“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page”
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’re probably aware already that I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet for the past 6 or so months.
In fairness, I’ve had a good reason!
Since mid January, myself and my lovely partner have been on the trip of a lifetime travelling around the world.
It’s slightly surreal looking back on it now, a week back into Irish life with just a good tan, some souvenirs and plenty of memories to look back on. We traipsed across South America, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia, taking in some of the most incredible sights and meeting some brilliant people along the way.
I feel the six months away has definitely changed me, hopefully for the better.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the experience and what I learned.
The default human condition is to fear the unknown. We’ve evolved to believe that there’s safety in familiarity.
Like our pre-historic ancestors fearing the danger of predators beyond the limits of their immediate territory, our system one style of thinking (irrational, primitive and immediate) tells us that strange is not wonderful. We simply can’t comprehend the size of the earth and don’t want to understand how insignificant we are as one of 4 billion. So we build these barriers in our head.
As Rolf Potts says in his brilliant book Vagabonding, the assumption of the superiority of the Western traveller (that we’re so much more refined and cultured than those we meet in other countries), is part of the reason why we deem travelling dangerous.
I was variously told before I left that I’d be robbed in Rio, kidnapped in Colombia, wouldn’t survive the altitude in Bolivia, wouldn’t be able to travel independently by train in Vietnam, wouldn’t be able to communicate in Cambodia etc.
All of this, and I mean literally every pre-conception I was fed or developed, was quickly proven to be at worst hyperbole and at best a complete lie.
The reality is that most places we visited (granted all were at worst ‘second world’ countries, but still off the beaten track somewhat) were no more dangerous than O’Connell Street on a Saturday night.
Very quickly, any mental barriers that myself or my partner had about the people, the culture and the level of danger dissipated, as, without fault, we were made welcome by the kindness of strangers.
Now, there’s nuances to every culture. Rural Thai people were incredibly reverential of westerns, almost to the point of embarrassment for us, while many Argentinians were on the opposite end of the scale for example. But broadly, we realised that no matter where you go in the world, no matter what language is spoken, people are the same. They want happiness, purpose, health, love and entertainment, and they’ll strive to attain that.
Problem Solving & Flexibility
Travelling is excellent for bringing out your resilience, because crap things will happen.
We had flights cancelled, spent 19 hours on a crowded train, got robbed and found ourselves in plenty of other little predicaments.
But it’s almost like a game, a puzzle that you needed to solve.
Remaining positive and flexible in the face of annoyance and adversity is difficult, but all travellers in unfamiliar situations need the ability to think quickly and clearly.
In many cases, the confusion is of your own making.
In some cases, locals see the opportunity to make a quick buck.
So threading the line between being guarded, forceful and angry, and a pushover, is a difficult necessity.
For someone like me who likes things to be planned out and clear (I’m definitely in the right profession as a brand strategist!), this can be tough to swallow at times, but accepting the unexpected makes life a lot, lot easier.
To get to the brass tacks for a minute, one thing that we learned very quickly was that things aren’t as cheap as you may think. Most countries, particularly in tourist or traveller areas, have a two tier pricing system whereby locals are given one price and foreigners are given another, often double the former.
This isn’t a huge issue once you realise it, but can cause confusion and anger at times.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of this was in the poorest country we visited, Cambodia, where tourists were regularly charged in dollars, and the cost of most goods seemed quite similar to American prices.
Secondly, the days of South America and South East Asia being ridiculously cheap to travel around on a minuscule budget are long gone. In major cities like Hanoi, Chiang Mai, Denpasar and particularly Bangkok, we found hostel and budget accommodation to be almost as expensive as most European cities. Food, drink and transport are still much cheaper, but prices are rising, so be aware of that before you leave. It’s still cheap, and we could have made our money last longer, but it’s definitely not as cheap as it once was as tourist economies become more developed.
This is one thing that no travel guide will tell you.
If you’re travelling like we did, as backpackers using local rail and bus transport where possible, you’ll have long spells of boredom.
There’s only so much entertainment one can get from beautiful countryside flashing before your eyes, or the cute Vietnamese kid who’s been staring at the only white couple on the train for half an hour!
Of course, having a companion is a major plus here. Personally, I would find this lack of someone to talk to one of the major minuses of solo travel.
Also, this is where the smartphone comes into its own. Many buses had WiFi, while downloaded podcasts, gaming apps saved music and of course books and magazines all relieved the boredom. I’ve never been as prolific a reader as I have been for the past 6 months!
I also found the app ‘Pocket’ a lifesaver, allowing me to save content from around the web to read later offline.
My advice – see the down time as an opportunity and prepare for it as best you can before you leave.
Having seen some of the most beautiful sights the world has to offer – Machu Picchu’s ancient splendour, coffee plantations in Colombia, New Zealand’s snow capped mountains, Christ the Redeemer in Rio, Bali’s sub tropical beauty, Thailand’s jungle and Angkor Wat’s incredible temples, one thing I’ve taken from the trip is to not take anything for granted.
I can now safely say that in Ireland we live on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer here. I live in beautiful countryside, surrounded by green hills and mountains, and yet I never stop to smell the flowers once in a while.
Perhaps the saddest part of the while 6 months was a day trip to Choeung Ek, a genocidal centre outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia, or as many would know it, Pol Pot’s ‘killing field’.
The history here is so fresh and raw that our guide’s mother was killed in the 70’s conflict, while bones and pieces of clothing are still upturned from the soil after periods of heavy rain.
This troubled country is finding its feet yet democracy is slow to change the lifestyle and daily reality for millions of citizens living in poverty.
That’s one big takeaway for me – to appreciate how lucky I am to live a nice, educated life in a first world country – no matter how much we might complain and groan about it.
And so, our six months came to an end last week. We were a little sad, but also happy to return home to normality, home cooking and regular hot showers!
Thankfully, the beautiful people at Target McConnells have allowed me to take a ‘sabbatical’ (cough!) from my position, and so I’ll be returning to agency land next month, and getting back to some freelance journalism pieces too.
Take a look at my Instagram if you want to know more about where we ventured to. If you’re available for a chat and a coffee in Dublin in August, or if you’re planning on doing a similar trip yourself and I can help, please get in touch!