One internship abroad, one study-abroad semester, a fortuitous slew of long-weekends and the fact that low-cost airlines exist allowed me to spend time in 14 different countries last year. This is what I learned (mostly the hard way, thankfully).
1. The nerves never go away
No matter how many times I put myself in that position, landing in the airport of a brand new city always came accompanied by a mini-anxiety crisis. For a lack of a better alternative, I started interpreting the knot in my stomach during flights’ final moments as a sign of good things to come.
2. Public transport conveys the essence of a city’s character
From the super efficient and mercifully-air conditioned Singaporean subway to the free-for-all caldo mess that are the Roman public buses, most cities’ transportation systems found a way to capture the prevailing character of its people. Methinks. So use them! Shout-out to the Moscow метро for its almost overly elegant stations (though some English signs would be a godsend). Kudos to the Tokyo subway system for balancing its huge size and complicated layout with freaky cleanliness.
3. Offline map apps redefine travel
It’s flabbergasting to me how this is still news to so many. But, believe it or not, there exist in the app store a PANOPLY of map apps that work offline (aka without internet connection), with almost all of the major cities in the world (and an impressive number of near randos) being represented. Getting lost can lead to great stories. But also to tears. Offline maps are free, work great and they don’t give you away as a tourist as quickly as their less eco-friendly, paper counterparts do (which can take away a safety concern in some places). Using an offline map, I was able to actually give directions to my Bangkok cabbie on my first night in the city (he was accordingly bemused). Just how did people manage to travel as recently as five years ago??
4. Homesickness is ok
No travel experience is a 24/7 giggle-filled joyride. You’re not doing anything wrong by missing home, so there’s no reason to feel guilty when you do. In my experience, homesickness has always been eye-opening, of sorts. Sometimes, the things and people you end up missing are the ones you least expected…
5. Attempting to recreate home, though, is bound for failure
You’re already away from all that you know, so own it. Don’t spend your time tracking down food from your country or exclusively hanging out with compatriots. If you want to reap the rewards that come from being outside your comfort zone, you have to dedicate yourself. Case in point, I spent the months I lived in Singapore sharing an apartment with five roommates, all from a different country. A lot of nice memories and quite a few learning opportunities came out of that glorious hodgepodge.
6. If you pick your hostels based on reviews, take the time to write some yourself
And as a rule of thumb, stay clear of hostels with overly combative retorts to people’s online reviews. (Although seeing one not-so-fine institution in Sydney reply to a “the-social-scene-is-meh” review by calling the guest an antisocial loner was all kinds of fun).
7. Consider free walking tours
The cons: they are not strictly free (most ask for a small donation at the end), they tend to stick to the obvious sights and they are more aimed at early risers (most take place only in the mornings).
The pros: (Almost) free! Besides, they are a fantastic way to meet people and get acquainted with a city on the first couple of days of getting there. Also, the tours tend to be led by admirably bilingual locals who are passionate about the city and quick to share pertinent historical tidbits/a good dose of fun facts. In Rio, my guide was a woman who had the skyline of all of her favorite cities tattooed across her arms. She was great.
8. Never underestimate the power of comfort food
Feeling lost and out-of-place? Of course you are! Pro tip: nothing will help you feel as settled/at peace in a new place as anointing a new favorite local comfort food … and recurring to it as much as needed. My favorites: empanadas in Argentina, coconut ice cream in Malaysia, ramen in Japan, pho in Vietnam ETC…
9. Get the locals’ perspective
This will automatically deepen any travel experience and more often than not add a few stories to your ever-expanding repertoire. It was definitely interesting, for instance, for me to get a Muscovite’s perspective on the Crimea situation (basically, it was all the Ukrainians’ fault; on a related note, her husband goes to bed in a Putin t-shirt).
10. Don’t be afraid of solo trips
Be selective with your travel buddies. Don’t just get on a plane with random friends. Pick people with compatible interests, stamina-levels and travel values. If such a person isn’t available, go by yourself.
11. Be kind to yourself
It’s ok if everything doesn’t go the way you planned (a perk of being a foreigner is that your fuck-ups are automatically justified). Give yourself free reign to celebrate your small victories (like successfully ordering a meal in Tokyo or managing to safely get to and from Moscow’s far-flung airports).
12. Be thankful for the opportunities
During my world-spanning trips in 2015, I couldn’t help but feel almost guilty over getting to visit many countries my own parents and grandparents, a group of incredibly hard-working people, had never been to (and perhaps will never get a chance to visit). It felt disrespectful to some extent, especially when it was their collective efforts that allowed me to be in the globetrotting position I was. Keeping that perspective throughout made my experiences more meaningful.
13. Airports can be a tolerable second home
Taking 35 flights meant a big chunk of my year was spent prostrated in several airport lounges, ranging from the downright decrepit to the ornately decorated and ultramodern. On four different occasions, I spent the night in airport terminals (three in Rome and one in Buenos Aires), each time telling myself I would never repeat the experience (but then being too cheap to book a hotel room). But through it all, I learned that waiting in airports isn’t by definition wasted time. It’s time to reflect. It’s time to observe fellow travellers, be it the sports teams, the spirited families, the lone backpacker. It’s time to witness moving arrival hall reunions, especially in the holiday season. It’s time to be absolutely nowhere, and try to find comfort in that.