I bought my first plane ticket for a solo trip across the Atlantic when I was 17. Suddenly, everyone around me suddenly thought they knew everything about traveling, from where to go, how to get there, what food to eat at the restaurant that I had no intention of searching for and what map was really going to keep me from getting lost.
Well, after four years and more time abroad than at home, I can tell you that I never really decided where I was going, but I got there pretty much the way I decided that morning. I also learned that being a vegetarian in Europe sucks, and finally let’s be real: no map was ever going to keep me from getting lost.
Since my first trip, three others have passed, and pretty much everything that everyone told me before I left went in one ear and out the next. Instead, what people told me along the way that helped me the most. But there were a few things that I really wished someone told me before I left.
1. Your backpack will never be as full and pretty as when you left.
The night (or if you’re me, the hour) before you leave, you will try and stuff all your clothes into pretty little ziplock bags just like all your friends told you; your backpack will be organized and you will know exactly where your toothbrush is, your passport will have a special pocket and your money belt will pretty much be a chastity belt. Now fast forward to when you leave your first hostel. You’re still drunk, trying to pack your backpack, and realizing you have about half an hour to check out, find the train station in a city that pretty much has street signs that go “Cobblestone 1” and “Cobblestone 2”. Naturally, the ziplock bags get left behind, along with maybe some underwear, a sweater and the towel that just isn’t drying. I don’t think that my 65 L is ever as full when I come as home as when I leave, and I can guarantee you, I never know where all my underwear and socks go.
2. You will find hair in places you didn’t even know grew hair.
Okay, well you might have known they grew hair but by the time you are done with your trip, braids can start to happen. It’s not that you don’t shave — you still do — but what used to be a weekly thing turns into a I-give-no-fucks as you quickly realize that everyone around is pretty much in the same boat. But I can also tell you, the feeling of cutting down the forest once in a while helps in 45 degree weather and does encourage the feeling of civilization despite the fact you understand basically nothing of what said civilization is saying.
3. Sleep when you are dead.
You will not sleep. If you do you, well, you suck. You can sleep when you are dead. You will get up early to make the free hostel breakfast and stock up on free bread for lunch then you will walk for about 6 hours, come back to the hostel to hang out and eventually start drinking. Before you even know it, you are walking on all fours into your hostel room, somehow make it into the top bunk without interrupting the kind and ever so sober people participating in coitus below you, and you will fall asleep to the rocking of the bunk bed only to wake up four hours later. And repeat.
4. Your definition of “Clean Clothes” changes very quickly.
When you have about 4 t-shirts with you and what seems to be about no other clothes, you will soon discover that what you used to think smelled like dead fish and needed to go into the laundry could in reality just be doused in a little bit of perfume. Tank tops don’t get as gross as t-shirts and everyone sees sweat-stains on grey. The ticker on laundry time comes from when you flipped your last pair of underwear and the plus one when you really just wanted to air out.
5. You will never say as many good-byes.
You will meet people and spend every second of a week with them. They will become your best friend when your relationship back home breaks apart, you will hold their hair while Mr. Jose Cuervo makes a reappearance, you will bond over that one annoying know-it-all and you will get lost in random streets together. But eventually you’ll go this way and they’ll go that way. Keeping in touch with everyone you meet is almost impossible but there will always be those few with whom you stay close. Some people come and visit and stay in your life but more likely you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again. In all seriousness, this just sucks hairy balls.
6. When you go home, everyone will want to slap you.
No one will understand your obsession with a certain song or why you are still talking to someone who lives on the other side of the world, pictures and stories get old after a while and you’re going to have to return to whatever the real world is. It’s here that you get to decide what your “real world is”. If Kayak Explore is your homepage, I’m guessing that for you the real world isn’t the little bubble you built for yourself over twenty something years, and you’ll go back. (Just where “back” is, is up to you. That’s the beauty of backpacking. You can always pick somewhere new to discover.)