What Nobody Told Me About Long-Term Solo Travel

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Climbing the limestone karst islands of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Before my trip, there were many blogs I read and stories I heard from friends about how to prepare and what to expect for a year of travel by myself. Still, I missed many important warnings and lessons that I had to learn through trial and error and personal experience. Here are the ones I’ve found most crucial during my time abroad:

Not Being a Tourist Takes Discipline

There’s absolutely a difference between travelers and tourists–it’s learning. Tourists seek enjoyment from their visits, and there’s nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, travelers not only want to have fun, but they also seek to learn from the experience. In my mind, that distinction makes for far more tourists than true travelers.

Though I consider myself a traveler, since January I’ve often struggled to be one. Traveling requires a great effort to make yourself uncomfortable in novel surroundings, and it isn’t easy or always instantly gratifying. For example, in religious monuments, I’ve many times quickly snapped photos and walked out, never bothering to educate myself about the significance of the landmark.

In my case, my goal in Asia was (and still is) to better understand extreme poverty and promising solutions to the problem. While I’ve met some inspiring individuals in different countries working to fight poverty, I’ve had little meaningful interaction with poor people and immersion in their lives. Part of that is not having a language in common, though it’s more my unwillingness to abandon a fan and internet in order to see a reality I don’t yet know.

Sometimes You Need a Vacation From Traveling

Since most people don’t ever go abroad for more than a couple weeks at once, the idea of locking yourself in a hotel room near a tropical beach to watch an entire season of “House of Cards” sounds obscene. However, when exhausted from repeated overnight bus rides, wilderness treks, and MSG-laden meals, isolating yourself in an air-conditioned environment with fast wifi can be exactly what you need.

At first I felt guilty for taking daylong breaks from intense traveling, but now I’ve just embraced my downtime to catch up with friends and use my laptop. However, I have the tendency to take this relaxation too far and become complacent in a place where I’ve gotten comfortable. That was exactly what I ended up doing for three weeks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is perhaps the world’s easiest place to live as an expat. Fortunately, by now I’ve discovered the remedy to my laziness is to book imminent buses or flights to my next destination, effectively setting an end date to my complacency.

Desensitization

In Southeast Asia, there are three things you find almost everywhere–temples, waterfalls, and caves. It’s hard to become exuberant at the prospect of seeing another gilded Buddha statue when you’ve seen five in the past week.

Simply, my interest wanes progressively each time I’m presented with an experience that’s mostly indistinguishable from the last one of its type. I have to be careful to not come off as jaded to other awe-struck travelers who are enjoying short vacations or who are in completely new environments.

The flip side of this phenomenon is that I desire superlative experiences and just skip what’s mediocre. As such, having those one-of-a-kind experiences can be more expensive and arduous, but they end up being much more memorable.

At the same time, I seek out the less apparent characteristics that make a place great. Recently, I’d much rather wander into a bustling, gritty market to find the special dish served at every stall than visit a waterfall with a flock of Australians.

Never-ending Research

Before I became a nomad, I enjoyed researching upcoming short trips because I could feel some of the excitement of the destination before I got there. Now I can hardly go a day without spending at least 30 minutes on Lonely Planet and Agoda as I annoy friends familiar with the places I’m going for tips. Planning trip logistics is tedious, but the real downside is it can prevent me from fully enjoying where I am today when I have to already think about tomorrow’s bus schedules and visa requirements.

Hidden Costs

Given my maximum monthly budget of $1,500 (including all expenses such as food, accommodation, transportation, insurance, etc.), every little expense counts. And, it turns out there are many inevitable costs while traveling that I never planned to pay.

Water: I’ve always taken for granted the convenience of being able to safely drink tap water at home. In much of Asia, that’s not the case, so I’ve resorted to buying bottled water. Since I need about 5 liters per day, especially when out in 100-degree humid sun, the $0.25-$0.50 per 1.5-liter bottle adds up to over $50 monthly for me. Of course, I gladly take any opportunity to refill my bottles when I can at guesthouses and street food stalls, but, depending on the country, that isn’t always available.

Corruption: The sad curse of poor countries is that bribery and corruption are the norm, and foreigners are easy targets. Particularly if you’re motorcycling long-distance in these places, as I did in Vietnam, expect to pay $5-25 every time you’re stopped. If the enforcing authorities manage to successfully communicate to you, reasons for paying your “fine” include not having a proper motorcycle license and using your headlights during the day, among other creative infractions. Immigration and border crossings are also moments when travelers are vulnerable, and sometimes it’s not worth fighting, as someone I know battled over a few dollars at the Laos-Cambodia border.

Theft, loss, and damage: The longer and more intrepidly you travel, the likelier you’ll eventually have your purse strap slashed, your phone screen shattered, or your camera waterlogged. Even just last week, my newly-purchased phone was ripped out of my hands by a thief on the back of a passing motorbike in Phnom Penh. To hedge against this, I always buy cheap (but good enough) electronics because I have the propensity to go through four phones per year between clumsiness, forgetfulness, and unawareness.

Medical costs: Some health insurance policies might cover you while abroad, but it’s probably still a good idea to buy a separate travel insurance policy. Over a year of travel, it’s reasonable to have to see a doctor a few times. For severe incidents not covered by your primary insurance, travel insurance can save you thousands of dollars. At $80 monthly, I’ve been happy with World Nomads insurance, which comes highly recommended.

It Gets Lonely, But That’s Okay

To be fair, before I started my trip many people at least implied the loneliness I’d feel traveling by myself for so long. As the headstrong person I am, I mostly ignored their objection to my solo journey. But, they were right, just probably not in the way they intended.

So far in the six countries I’ve visited during over four months, I’ve met countless people and am hardly ever not surrounded by a mass of humanity. Moreover, I use Couchsurfing (both to find hosts and meet locals), practice new words with the women selling me curry at the market, and muse about cultural differences to other travelers. In the sense of solitude, I’m hardly ever lonely.

The real loneliness comes from not being with those who care about what I care about and possess the traits I admire. I’m now at the point that I’ve had enough meaningless small talk with backpackers who’s first question is, “So, where are you from?” followed by, “How ’bout a beer, mate?” As such, I actively avoid hostels and places frequented by other backpackers.

Luckily, my saving grace has been constant contact online with like-minded friends who motivate me to be better. Still, I lack much fulfilling in-person interaction, but besides the prospect of my close friends coming to travel with me, I accept my situation until I make somewhere home.

In the meantime, I’m better understanding my default behavior when I’m not around anyone I know. Realizing how I feel and how I act is paramount for succeeding and being happy at whatever I do next. Hence, I’m grateful because there’s no better way I could’ve learned that than wandering by myself.

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