One question to ask yourself before travelling
When I was a kid we took some road trips with my parents’ friends. I can still remember my aunt walking around with a map, screening the area for the next monument or building she longed to see. I, however, found the most excitement in aimlessly walking the maze of little side streets, not in nearing an acknowledged point of historical or cultural interest. To this day, I almost never visit any museums or architectural delights, I don’t read guidebooks and prefer not to look at a map unless I’m really lost or in need of getting somewhere fast. My ideal day is just wandering the streets of an unknown city or town, taking left and right turns, climbing walls and rocks, going into open courtyards and behind a stranger’s house.
I spent the last winter in Hawai’i doing a work trade together with my boyfriend. And while I enjoyed the sights, the beach and the company, I soon became restless. Here I was, in one of the furthest places possible away from home, and instead of getting to know the local culture and meeting Hawaiians, I was spending most of my time with Americans. Lovely people and all, but not native to the land and culture I wanted to explore. I hoped that when we’d finally have some time off, my boyfriend and I would set off to explore. However, that never really happened. When you ask us about our time in Hawaii, Bartek’ll tell you that it was awesome and all he ever needed to be happy: no worries about paying the bills or buying food, surfing every once in a while, a comfy place by the beach to spend days in front of a computer not doing much. When you ask me, I’ll tell you how frustrated I was not to be in touch with the indigenous people, how trapped I felt by being in the same place all the time, how disappointed to have been so far and not even scratched the surface of what’s to be learnt and discovered.
When a friend called me and heard I was going to Iceland in January, she almost immediately asked me if she could join. I said sure, but I also let her know that I’d be doing it as low cost as possible: hitch hiking if possible, Couchsurfing and staying at local people’s houses etc. I didn’t have any real expectations from this trip, apart from wanting to see snow and the northern lights – oh, and a frozen waterfall. From the very few times we talked about the trip before boarding the plane, I gathered she was okay with not knowing what would happen. Things started going south on the very day we arrived (a rather unfortunate adventure with a CS host) and it soon turned out that our needs and expectations were very different. We didn’t have any plans, yet she strongly needed some frames for the experience. I was bent on hitch hiking, yet she’d rather take a bus in the blink of an eye. I was excited about a 5km walk ahead of us; she was terrified of and physically not prepared for having to march so far. I could go on without food for the whole day; her body needs three meals a day, at regular times. I see mishaps and unexpected uncomfortable situations as a natural part of being on the road but that’s definitely not the road she wants to be taking.
Hitch hiking through Europe, travelling on local trains in Asia, backpacking in South America, volunteering in Africa, work trading in North America – it all sounds, oh so lovely and exciting and adventurous. Most of all, it sounds romantic. But just like romantic comedies don’t show you the whole story of love and relationships (rather a very sugarcoated and artificial one), life on the road is never as glamorous and candid as those Instagram pictures you browse through on your way to work. This is why whenever I hear someone say: “I wish I travelled like you do!”, I simply ask: “Do you really?”.
Would you really like to figure out hitch hiking spots on the outskirts of unknown towns; not be able to have a fixed schedule, not know who will pick you up or when it will happen; drive with a person you feel uncomfortable with or get dropped off in a totally wrong place?
Would you really enjoy choosing an eleven-hour journey on the floor of a crowded cart instead of taking that one-hour comfortable flight? Riding in dirt, noise and draught; not having the place to stretch your legs or lean your back; feeling greasy and dusty; doing your business in a toilet that makes you feel sick?
Would you find it exciting to carry all belongings on your back, twenty four seven; to stay in dorm rooms with seven snoring strangers; to have close to no privacy; to be hosted by people you’ve never met in houses you’ve never been to, in standards different than your own?
Do extreme heat, a lack of running water or electricity, problems with transportation and administration, having to be alert all day and all night long sound appealing to you? Do you really have what it takes to enjoy teaching a class of forty kids, giving love and support to orphans and the sick, helping dig wells or plough the fields?
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In the past few years and with the rise of social media, travel blogs and inspirational articles, travelling on a budget, leaving like a local and “just letting go” has become highly romanticized and idealized. There are plenty of debates about who’s a “traveller” and who’s a “tourist”, in which authors often aim to glorify the first and ostracize or diminish the latter. And while I myself am up for adventure and ready to leave any minute, not everybody has the same psychological and emotional makeup. And there’s no reason they should or be made to feel so, if they’re not so inclined.
Some people travel for the past and what’s been left behind;
some seek what’s happening now.
Some people like architecture, art or historical sights;
others want conversations and insights into local people’s lives.
Some people want to dine and wine and see beautiful sights;
some experience beauty in the randomness of what they find.
Some people enjoy comfort, convenience and facilities close by;
others don’t care as long as they feel they’re alive.
Some people need privacy and order to feel safe and at ease;
some people thrive in uncharted waters and the unknown.
None of those people are right or wrong. They’re simply different, looking to satisfy the same needs and desires in very contrasting ways.
So before you set off to travel, answer yourself this: What types of situations do you really enjoy and how to best create them while travelling?
Only then decide where to go, how to go and whom to go with.
Otherwise your dream trip might become a nightmare sooner than you’d ever think possible.