It’s not exactly the School of Hard Knocks, but one year of travel is a great way to get out of your perpetually-stagnant Comfort Zone and learn some shit through real-life experience. By putting ourselves out there, we ended up in a ton of situations that were packed full of more knowledge and personal growth than an international life coaching convention. Here are 19 of the biggest lessons that we gleaned from one year in the School of Life on the road.
1. Pubs are the best
We’ve said it before, but pubs are the most welcoming and most useful institutions in the world. Whether you need to hide from the rain, have a rest, take a poo, grab a small snack, or refresh yourself with a lovely beverage, pubs are an ideal refuge. They’re open from morning till night, you order at the counter, you can sit for as long as you like, and there’s no tipping involved. Pubs are the best and we wish they existed everywhere.
2. Homemade food is easy and better
Believe it or not, the majority of people on this earth don’t buy their food in commercially-wrapped packages from enormous air-conditioned supermarkets. They take the basic ingredients—often found locally and in natural abundance—and make it themselves. Cheese, yogurt, tomato paste, pickles, wine; the variety of very basic foods that are easy to make at home is pretty astounding, plus you can control the quality of ingredients and skip the chemical colours and preservatives. From homemade kajmak in Bosnia to spicy sambal in Indonesia, we had the pleasure of tasting so many delicacies that were created only metres away or moments ago, and it tasted way better than anything that comes from a package. Making food from scratch is definitely the way to go!
3. A little smile goes a long way
Smile and the whole world smiles with you.. it’s true! We visited a lot of places where people are weary or suspicious of foreigners, but all they needed was to see was our big grins to know that we weren’t really so bad. Resting Bitch Face might have some benefits too, but in general people treat you better if you smile at them, and are more willing to help you out with a favour, to give you a discount, and have fun while you haggle with them. It’s a language everyone can understand, and it conveys an essential human emotion that people love to feel and share. When things are going wrong, try smiling and see how far it gets you.
4. Most people are simply satisfied with the status quo
There are the people who would harp on about how jealous they were of our travels and how they wished they could do the same thing, but who would insist it was too difficult for them to try. Then there are the people who are content to tick the boxes on their travel bucket list—seeing all the famous sites, riding all the elephants, wearing all the elephant pants, and doing all the other touristy things that they feel is important for a holiday. Both parties are content to go with the flow and do what they think is expected in life without asking too many questions. As someone who’s spent much of her life pushing against the grain, I used to find these people rather infuriating. Don’t they want to see what’s really out there?? But there was a point on our travels when I really realised that this type of person exists everywhere, in every country and in every walk of life, and that’s just how they do. You can’t force someone to look out of their comfort zone and that’s okay; it’s part of human nature.
5. Sometimes you’ve just gotta trust strangers
We’re taught from a tender age not to trust strangers. But when you’re travelling in a foreign land, strangers are often the only people you have to depend on. It’s one of the biggest conundrums for travellers: Do I trust these people and risk getting robbed, scammed, or worse? Or do I distrust them and stay safe, but risk missing out on a great experience—the whole reason I’m travelling in the first place? Beyond all the horror stories (that typically come out of sightseeing hotspots where tourists are easy targets), strangers around the world are usually genuine, curious, and interested in helping a foreign brother or sister out. Strangers helped us out a lot, from buying SIM cards for us, to showing us around town then giving us a place to sleep, to helping fix our car, to arguing with the Iranian police on our behalf. We definitely couldn’t have made it around the world without them!
6. Spontaneity is the spice of life
Part of what makes travel so fun is that it feels like anything could happen—and it does on a daily basis. Fateful meetings with strangers at a time of need; random invitations to homes; parties in the forest; free food from monks; games with local children. This is everything that’s missing in the monotony of “normal” life, and a big part of what gets people addicted to travel. Those friends that can’t hang out unless you contact them a week in advance? Those people who get creeped out when strangers talk to them? Spontaneity killers. If we could all be a little bit more free with our schedule and open with each other, we could work that spontaneous serendipity into our own cultures and make daily life more enjoyable.
7. Never try, never know
This was written on a sign advertising nitrous oxide balloons at a beach bar in Thailand, but it became our motto every time we were apprehensive about trying something new. What is life if not for trying to experience and understand our world as much as possible? And while there are situations where the pros and cons should be properly weighed in order to avoid injury or death, many of the things people are afraid to try are harmless or would make for a great story later. So get out there and eat those insects, try the snake blood, sample the illicit substances, and accept the random invitations (but use some judgement, of course). Think you can blag your way into or out of something? Try it! Do first and ask for forgiveness later. What is the worst that could happen?
8. There are three types of fun
The Fun Scale is well-documented in the outdoor community, but because we’re not outdoorsy people we learned about it the hard way. There’s Type I Fun, which is the obvious kind of fun, where you’re having an awesome time and you never want it to end. There’s Type II Fun, where you hit a spot of trouble or get into a miserable situation (like getting lost, or running out of gas in the middle of nowhere), but somehow everything works out and retrospectively it was pretty fun. Then there’s Type III Fun, which is when something really tough happens (you get mugged, arrested or injured) and the entire ordeal was totally shit, but you managed to survive. This is truly character-building fun, and teaches lessons you can carry for the rest of your life. Type II and Type III Fun make for the best stories later.
9. You don’t need so much stuff
One of the biggest apprehensions people have about long-term travel is ditching their stuff. What am I going to do without a different outfit to wear every day of the week, without a DVR to record all of my TV shows, and without a gazillion pictures of my friends and family staring down at me from my walls while I sleep? How will I survive without my shelves full of books, espresso machine, house plants, Xbox, 15 different colours of nail varnish, set of Japanese cooking knives, etc., etc., etc.?!?!
But, as anyone who has lived out of a backpack can tell you, no one needs all that crap. There is a certain moment of backpacker Zen, when you realise you are the happiest you’ve ever been when you’re carrying everything you own on your shoulders. When you free yourself from all the consumeristic junk our society brainwashes us into buying, you feel physically lighter, more pragmatic about life, and more in control of your money. You quickly learn to appreciate what you have, and the memories of that thing you just couldn’t live without soon fade away.
10. Greed is a sin
Greedy people, especially people who are greedy about money, are the scourge of humanity. From company owners who employ people in sweat shops to restauranteurs or guesthouse owners who nickel-and-dime “rich” foreigners, to scheming taxi drivers, to those who rob and scam on the street; these are the people who feel overly-entitled to things that are not theirs, and they ruthlessly take advantage of others in order to get it. Money is a necessary evil that people need to survive—we get that. But do an honest job and make an honest living, be clever, but be fair. Taking advantage of the weak or naive in order to put money in your own pocket is one of the most despicable things a person can do.
11. It’s not a problem, it’s a situation
Words of wisdom from our great friend David. A situation becomes a problem only if you think of it as such. Problems are difficult and stressful. They can be upsetting, sometimes even panic-inducing, and the nature of the word itself points to the inevitability that things aren’t going to end well. Situations can be managed and dealt with using a clear head, through clever thinking and/or cooperation. Don’t let your situations escalate into problems.
12. Opportunity knocks only once
Be it a chance to use the toilet, a photo opportunity, or an invitation to someone’s home, take it when you can because you might not get another chance. There are very few things to truly regret in life, but skipping the one bathroom break on a six-hour bus trip ranks up there, as well as declining an invitation to party in the Iranian desert. It’s your life.. if you see something you want, reach out and take it. Fortune doesn’t favour fence sitters!
13. If you don’t like something, just say no
We in the West are often taught not to be rude, not to be too pushy, and not to ask too many questions. All of these courtesies can become a detriment while travelling. Like when you’re too bashful to clarify a price with a taxi driver or the terms of an agreement with a tour operator, or when you’ve been persuaded into joining something despite a bad gut feeling, but don’t want to be rude and leave. Do you go with the flow and pray everything works out? No way! Put your foot down and just say no. At the end of the day, it’s your money, your time, and your life, and what you do with them is ultimately up to you. It’s worth it to be a little rude or ruin someone’s plans if it means you can save these important things.
14. Share what you have
All travellers know how awesome it is to be offered some food from a kind local, or be saved when a fellow backpacker invites you to share their umbrella/tent/whatever in a rain storm. Sharing is a gesture that crosses cultural and language barriers, it’s friendly, it’s fun, and ultimately the giver always receives something back in return (karma!). We’ve shared bread, rakija, time, hats, squirt guns, car rides and rubber band bracelets with people all around the world. The feeling of camaraderie that blooms in result is absolutely magical, and somewhere along the lines we always got that karma back in another way. Sharing is the opposite of being greedy, and it makes life so much better.
15. Never show up empty-handed
Related: Always carry something to give as a gift. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pack of cigarettes from your country or a bag of pistachios from the local market; receiving an unexpected gift is a delight for everyone, and giving small gifts is a great way to make friends.
16. You can pack a lot into one day
When you slog through the same routine every day, time passes in a weird way. The hours seem to drag on in tedium, but suddenly it’s noon and all you’ve done is checked your email, and then suddenly again it’s already 5pm and you haven’t made it to the bank or the post office yet. There just aren’t enough hours in the day…
But on the road, time passes differently. Days can go slow, but they can also be action-packed. There were times when we’d crossed a tough international border, covered 200km of ground, gone shopping at a local market, and managed a hair cut, all before lunch time. Only 24 hours on a scooter rental? Then we’re going to drive all the way around this motherfucking island! When you’re used to being on the move, it’s really amazing how many things you can do in one day. In fact, when we took a few days off from travelling we found it hard to shake the habit, and still wanted to pack our days with activities so we didn’t feel like we were wasting time doing nothing.
17. Locals don’t always know best
Not always, but sometimes locals without access to or knowledge of the internet actually know less about their surroundings than you do. They always mean well, but sometimes letting them direct or guide you ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. There was my cousin in Bucharest, who has probably never looked at a map of the city in her life and would just ask other people for directions as she went along. It took forever to get anywhere, and we missed some good stuff along the way. Then there was the helpful Community-Based Tourism rep in Kyrgyzstan who sent us back to Bishkek via the route he thought was quickest, but we had to change marshrutka halfway and it took two hours longer than the other route (at least it cost the same). And then there was pretty much every random stranger we asked for directions in Turkey. If you have a hunch and you have info on the internet backing you up, just go for it. You’re probably fine.
18. Humans are destroying the planet
Riding on buses through Sumatra or Malaysia, palm oil plantations are a common sight. The leafy groves stretch out for kilometres, covering all the hills with identical, highly-manicured palm trees for as far as the eye can see. This man-made spoilage of biodiversity is a sad sight, but even worse is to see acres and acres of completely bald hills, the lush jungle having been bulldozed away in preparation for even more palm oil plantations.
Man’s destruction of nature can be seen everywhere: the grey smog that shrouds much of China; bright green irrigated fields in the middle of the dusty California desert; fracking fields blanketing the Midwest; the desert that was once the Aral Sea; state-led deforestation in Serbian national parks; canals filled with leftover cooking oil from street food vendors in Bangkok; mountains of household waste outside of villages in Myanmar, Georgia, Indonesia… When you begin to see these things regularly while travelling around the globe, you truly realise: Humans are really destroying the planet.
19. Travel blogs are boring
Travel bloggers may be “living the dream”, but most travel blogs (ours included) can be boring and narcissistic, reading either like a braggy Facebook entry or a rehashed version of the Lonely Planet—replete with cheesy holiday photos. There’s very little of the observant and insightful storytelling that characterises true travelogues. We learned really quickly that we just couldn’t bare to spend so much time writing a diary about ourselves or posting stereotypical “arms stretched in front of a beautiful scene” photos, but we plodded along as best we could. Now that we’ve finished once around the globe, Mook is happy to go back to drinking off-camera, and I’m happy to get back to writing about things besides us.
Until next time… Stay real!!