So that’s it! You’ve been around the world, and then some. The ideals of travel pushed you to embark on what people have consistently told you would be the trip of a lifetime, and it’s over at age 30. Now what?
Well, I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way. This is a modest attempt to share some of those lessons in two parts:
The meta-game of travel. What’s it actually like to travel? What are the hardships? The tips and tricks? The pitfalls? This first part attempts to cover some of the basics.
What has traveling taught you about yourself and about the world?
The travel meta
As you travel more and more, distinct pain points emerge. They may be the result of choices that might have seemed inconsequential during initial planning and can occasionally grow to become defining aspects of your time trekking the world.
Modes of travel
Choosing to travel by bus, train, on foot, hitchhiking, by rental car, by boat or even in some other way will greatly influence your trip. Each has its pros and cons, and while this may seem obvious, it’s important to start thinking about it early. Here’s a quick overview of our personal experience with the main modes we chose.
Traveling by car may be the mode of transportation that captured my imagination the most before leaving on our trip. I had such a strong desire to hit the road, in America specifically. I associated it with freedom, open roads, dramatic landscapes. Driving delivered on a lot of this, but it’s also pricey, and one of the most tiring ways to get around. Due to time constraints (often self imposed!), it becomes difficult to strike a balance between covering enough ground, and truly enjoying the places you visit. Driving also cuts down on how much exercise you get, and even on how well you eat, while leaving you tired to explore your surroundings once you’ve actually reached your destination. However, the freedom this gives you is often worthwhile, especially in countries with safe roads and lackluster train infrastructure and lackluster cities.The countries in which we traveled by train are the countries that left the fondest memories. In many countries, this is an easy way to meet people. We used the train extensively in Japan and in Europe, and sparsely in Thailand. If you select the right passes, traveling by train provides tremendous flexibility, allowing you to go from point a to point b on a whim, for much cheaper than a car would. In densely populated cities, it spares the hassle of parking and brings you directly to the center of town. It’s often much less noisy than driving and allows you to focus on writing, games, media, or just a nap. And there’s something to be said for experiencing train stations in any given country. Seeing how folks organize and communicate gives a glimpse into an interesting aspect of their culture. The downside is that it gets a little more complicated to venture into the countryside with a rail pass: needless to say there are more roads paved than tracks laid.
Traveling by bus is the poor man’s train. Bus stations tend to be less organized than train stations (I’m looking at you India!) and you will often travel in rougher conditions, without aircon, with less baggage space. You get to travel through some more populated areas, and I found that it was better fitted so sightseeing than trains were (though I’ve never been on the orient express or the transsiberian). The big upside is that it’s dirt cheap.
Traveling as a couple
I know this isn’t a choice that a lot of people make. After all, it’s rare to unceremoniously ditch your significant other and go for a trip around the world, or conversely to grab someone at the last minute to go with you. That said, there are some trip-altering dynamics that are specific to traveling alone or in a couple.
The best part about traveling the world as a couple is that you get to share your experiences with someone. You get to marvel at what you discover, muse out loud about the myriad of random thoughts that occur to you and get exposed to someone else’s point of view on what you’re see. Once in awhile, I enjoy exploring my thoughts alone, unfiltered, but I could see this getting quite lonely in the long.
Speaking of loneliness, if you’ve been in a couple for a long time, going with you’ve been with for a long time brings a piece of home with you, no matter where you go. You may get stressed out, you may get sick, maybe you’ll even be depressed about where you are, but having one another is a huge comfort.
Traveling as a pair make a huge difference when it comes to safety. When you travel by twos, people who would prey on you if you were alone will often seek lower hanging fruit. Knowing you always have one another’s back can make what would be a tense situation much more manageable. While traveling, serious issues, or actual danger often comes from a string of bad decisions and bad planning, less from a freak incident. Having a sounding board and someone to go over decisions with helps avoid those bad decisions being made to begin with. We’ve also both fallen sick our fair share of times and having someone to care for you in those moments is extremely impactful.
Generally speaking, when one of us felt weak, or out of patience, or frustrated, or went on long intolerable bouts of complaining, the other usually picks up the slack and acts as a source of comfort, or reassurance.
But for all those advantages, there are also some downsides. The inability to wander off and do your own thing is an important one. There are many good reasons to stick together, as mentioned above, and occasionally, it’s impossible to leave one another without risking something happening to the other, or losing one another and not knowing whether it will be possible to reestablish contact. If you’re traveling by car, you’re also stuck going the same place. This leads to the habit of always doing things together by default. Most of the time, that’s just fine, but it’s easy to forget that sometimes, getting some time alone is important. It’s easy to neglect that.
Of course being a couple in sedentary life is fraught with issues, and traveling is no different. We were already comfortable spending vast amounts of time with one another before traveling, but touring the world takes things to a whole new level. Every tension is magnified, and it’s important to be mindful of that. Traveling is tiring as well, and when energy levels go down, and stress levels go up, conditions are ripe for one or the other to say something that seems (or is!) cross, to misinterpret something and perceive ill-intent where there is none.
New and not so new issues resurface: itinerary and money were the two recurring themes of our arguments. Figuring out where to go, and how to go there, in which order, etc. can lead to disagreements, especially because they are the type decisions that need to be made constantly. One good way to navigate that was to plan our trip by chunks of ten to fourteen days, which alleviated us from burdensome decision-making for long periods of time.
The same thing goes for buying things. Traveling leads you to making small purchases all the time. I have a tendency to try to be a little more thrifty than Anaïs does, and always insisted that we try to get food or accommodations on the cheap, within reasonable quality limits. Anaïs considers that if something fits within our budget, then it’s ok to spend more than we might otherwise be comfortable with. Traveling tends to expose you to inflated tourist prices, you can attempt to avoid them, but it’s not always an option. For someone like me who has a general idea of what something should cost in a given market, it’s difficult to accept getting gouged at moments. At the end of the day, Anaïs was much more at peace with that prospect than I was, which improved her experience, but I was often able to make better cost-to-quality purchases. Most of these arguments came down to the fact that we have different ideas of what makes the value of something. I tend to think in terms of general value, ie the price you can buy something for in most places in the world, whereas Anaïs reasons in terms of relative value, ie the price of a good at a very specific place and time. The clearest example of this had to be Italy, where I couldn’t bear the thought of paying as high as €4 for a liter of water per meal whereas that seemed not to phase Anaïs.
There are surely other issues that other couples encounter, but those were the recurring ones for us. I’m convinced that it’s possible to mitigate them by thinking about and discussing them ahead of time.
Another downside of traveling as a couple is a tendency to isolate yourself from the world. because of the type of accommodations you book (fewer hostels), and because your natural urge for human contact is quenched by your partner, you have less of a tendency to reach out to people around you. When others see a couple, they also have less of a tendency to reach out. All of this can set you up for a more observational trip (which can be fine too!) if you’re not deliberate about creating opportunities for contact with locals.
Issues of pace and the burden of planning
Traveling is more work than meets the eye. Most people, including us, have a tremendous appetite for traveling, which leads to a subsequent list of countries to visit. Holding yourself accountable to an ambitious list of travel destinations can be exhausting. It forces you to go faster than you might actually want, yet your curiosity and thirst for new sights keeps you going. Before you know it, you’ve been traveling for months without so much as taking a weekend off. I understand that this might seem strange coming from someone who took a 9 month hiatus to travel the world, but being in foreign countries where your language isn’t spoken, where it’s easy to fall sick and to make mistakes, in addition to doing considerably more walking and physical exercise than usual and spending subsequent amounts of time planning for every day’s activities is exhausting.
When every place you visit is foreign, the amount of planning required quickly becomes ludicrous. Of course, you’ll have done some of it before hand. Visas and making budgets usually won’t be an issue and you’ll have a general idea of the places you want to go, but it’s hard to plan for the detail of every place you want to visit. As you travel, you get accustomed to the fact that you won’t be able to see everything in the world, but while I do recommend improvising to keep a trip spontaneous and flexible, I also recommend going the extra mile before even leaving for a trip and making some research on the which cities, areas and activities are really worth your time in a given country, and keep a list of them handy for when you’ll get there. The alternative is spending more of your precious time in beautiful places, stranded at home planning for things you could be out doing hours ago. This can mean skimming over certain locations, and not fully taking a country or a city.
Pace is a very personal feeling. It took us a while to be aware of how fast we were traveling and how tiring it was. After a while, we got a sense for how long we liked to stay in a given place before packing up and leaving for another destination. Three to four days was ideal to us. While this may seem fast to some people, consider that we went much faster earlier in our trip, choosing to road trip many countries, which usually meant staying for just one night at each stop.
With the trip behind me, I land pretty solidly in the camp of quality over quantity. You’ll never see the entire world, so might as well make the most of the areas you do get to see. Take your time and tend to your pace to at least try to make it a vacation!
Lessons of the road
How a trip around the world affected me
I’ve long been aware of a stereotype depicting world travel as a transformative experience. I don’t know that I can say that in my case. I’m still very much the same person, although I can pinpoint a few things I have taken away from the experience, in addition to what I’ve learned about the world.
While engaged in extended periods of travel, what you come to see in the world is of course, one of the main aspects, but the time and mind space it affords you might just be one of the best things. You could easily plan a two week trip somewhere very exotic in the middle of a job and see lots of the world, but it takes more than two weeks to explore certain aspects of yourself and your life. I’m fortunate I’ve had that opportunity. I used this time to delve into reading and podcasts to explore some topics in philosophy, politics and economics that I just didn’t have the focus and energy to pursue in the past. I had more time to focus on my interactions with others. Perhaps this is counter intuitive, but I interacted with people more often at home due to the presence of coworkers and friends. On the road, the types of interactions were different and although the relationships were very short lived, I tried to be more deliberate and engaged. I think this comes from a will to connect with others, even through simple, regular interactions. It doesn’t cost much and it helps people feel valued and listened to.
I returned home with a greater sense of direction. I now have a clearer idea of what I really value in life, and what I want to spend my time on. Despite the physical fatigue of traveling, I feel mentally rejuvenated, ready to focus, work hard and keep up good habits. Hopefully this state of mind sticks and I think that good life hygiene can keep it up. While it may take more than just a few weeks to achieve this state of mind, I don’t think it takes much more than that. This is encouraging because I know I can get back here with a month-long break. Unfortunately this isn’t something that American professional life tolerates, which is a shame because I think that extended vacation time can help employees come back to work less jaded, more creative, and more driven to achieve things.
What the world has taught us
If traveling has taught me one thing, it’s that I am fortunate. No one gets to choose the country they are born into, and not all countries are equally endowed. Some function better than others, some are easier to live and travel in, while some are hamstrung by the lingering wounds of a painful history. The world’s economies are different, as are its political systems, its economies, its culinary traditions, its customs and its cultures altogether. We are apt to recognize that in our own country we get certains things right, while we also get others deeply wrong and many of us would readily swap out certain deficiencies of our own for the strengths of another country. Some nations get more things right than others and because of how bound we are to the here and now, we often lack the perspective to know what we’re missing. Conversely, we don’t always understand how badly others can have it. It’s drilled into many of us who have grown up in industrialized nations that we are fortunate and that people similar to us suffer unimaginably due to where they were born, but despite being hammered into us, this fact loses its edge. Experiencing the world first hand drives this point home in a concrete way, and I now have a better understanding of what exactly to be thankful for. Specifically, it’s harrowing to see how defective some economies are, how many are left to the wayside in tremendous income inequality, how some nations have racism ingrained in ways that surpass even what we see in the United States, how freedom of speech is stunted under certain regimes, how many more genocides are perpetrated than are acknowledged or even remembered, and how poorly some cultures treat their women.
But being a wealthier, short term resident of the countries I visited, what impacted me the most directly might quite well be the varying quality of infrastructure from place to place. Of all factors, infrastructure seemed to bear the highest impact on quality of life for locals. Infrastructure isn’t even what you come to visit a country for. It’s not the first thing you react to or seek to assess. But in aggregate, it’s a subtle layer that permeates and impacts everything you experience. What follows are some thoughts on each aspect of infrastructure. how strongly the quality of life in each country was impacted by basic infrastructure. Having grown up exclusively in industrialized countries, I came to realize how much I took this for granted.
Water. Access to clean drinking water is undeniably the number one item on the list. Denying a population access to potable water has cascading effects. Most people I know in the US and in France where I grew up have a theoretical understanding of this and may find it obvious but living in countries where access to clean water is not something to be taken for granted will give you another perspective altogether. As a tourist, this affects you in a few ways. First of all, you’re suddenly unable to drink whenever you feel like it. It’s no longer as simple as opening the tap. You must carry water with you in a bottle at all times. Not having a bottle of water is a source of stress because you’re never sure when you’ll next have access to water. So you need to store it and carry it with you as you travel. By this fact alone, water stays top of mind. While showering, you ought to be careful not to swallow water. Even brushing your teeth with tap water is a bad idea (I took this lightly and paid the price for it in Cambodia). If you go to a restaurant, you have no guarantee that the water used to clean vegetables and fruit was filtered. Simple things like ice cubes become a concern. The time and money wasted fetching water for locals is mind boggling. Many fall deeply ill due to poor water quality, which has compound effects on populations with limited healthcare systems and who are already burdened in so many other ways. Water is life, and if I were starting a country from scratch, it would be the first thing on my list to get right from get go because its fundamental effect throughout all of society.
Electricity. A reliable electric grid is also something I took for granted. In many countries, the electricity would go off regularly, multiple times a day. Sometimes this is a planned event of daily life. It’s a known fact that there won’t be enough for all, so the country shuts electricity off periodically to force savings. Some other times it’s simply unplanned. When the electricity goes off, things naturally slow down. It’s kind of quaint to experience this as a tourist. It forces you to just be in the moment, but you can see how running a business in such conditions would be somewhat of an issue.
Roads, bridges and tunnels. Having a road to take you from once place to another is godsend for bringing a country together and developing commerce. Another platitude, but experiencing sprawling dirt roads with potholes big enough to damage a car, or roads with no lights and no shoulders will educate you about the wide spectrum between a state of no roads, and the roads we have in the US. The quality of roads has a deep effect on road safety, congestion, pollution and time wasted getting from one point to another. To compensate for lackluster roads, people take all kind of risks, supercharging road fatality statistics in their wake. The amount of properly insane driving we’ve experienced throughout our trip is probably one of the most memorable aspects of our trip.
Public transportation, airports, train stations. This is generally something that even poorer countries get right, but I’ve occasionally experienced places where a bus showing up on time, or showing up at all is not something you can take for granted. In such places, the days of tens of people hang in the balance of a specific driver and whether or not he feels like honoring his commitment to showing up on schedule.
Sewage and trash collection. I had seen images on TV, but what I experienced in some countries, especially India and Vietnam, just blew my mind. The amount of trash that piles up and never seems to leave is mind boggling. The Mekong river delta and the villages strewn on its banks are piled in so much trash that people just see past it, children play in it, and it’s hard to imagine a day where it might be cleaned up.
Communication infrastructure. This may seem superficial in comparison with some of the items listed above, but communication is so crucial. We live such different lives than we did mere decades ago thanks to the Internet. In some places, we were catapulted back to 56kbps internet connections. These moments are frustrating, of course, but they’re awesome in that you realize how far we’ve come, and how completely revolutionized our lives have been not just by the Internet, but by high speed Internet in particular. Video and voice are obvious examples, but simple things like obtaining basic information about maps, opening hours, bus schedules, government offices, etc. are all on pages full of images that take forever, and this is using a modern computer, so I can’t imagine what it might be like on a feature phone.
Education. This is a softer type of infrastructure, but it’s so fundamental. It’s what runs your country, it’s how people communicate, what they value, how they drive, how they govern, how they take care of themselves and others. This isn’t really something you get exposure to very often as a tourist, but occasionally, if you’re driving through the countryside and see adolescent girls harvesting fields in a blistering heat at noon on a weekday, you know they might be better served by spending that time in school.
Country by country, travelling helped me realize how much I took infrastructure for granted, and how crippled a country can be when it doesn’t invest in and respect its infrastructure. For this reason, the stories like those coming out of Flint Michigan and even other areas of the US are all the more chilling. In those moments, I wish people could experience what’s it’s like to let the market do its magic unhindered in all domains, and to live in a country with minimalistic government.
To end on a lighter note, it’s worth pointing out that as individuals, and members of different cultures, we differ in many ways — and those differences are some of the most fascinating and noteworthy aspects of traveling. But at heart, we are quite similar: we long for comfort, security, acceptance, and fall prey to the same faults of tribalism, intellectual laziness, insecurities or vanity, yet we virtually all share an ability for the best in humanity. Of course, we owe everything of what we’ve become to where we were born and how we grew up, and in this respect it’s hard to see how many people are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, still I’m fairly optimistic... Nearly every aspect of how each of us shapes up depends on our environment (culture, economy, political system, history, personal or national wealth, language