2004 was a ground-breaking year for me.
It was the year the world really opened up like the oyster they say it is. What was supposed to be a brief visit to a friend studying abroad turned into a RTW ticket that included stops in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and LA. Three months’ nonstop backpacking around the world. Although many bloggers make backpacking sound very romantic and glamorous, it isn’t always rosy. Here are some lessons I learned from my first round the world (RTW) trip.
1. Always carry books.
Traveling around the world involves a lot of waiting around: in stations, on trains, on buses, on planes, on boats, and in airports. Back in 2004, my traveling buddies and I didn’t have smart phones and left our laptops at home. How did we entertain ourselves? By reading ourselves silly. Also, reading time helped each of us decompress when group travel became too much. Carry a Kindle or one book you can swap with other travelers when you’re done.
2. Journal it!
2004 was the first time I started a travel journal. Sure, I have lots of pictures from the trip but pictures don’t tell the whole story. For example, I still remember the tangy beer fish and Tabasco-laced tequila shots we had with Mickey, the coolest Chinese guy ever at MC Blues café in Yangshou. Also, 2004 was a simpler time (before Instagram and Facebook) when travelers didn’t take a million pictures of everything they put in their mouths. The journal also documented how naive I was on my first real independent trip and it’s great to see how much I’ve learned since then. When you travel, write down your first impressions. Use all your senses to document your travels. What does it look/smell/look/sound/feel like? Also, write down the cool stuff people say.
3. Charge your devices.
In 2004, we didn’t have smartphones which meant we had to navigate old school style: with maps, signs, and asking for directions. Smartphones have simplified world travel immensely so always charge your devices and carry a portable charger. Be sure to keep that camera fully charged too.
4. Book your accommodation in advance.
One of the worst experiences we had was arriving in Yangshuo, China without a bed. We had just completed an overnight train ride from Guangzhou and we were hungry, grumpy, tired, and badly needed a shower. When we disembarked the train at Guilin station, we were quickly overwhelmed by the touts and ended up following a guy who took us to a substandard room. After staying one night, we quickly moved to a cleaner and more centrally located hostel.
5. Set your alarm.
Because we got up late, we missed our 10 am bus and had to fork out an extra AUS$149 to get a taxi from Gympie to our hostel in Rainbow Beach. That hurt.
6. Try everything once.
The trip involved a lot of firsts for me including my first scuba dive. When traveling abroad, don’t be too cautious or you’ll miss out some really unique experiences. Of course, I’m not saying to act like a prize idiot and do a lot of illegal/unethical crap but you get the picture. Balance your discretion and your adventurousness.
7. Meet the locals.
Even if you’re traveling in a group or going solo, don’t just hang out in traveler cliques. Get to know the locals. After all, isn’t that the best part about traveling to a new place? Learn basic phrases so you can start a conversation. Once you get going, you’ll learn things about the country, language, and culture you’ll never find in any guidebook. And remember to share your culture too. I wished I had brought a flag or some souvenirs to introduce Trinidad and Tobago when I was in China and Fiji. Also, appreciate that some of your travel friendships will be ephemeral (not everyone’s on Facebook) so enjoy them by being in the moment.
8. Pack only the essentials.
Because you’re backpacking, keep it light. You only need one week’s worth of clothes even if you’re going to be traveling for weeks or months on end. What you don’t pack, you can always buy at your destination. That includes heavier gear and shoes, toiletries, and over the counter drugs. Important tip: never travel hungry. Always pack water and a snack, no matter how short you think the journey is going to be. You never know when you’ll face delays on the road. Snacks that pack well include granola, crackers, and fruit that don’t bruise easily like apples.
Did you ever travel around the world? What did you learn?