“You’re doing what?”
I remember telling my mom that I was planning to move to Korea in a passing conversation as if I was switching NYC boroughs. After multiple trips overseas studying, working and backpacking I was much less fazed by making this announcement than years ago when I first timidly mumbled my interest to study abroad during college (her response then was a definitive “if you can convince your father, we’ll talk.”)
Friends react excitedly but with a similar level of apprehension, often as if I haven’t thought my plans fully through. Everyone’s first reaction is envy and excitement, lamenting how they wish they wish they could travel if only they had the time or money or whatever – which spurs the interrogation into how I can. This line of questioning almost always winds up going in the same way:
“Okay, so… what are you going to do when you get back?”
I used to try to explain that in traveling, new opportunities tend to pop up if you keep sharp and look out for them, especially if you hone a skill-set that can work over the Internet, or maybe uncover a new passion that will keep you somewhere for a while. But after plenty of skeptical – “uh-huhs” or else “Okay. But really, what will you do when you’re home again” – I’ve learned to start playing along and give them the “oh, I don’t know!” that they want to hear.
“But is it safe?”
“Can you eat the food without getting sick?”
“Won’t you get lonely?”
Don’t even get me started on my mother’s late-night e-mails consisting of links to obscure forums discussing someone’s isolated travel woe from 2009.
People care. Doing anything unconventional always catches the attention of others and living with so much instability heightens concern. So consider yourself lucky if you have people giving you a hard time over impending travel plans, but know how to calm their concerns.
It’s unbelievably easy to keep in touch
You’d have to go pretty far off the map these days to find a tourist area that doesn’t have an Internet connection. Much of Eastern Asia is far ahead of its Western counterparts in terms of connection speed and while many Southeast Asian countries are considered “developing” the major influx in tourism over the last decade has ensured that the region is very well wired. Even in regions where the disparity of Internet access is greater, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be totally cut off along the conventional backpacker trail (and if so, who couldn’t use a day without Internet anyway?)
The point is, even if the connection may not be strong enough to binge-stream Netflix, you’ll be able to send e-mails home to your loved ones or call over FaceTime or Skype. I’ve been traveling for years and still make sure to check in every few days with my family – and I might have to be patient, but I’ve never encountered much of a problem. In fact, right now I’m posting this from an island town in the Philippines that you can only access from an hour’s drive down a dirt road, which only turns on the electricity for a few hours a day.
People aren’t trying to take advantage of you
Thanks to movies and those one-in-a-million travel horror stories that circle the Internet, everyone seems to think that local people are constantly trying to stick it to every stupid, unsuspecting foreign idiot that stumbles into their country. Most travelers are actually surprised at how accommodating and helpful everyone actually is. Part of it’s cultural – in many areas of the world people will really go out of their way to help you, something that can make people from North America or Europe borderline uncomfortable. There’s also a sense of national pride that is celebrated down to the grassroots level, they want you to feel welcome in their country. And fiscally, tourism is a huge industry of many countries and everyone wants to make sure the travelers keep coming.
Will a taxi driver overcharge you once or twice in your travels? Probably. Will a street vendor keep your change from time to time? Sure. But odds are that you won’t even know this is happening and the amounts are so negligible that it’s not worth the trouble to argue. You do hear stories about foreigners forced to pay ridiculous fees or conned into buying something then forced to withdraw money from an ATM – but it’s very rare, and these sort of incidences can happen anywhere. Be alert, know how much things are supposed to cost and don’t be flashy with your money: all common-sense practices. You’re not going to get drugged and wind up with an empty savings account. That’s more likely to happen in Miami (link) anyway.
It’s really safe, generally*
Let’s understand one thing: The United States is home to 5 of the most dangerous cities in the world, and that’s among a list of other cities in countries amid the chaos of war, drug cartel violence and trafficking and unmatched political corruption. People have very skewed ideas of safety and violence abroad, not fairly representing the reality of how dangerous everyday life can be at home. It’s all very relative. I’ve felt safer walking around lost in Taipei than many places in America, but I’m also far more comfortable alone at night in NYC than in Barcelona. It’s about always having your due diligence and using the same common sense you would anywhere.
And violence is very, very rarely exacted at tourists. As the rioting in Thailand began to escalate in early 2014, I asked friends traveling through there what they thought and if it was dangerous. Their response was pretty much what I had expected: see riot, stay away from riot.
The worst offense that travelers complain of is being mugged while abroad. This is a valid concern and is a pretty inherent risk in most countries. But again it can be avoidable by being alert and responsible. I’ve personally never been mugged but know plenty of people who have while traveling, but each will end the story with “…well it was kind of my fault.” On a recent trip to Vietnam, three out of four of my friends had their phones stolen, and each of them had their phone hanging out of their back pocket or left it on a table.
*That’s not to say these standards apply universally. Some places around the world are inherently more unstable than others, and a safety situation can rapidly change. Whenever I travel I try my best to keep up to date on current events in that country just to be aware of any situation that could potentially escalate. It’s always a good idea to register with the local embassy in the country you’re visiting and get updates from them, as well.
The food won’t get you sick
Foreign cuisine is one of the greatest delights of traveling. The thing is that in many Western countries we expect an extremely high standard of cleanliness in establishments and near sterile environments in grocery stores. Much of the rest of the world is far more lax in this regard, but your food isn’t dirty. It’s possible it can take your system some time to adjust to a new cuisine, so if that’s the case – know your body, and listen to it. Make sure you wash produce, and you can be vaccinated against some illnesses that can be transmitted through food such as Hep A or Typhoid Fever. So you go eat that deep-fried scorpion.
Do be wary of drinking tap water, however. Bottled water is often a must – or you can get away with LifeStraws and SteriPens. Use common sense and be wary of ice in your drinks and salad, fruits or vegetables that may be washed in tap water that is a little suspect.
If you do get sick (or hurt,) you’ll be fine
Inevitably travelers are predisposed to conditions their systems aren’t acclimated to and often engage in risky activities like hiking or diving.
One of the greatest myths is that medical care in other countries is supremely sub-par to what you can receive at home. It’s true, it will be a different experience, but the facilities are almost always prepared to help you, or else patch you up as best they can and transfer you to somewhere nearby. This is why it’s important to have travel insurance, however, in case you do require emergency transport in the case of illness or injury.
You won’t get lonely
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Traveling is an incredibly independent venture – even if you’re traveling in a group odds are you’ll be spending quite a bit of time alone. That said, the backpacker community is extremely tight knit in most areas of the world, and almost every hostel you’re at will have a new batch of people to meet and share experiences with. It’s common for groups to form along the way too, caravan-style. Couchsurfing is also an excellent way to develop a better interaction with local people. Even if you don’t want to stay with strangers – or prefer the hostel circuit – plenty of people are willing to meet up for coffee or a drink over Couchsurfing. With all of the people cycling in and out of your life, your alone time will actually become quite a commodity.
Backpackers also are a major network of knowledge. You won’t know the answers to all your questions before you leave, and if you try to over-prepare you will drive yourself crazy. But odds are if you don’t know something or how to do something – someone in your hostel common room will.
Traveling is affordable
One of the main reasons people claim they cannot travel is because of finances. In part, there’s some truth to it: if you are putting away money to buy a house or pay for school, it can be hard to have the surplus income for a travel fund. But if travel is a priority, you can live incredibly cheaply in regions across the globe – $15-20 a day is completely reasonable. It’s when people start treating traveling like a nonstop vacation where things get pricey – with nicer accommodations, regular meals out, tour guides and guided day-trips. But when you travel a bit slowly and treat it like a lifestyle, day-to-day expenses are extremely minimal.
So what are you waiting for?