What follows is a list of subjects I think about from time to time while traveling. Almost none of them are novel, in fact I've spoken to or heard other travelers speak about many of these things. If you've done some traveling you may even relate to a few of these notions. If you haven't done much traveling it's my hope that this gives you some insight into the type of things that cross my mind.
When locals find out I'm an American, the first thing they often say is "My dream is to go to America." People perceive America as a land of opportunities, and in many ways it is, especially when compared with where they're from, but they also view it is perfect and that's much further from the truth. Most Asian countries have a better healthcare system, a far superior cell phone network, and insanely better public transportation than America.
It's easy when traveling to let yourself go: stop exercising, stop shaving, stop bathing... But to keep your spirits up on a long journey I think it's important to keep up with the things you did back home, unless you were specifically eager to give them up. That includes doing laundry and even making your bed.
The more breathtaking things you see, amazing experiences you have and delicious food you eat, the harder you become to impress. You find that even things you used to love are getting boring. Some people are always questing for something better—a more extreme experience, a more remote place etc. I feel this is a bad approach and it's far better to shift your focus to culture and different experiences which will always be new. And of course to put more emphasis on enjoying the journey.
When world travelers meet up it seems most common to discuss mutual world traveling acquaintances by their country of origin rather than their name. This could be due to foreign names often being complicated for other travelers to remember or pronounce, or because we like to categorize the people we meet. Whatever the reason it's a lot more common to say: "The Israeli's are heading to XXX, you might want to talk to them" or "The French guys just came from XXX" etc.
I've heard many times that being gay is a choice. I can't say definitively one way or the other, but I meet gay people everywhere I go and many of them have the same characteristics. It seems odd that if being gay is a choice, the ratio of gay to non-gay would be roughly equal everywhere I go, including remote places with little western influence.
Places that were 80 miles away and took an hour and a half to drive to used to seems excruciatingly far. Now places that are literally 800 miles away by land seem close and I find myself saying "Only a 16 hour bus ride, that's not bad". I remember heavily debating if I should go to an ultimate Frisbee tournament a couple states away, now I've gone a couple full-sized countries away just to attend one.
It seems that no matter how fast you're moving you can always focus your gaze on the horizon. As I listen to music and roll across the surface of the earth it's always the same. I look out and I always see a pane of glass. Sometimes there's slums trapped in the glass, sometimes there's mountains and sometimes there's me. But always there's the glass, keeping out the outside world and keeping in the thoughts and sounds. The music changes, the thoughts drift but always it's the same: I can't believe I'm here.
Good travel companions are hard to come by and bad travel partners can ruin your trip. Just because you get along well with someone doesn't mean you'll travel well together. Likewise you don't have to be best friends or even see eye-to-eye on a lot of things to be good travel buddies. Finding someone interested in going at the same pace, seeing the same types of things and spending roughly the same amount of money as you is a good first start. If one person wants to take tours and the other wants to hitchhike or one person wants to camp and the other wants to stay in fancy hotels, things probably won't work out. I'm very particular about who I travel with. I'll give anyone a try but I won't commit to long-term travel with some I haven't already traveled with or gotten a really good feel for. International travel can cause a lot of stress which sometimes brings out the worst in people.
Your view on a place is often shaped by a lot more than just "how the place was". Who you were with, how the weather was and how you were feeling make a big difference. I've enjoyed shitty places because I had good company and I've hated what would be nice places because the weather sucked or I felt sick. I've also found that places with more parks and plants and where people smile tend to seem a lot better to me even if they don't have as good of attractions.
Many countries require "proof of continuing journey" as well as a host of other things in order to apply for a visa. It seems a bit backward to me to buy a plane ticket out of a country before you know if you can even get into the country, but I guess they're trying to discourage travelers who can't afford to take that financial risk.
Border officials, airline workers, hotel receptionists and a myriad of other people ask to see my passport on at least a weekly basis and each time I know exactly what they're looking for: either my information which is on the front page, my visa which is hidden deep inside the many stamped pages, or my departure card which isn't always next to my visa. I always hand my passport to the person with the page they're looking for open or otherwise bookmarked and always the first thing they do is close my passport, remove whatever sheet of paper I have sticking out and turn it over. They proceed to spend the next 5 minutes looking for what I had just tried to show them. The front page seems remarkably hard to find, seriously. I can't tell you how many people look through my passport with it upside down and backward because I hand it to them oriented in the direction I know they're going to hold it and they don't even bother to look at it before going through it. I'm not sure if it's a dominance thing or what but it seems pretty stupid.
Even when traveling solo it's amazing how often you're around other people unless you actively keep to yourself. Staying in dorms or splitting rooms with people is cheaper than staying alone and daily activities often necessitate you being around people even if you don't interact with them. Not having "a place of your own" for a long time can be really draining and stressful. Sometimes you just need a place where you can relax, zone out and spread your stuff wherever for a night.
Unless you're so wealthy that you don't ever have to think about money, nearly every place you go will change the way you view money while traveling. After traveling in a country with a favorable exchange rate you realize that you're starting to fight over pennies. I think it starts by not wanting to get ripped off. Another traveler tells you that a ride from here to there should only cost 100 [insert-foreign-currency] and the person is asking you 500 whatevers. Even though 500 whatevers may just be half a dollar you don't want to be that blatantly ripped off so you argue the price down, as you should. But then you start getting better and better at haggling and you have a better feel for what things should actually cost and you stop thinking of things in your home currency and start thinking of things in the current monetary system. Then one day you realize that you didn't get rice with your meal because you refused to pay the equivalent of 30 cents USD because you knew it should only be 10 cents, but you really wanted rice. Or you realize that you just wasted 5 minutes haggling over 25 cents USD.
Then your world is thrown into a tailspin when you change places. You move to the next city/country/continent and all of a sudden you don't know what fair prices are and things that only cost you $1 USD now cost $5 USD. A crummy hotel in one place may be three times as expensive as a nice hotel in another. You can bitch and moan and haggle but in the end you're not gonna get something for less than the going rate so you might as well take solace in knowing that you did the best you could. In fact, soon enough that's all you care about, you completely disconnect from money and only worry about getting the lowest price because that's really all that matters. You can expect to get ripped off worse on your first day, especially if things are cheaper in the new place.
There's also the issue of evaluating expensive things. I remember when I was in Wakatobi, Indonesia the cost of diving was way more than I wanted to pay. Everything is relative though and I wasn't sure how I should view the situation. I saved half the cost of diving by shopping around for a cheap room. In USD the diving isn't that expensive but in terms of what it gets me in Indonesia it's very expensive. I'm paying 2/3 the cost of 3 people doing 3 dives for just me to do 2 dives. Diving costs 1/3 the price of getting to and away from Wakatobi. I reckon most of these factors should be ignored. Many of them are sunk costs regardless; I'm already at the island and I've already found a place to stay. The question is: Is 2 dives at that location worth what they're asking? Will I regret it if I don't go? For me, the answer was "yes" so I paid the price.
Everything's relative though and that means you need to give your choice a reference. Is XXX worth not getting/doing/eating YYY? For the price of diving I could spend an extra 3 days in Indonesia. Which is better?
Of course all of this is complicated when you're back home and planning you're next big trip. If you still remember these issues strongly you're likely to put yourself in the relative financial mindset before you leave. When ordinarily you wouldn't think twice about going out for dinner and drinks with friends you hesitate because you know that in the country you're going to you could live for a week on the amount you'd spend.
Modern science tells us that relationships, romantic and otherwise, are one of the main things that make us happy and that sex is about the only thing that we accurately predicted makes us happy, but both things can be hard to come by when traveling a long time by yourself. Physical touch is another thing humans crave and can be just as hard to come by when not coupled with relationships or sex. As many adults have learned, one night stands aren't all they've cracked up to be and cuddling afterward is often a bad idea. This is the plight of a world traveler and I'm not sure what the solution is. From talking to other travelers and reading other blogs this is a common problem and one I know I struggle with.
I'm not sure when or how it happened but I seem to have made the transition from a traveler to a nomad. I no longer feel like I'm traveling, I feel like I'm just living wherever I happen to be. I suspect this is a feeling only longterm travelers can relate to.
In some countries they toss trash everywhere in such a nonchalant way that it makes me want to do it to, but I don't want to contribute to the litter since I know better. Sometimes I look for a trash can and end up holding onto my trash for days before I find one. I've learned not to use just any trash can; often rubbish bins are dumped into the street or river. If I knew my trash was just going to get tossed out of the back of a building I would have taken the satisfaction in carelessly littering myself.
On a typical extended solo voyage there's times when you're alone and there's times when you're with people. I often don't mind the times when I'm alone, they give me an opportunity to think. Feelings of loneliness can set in anytime and I've found they're the worst when I'm with people. I think part of it comes from knowing that in a short amount of time I won't be with those cool people anymore.
Many non-native English speakers use a similar type of broken English. Articles are usually skipped and verbs aren't conjugated. "We will go swimming later" becomes "We swim later". When listening to, and even worse speaking with, broken English for a prolonged period of time your English skills may start to degrade and you may notice a loss of diction.
Foreign English speakers I've met have commented on this. Dutch, Danes and Germans all seem to speak English very well but even when they travel in places like Asia their skills and vocabulary tend to decrease.
How to speak to foreigners is a tricky one. Speaking like they do may make it easier for them to understand but it only perpetuates that type of language and in my opinion sometimes comes off as demeaning. I've found that if you just speak slowly and clearly making it a point to enunciate each word, non-native English speakers can usually understand you.
Likewise non-verbal communication is important. Nodding your head with everything you say doesn't make the other person understand any better it just makes them want to nod their head which gives you a false impression of understanding. I've found that simply being more expressive works well if done in an inoffensive manner.
I've noticed that I tend to put myself in a mood I call Airport Autopilot while in transit. It's a good thing, it allows me to navigate frustrating and unfamiliar airports, immigration, customs etc. like I've done it a million times and without any stress. My mind is elsewhere the whole time. I get a lot of thinking done. Everything works out.
On a long trip lazy days are important. Days where you don't go anywhere and you have nothing planned. Days where you can sleep, catch up on correspondences and just recharge in general. I've realized that sometimes those are some of my favorite days.
Few things make you long for home or a travel companion more than being debilitatingly sick while traveling. When you're so ill that you can't get out of bed to get food or drinks and you've lost your energy so much that you can't even reach up by your head to grab a thermometer to determine if you need to go to a hospital, it sucks to be alone in a foreign situation.
When traveling you really hone your social skills. You meet so many people, you get to see what works and what doesn't. You can present totally different sides of yourself if you choose to, though I usually don't choose to.
It's funny how often you run into other travelers again, sometimes after a long time and distance and completely without planning. It happens to me quite frequently and sometimes spans months and several countries and regions.
I find long bus, boat and especially train rides to be very meditative and relaxing and provide a brief period where I have little to nothing to worry about. Getting from one bus to another, or a train to a boat or whathaveyou sucks. Dealing with transportation is one of the biggest pains.
In remote places where no one speaks English it's sometimes necessary to communicate in only gestures which really makes you think about the gestures you make and probably improves your non-verbal communication in general.
People often comment on how lucky I am to have such wonderful people help me and they're right, I've been really lucky, but I don't think it's coincidence that I haven't run into many bad people while relying on the kindness of strangers. If you think about it bad people aren't the types to offer assistance, unless they're truly malicious and luckily my gut has kept me safe from those people.
There seems to be an unspoken rule that when a group of travelers from a mixed background are together they should all try to speak in the language which is spoken by the most of the, which is often English.
Even when discussing things irrelevant to the larger group with travel companions it's polite to do it in the common language of the group to show that you're not talking about them.
It's funny how you see people in other countries that look exactly like someone you know back home, especially when they're a different ethnicity.
Quite frequently I hit snags that require creative solutions to get around. For instance, I was going to buy a plane ticket at the airport in Medan then take a train to Lake Toba. I arrived too late for both of those things. No worries I thought, I'll take a bus to Parapat and go to a travel agent there in the morning. There's no more buses tonight? Maybe I can take a small bus part of the way and meet up with another bus. There's no ticket office in Parapat? Maybe I can buy a ticket online. There's no 3g? Maybe I can find wifi. There's wifi but no printer? Maybe I can buy the ticket now and print it later. They don't accept visa? Maybe I can transfer money and pay that way. Or reserve the ticket but pay in cash etc. Basically, you have to learn to generate many solutions very quickly and not get discouraged when the easiest and first couple ones don't work. Sometimes the solutions have to be very... out there. It's good though, it keeps you sharp.
When traveling the world you're an ambassador for your country so it's important to leave a good impression on the world especially if you come from a country that isn't universally liked. Unfortunately many people formulate their views on entire populations based solely on encounters with a few individuals. I try to be a good person and a savvy traveler regardless but representing my country comes into my mind frequently.
In the beginning of this trip I noticed days where I got no personal messages of any sort but now they go by unnoticed.
After not speaking with native English speakers for a long time it's amazing how comforting speaking with a native English speaker can be.
They may dress and eat different but they have the same mannerisms, hopes, fears, dreams and idiosyncrasies.
The random strangers that help me out often thank me profusely when we part ways. "What for?" I can't help but thinking. But it hit me: these people love the adventure that I bring into their lives. Many of them have commented as much. They can't believe how I'm traveling. Even though some them are in a perfect place to do what I'm doing and really want to, most of them probably never will. They enjoy the time we spend together--they temporarily become part of my adventure and have a story to tell--but they get to live vicariously through me. I'm glad they enjoy helping me as much as I enjoy getting their help.
When my camera and the accompanying first two weeks of pictures from my trip was stolen in Bali a friend of mine was quick to point out that pictures never capture the moment and if you're busy taking photos you're not really experiencing what you're shooting. All that is very true but one thing I've learned is that pictures can revive emotions and memories inside you, and that's worth the price and hassle of a new camera.
I hate when I arrive in a town early in the morning and don't have a place to stay and then I need to decide if it's worth looking for a place to stay. Check-out time is usually 10am so is it really worth getting a room for only 5hrs? If everything is closed do you really want to knock on doors?
This decision often depends on a number of factors including: what my plans are for the day, how exhausted I am and what the available outdoor sleeping spaces are like. If there's nowhere safe or sheltered to sleep you don't have much of an option. If you're already beat and have a long day ahead of you it might be worth spending the money. If on the other hand you're feeling rested and have a couple days to relax and there's a nice piece of grass or sand that's hidden away and the weather is nice it's sometimes preferable to just sleep under the stars.
When traveling the world, relying on strangers and especially hitchhiking and CouchSurfing, it's important to be a quick judge of character. Even more so when you're doing it on your own.
Trusting your gut is obviously the most important thing and your gut gets better as you go. Your gut is amazingly good at analyzing lots of little factors like how well someone's dressed, the tone of their voice, who they're with, why they're helping you etc.