tourism. If you are going to say Mardi Gras in Rio or Inti Raymi in Cusco for the first time, this would not be the time to try this.
- Don’t be afraid to make some mistakes. You invariably will, but you will learn to do and be better the next time. Besides, if you are sincere, most folks will be quick to forgive a minor cultural faux pas.
- And above all have fun!
I plan to keep on traveling and learning and growing in the process. It makes me a more compassionate and appreciative person and I deeply like that! I hope you will travel as well. I would love to share a rainforest zipline in Costa Rica with you or a cocktail on a rooftop bar in Bangkok.
As always, I am ready to answer, to the best of my ability, your travel questions. I wish you safe, fun and rewarding travels. In closing I leave you with a couple quotes by the great American author, naturalist and activist, Edward Abbey:
“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places.”
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”Tweet