One of the biggest uncertainties of this trip was how I would handle being alone for three months. I’ve traveled solo before but only for a week at a time, and I didn’t know if I could go so long without the comfort of having family and friends around.
Good news, though. The “you’re only ever alone if you want to be” advice I received before I left has turned out to be 100 percent true. I’ve met really great people everywhere I’ve been — in guesthouse common spaces, on buses, while hiking and climbing — and I had a freakin’ blast in the six-ish days I spent moving from Malaysia to Thailand with my Norwegian buddy. It’s a relief, sometimes, to have someone to split costs, give you a break from all the decision making, and join you in cracking open a beer (or five). But I was also happy when we parted ways because it meant I could get back to my own style of travel for awhile. Everyone has different priorities for where they like to stay, what they like to see, when they want to eat, etc., and it can be difficult to remain true to your objectives (if you have any) when you have to compromise with someone else — even harder when you have to move groups of three or more from place to place. I know that I might have done Penang, Malaysia’s food capital, differently had I been on my own. That doesn’t make my time there any less amazing — just not what I envisioned.
So after I struck out solo once more, I started thinking about how even though we’re all going to the same places — often together — we come away with our own ideas and impressions of said places. That makes travel an incredibly personal endeavor, and I want to put down on (virtual) paper what defines me as a traveler.
I’ve learned so much about myself in the month I’ve been on the road, and I know these ideas, some of which I’ve already written about, will continue to evolve as as I make this kind of experience an ongoing presence in my life. So, here’s the beginning –
The Here&Afar Travel Manifesto
Put down the Lonely Planet guide and close out of TripAdvisor. If you find it there, so does everyone else.
If a beach is too crowded or a town too touristy, accept it for what it is and move on. There’s no use in stewing over something you can’t change. Do some research, try again tomorrow.
Make a genuine effort to be different. It’s so easy to follow the crowd and stay on the usual path — by visiting only the popular cities and eating at restaurants with menus in English and binge drinking with all the other backpackers — but the richest experiences are those that involve jumping on the back of a stranger’s moto or ordering a meal using only drawings or hand gestures.
Always keep an open mind. Sit down with strangers, try an unfamiliar food, speak to people you meet on the street.
Appreciate downtime, you’re in no rush. Your longtail boat won’t leave until six more people show up to fill the seats? No problem, sit and watch the waves break on the beach. Missed your bus and the next one doesn’t leave for two hours? Pull up a chair and read a book or chat with someone else who is waiting.
Leave the smartphone. Make a plan, pick up a map, get lost, ask someone for directions.
Respect where you are. If you wouldn’t behave a certain way in your own country or hometown, why would you do so when you’re in someone else’s?
Slow down. You’ll come back to this area someday soon, so you don’t have to go everywhere and see everything. Spend a week, even two, in one place if you want, and don’t feel guilty if you don’t make it to every last destination.
Take a break. There’s no rule that says you have to be on your feet seeing and absorbing your surroundings for every waking hour. You’ll be more energized if your body and mind are rested, and you’ll avoid feeling resentful and cranky.
Disconnect. Be present. Put down the computer and read a book or go for a night walk or hang out in the guesthouse common room instead. Go out for the day without your camera and just enjoy what you see without the pressure to make the perfect picture. You’re not on this journey for the benefit of everyone at home, and they (and you) will survive if you let it go.
Learn to say no. It’s easy to get swept up in what the other kids in the hostel dorm are doing every day, and it’s a lot of activities are more fun with others, but don’t cede all your decisions to groupthink and miss out on meals or trips or walks you’re excited about.
To be continued…