How to rough it on the road and still come back smiling

I’ve been back in the land of peat, rain, brick lanes and whisky for a few weeks now. Back home in the autumnal Scottish Borders where my family, friends, dogs and home comforts are busy easing me back into the normal swing of things (slowly, but surely). And somehow, somehow, as so many have already pointed out (with more than a dash of surprise), I made it nine and change months round the world and came back in one piece.

Somehow I managed to travel from India and China, through Korea to Japan, from south to north of Latin America, into Mexico, the States and finally Canada, without breaking a bone, losing my passport, getting a mugging, a kicking, or being chopped up into tiny pieces and sold as stew with a side of rice and salad. There were many a time I wasn’t too sure I would in fact make it without running into real trouble, and a few times I came close to it. But all in all, bar a few bouts of parasites, lost phone chargers and clothes, a touch of food poisoning, a couple healthy scars and $400 worth of ear infection (first tip, get yourself some decent travel insurance), I came through relatively unscathed.

In fact, more than unscathed, I came through all that travelling with some of the best memories, friends and experiences I’ve ever had the fortune of making. This has been, undoubtedly, a year which will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Along the way I picked up a wee bit more street smarts than that with which I left – in part owed to my own experiences, and in part to the advice and shared stories of those about me. There were many tips, tricks and tools that allowed me to avoid a doing (translation: to stay safe), and to make the most of my trip. Now, seeing as a mug such as I was able to save up the cash, take the plunge, and come out the other side still breathing, it’s fair to say that many out there wanting to do the same could well perhaps do so with equal success. Thus, I wanted to use this last post of mine to share a few of these trade secrets with yous, to impart what little wisdom I have, as was given to me in my turn too, in the hopes that one day someone reading this might put them to practice and end up having as wonderful a time on the road as I did.

And so, without further do, from the trivial to the serious, here’s my list of top tips for travelling the world (or whichever wee corner of it you want to knock off the list first).

Tip #1: Remember to breathe

This was actually a piece of advice given me before I started the trip, by my traveller cousin-in-law Vicky, who, along with my big cuz Hamish, had spent six months travelling south east Asia and the States in the year before I left. And it goes:

When travelling, you’ll find yourself moving about a hell of a lot. You’ll move from town to town, province to province, and country to country, changing the society, culture, aesthetics and language of your surroundings on a regular basis. As shocking to the system as this constant fluidity might feel, you might or mightn’t be surprised to learn that it’ll all soon feel normal. Normaller than normal in fact, in time it’ll be par for the course. Crossing a land border into Colombia say, with a guy by the police check point punting coke and weed, will feel entirely normal. And this normality you’re feeling, well hell, that’s normal too. It’s a coping mechanism. If you were always as adrenaline fuelled and anxious as you were day one, you’d not make it. Adjusting to these changing states is a normal reflex, it staves off a complete mental and physical breakdown. Mostly, it’s a good thing.

However, becoming to used to something as wild as travelling the world could end up detracting from the overall experience. You are, after all, doing something few people get the chance to do, seeing things few might ever see, and eating foods many won’t ever get to eat (though admittedly, I won’t be rushing back to a guinea pig supper anytime soon…) And so here’s the crux of tip #1: whenever you feel like things are getting away from you, whenever you arrive in a new country, or see a landscape you have never seen before and never thought you would see, whenever you find yourself in the midst of something really special, stop. Stop. Take a breather. Take a breath. Look around you and really think about where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with. It helps consolidate your memories, helps put your trip into the wider context of life. And, given you might well be getting cheeched and letting off fireworks atop the Great Wall of China (or something), it could well be worth taking a moment to check yourself. You just might not be back there again.

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Tip #2: Steal hostel towels

You’ll be packed off by yer mum, yer da’, or yerself, with a million and one things you’ll think are absolute essentials at the time, yet will come to realise are in fact more or less dead weight. Towels are one of them.

Eh? Scruffy bastard.

Here, I won’t argue. I am and was a scruffy bastard, travelling makes you so. But I’m not telling you to skip showers, far from it. No, I’m just saying, that given I left exactly eight different towels in eight different hostels, and dealt with the rank off-smell of semi-dried and then-packed ‘quick dry’ towels stinking out yer bag (which, remember, is your only home for however long you’re away), I can safely say I wouldn’t pack one next time.

Hostels have towels. It’s an infallible truth. And if you’re polite enough to the staff on reception, you’ll score yourself one. Sure, sometimes for a small rental fee of a quid or two, but oftentimes for free. In traveller language, this equates to an infinite, freshly laundered, essentially free stash of towels.

So do it, dinnae be afraid: steal hostel towels whenever you need to, it’ll make yer life a whole heap easier and trust me, they’ll be the least valuable item you’ll get at five finger discount along the way.

All this talk of what to pack and what not to brings me to a more all-encompassing third point…

Tip #3: Pack light

When you’re stood a half hour on some over-packed Asian metro, waiting to walk a further half hour in the dark to your hostel on a street with no English-language signage, all the while lugging 16 kilos on your back and another 5 on your front, you’ll thank me for this advice.

Here are the clothes you need for travelling anything longer than a month: couple tshirts, pair of jeans, pair of shorts, swimming suit, weeks worth of underwear and socks, warm hoody/jacket, hat, raincoat, one pair of trainers and, if you’re a hiker, a pair of hiking boots.

If you wanna be fancy, chuck a nice shirt in there too, never know when you might feel like dressing up a little. But seriously, you do not, should not, will not need nor use a wardrobe’s worth of clothes. I took fucking loads and honestly cycled through about four t-shirts the entire time, and wore my one hoody through to the holey cuffs.

Almost every hostel you’ll stay in will have either a cheap self-laundry service, or a cheap same-day/next-day laundry service. I think the most I ever paid the whole trip was about a fiver, and that was to wash everything bar what I was wearing that day.

Be gross, wear your underwear a couple times each. You won’t die from it, promise. And when you find yourself a month or two deep and already sick of living out a bag, you’ll thank me for the fact that at the very least it doesn’t weigh a half tonne, full of clothes you’ll never wear.

P.S. On the topic of packing light: unless you’re a diehard camper, planning to pitch your tent on every free square foot of green you find, ditch the sleeping bag. I made the mistake of thinking going travelling meant a sleeping bag was mandatory; that just because I was wanting to do a spot of camping along the way meant I couldn’t leave home without that extra 2kg. Wrong. If you’re going camping at all, chances are you’ll can hire gear for pretty cheap somewhere in town, and for the occasions where you’ll want to keep yourself warm (Indian sleeper class trains, Bolivian busses, chilly hikes in Japanese forests), a light blanket will suffice – so pack one of those instead (*cough* long-haul flights provide cosy free ones *cough*).

Tip #4: Essential items

Here’s a short one, a list of items I’ll put on my ‘must must must take‘ list next time I decide to up sticks and head off travelling. This list could also be entitled: ‘things I didn’t take this time, and wished I had.

  1. Neck pillow; for if you want to get an actual half decent sleep on any one of your three thousand overnight busses/trains, and not be constantly jealous of all the clever bastards who thought to pack one. (Also, don’t cheap out on a shitey inflatable, get wan ae them cushiony bastards tae really put ye tae the land a’ nod).
  2. Clothes separators; another Vicky tip here, and the only thing on this list I actually did take. Best thing I ever did packing my clothes into these wee zipped bags: kept my boxers in one, socks in another, t-shirts in the third and troosers in the last. Sneered with schadenfreude every time I watched a fellow traveller dump the entire contents of their bag on the floor just to locate that missing sock.
  3. Spare earphones; like most technology companies, Apple are wankers and their shite is built to fail. You’re travelling for a while, your earphones will break and if you’re anything like me, being left musicless for a few days (or indeed weeks) before you can replace them is a dire prospect. Once again, treat yo’self. Nae use cheeping out now, when you’re penniless in Peru you’ll be glad you had a nice, quality spare set on hand.
  4. Spare phone charger; see above.
  5. Earplugs; sounds lame as fuck, but I didn’t take them and honestly you have no idea how loud some people snore/shag/sleep talk/early-morning-pack until you’ve spent every night for nine months sleeping with 9 other people in the same tiny room.

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Tip #5: Befriend fellow passengers

My Scottish Borders cohort will know what I mean when I say that the prospect of starting up a conversation with passengers on the X95 up to Edinburgh is a daunting one. Foolish, some may go as far to say. The likelihood that you’ll end up making the whole journey an uncomfortable one is high.

Nevertheless, my next tip is to do just that; be it on a long 24+ hour train in China, or a minivan collectivo in Mexico. Befriending fellow passengers on the various modes of transport I took on my travels not only saved my bacon on a few crucial occasions, but also led to interesting experiences I might not otherwise have had.

For example, there was Myra (Wang Lijuan), a Chinese lass who I got chatting to on the plane from Delhi, India on the way to China, who ended up showing me round Shanghai for a few days, helping me to take those first tentative steps on Chinese soil, teaching me basic Mandarin, how to use chopsticks properly, and even sorting me out with my first train ticket of the Chinese leg. A large Indian family on my first sleeper train kept me fed and full of sweet chai tea, whilst cheering up my homesick soul and showing me when to hop off the train at stations to stock up on water and samosas, and when not to. Or there were the Chinese couple on a long train to Chengdu who adopted me and fattened me up on fruit every time the food cart passed.

As I say though, whilst striking up conversation with the person sitting next to you might lead to new adventures, so too can it help you out in potentially tricky situations. In simply exchanging pleasantries with the people around me on many a bus or train, it made it much easier to work out which was my correct stop – especially when announcements were made in a foreign language. On busses, and especially those in South America or India, which make frequent stops of varying lengths, having someone who’d paid you even the slightest bit attention still on the bus whilst you were running off to find somewhere to pee or to tank a quick smoke could be the difference between that bus pulling away without you, or the bus driver being told to wait until you were back safely on board.

Believe me, I know it’s not the natural instinct of the modern introvert to start speaking to strangers, but I strongly recommend you do it. Only good can come.

Tip #6: Lower your standards

Here’s the thing: if you’ve decided that it’s time to go backpacking around the globe, you’ve got to be prepared to leave many a home comfort behind. More than that, you’ve got to be prepared to really rough it for the time you’re away.

For one, you’ll be sharing not only your living and relaxing spaces with sometimes up to a hundred other people, but also your cleaning and eating spaces. Hostel kitchens, if they have them, will likely be small, grubby, and understocked. Hostel bathrooms can range from the relatively spacious to the tiny and dark; from ten almost clean showers between everyone, to one grotty one, shared between hostel guests and pigeons. As for hot water showers, those will soon become a luxury. Sleeping in a bed with clean sheets, free of bedbugs and/or cockroaches is not a foregone conclusion, by any means. That free hostel breakfast that attracted you to the place in the first place? Yep, lower your standards. One particular hostel that Luke and I stayed in in Salta, Argentina, gave us two dry crackers with butter each for our breakfast…

During our time in this same hostel, in fact, we had a day where the water was off – leaving some questionable specimens piling up in toilet bowls, and the whole hostel smelly and un-showered. On a separate occasion in the Salta hostel, the electricity was cut for a full day, leaving us all freezing cold (during the height of Argentinian winter), charger-less, and wifi-less, in a town with shit all else to keep us otherwise occupied.

Now I don’t want to make out that it’s all doom and gloom. In fact it’s testament to the quality of most hostels that I would still choose, and recommend others to choose hostels over hotels every time. The information, connections, tour and travel services, and the support network of other travellers which hostels provide far outweighs the negative aspects, and truly it was hostels which made my trip what it was. Several of the hostels I stayed in, in fact, were cleaner and more enjoyable to stay in than any posh hotel I’ve ever spent the night at.

Basically with this tip I mean to say that you will have to rough it, pretty hard at points for sure, and no, it’s never enjoyable to share a bathroom with fourteen others, all of whom have the shits from dodgy food in a small Peruvian town. So lower your standards. If you head out on the road expecting little in the way of comfort from your accommodation, you’ll not be upset when you land a real bogey, but also, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised when you end up in a real cracker of a place.

Tip #7: Don’t be a dick

Another piece of hostel-based advise here, and it’s a simple one: don’t be dick.

Travelling for any decent stint, you’ll quickly become used to the different types of backpackers you’re liable to find in hostels: the norms, the hippies, the lads, the over-eager first timers, and the experienced. Whilst, of course – myself included – every traveller will at some point take the form of the penultimate character on that list, in time you’ll find the novelty of engaging heartily and energetically with all of the above wears off. You’ll get sick of the first-timer ice-breaker questions pertaining to where you’re from, what your name is, where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what you do back home. Those types of questions, and the pre-prepared answers you have to them, become so repetitive that, at least in my case, I found I met the most interesting individuals, and made the best friends with those whose conversations started mid-flow, who skipped all the ice-break shite and got straight into comfortable chat.

This is somewhat beside the point. However, in a similar vein, those who have been travelling for a while, or have already done this lark before, tend to judge those around them much more quickly than you would back home. This may seem harsh, which I’m sure it can be at times, but like a lot of travelling, it is a coping mechanism. The main difference between meeting people at hostels and meeting them at home is time; and with less of it, you don’t want to end up spending your few precious days in any given city hanging out with arseholes (just like you probably ended up doing earlier in your trip). And so you learn how to read people with greater accuracy and often in the first instant you talk with them, if not just lay eyes on them.

Now I know the maxim goes: don’t judge a book by its cover; but on the road it’s hard to adhere to this, therefore my advice to you is simple: don’t be a dick. Quite often this comes down to just being yourself. Don’t let anxiety or worry at meeting new people turn you into a compulsively lying billionaire with a black belt in karate, a superior understanding of indigenous cultures, and a holiday home in the Bahamas. Be honest, be yourself, and you’ll soon find yourself laughing merrily with other regular joes, who are all, at the end of the day, just looking for someone to hang out and have a good time with for a day or two.

Tip #8: Be flexible

This means calisthenics and yoga every morning guys.

Hahaha, classic pun based humour.

Naw, by this what I really mean is don’t get yourself all worked up over planning. Now admittedly, I did do a bunch of planning last year, when I was getting geared up for the trip. I don’t mean to tell you not to do this, of course your trip is going to take some fairly extensive planning just to get itself off the ground, and certainly there were times I was grateful for the notes on countries I carried in my bag on where might be nice to go, and what to do there.

However, ultimately, post-actually planning out which countries I wanted to go to, and how to get there, I rarely consulted these notes. Even then, I felt too shackled by my plans. It sounds drop dead terrifying to launch into however long a trip you’re wanting to go on without really planning out the route or indeed booking a return flight, but if I was to do everything over again, I’d do just that – I’d go in blind.

See once you’ve got all these flights booked, even if you can be flexible within each country, there ultimately exists a deadline, a stopping point for your adventures in said country: a date you have to be in a certain city for a certain flight. There are positives and negatives attached to this, and since this degree of planning is basically the least you could do I wouldn’t say you’ll be much better or worse off either way. Still, for me I ended up paying a lot of money to book all my flights in one go, only to find out from those who booked last minute discount flights on the go that they’d taken more flights and paid dramatically less. So too did having this flight date deadline ultimately curtail a couple adventures with great groups of people I was travelling with, who of course I could never have known I’d meet when I was booking those flights from home all those months before.

Nevertheless, if like me you’re a bit of a meticulous planner, and can’t bring yourself to leave without knowing your route and when you’ll be back, then at the very least make sure you remain flexible with your time in each country. Basically, avoid at all costs booking all your busses, trains and internal planes in advance, avoid even making and sticking to a set route within each country. Again, it may sound scary, but your experience travelling will, I assure you, be four quintillion times better if you learn to relax, take it easy, and make plans on the go; sometimes indeed off the cuff plans which involve booking flights with four new friends out to a volcanic island, or deciding to forsake a trip to the Taj Mahal in order to take a chance on a visit to Amritsar, a city you’d never previously heard of, but one by which other travellers have sworn.

Without fail, almost every single one of my favourite experiences and most cherished memories from my trip were forged because I allowed myself to be flexible. I took advise from other travellers on where I should go and how I should get there, I scrapped plans I’d made so as to travel for longer with people I wasn’t yet ready to leave, I visited whole countries on a whim just to see some interesting landscape I came across pictures of. Hell, if I’d not been flexible, I wouldn’t have ended up spending an evening in a Japanese bath house with members of the Yakuza, or road horses through the Valley of Death in the Atacama desert, met up with friends from university who got in touch along the way, or found myself the third member of a Scottish wolf pack, traversing the great American Road from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Yosemite to Las Vegas.

So that’s the tip: be flexible, book as little in advance as possible (and if you’ve the cojones then book nothing, just turn up and see what the craic is), take a chance on advice you get from other backpackers, and don’t, not ever, stress about what you might be missing, instead, just enjoy what you’re not.

Tip #9: Say yes to everything

This’un plays into the last, so I won’t go into it too much. After all, it’s simple enough to understand. Say yes to everything. Ja. Si. Hai. Oui. Aye.

After all, what use to anyone are stories of the time you almost ate sea urchin, or guinea pig, or llama? Or of when you so very nearly went bungee jumping, or abseiling down Ecuadorian waterfalls, or cycling down the world’s most dangerous road? None, that’s how much use.

So say yes, even (especially) if it scares you. You’ve got the chance to be in a place or experience some particular thing which most people might never get to, so do it, and even if its gross or dangerous or weird, at the very least you’ll can say you gave it a shot, and I promise you won’t come away with regrets.

Tip #10: Don’t swim in the sea when intoxicated, even if a pretty girl says it’s cool

I don’t mean to sound too much like your mum, but I’ve got a nice wee scar and a not-so-pleasant-not-so-far-away-from-death experience (two separate occasions, and the latter came first… I’ve no common sense) to say that yeah, I’d avoid taking that midnight plunge in the waves if you’ve got a bit too much liquor in ye.

Tip #11: Budget sensibly

Don’t leave thinking that the bare minimum you’ve worked out you’ll need is going to be enough. It won’t be.

Of course you can work along the way, or volunteer (check out workaway.info for sure) to help cut back on costs, and surely I’d recommend doing so if you can. But if you’re hoping to make it, like I was, without stopping too long in any one place to work, then remember that things like toiletries, and if you’re a filthy smoker like me, then cigarettes, are things which will need constant replacing, clothes and electronics occasionally need replacing too. Tours are a thing also; realise that, whilst I’d always recommend to do and go see everything on your own terms, for a lot of the things (especially in South America) that you’re gonna want to see, you’ll need to take part in a tour, or at the very least, pay an entrance fee. You’re also gonna wanna buy souvenirs, and I don’t care how much self-control you have or how well you’ve been sticking to that $20 day budget, none of that matters when you see something you want to put on your wall back home, or that your dad would die for.

So take these things into account when you’re budgeting. And once you’ve got your final figure, the goal for your savings account as it were, then add another grand or so on. It’s a whole lot of money, sure, and it’ll take longer to save up before you leave, but I decided just to save up to the absolute minimum I thought I could get away with, and I’m now in debt to friends and family for a sizeable chunk of moolah. What’s more, if I hadn’t been in the privileged position in which I am, with people to fall back on when I hit the hardest of financial times on my trip, I might well have been pretty screwed.

Tip #12: Look like a mug and you’re in for a mugging

Here’s my second to last travel tip, and it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I was given by another traveller, way back in India.

This is more applicable in some countries than others, for example, it’s of no use to you in Japan, where you could leave your laptop unlocked and next to you whilst you slept on the subway and nothing would happen to it; no one would even think to pocket it. Whereas it could be nicked before you even got it out your bag on the metro in Buenos Aires, Argentina. By and large though, it’s a useful piece of advice to follow, especially if you are planning to visit those countries renowned for being a bit sketchy.

Basically, this English lad Alex who I met in India, and who’d done a fair bit of travelling, told me that statistically the people most worried about getting mugged are the exact same people more likely to be. If you look vulnerable, or anxious, like you’re worried something might happen or that there’s reason for it to (i.e. like you’ve a nice new iPhone on you), and you’re unlucky enough to be in a situation where someone on the street’s sizing up people to pickpocket or rob, then you’ve made yourself a prime target.

Ultimately, these things can and do happen to anyone, all over the world, in random places and at random times. It’s a nasty lottery and there’s no way to protect yourself against it with impunity. But there are a few things you can do to ensure you’ll not be someone’s first choice of target: i.e. don’t look like a mug. Especially at night or in dodgier areas of town, rid yourself of your flashy jewellery, (even if it’s just of sentimental value, someone else might think it’s worth a lot more), be conscious of where your phone and wallet are, and on that topic: think about using a dummy wallet with just a bit of cash in, leaving your real wallet with cards and all back at the hostel. If you’ve got a camera with you, don’t walk around with it dangling from your neck like an open fecking invitation.

And lastly, surrender yourself to the fact that getting pickpocketed or mugged is more of a possibility in some of the places you’re visiting than back home. If you can come to terms with the fact that it might happen, then you’ll stop looking quite so scared that it will. And if you stop looking quite so scared that it will, start walking around with your head held high (and a mean look in your eye) then you might just avoid trouble altogether.

P.S. Beard and tattoos and a six and a half foot friend to travel with certainly help.
P.P.S. Once again, as with some of these other tips, don’t let me put you off travelling with this advice. I know it’s more worrying than the other tips, but it’s worth just bearing in mind. And after all, remember just how many hundreds of thousands, how many millions of tourists there are travelling different parts of the world all the time, and how comparatively rare instances of them getting mugged are. More likely than not, you’re gonna be fine.

Tip #13: The most important tip of all; enjoy yourself

When it comes down to it, there’s really only one thing you, prospective traveller, need to worry yourself with. And that is, very simply, to enjoy every minute of your journey.

In every faculty of life there are lows as well as highs, and that’s no truer than with travelling. On the road, thousands of miles from home and everything you’ve ever known, in a country whose people and customs seem alien to you, sometimes even troubling, it can be tough to keep going. But don’t dwell on the lows, because I can assure you that all that is bad will pass. When you get ill, you’ll recover, and what seemed awful and unending will soon barely register in your memory. Loneliness too will pass; there are always new and wonderful people waiting to meet you just around the corner.

There will come a breaking point too; a wall you’ll run up against that tells you it’s going to be too hard to continue, you’re three months in with seven more to go and you’re tired, you’ve been ill, maybe at that point in time you feel all alone in a strange world and it seems like going home is the best option. It isn’t. Believe me I came up against more than one of these walls – a week, two months, six months into the trip – and wanted to just bail and book the next flight home on each of these occasions. That may seem like the safest option. Maybe it is. But with a little bit extra will power, and a touch of looking to the positives and away from the negatives, keep on keeping on and you’ll push past those breaking points, leaving yourself ultimately with only the best of memories.

And there you have it, my top tips, as learned along the way through my own experiences and the experiences of others, for how best not only to stay safe, but also to continue being happy, and to return home at the end of it all with your horizons widened, your heart bigger, and your head full of the most beautiful memories any one person could hope for.

I’ll endeavour to keep using this blog to share my poetry and short stories, but until I can save up the cash to get myself back out on the road, here end the travels of the Bearded Bard.

With love to all those who’ve kept in touch with me and with this blog, you guys are the best. And with thoughts thrown out to all of you who are to take up your backpack and start your own adventures; good luck, good life, good travels.

Peace, love, killin’, illin’, chillin’,
C x

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