This time last year I was your average 30-year-old: disillusioned with what I thought would be my dream job, hemorrhaging money to cover food and rent, and trying desperately not to grow up. Sound familiar?
I had never been away from home for more than two weeks. That is, until I became your average backpacker: no special skills, no previous experience, and absolutely no clue.
Like all travelers in the throes of preparation, I read blogs and guides like they were going out of fashion, hoping to learn from other people’s mistakes.
There is definitely some solid advice out there, and are also things I could only have discovered along the way.
So while I can’t share any mystical secrets on how traveling has changed my perspective on life, here are some simple truths:
Mirrors don’t matter
Unless you live in a hole, you probably spend at least a little bit of time on personal appearance, particularly if you go to work. Let me tell you, after only two weeks of backpacking that quickly went out the window for me.
My clothes became increasingly mismatched, I stopped brushing my hair and make up was a distant memory.
When you have to wake up early and choose between getting to the temple rooftop on time to catch the most breathtaking sunrise over Bagan or picking a great outfit to look good in photos, it’s a no-brainer.
Nobody, least of all you, will care.
A sleeping bag liner is a MUST
Especially ones that are treated with permethrin, a military-grade insecticide that will stop mosquitos and bed bugs in their tracks.
I am not a camper and had never heard of a sleeping bag liner before, but I cannot emphasize enough the peace of mind that comes with curling up inside your own little fortress in a hostel bed with sheets that look like they haven’t been washed for years.
I will admit I was a cheapskate and bought a budget one. I regretted this after just one week when my small, scratchy, imitation-silk liner ripped at the seams as soon as I rolled over.
It may seem outrageous to spend $70 on a flimsy bit of material but, trust me, when you work out the cost-per-use and sanity you will save on not having to clean out the entire contents of your backpack after a suspected bed bug infestation, it’s worth every penny.
Eating well is a complete luxury
I used to pride myself on maintaining a healthy diet replete with extravagances like almond milk and organic vegetables.
I quickly learned that when you’re on a budget, food is the easiest cost to cut. I ate two meals a day if I had enough money, and most of those were made up of cheap, filling carbs: pasta and rice if I could cook, bread and crackers if I couldn’t.
Eating out only happened once every few days, and only at the most budget of joints.
Making friends is easy, keeping them is hard
Almost everyone you meet on the road will be in the same boat (or should that be bus?): far from home, unable to speak the local language and looking for company, even if it’s just for safety in numbers.
I met lots of amazing people that I would have been desperate to be friends with if I were back home. As they were all travelers too, we always ended up going our separate ways.
You will no doubt exchange emails and friend each other on Facebook but it’s hard to find time to keep in touch with your mother, let alone nurture new friends that you know you’ll never get to see again.
Life goes on, even after you crap your pants
I mean this literally and figuratively. Chances are, if you are traveling somewhere a bit rustic, you will eventually eat a meal you will come regret.
The moment I realized last night’s chicken wings, which I had so heartily enjoyed, were not the wisest thing to eat was on a 30-hour bus journey from Colombia to Ecuador. It was hell on wheels.
At one point the toilet had overflowed and we were stuck on a highway with no civilization in sight. I survived. When my travel companion cracked his head open during a biking accident in deepest, darkest Ecuador, I thought ‘this is it’.
It was probably the most frightening moment of my life. Still, I had to get it together to get him to hospital, despite being hours from the nearest town and barely speaking a word of Spanish.
Guess what? We both survived. And carried on traveling.
You stop worrying about the big stuff
Despite all the preparation, everyday struggles like what is safe to eat, whether you’ll find a bed for the night or how not to get mugged will take over your life in a way that makes your past worries back home seem trivial.
All that fades when you’re faced with a myriad of daily problems that demand your immediate attention.
And once you’ve solved all those problems, which you will, you’ll be too tired to worry about anything else.
Travelling won’t change you
Unless you want to be changed. I am without a doubt still the same person as I was before I went away. I am back, still disillusioned with my career choices and begrudgingly spending too much on rent.
Travelling didn’t change my outlook on life, but I like to think I was put into situations that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.
I feel more capable, ever so slightly more patient and a tiny bit more trusting than before. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have learned these things without traveling. I just had to learn them under more pressured circumstances.
People are kind
The most important thing I learned on the road is that the majority of people I came across, from market vendors and hostel owners to bus drivers and even border guards, are good.
I used to have a bad case of stranger danger, probably a result of living in some of the largest and most hectic cities in the world.
Getting out into the big, wide world without my usual support network meant I had to rely a lot on the kindness of strangers.
Sure I got scammed a few times, who doesn’t, but on the whole people, from Cambodia to Colombia, were overwhelmingly nice.
Photo credit Nicola Delaney