When I was 17, 23 and 28, I set off on great big trips. I meandered across continents, I met a million people, and caught a hundred stomach bugs. I bloody loved it.
I miss that care-free, mortgage-free (wrinkle-free) person, with everything important in her life stuffed into a backpack and scrawled on the pages of a battered notebook. I’m still nourished by the memories I made, but I also remember how anxious and alone I felt and the mistakes I made.
This is the advice I would give to myself as I teetered on the edges of Europe, Asia and the Americas all those years ago.
I don’t think you’ve given what you’re about to do enough thought, but I guess that’s just how we roll. Twenty years on, I’ve had a bit more time to ponder our travels, and this is what we’ve learnt.
Trust everyone – if you don’t believe that people are fundamentally good, you will only half travel your journey – but trust your gut most of all.
Don’t plan too much. You’re pretty good at this one anyway, but don’t be afraid to be open to new things, say yes and enjoy the ride. When you lose this capacity, you need to stop, sit, think, read and draw a while, until you find it again.
You will do things that you regret. That’s ok. That’s life. Our regrets make us who we are just as much as the moments that make us proud. If you get the chance, say sorry to the people you hurt. You probably won’t be given another opportunity.
Slow down. You can’t see and do it all. And even if you force yourself to, you won’t remember half of it. Don’t do things just because other travellers, guidebooks or Instagram tells you should. One woman’s travel gold is another’s travel hell.
Mix with as many different people as you can. Talk to the older travellers as well as those your age. They will have tales to tell that no 20 year old has. And speak to the locals. Their cultures may well make more sense to you than your own. Absorb everything, and choose to carry within you the concepts that speak to your soul; abandon the ones that don’t fit.
“Listen more than you talk.”
It’s ok to be shy. We’re not all extroverts and the world is a better place because of it. But try to have grace.
“Be kind, considerate and thoughtful.”
Do sweat the grown-up stuff. Travel insurance, visas and managing your money are boring but getting it wrong could land you in a lot of trouble. Scan your passport and ID docs before you leave and email them to yourself. Read the small print, know exactly when your passport and visas expire – and remember your passwords!
Phone your mum. Honestly, it was really hard for the woman who brought you into this world to encourage you to go out and explore it alone. She misses you and she worries about you. Reassure her as often as you possibly can that you’re alive, you’re happy and you love her. One day you might be in her position, and then you will understand why this matters so much.
Don’t be a penny pincher. Enjoy the haggle but don’t fall out over 50p. You won’t miss that amount tomorrow, but the person on the other end of the haggle might. Be gracious.
“Budget travel is not about spending very little. It’s about spending wisely.”
Pack light. The extra stuff will just weigh you down. You do not need all those shoes. Take one pair of flips flops, one pair of shoes to walk long distances in and one pair of going out shoes. That’s enough. This applies to life in general too.
But do take a sarong. Sarongs are amazing. They are towels for the beach, scarves for the cold, cover-ups for temples, and blankets for long journeys.
Apply factor 50 sunscreen to your forehead before you go on a bike ride by yourself in China. Seriously. Sunscreen is so good.
Ice cubes are made from tap water. Don’t vigilantly wash your teeth in bottled water and then order a cocktail with ice. Trust me on this.
“Carry Immodium and paracetomol in your day pack, wherever you go.”
Walk. Walk everywhere. When you arrive in a new place, check in, dump your bags and explore on your own two feet. It’s independent, it’s challenging, and it’s the best way to get to know a place.
Write everything down. Your future self will thank you for your travel journal. Document who you met, where you went, what you ate and how you felt about it all. Draw pictures and save tickets. Don’t worry, no-one else will ever read your journal – you’re not that interesting – so write freely and truthfully.
When you get home, print your photos and put them in an album (or make a photobook online). If you don’t do this now, you never will.
“Travel is not the answer to everything.”
But it can help equip you to deal with the rubbish that life will inevitably toss your way. And no matter what the rest of your life brings – even when you’re broke, crying in the loos at work or at home raising bawling children – you will always be a traveller. I promise.”
What advice would you tell your younger travel self?