Long-term solo travel is sometimes believed to be a lot of things that it is not. It’s true that travelers have a lot of crazy stories to tell when they’re back from that trip across Asia or around the world, but the not-so-glamorous side of travel is a reality that hardly gets spoken about and very few people understand. Here are 10 things on the other side of that perfect travel jump shot.
It’s common belief that people who sell all of their possessions, quit their jobs or take a gap year to travel the world are free of responsibilities and can afford to be reckless and carefree. Of course, it looks like that considering that they don’t have a house, job or routine to follow anymore. But the truth is that they are still responsible for a lot of things on a daily basis, such as finding ways to fund their travels, keeping costs to a minimum, making decisions about where to stay, what to do, where to travel next, how to travel and how to make it all work. It’s just that these decisions are of a different kind, but they do have real consequences. Travel needs meticulous planning and this requires assumption of full responsibility. On the road you’re responsible for arranging and organizing everything and your own safety. Living out of a suitcase or backpack requires taking some tough decisions and a whole lot of creativity.
When you’re staying in hostels and have a limited amount of money to last you the entire trip (and sometimes debt to repay), there’s no way you can afford to party with your new friends every night. Forget about the wild stories you hear about travelers drinking and dancing every night away. While this is true for a certain age group in some countries (like Thailand), the percentage of travelers who can afford to travel for a long time while continuing to do this is very small.
You look like a mess and you are one a lot of the time! Everything does not go perfectly as planned. You miss flights, buses and trains and rush to get to others in time. You get stuck in bad weather at some points. Unexpected things go wrong all the time when you’re travelling and if you can see the humor and enjoy it all, then you’ll get the most out of your experience. An inspiring adventurer once told me, “The disasters are all part of the adventure.”
Loneliness can often be a real problem faced by long-term travelers, especially if they’re traveling across a country without spending too much time in one place or setting up a base. Unless you’re someone who’s comfortable with being on your own, dining by yourself and not always having someone to share the joy of new discoveries and experiences with, solo travel is not a good idea. Of course you do meet a lot of people from all over the world when you travel and forming meaningful friendships is common, but the possibility of this happening depends on where you’re traveling, if other people are around and how open and social you are as a person. It’s not always the case that you’ll have company, there may be extended periods of time when you’re by yourself.
It’s comforting to have your loved ones and local doctor around when things go wrong with your health. In spite of globalization, the quality of healthcare, services, medicines and the availability of different medicines varies widely among countries. A lot of travelers don’t like to risk going to a doctor or getting any kind of treatment done until they’re back home. It’s not always that the quality of healthcare is bad in other countries; it’s just that some people may be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar methods used. When I developed a nasty blister from hiking in new boots in Vietnam, I decided I would rather wait for a few weeks to get it treated at home, rather than show it to a doctor in Sapa. Also, if you’re traveling solo, it can be difficult to deal with allergic reactions, severe fevers, insect bites, swollen feet, stomach infections, salmonella or food poisoning all by yourself. At times like these, you’d rather curl up and die.
The images of local food that you see in travel magazines and on countless travel blogs can make you believe that every meal is an experience in itself. The truth is that not every cuisine appeals to your taste buds and some places are very expensive to eat out in every day. Sometimes when you’re traveling in a region that is culturally very different, you don’t know what to eat and everything you try is either a bad idea or just does not taste good. Sometimes there’s not even the good old McDonald’s to rescue you. Allergies and reactions to local food are a reality that all travelers have to deal with from time to time.
If you travel for a few weeks or more, especially if it’s off the beaten path, you’ll probably come back and look at a lot of things differently. You’ll notice things and have realizations you’ve never had before. If you’ve spent some time trekking in wilderness and fallen in love with nature, you’re more likely to appreciate your local park that you simply walked past before. While you appreciate familiar comforts and luxuries, there are also some things that now annoy you, although you’ve seen them happen all your life. If you’ve spent a month in a village with limited power and access to water, and taken quick cold showers with buckets of water, then you’ve probably learned the importance of conservation of water. Obviously, coming home to siblings who take half-hour-long showers can become annoying.
Even if you’re a traveler of the thrifty kind, one thing you should not be cheap about is travel insurance. Anything can happen when you’re traveling; your phone or camera could be stolen on a bus, you can get into an accident while zip lining in a forest, or you could lose your baggage at a busy airport. It’s reassuring to know that you’re covered for these things rather than have to deal with the disappointment of monetary loss.
Sure, you’ve had the most life-changing trip and seen things that you could have never imagined you would see. Maybe they’re even things that none of your friends or family have experienced. But the truth is that very few people really want to hear your stories. Your stories are about unfamiliar things and they make most people uncomfortable after a certain point. If you’ve had an amazing journey, people don’t always want to hear about it because it makes them long for those things. They don’t like this because they believe that they have real responsibilities and just can’t take off carelessly like you did. Sometimes they’re just dismissing you as lost, confused or a hippie type when you’re talking excessively about that month you spent learning to meditate with monks in a remote village in Nepal. So just be content in knowing that you’ve experienced what very few people do in their lifetimes, you don’t have to brag about it to make it count.
All the above challenges are a very real part of the adventure. If you only want the good parts; rich cultural experiences, good food, meeting interesting people and acquiring new skills, then you don’t understand what long-term travel is about. Unless you learn to enjoy the challenges, or want to experience them, you don’t really want to travel long term. If all this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you’re better off getting a pre-arranged tour type holiday where you have almost complete control over what is going to happen.
Travel is full of surprises and challenges. It teaches you invaluable lessons that you can’t learn in school or at university. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and go further than the boundaries you know. If you let it, it can change you forever but mostly in a good way. So even if there are things that nobody told you about, it’s because the positives far exceed the risks and challenges. In the end, you take away much more from the experience than you could have imagined.
Featured photo credit: Garry Knight via flickr.com
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