Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The whys and hows of travelling wisely

I read a blog the other day about a girl who has been travelling for 18 months and hit the wall. She's burnout and heading home, but I think she'll be stronger and wiser for it. One thing she found hard was the continual need to travel on a very low budget, and the supposed competition amongst other travellers to do it on as little as possible. Well that just sounds plain exhausting to me, and probably about the worst reason to travel I can think of.

Her honesty inspired me to write a little philosophical post about travelling wisely. It's not about prescribing a particular path, but about people deciding their own path, planning accordingly, and most importantly, keeping things in perspective.

 Budget for your comfort level 
Everybody has different comfort levels. If the thought of camping, or staying in a place without aircon gives you the heebie jeebies, then it's a good idea to plan your holiday around a budget that allows you those creature comforts. It's not a crime to want comfort, but it's also a good idea to be flexible, to occasionally have a go outside your personal comfort zone and see how you cope. After all, travel is about new experiences, isn't it? It really isn't cool to expect a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget, so if you can't afford the creature comforts, either save up more money before you go, or travel for a shorter period.

Before my last big trip in 2008/09 I gave myself a list of things I wasn't going to do anymore now that I was older, and had the cash. I wasn't going to do long overnight bus trips and I was going to stay in places with hot water and ensuites. I quickly discovered that some of the locations I ended up in didn't have the latter, and sometimes the rooms with the best character and views didn't either. Having my own bathroom actually stopped mattering very quickly, and I soon got used to sluicing myself with cold water from a bucket in a room down the end of the corridor. As for the buses, well in China they have sleepers, and I'm short enough. I still flew when the alternative was a 24 hour bus trip, and as far as I'm concerned, it makes me no less a bonafide traveller than the next person.

 Know why you travel
There has to be a reason beyond building a list of countries seen. When you get jaded with travel it usually means you've lost sight of why you left in the first place, or that the reason has changed and you need a new one. I travel to experience other cultures, to enjoy spectacular scenery, and to push myself physically. For this purpose I try and learn the language, eat the local food, go to the local markets, couch surf, and frequently end up spending almost all my time hanging out with locals, not with other backpackers. My trip to Java in 2010 was exactly that sort of experience. I also combined it with a bit of walking (not as much as I had planned), and an expensive sunrise tour of Borobodur. I got the sunrise photos I wanted, isn't that why I travel, to follow my dreams?

 Take time out
Experiencing new things gets exhausting, especially when it's day after day. I don't exactly plan them, but from time to time I find myself encamped in a backpacker ghetto for a few days. Here I don't need to worry about wearing modest clothing, or drinking far too much alcohol, and I can use the internet to catch up on the rest of the world. It's also when I take the time to upload my photos, write a few blog entries, do the internet banking, do all the "housekeeping" so to speak. These little oases of familiarity the world over allow me to chill out, recharge my batteries and head on to my next adventure. When I'm ready.

 Travel at a pace that suits you
Some people love setting up in a place for a while, others spend a different day in a new town, and the nights travelling between destinations. And the rest of us are somewhere in-between. At different times you'll find the pace right, at other times it isn't. If it isn't, change it, it's your trip. If that means saying goodbye to a travel companion, so be it. A grumpy travelling partner is no fun whatsoever. If it means forfeiting a flight, it's your call, but it means you're planning too far ahead and you need to stop and have a rethink. Only leave when you're ready, even if it means a few visa runs. That sort of discontent over doing things too quick can be quite hard to shift once it sets in, so stop! And go back to point number 2.

 Contribute to the local economy
Spending money is really important for the economy and if you spend wisely, then the locals reap the benefit. This is particularly important if planning to visit countries where the politics are suspect and the government highly corrupt, like Myanmar. Finding out whether the transport and accommodation is government owned or not and spending wisely will make a huge difference to the people. Booking ahead via the internet usually means a lot of middlemen, and possibly not locals, will be getting a cut. If it isn't necessary to book, then don't, because you'll almost always find as good accommodation as those on the internet, usually at cheaper prices. As my comfort needs are quite low, I also don't need to rely on chain hotels etc, and can stay in family home stays where the money stays local. Spreading the rest of your budget around also makes sense. I remember explaining to a driver in Bali one day why I wasn't going to book him tomorrow: because I wanted someone else to get a cut of my tourist dollar. It's also a damn good reason for trying different street stalls and restaurants, and for avoiding places run by expats. Finding a local guide is never difficult, almost always dirt cheap, though quality can be hit and miss, but then the fee usually reflects that anyway.

Sometimes you meet people who get a kick out of spending as little money as possible, and are rarely much fun to be around as they can't seem to afford to accompany you to see the sights, have a beer or a meal etc etc. I can't quite see the sense in this myself, and I certainly wouldn't want to emulate them. Some even steal, cheat and take advantage of newbie travellers. An English guy I met in Hanoi had got a young Australian girl enamoured with exciting stories of his travels, and of his life as a travel writer (unsure whether this was true). Over the course of 3 days she "lent" him money and paid for all his meals and drinks. At one stage he invited a group of us to eat at a "great restaurant", we all got ready and headed out, and then when it was time to pay the bill, well he'd somehow forgotten to bring any money hadn't he? Once this girl left, he then honed in on the next one.

On the other hand there are people like Roman, a Czech lad I met in 2008 as my first Hospitality Club (this preceded couch surfing) guest. Roman had been travelling the world by hitching, camping and staying with locals through Hospitality Club and similar organisations, as well as through people he met when hitching. He went out of his way to cook meals, help me in the garden, and show me some of his awesome photography. Roman slept under trees in the outback one night, the next bought and cooked an exquisite chicken roast dinner for his host. He didn't contribute much to the economy, but he didn't take much either. I doubt there is a person out there who met Roman and wasn't spiritually enriched by the experience. After 6 years travelling, Roman had his last few dollars stolen from him on a truck ride through Iran, and arrived home penniless. He's now writing a book. Check him out.

 Maintain perspective
Everyone gets scammed from time to time. Almost always you can learn from the experience, be smarter and wiser for the next time. But if it was just that you paid more than you should have, remember you were happy to pay it in the first place, and it's only in retrospect you feel cheated. You could have walked away and not paid. You probably hadn't done your research, didn't know what the price should have been etc. In this internet day and age of so much information, almost every well known scam anywhere in the world has been written about on numerous travel forums and even published in guidebooks. Your hotel/hostel/guesthouse concierge is also a good source of info about local prices and will happily keep you informed. Just ask.

Similar to the scam is the double tiered pricing where you pay more than the locals. There are ways of getting around this, but if you haven't found out how, just try and look at it as still dirt cheap anyway. Why ruin a trip arguing and worrying about a dollar or two? If you find yourself thinking this way, remember how much a cup of coffee costs in your hometown....

Another area where us westerners need to maintain perspective is around cultural differences, hygiene standards, rubbish etc. Come prepared for public toilets with your own wipes, desanitiser, whatever you need, ask the guy spitting on the bus to spit somewhere else rather than on your bag, understand that it's someone's livelihood to sort the rubbish and reuse it, to collect the money at the public toilet, or whatever. That there may not be a social welfare system, or a tax system that provides public infrastructure. We have nice roads and working amenities in our countries because we pay taxes and our governments are slightly less corrupt. It isn't the fault of the bus driver that the bus is falling apart, he's just earning money to feed his family, and he'd prefer not to be driving a death trap either.

 It is not a competition
Anyone who plays the one up-manship card in my book is a rather insecure person who needs attention to feel worthy. Or is looking for a fuck. We are all out there trying to achieve our individual personal goals. Unless yours is child sex tourism, who am I to criticise how and why you travel. The person who has been to 100 countries is no better a person than the person who's just arrived for their first week ever of overseas travel. Particularly if said traveller brags about it. 100 is just a number. So what? And do I care how little or how much you spent? No, I just want to know that you had a good time, and what you can recommend of a particular destination.

  Listen to yourself
One thing about travel is you spend a lot of time with yourself. You get the opportunity to become attuned to not only your body, but your moods, and I can highly recommend taking notice. Travel isn't a job, where you've got to force yourself to get up to go to work every day whether you feel like it or not, so let the right brain rule and indulge your intuition, your feelings for space, time and place. And when the mind and body say you've had enough, you've had enough. Accept it. If that means going home, so be it. I mean friends and family are hardly going to do anything but welcome you back with open arms. And it doesn't have to be forever right?

I've done 2 big overseas trips, one for 20 months and the other for six months, and a number of shorter trips. The first was in my mid twenties, and a year in I started to notice the jaded long term traveller, who'd been on the road for years, had no real attachments, had lost contact with family and friends back home, and had had experiences that  people back home wouldn't understand anyway. They didn't really fit in with the bright young things like myself who had short term plans to travel for a year or so then return to an education or build a career, and they rarely had work skills that they could translate into something well paid should they return home. All their friends would be settled into careers and families, and here they were still chasing young backpackers' tails and doing drugs. They seemed lost to me, and I decided I never wanted to be like them. So when I was ready to return home to continue my career, I did.

My second trip I could have continued longer but my house/dogsitter was moving on and I needed to come home. I could have found another sitter, but returning to a depressed dog broke my heart, and I'll never travel longterm again till she passes on. Then I will indeed head off for longer. But I'll listen to the inner demons, and react accordingly.

 Giving back is easy
It's all too easy to feel a lot of guilt for having so much when you see the poverty that exists in the world. I don't think it's particularly wise for individuals to give to a school or an orphanage in a poor country because it just encourages a type of institutionalised begging, as I saw in Cambodia. Spending your money locally is a better way to help that economy help itself. I regularly donate to Oxfam, an organisation renowned for providing sustainable community development programs throughout the world.

An important way to give back is by respecting local custom and speaking to people with courtesy and respect. This gives the message that overseas tourists are nice people, who value other cultures besides their own and aren't as crass and rude as they appear to be on Jersey Shores! Unfortunately I often see rudeness rather than courtesy, and it only reflects poorly on all of us.

Because of exposure to Western popular culture there is a danger that people will aspire to ours and devalue their own. I don't want the places I visit to lose their unique cultures, I want them to know that I value them. That's why I eat their food, follow their customs, take interest in their handcrafts and textiles and try not to impose my personal standards on others. In that way I give them pride in what they have. It's not a lot, but it's something.

So there you have it, just my thoughts on travelling wisely. Feel free to leave your thoughts too.

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