I never set out to achieve five years of travel. Ask anyone who knew me at the time I booked my one way ticket around the world and they would agree that I never intended to be gone so long. It kinda just happened. And to tell you the truth, back then, I would have been the first to agree with you that I was never cut out to venture indefinitely.
So what happened? Let me set the scene:
Five years ago, on the 14 September 2011, I boarded a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. I was travelling alone and embarking on my first solo backpacking adventure to South East Asia.
With a grey face and sweaty hands I felt pushed along by some invisible momentum that propelled me to the departure gate. It wasn’t bravery that got me on to that plane. This undeniable force was the urge I had to travel. However terrified I was in that moment I would be damned if I didn’t get on that plane. I had turned my life upside down by quitting my job and ending my relationship and the only thing that had kept me together through those difficult months was the thought of my upcoming travel.
Five Years Of Travel Later
The five years that followed this moment have changed me irrevocably. Although I am now more confident in travelling solo, choosing to pack it all up and leave home and negotiate a life for myself on the other side of the world, I am still learning about myself. I don’t think you ever truly stop.
I wanted to share what five years of travel has taught me. Who knows what the next five will bring.
Give Yourself Time
My first mistake was stressing about planning every moment of my trip from my couch in England. I focused on getting all the details in place and used this organisation as a comforter against my pre-trip nerves. Whilst this was a good thing in that sense, I didn’t give myself enough time in my itinerary to allow myself to go with the flow as I gained confidence on the road.
I allowed myself almost nine weeks in South East Asia and as I left I felt like I could have stayed longer. I only gave myself five months in Australia to travel the East Coast and to work: huge mistake. I finally felt like I was in the swing of things and again I was faced with leaving. I needed to put on the brakes and truly embrace my trip, so I ended up rescheduling my outbound flight and five months in Australia turned into twelve.
Not Everything Will Be Perfect
Not everything will fall into place. Sometimes you feel down right disgruntled by everything and you have a hard time reminding yourself that you’re ok. Whether it’s disrupted travel days, bad weather, cancelled trips or lost personal items, there will be days you wished you could start over.
And that’s ok. Tomorrow will be another day and you will move on from what was troubling you a few hours ago. If the occasional hiccough happens you will learn to chalk it up to experience and draw strength from overcoming the obstacle.
Expect The Unexpected
From sharing your seat on the bus with a basket full of chickens to food being served that does not resemble what you had in mind, travelling will always throw you the odd curve ball. Learn to listen to your gut instinct; if it doesn’t seem downright dangerous or dodgy then is this something that you could embrace?
I always find that travel days in foreign countries test my patience, with inexplicably long delays, and I just have to remind myself to sit back and enjoy the journey as I will get there when I get there. Things usually work out, just not in the way I expect them to from my own frame of reference. And this, I remind myself, is the reason I choose to travel in other countries.
Learn To Relax
With time on your hands it’s likely that you’ll start feeling a bit edgy. I think we have a hard time letting go of our responsibilities and expectations tied into our home lives. Travelling, whether it is for two weeks, two months or two years, forces us to slow down and take in our surroundings.
And sometimes ‘doing nothing’ as a traveller feels weird. It’s like you have a bit of guilt nagging at us the whole time that we are no longer a valuable member of society. If you truly have difficulty allowing yourself time out, consider voluntary opportunities or working as you travel as a way of connecting with the new communities you find yourself in.
Listen To Your Heart
I’m a firm believer in listening to your heart. If something doesn’t feel right and you’re not happy then don’t do it. Don’t force yourself to endure things that will not make you comfortable and possibly put you at risk.
But I’m not just talking about danger signals here. Your heart will tell you when it’s not happy and there are times when we travel that we forget to put ourselves first. In five years of travel I’ve never regretted moving on when I was unhappy somewhere, or choosing to stay a few extra days because I was loving it. Tap in to how you feel and don’t ignore your own peace of mind for the sake of a journey that doesn’t fulfil your best interests.
You’ve Got To Put Yourself Out There
This is especially crucial if you’re travelling alone. Nothing good will come from moping about on your hostel bed plugged into the free Wifi (unless of course you need to book your next flight or something). Get outside, break that ice and get amongst the activity.
The times I have felt lonely and unfulfilled when travelling were more often than not down to my own failure to pick myself up and join in. No one else will do it for you.
Try Different Things
It could be food, something cultural, or trying a new sport or activity; whatever you find yourself faced with, now is the best time to give something new a try. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t enjoy something? Chalk it up to experience and move on. Being willingly open and adventurous is a shift in your mindset that unlocks confidence and an eagerness to learn more, experience more and generally gain more from your new surroundings.
Keep In Touch
The odd email, phone call and message home will not only mean loads to those people you have left behind, but so much to you as well. Although many miles may separate you, sharing your experiences with your loved ones helps them (and you) to feel like they are with you on the journey. You will never regret the small effort it takes to send a postcard, write a letter or arrange that Skype conversation.
Look After The Pennies
We’ve all heard of the saying to “look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”. Nothing is more true when travelling for a long period of time. Unless you are fortunate to have a regular income through freelancing work or another avenue, most travellers have to be budget conscious at all times. And this is a tough yet important life lesson to get to grips with. It makes you see indulgent expenditures in whole new light when you’re trying to budget to simply keep a roof over your head each night on the road.
Document Your Travels
Make the effort to jot down place names and details of your travels at the very least, as years later you will kick yourself when you try to recall those fading memories.
I go through waves of productivity when I either religiously update my travel journal or barely write a sentence in months. The same with photographs; I either seem to take a lot or none at all. My inconsistency has been the source of much regret over the years as I struggle to pull memories out from the depths of my brain.
Introspection Is Key
Whether or not you are travelling alone you will have plenty of time with your own thoughts. Over five years of travel I have found that there are occasions when my niggling doubts and worries drive me mad. At other times I will be wrapped up with far more existential musings.
There is a positive side to the overanalysing of life that travel seems to provoke. I’ve found that mulling over the things I like, don’t like, my expectations about travel and the way I want to interact and have people interact with me have allowed me to better understand myself.
Eventually you will tune into the way that you are feeling much better than you did before. And you will hold yourself accountable for the way that you feel as travelling makes you realise that you hold the key to your own happiness.
You Will Always Want More
Those three months backpacking around South East Asia that seemed so daunting at first will be over leave you with an insatiable hunger. You want more.
You’ll suddenly start reading travel blogs and saving links to articles about best places to visit in such-and-such country. Skyscanner will be one of your most frequently visited pages on the web as you constantly dream about your next get-away. Travel will become that little itch that won’t go away, no matter how much you scratch. But you learn to love the feeling and use it to shift the way you view life.
You Will Be Forever Changed
I’m not sure this is a something that I can put into words. After a period of travel there will be this undeniable change within you that leaves you feeling like you’ve shed an old skin. You emerge out the other side of this adventure standing taller, assessing your life and the world around you with a more expectant eye. You want fresh challenge. Your goal posts have shifted but that’s ok.
Life, your life will never be the same again. Even if you never dust off your backpack and travel again you will always flash back to those times you strolled barefoot on that beach at sunset, haggled in a market, ate exotic new foods or swam in a waterfall.
But chances are that you will have developed a thirst that only more travel will satisfy. Your problems seem to simultaneously fill the world and shrink down to the size of a pin head. You realise that the space you occupy in the world no longer has actual barriers that keep you rooted, but non-existent walls to push through. With enough perseverance, planning and believing in yourself you can, and will, travel the world.
Have you been travelling for a while? What have you learned whilst on your journey? Are you thinking about heading off on your first trip? I’d love to hear what you think.
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