N – Negotiating. Something I despised at first but have come to love: bargaining! I’ll definitely miss negotiating once I’m back in Europe. Nowadays, I’m always hunting for the best price, taking things easy, laughing with vendors or taxi drivers, and coming up with (creative or funny) arguments why I cannot pay more (I’m a poor student; I’m the vendor’s new, special friend from Germany; etc.). The whole thing is a theater play: a local will quote a ridiculously high price; I’ll look shocked and tell him ‘Oh, expensive!’ and demand 1/3 of his price. He’ll then start to laugh, shaking his head furiously. Street vendors’ typical response: ‘My product is of high quality, locally produced and handmade… It took me 3 days to make it!’ (yeah right) – or in case of taxi drivers: ‘Your destination is very far away, at least a 30 minutes drive!’ (not bloody likely, I checked with my hotel before and they told me 10…). I subsequently try to get him to 1/2 or 2/3 of his initially quoted price. I’m okay with paying a reasonable premium (despite traveling on a tight budget, I’m richer than most locals; paying one or two Euro too much is not a big deal for me but can make a difference to people here). But if he’s obviously trying to overcharge me and we cannot find an agreement, I have no problem with walking away!
O – Ordinary. Traveling isn’t about having a luxurious vacation. It’s about seeing new places, meeting different people, learning about other lifestyles, and going from one place in one’s mind to another. It’s an extraordinary experience characterised by meeting ordinary people (who are mostly poor) and by being an ordinary person. You need to be willing to give up things. Regarding packing, for example, I only took (old) clothes and shoes I wouldn’t mind losing. I didn’t take cosmetics, fancy hair or skin care products with me. That’s just not important. I stuck to essentials.
P – Patience. Southeast Asian clocks run differently than Western ones: things get done when it’s time for them to get done (after lunch; once it cools down; tomorrow or the day after… or now, quickly! Surprise!). Buses leave when they are full, trains run late – the list goes on and on. Don’t panic, don’t stress and take it easy. Get another bottle of water, perhaps some fruit or ice cream. Hey, life is great, you’re traveling and there’s no rush to get from A to B! Make new friends, read your book and don’t cause a scene. Getting upset won’t change anything; it will only make locals feel uncomfortable. Stay calm and take a nap…
Q – Quest. This past year has been a quest for identity. I needed to break away from everything to remember what I love doing, where I was coming from and where I want to go. I was in search of a big adventure and I found plenty! Parts of me that I had lost during my studies re-emerged. I now have a fresh outlook on life – I’ll talk more about it in another blog post.
R – Respect. You’re a visitor in a foreign country, a guest, and you have to respect local culture & customs! This is something that has bothered me since day one: too many backpackers are ignorant and insensitive of their surroundings. It really isn’t hard to cover your shoulders and knees – especially in a temple, for Goodness sake! It is not cool to sit on the road, drink cheap beer and whiskey, and sing songs. Locals will stare, point their fingers and display their disgust. Just because you’re in a foreign country doesn’t mean you have to bring out the worst in you. Do try to learn some local words (at least ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’). Please don’t ride a motorcycle while only wearing a bikini. Oh, I could go on and on about this one but I think you get the message. I’m soooooo sick of gap year students (primarily from the UK, Australia and the US) and their immaturity and lack of respect. And yes, numerous Thai people have complained to me about some (primarily English and American) backpackers’ disrespectful behavior. They might not say anything but they hate it!
S – Sleeping. I’ve never had any problems with sleeping on a bus, train or airplane – and I’ve done it numerous times over the last 10 months. However, my newest, more exotic locations include sleeping on the back of a motorcycle (my Burmese friend was driving me home one night, i.e. back to the elephant camp, and I just fell asleep), having a nice siesta on a comfy chair in a restaurant in Bagan (it was way too hot to keep cycling around), taking regular naps on a wooden bench near Tutdao’s enclosure, sleeping on a beach in Vietnam (damn, it got cold at night!), and sleeping at Bangkok’s Don Mueng airport to save money and catch an early morning flight to Myanmar. While I never fell asleep on Tutdao’s back, I did ride her with my eyes closed from time to time.
My favorite puppy at the elephant camp: Sunset
T – Trust your gut. I’ve noticed it a hundred times: my gut knows exactly what’s good and not good for me. I’ve met some locals who I just didn’t want to trust although they appeared to be friendly. Something would be off so that I would refuse their help and walk away quickly. One thing I have perfected is trusting my instincts when it comes to food. Nowadays, I only need to take a quick glance at a restaurant or food stall or to take one bite of a dish in order to realise if it will make me sick or not. Again, something just won’t feel right. My gut told me to stop working for the NGO, to leave the elephant camp, to book a flight home and put an end to my current travels through SEA. As I tend to be a rational person, I initially found it hard to listen to my instincts. It’s something I had to learn. But thanks to the help of some friends and family members, I got better and better at it. And every time I trusted my gut, I got rewarded by feeling much happier and relieved – or by stumbling into an unexpected adventure. Follow your heart – that’s one big part of traveling.
U – Unplanned. My current lifestyle is characterized by being spontaneous, enjoying the moment and letting go of time, people and fixed plans. Although I have a rough idea of where I want to go / which places I want to see, I plan my next stop only one day in advance. I usually wake up and don’t know where I’ll sleep at night; I simply board a bus or train in the morning and travel to another city – and if I don’t feel like leaving, I stay another day. This flexibility has allowed me numerous times to join other travelers for parts of their journey and to follow locals’ advice where to go next. Besides traveling alone, this is the most important advice I have for all future backpackers: be open to suggestions and altering plans, and go with the flow!
V – Valuables. Travel light! Although I took my laptop as well as my new Kindle with me after returning to SEA in January, I did not bring my Canon EOS but opted for a smaller camera (by the way, I can highly recommend it: Canon S110). The less gadgets you take, the less you have to worry about and carry around! Trust me, you will survive with just your smartphone and camera (and perhaps a Kindle; that’s an extremely useful gadget when traveling!). When traveling, your most valuable items are your passport and your visa card. You’ll survive without everything else. I always made sure these two were either locked away, hidden in my room (if I didn’t have a locker), or I carried them beneath my shirt. Come to think of it, I’ve gotten quite lazy with carrying them on my body when being on the move and should take up this habit again… I usually put by wallet (cash only) in my smaller backpack and lock the compartment with a small padlock (use a combination lock, you might lose a key!). I’m never this careful when I’m at home but then again, it’s less of a hassle to manage an ID, credit card or money loss there. Minimise risks to avoid unpleasant surprises!
W – Washing powder. Having experienced loss of clothes, delayed returns and high prices for laundry services, I’ve taken up hand-washing my clothes. It’s cheap (detergent costs about 1 Euro – no need to bring stuff from home), easy, and faster than using guesthouse laundry services. In addition, I don’t need to wait until I have a full load; instead I wash a shirt or two at a time. Piece of advice: I brought a clothesline with me which has proven itself handy several times.
X – X on a map. Placing a cross on a map to know which places to go to. Ticking off sights & places of interest in my Lonely Planet. I’ve kept track of every place I’ve been to and cannot wait to open my LP in a few years and remember where I went!
Y – YES. Somebody invites you to come along, to try a new dish, etc. – say yes! Be open-minded and have a positive attitude towards all opportunities that present themselves. My best adventures started simply by saying yes. I got to know Tutdao and work with her because I said yes when Joy asked me to help him. I got to feed wild hornbills in Malaysia because I said yes when my taxi driver asked me whether he could bring me to a ‘special’ guesthouse (the owner feeds the birds every day at 5pm). I learned how to drive a carriage because I said yes to a guy driving past me and asking if I wanted to come up. The key message: your first instinct might be to answer ‘no’, but try and change that: just say yes – and be amazed! (But bear in mind letter T.)
Z – Zigzag. I initially wanted to travel for 5 months through Northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Southern Thailand, down to Singapore – and then do Indonesia, if I still had time. That’s not what happened. Instead, I zigzagged my way across the region, with a short return to Germany for Christmas & New Year’s. I visited Myanmar instead of Indonesia, met my family in Singapore and Bali for their autumn vacation, returned to Pai several times, checked out Hong Kong, skipped Southern Thailand and saved Cambodia for another time. A few times, the journey itself proved to be the destination. Furthermore, I zigzagged my way through Southeast Asian traffic. I learned how to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, the busiest & craziest place of all. I am not scared of crossing busy roads filled with motorbikes, cars, buses, bicycles, and oxcarts (all going in different directions, regardless of the lane they occupy). It’s like a beehive: as long as you keep moving forward, they all manage to get around you. All in all, I’ve realised that to reach a place, you don’t have to go straight. It’s okay to zigzag, do detours, go back or ‘jump’ forward. And this principle, I believe, does not only apply to traveling, but to building a career, learning new things and growing as a person.