We have been travelling together for over twenty years. Over the course of those years, we have learnt a thing or two. Some of our lessons have been minor ones and others more impactive. In fact, some of them have changed the way we now travel. Our lessons have been varied – philosophical, educational and practical. Indeed, they have moulded us into the travellers we are today. Without further ado, here are ten things we have learnt from our travels:
1) Many destinations aren’t as scary as they are made out to be
People love to tell horror stories about the places you are headed to! Many years ago, we were a few days away from our first trip to India. We had decided to head for Goa first because we thought that it would be less of a culture shock than elsewhere in India. Of course, we were excited, but nevertheless a little apprehensive (a fact that seems strange now!). One night before we left, we were taking a taxi home after a night out with friends. We got chatting to the taxi driver and told him we were off to Goa in a few days. He consequently took great delight in telling us about attacks on foreigners that had recently taken place there. Cheers mate! Needless to say, our trip was incident-free.
More recently, we decided to go to Colombia, somewhere we had both wanted to visit for a long time. “Isn’t it dangerous there?” we were asked, before we set off on our travels. In our guide book, we read that Candelaria in Bogota wasn’t a safe place to stay. We decided to stay there anyway because it was the most interesting area of the city. We took care, stayed aware, booked secure accomodation which had good reviews and thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Candelaria. Similarly, one of our favourite cities in the world, Mexico City, often gets a negative rap. We have been there several times now, walk everywhere, and have never had any safety issues.
For some reason, there are people out there who enjoy scare-mongering. Of course, there are places in the world where we have to be on our guard. However, if we had taken notice of everything we have been told, we would have missed out on some amazing places. We use common sense and watch our backs, but don’t take onboard everything the doom mongers tell us!
2) Travelling light is the way to go
After many years of hauling a huge backpack around the planet on our travels, we finally learnt our lesson! On a month long trip to South East Asia, we decided to experiment by taking small backpacks. Since then, haven’t looked back. These days, a thirty-litre day pack is our limit and we are passionate advocates of travelling light. Indeed, we look at other travellers struggling with heavy packs and wonder what they are carrying which makes it worthwhile!
Travelling light makes so much sense for backpackers who are moving around much of the time. In the first place, we no longer have to check bags. This means we don’t have to wait around at airports for longer than we have to. Additionally, we don’t have to worry about our luggage being lost. A small backpack is so much more manageable on local buses when there is no facility for checking bags. In fact, carrying a small backpack is more manageable full stop. It places less strain on the back and allows us to get around more easily. Admittedly, it took us a few years to ‘enlighten’ ourselves, but we are so glad we did!
3) There are still a lot of kind people in the world
With the corruption and division that we hear about every day in the news, it’s not surprising that many of us aren’t impressed with the world right now. Additionally, the self-obsessive nature of social media takes its toll on the sub-conscious. Occasionally, it seems that the world is devoid of compassion, kindness and understanding. We sometimes forget that there is still a lot of good out there in the world. Travel, however, reminds us that most people are essentially kind.
We have been recipients of much kindness during our travels. From being invited into a family home and treated like royalty in Sri Lanka to being picked up when we were hitchhiking in New Zealand. Whether the kindness shown has been a small gesture or a more substantial one, it is always heartwarming. Such gestures send us on our way uplifted and with an appreciation for a special connection which has been made.
People who live in countries which are far poorer than our own, have often been incredible hospitable, sharing the little they have. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such kindness being shown in the western world. The Charity World Foundation Giving Index have reported that war-torn Iraq is the most giving nation in the world. Hospitality (the ancient art of Karam) is a very important aspect of Middle Eastern society. Many travellers to the Middle East are deeply touched by the kindness shown to them. Travelling has certainly opened our eyes to the goodwill, compassion and kindness that still exists in the world.
4) It’s important to experience the things you want to rather than those you think you should
Over the course of time, we have learnt what gives us most enjoyment and fulfilment from in our travels. As an inexperienced traveller, it easy to get caught up in doing things which everyone else does eg visiting famous tourist attractions for the sake of it and seeing things that you feel you are supposed to see. Over the years we have become more discerning about our travel likes and dislikes and are able to fill our days with the things we know we like to do.
We went to Rome for the first time a couple of years ago and didn’t visit the Vatican. Instead of standing in long queues day for a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel amongst a throng of self-stick hording tourists, we went to the neighbourhood of Testaccio on a food tour. We sampled some extremely tasty food, met the locals, wandered through the market and gained an insight into a fascinating working-class area of the city. Unless it’s an attraction that we have always dreamt about seeing, we now know enough about ourselves to realise that some of the major crowd-pleasers aren’t what we love most about travel. We have learnt that our continued enthusiasm for travel comes in the form of hidden gems and off-the-beaten track delights.
5) We prefer to travel slowly
Another thing we have learnt from our travels is that we don’t like to rush. We prefer to take our time and really get to know the place we are staying in. Schedules aren’t for us. The fact is that when when we are travelling long-term, we don’t need to frantically rush around seeing as many sights as we can in a day. Indeed, that isn’t the way we would ever want to travel. We enjoy taking time to soak up the atmosphere of places and open ourselves up to new experiences. We make stronger connections with places, people and things and try to go to places that are less visited.
Another aspect of slow travel is the way we choose to get around. Whenever possible, we explore places on foot. In New York, for example, we rarely take the subway. Instead, we choose to walk – for miles! Although, we understand that not everyone would want to walk as far as we do, we love exploring by foot. Additionally, over the course of several visits, we have got to know the streets of the city really well. Rather than fly, we like to take a bus or train. We see so much more of a country and develop more of a sense of the landscape and how it changes over the course of a journey. Indeed, slowing down has compelled us to be more mindful, to live in the moment and has consequently enhanced our travels infinitely.
6) A little patience goes a long way
Independent travel can be challenging at times and we have discovered that remaining calm in certain circumstances is vital to a successful trip. Frustration can often come to the surface, especially when travelling in countries such as India. Simply buying a train ticket at an Indian railway station can be a lengthy and sometimes challenging experience. We have been shifted from a queue to an office, asked to fill out forms, been directed to another queue and finally been told to go to yet another counter (and start queuing all over again!) Not to mention the touts! No matter how experienced a traveller you are, scammers always have another trick up their sleeves!
We have learnt that if we can take a deep breath and keep our cool (even when it’s very hot!) it makes our travels so much more enjoyable. Sometimes, we can even see the funny side of things afterwards. Sure, we have been scammed a few times – it’s one of the hazards of independent travel. Nevertheless, when we think about how many rupees we may have actually lost, it’s not usually worth stressing over. Additionally, travel can involve an abundance of monotonous waiting around. Whether it’s waiting for hotel check-in time or for a bus, we have learnt that patience is a virtue while travelling.
7) We are privileged to be able to travel
It wasn’t until we started travelling that we realised how privileged we are to be able to explore the world in the first place. We aren’t rich by western standards, nevertheless we have the freedom and means (if we save up hard enough!) to see the world, albeit on a budget. This is a privilege which much of the world don’t have. Indeed, although we have worked hard and given up things which are seen as necessities in the UK in order to travel, we are still privileged.
We have talked to countless people on our travels in developing countries, who would love nothing more than to visit London or New York just once in their life. Sadly, for many it is a pipedream as economic/social restrictions placed upon them are never likely to make it a possibility. Indeed, nearly three billion people in the world scrape by on less than $2.00 a day and even a large percentage of westerners survive below the poverty line. We have choices that most of the world don’t, and for that we are grateful.
8) A little research can smooth the way
We don’t like to plan too much, but have learnt that there are times when a little research can smooth the way. On one occasion, we had read about a scam that takes place regularly on the Thai-Cambodian border. Because we were aware of it, we knew exactly what to expect and were able to deal with it accordingly. Without previous knowledge, we would have found ourselves in Cambodia with a substantial amount of dollars less to spend!
Scams are just one thing which it is best to read up about beforehand. It’s always wise to ascertain costs and whether cash is attainable. Many parts of the world have a lack of ATM’s and it’s useful to know in advance if this happens to be the case. Knowing which areas of town to avoid isn’t a bad idea either. At least you are forewarned and can make a decision based on the knowledge that you have.
Additionally, a little research on the customs and traditions of a country can help traveller’s avoid awkward or embarrassing situations. Knowing a few words in the local language can also be useful. What’s more – the locals always appreciate it, even if you language skills are limited! We try not to besiege ourselves with information, as we love to discover things for ourselves. Having said that, we have learnt that being informed has definitely been an advantage at times.
9) You snooze, you lose!
Although we tend not to visit an abundance of major tourist attractions, naturally there are some which we want to see. When this is the case, we always try to arrive when they are at their least busy and get ahead of the crowds. Consequently, this usually means getting up early! In fact, we are often first in the queue. Some of the places that we have managed to do this were the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica and countless museums throughout the world.
Once we have paid our entrance fee, we will walk as far as we can and work backwards. This means that we are able to enjoy our surroundings in solitude for at least some of our visit before we bump into the throngs. Admittedly it doesn’t always work, but usually it does! We tend to be early birds anyway, so rising early is no big deal to us and we have learnt that it’s certainly advantageous on our travels.
10) History, Culture, Art, Nature, Geography…
We have learnt about all manner of things on our travels, things which we would have had little or no knowledge of had we stayed at home. Travel is indeed, an education. From learning about the great artists in the galleries of the world to being able to pinpoint where random destinations are on a map. We have learnt about nature and wildlife and have experienced it first hand – not just on the National Geographic Channel. We have developed a deeper understanding of the culture of the places we have visited. Additionally, we have learnt more about the economic, social structure and politics of various countries.
Subjects that were boring to learn about in the classroom come alive when we are on our travels. Whether it is learning about the crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or the Mayan architecture of Mexico, travel gives a depth and fascination to learning that isn’t present at school. Travel has opened our minds to events, natural phenomenon and cultures which we would not even have been aware existed. As they say, travel is the best education.