Ten Travel Truths

Leah: Yes, another reflection piece (mostly because the thought of finding and accumulating our total trip cost data leads to a brain melt down--procrastination remains a better option). We kept a list of the realities that stood out to us after our time as travelers and here's what we've surmised:

1. There's nothing wrong with taking a tour. This statement remains hotly debated among those who've strapped on a backpack and gone nomadic, especially with the more elitist sect of backpackers who would never deign to use the word "tourist" when referring to themselves. However, we're firm advocates that sometimes choosing to go the tourist route can save time and money in the long run. Sure we could have held stilted conversations with local boat captains in Fethiye, Turkey to inquire about hiring a private boat to take us to the various islands dotting the coast where we could swim and sun. But guess what? While it might have saved us a few bucks in the long run and given us a bit more deck space to spread out it wasn't worth our personal time to spend an afternoon trying to find a "non-tour" island-hopping boat when we could be hiking the Lycean Trail instead. We therefore did a few minutes' research, booked a tour boat and had a brilliant time the next day.

Similarly, we could have explored the magnificent Rila Monastery in Bulgaria on our own to maintain our traveler street cred but the public transportation to get there, while cheap, was entirely inconvenient for our timing. So what did we do? You guessed it--we booked a tour from our hostel that actually only had a few people our age, with the added benefit that we were whisked straight out and back with a local guide who explained fascinating stories and facts missing from the guidebooks. There were several other instances like those above; on the trip our time and frustration levels were sometimes more valuable than the money we'd save. And while we're firm believers in getting to know cities by walking, discovering and getting lost, our favorite tours were often the free walking tours that gave you not only a lay of the land, but titillating stories about the past, heaps of info about current life and often side benefits such as discounts at restaurants and bars. A note to fellow world wanderers: tours are not always the devil.

2. Stay with strangers. If you, dear readers, have somehow missed our constant plugging for both Couchsurfing and Workaway then we haven't done our job. We are not paid or compensated by them in any way to shout our love from the rooftops--we really are that infatuated all on our own. While I know the concept of staying with strangers and/or working in exchange for room and board isn't everyone's cup of tea, these opportunities not only allowed us to meet locals in an intimate setting (their own homes!), but to broaden our skill sets, open our eyes and stretch our budget to the max. Indeed, one could comfortably travel the world for years upon years and never need to spend a dime on lodging or food, which many people actually do. Of course we preferred to intersperse our CS and WA stints with hostels and cheap hotels where we could once again be anonymous and not feel obliged to be social with our hosts if we weren't feeling it. However, these organizations have absolutely revolutionized our view of travel and paying it forward, not to mention given us lifelong friends in far-flung corners of the globe.

3. Traveling does not equate to instant healing. People take off for myriad reasons and often one of those is soul searching or healing precipitated by loss, be that the loss of a job, a relationship, an opportunity, or even a life. While we had always maintained an interest in seeing the world together, the string of deaths that rocked our world in 2011 absolutely galvanized us into action and ultimately caused us to leave when we did. Some may view this as running away from the pain and in a way it was; I couldn't stand to be in a place that held such recent soul-crushing memories and I felt suffocated by my grief. Being on the road proved to be a distraction and the change in scenery lightened my load. However, I wasn't magically relieved from the hurt in my heart and I didn't experience some transcendent moment that instantly absolved me from the ache of loss. What I did find while traveling, however, was a host of characters who listened to me talk and provided unbiased thoughts and support having never met me before. I also discovered seemingly infinite time (hello 24 hour bus rides!) to acknowledge, process and work through my feelings--something I didn't have access to while staying put in San Diego. Have I "gotten over" the death of a best friend and my dog as a result of this trip? No--my grief still comes in waves even three years later. Do I feel better now than I did when I started? Absolutely. But is it because I left? I'll never know, but I can unequivocally attest that undertaking a trip doesn't mean your mental and emotional wounds will magically heal--it simply means you give yourself tangible space to tackle what ails you.

4. It's okay to splurge. After having saved like fiends for years and deciding that we'd be going the budget route, it was not in our nature to throw money around: we avoided restaurants and settled for street food or self catering; we took long-haul buses instead of planes and we booked dorms in the hostels even though we're a married couple. However, there were times on the trip when we were faced with chances to throw down way more money than our daily budget allowed for but we soon realized that if the bank account always ruled our lives, this trip of a lifetime would turn into one of regret. Therefore, we found a happy medium between indulging our passions and interests and balancing that out with smart budgeting elsewhere (hint: we couldn't have done it without Couchsurfing and Workaways). We visited the set of Hobbiton, went spelunking, bungy jumped and even swam with dolphins in New Zealand, none of which were cheap pursuits in this land of adventure. London saw us throwing down a fistful to travel to the Warner Brothers studios where Harry Potter was filmed, but that was more important to us than shopping, clubbing or eating in fancy restaurants. We even splurged on forever keepsakes, like the exquisite one-of-a-kind Iranian donkey bag purchased in Turkey that will grace our future home with its brightly colored patterns. This piece of art will always remind of us our time in Cappadocia and was well worth the dodgy hotels and uncomfortable bus rides it took to offset the hundreds of dollars it cost. Bottom line, don't deny yourself the occasional pricey experience just because your eye is always on the bottom line--the memories and resultant stories will pay for themselves ten times over, I promise.

5. Travel can be time consuming. When you think long-term travel your mind may wander to lounging on palm-fringed beaches for weeks on end, endless amounts of time to sit and do nothing and days filled with stress-free wandering. While it's easy to romanticize the traveling lifestyle, the reality is not often so idyllically rosy. It takes time to research where you want to go next, from reading guidebooks, searching online or talking to others who have been there, to say nothing of the work involved in finding and booking cheap, central hostels (especially in high season or when there's a special festival or event). We spent countless hours when searching for Couchsurfing or Workaway hosts, especially since we needed to slot potential hosts in and around each other and juggle those opportunities with our own plans. Onward travel can be its own nightmare, from spending most of a day in desolate towns trying desperately to reach your destination when nobody speaks any of the three languages you do, to researching and booking the most cost and time-efficient airline routes for the longer hauls (especially when you have to decode foreign sites, examine baggage regulations and add up the myriad fees that nickel and dime you on everything). We did move relatively fast during some parts of the trip and therefore added to our own stress levels, but every world wanderer will inevitably encounter the fact that yes, it takes time, energy and often tears of frustration to plan out your next exciting move.

6. Sometimes you need a time-out. This sentiment remains directly related to the previous paragraph. While friends and family at home may think that your life on the road consists of nothing but exciting people, exotic food, lush landscapes and a stress-free existence with which to enjoy them, the reality is far different. Sometimes it's all just too much, from having to think and speak 24/7 in a foreign language, to the riotous sensory assaults to the system, to feeling like you should be tackling every breathtaking hike and exploring each world-class museum. Instead, we found that when we reached system overload we had to give ourselves permission to step back and take a "vacation" from our trip to save our personal sanity and our relationship. That could be anything from paying a few bucks to sit by a quiet pool all day and drink iced, frothy chocolate (Nicaragua), to actually booking a private hostel room and holing up all day watching movies on the laptop and eating snack food (Romania). It's okay to take a breather and your body, brain and traveling companion(s) will thank you for it.

7. You can live with a lot less than you think. No, really. Admittedly we even packed way more than we needed, but our bags were still on the smaller side compared to many of the people we saw. Often we met individuals with bags the size of their body who needed to have five pairs of shoes, a change of clothes for every day of the week and full-size hygiene products from home. To each their own, but we relished the freedom we gained by shrugging off "stuff" and paring essentials down to a bare minimum. What good is it to have dozens of cute tops in a rainbow of colors if mere hours in the Central American tropics will see them transformed into a sweat-soaked stinking mess? Better to just have two and wear one until it's so vile you can smell it across the room (true story) and then swap for the next while the first languishes in a sudsy soak in the sink. Admittedly we weren't single and didn't need clothes to impress, but do you really need--and use--everything in your bag? Local markets and stores sell everything you need, often at much less than what you'd pay at home, and you may even find a new product on the road you can't live without. Now if only we could take our own advice on this one and not load our bags with books...

8. Life at home carries on without you. While of course we knew better before our departure, some part of us still thought that our pre-trip lives and relationships would stagnate without us there. In truth, new people were brought in to cover our positions at our old jobs, our friends and family moved forward and in short it felt like there was a barely ripple at removing ourselves from the mix. No, we don't usually affect an air of inflated self-worth but the realization that your normal world carries on without you in it remains greatly humbling. We saw birth, death, engagement and marriage transpire without ever once having played a role in any of it. Of course we wished we could have been there with our loved ones on each occasion to celebrate or support, but it became increasingly obvious that while we were missed we weren't needed because our presence could have in no way altered outcomes. Pretty heady stuff.

9. You develop an altered mentality in regards to risk. This truth became evident quite early on, and not just because we didn't have a choice in avoiding the harrowing mountain roads to move around places like Guatemala and Peru, the only times on the trip I thought I actually could have died. We aren't adrenaline junkies and we don't psych ourselves up at the thought of putting our lives in danger on a routine basis. However, you seem to hone your sixth-sense or gut intuition when traveling in a way you never could at home, which inevitably leads to different perspectives on trust and risk. Especially in regards to people, we saw decisions made on the trip that horrify people back at home.

For example, a fellow traveler we met in Turkey decided to not only invest in $1,500 worth of Turkish carpets, but to ship them to my parent's house--people he had never met and were only vouched for by someone he had known for just a few days--to be picked up at some distant point in the future. People he knew at home were aghast that he'd take such a gamble with a valuable commodity, but there was never a doubt in his mind that it wasn't risky after he had spent time with us. Similarly, we trusted Emmanuelle, the woman from Boulder, Colorado who worked at Hetta Huskies with us, to bring over Steve's newly activated debit card despite the fact that we had never even met her and had only exchanged a few emails. Risky? Potentially. But travel risks are par for the course and while they sound downright stupid to most people lounging at home, while on the road you manage to intuit what's a real risk and what only appears that way.

10. It's possible to travel -gasp!- without a smart phone. Or a dumb phone for that matter. It's also possible to travel without a laptop, tablet, fancy camera or any other piece of electronic gadget equipment you think you absolutely must carry in order to travel abroad. We didn't have a phone for the first seven months of our trip and once we acquired a cheapie model in New Zealand, we only purchased SIM cards in a few countries after that; more often than not we were phone-less and smartphone-less at that. Most people we met couldn't understand how we were functioning, let alone navigating, without the assistance of expensive technology and seemed shocked when we explained how we used a combination of maps (old-fashioned, non-GPS paper versions), intuition and asking locals to get around. Yes, we did have our laptop and that was a decision we made because we knew we'd need it to blog as well as contact Couchsurfing and Workaway hosts, but every hostel/host seems to have a computer and most cities have internet cafes. Similarly, many places have pay phones or stores where you can pay to make a call and if we were desperate we would ask a local if we could give them money to use their cell for a few minutes-- inevitably they handed it over with a smile and shrugged off our attempts to reimburse them.

One of the most disheartening realities of modern travel is how many travelers are so wired they don't even seem to be experiencing their surroundings. From everyone in the hostel lounge scrolling through their Facebook feed on their iPhones instead of talking to each other, to people so worried about getting that perfect shot on their tablet that they miss the joy of capturing the sensory memory itself, it was saddening to see how technology permeates all, often to the detriment of interaction with your very environment. I know we're a wired world and I'm not advocating that we go backward, but there's plenty of time at home to be plugged into the matrix; if you make the time and financial commitment to travel, then travel! Turn off the phone and talk to the grubby-looking but engaging guy next to you who has insider tips on the country you're heading to next. Pick a direction and walk, using landmarks, locals or even the sun to help you navigate instead of electronic mapping features that often don't even display the tiny side streets with the best noodle bowls, or the locals-only beach with the hidden footpath access route. Instead of trying to capture the ethereal majesty of the Northern Lights with your point-and-click, put down the camera, breath in the Arctic air and commit the dancing displays to memory instead. Live, taste, smell, touch, talk...tear your eyes away from the screen, for there's a big, wide world out there waiting for you.


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