Anyone that has done some sort of long-term travel will know that the journey usually resembles something of a rollercoaster. Not one of those fancy, super-loopy, safe rollercoasters, either. Rather, one of those old, creeky, wooden rollercoasters that you’re surprised are still up and running and leave you feeling whiplashed, nauseated, and somehow wanting more. There is no way to accurately describe the feelings you’re having while on this type of self-exploration, and your friends and family have hard time relating to what you’re going through. I’m not just talking about a two, three week jaunt around Europe with your best friend where you hit all the local bars, cafes, and touristic spots (although nothing wrong with that). I’m talking about the kind of travel that enables you to really dive into another culture; the kind of travel that widens your perspective on the world and gives you a new sense of freedom. Backpacking is full of highs and lows, and you need to make it through the low points to feel the thrill of being at the top.
Let’s start with two of the biggest bumps-in-the-road that I experienced while backpacking. I found that it’s very easy for others to glorify what you’re going through while traveling, because they see only the cool pictures or hear about the good times. You generally keep the not so ideal times to yourself, but it’s important to understand before heading out on your journey that things won’t always be peachy (and that’s okay!)
- Feeling lonely. This is one that I’m sure anyone who has traveled by themselves has felt. You leave home, go to a new place, and expect to find fun, new people to surround yourself with. While that is likely to occur, it might not happen right away, or even if it does, you will still find yourself feeling alone at times. Rather than using this emotion to self-destruct and become homesick, it’s a great opportunity to just simply spend time with yourself. Find out what you really want to do, and why you decided to go to this country in the first place. You’re on your own schedule, which is seriously the best thing ever (no having to compromise for someone else? Score). Plus, people traveling alone are a lot more approachable, so step out of your comfort zone and surround yourself with interesting people that will enhance your trip.
- Pressure to be doing something else. This is something that not everyone may experience, but I have a feeling that a lot of 20-somethings go through. Maybe you went to college, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you have a job lined up, maybe you don’t. Maybe you know exactly what you want to do with your life, maybe you’re still learning to tie your shoes. I swear that the 20s have to be the most awkward, most uncomfortable stage of life out there. In today’s world, we have so many options and so many ideas about what to do, how on Earth are we supposed to choose the “right” one? Personally, I didn’t have a damn clue as to what I wanted to do with myself after graduating from college. I knew I wasn’t mentally ready for a career-orientated job, so instead I dove into the seasonal workforce. I spent three months in the mountains of Colorado as an outdoor educator, another handful working at a conference center at Lake Tahoe, and another four and half months working and traveling in New Zealand. Returning home almost a year after graduating from college, I still didn’t have any sort of idea what I wanted to do, and I let it stress me out more that I should have. I felt uncomfortable in environments where people would ask “So what do you do? Where do you work?” and I started to overthink what steps I should take next. Fast forward to today, and I’m working full time for a startup in Silicon Valley. While I love the company and enjoy the work, I find myself daydreaming on my commute about being on a beach in Thailand, or hiking through the mountains of Peru. I’ve learned that no matter what you decide to do, if you feel pulled in multiple directions, you’ll always wonder about the neglected option. Rather than dwell on it too much and question if you made the right choice, try to dive completely in to where you are and what you’re doing. Accept that this is the right path for you to be on in this moment, and there’s always time for the alternative option when the time comes (unless you’re extremely unhappy, then maybe consider changing something).
While there are definitely some tough times, the high points are what keep people coming back for more. And without the lows, you cannot have highs. Here are some of my personal favorite parts (or lessons learned) when living and traveling around a foreign country.
- Cultural Diversity. Of course I mean this in the sense of experiencing new things in whichever country you’re traveling around (hello Italian pizza), but this can be even more enhanced by surrounding yourself with people that are unlike you. This allows you to learn about how people from other countries view things, and maybe you’ll even learn a few words in another language. Some of my strongest relationships today are with people I spent only 3-4 months with (speaking broken English and using lots of hand gestures) primarily because we shared the same values and perspectives on life.
- Materials don’t matter. When you’re packing for your trip, it might be hard to let go of your favorite leather shoes or that super cute cocktail dress, but trust me when I say that less is more. I made the mistake of overpacking
slightlyfor my New Zealand trip, thinking that I would be there for multiple seasons and would need lots of variety in my clothing. I was so wrong. So. Wrong. When it comes to packing, bring a few of your favorite pieces, but otherwise pack functionally and bring lots of layers. You’ll learn that no one cares about what you wear, and you can pick up some new outfits where ever you are. Upon returning home, you’ll probably realize that you have too much stuff and what once brought you happiness, doesn’t really matter anymore. Put aside your favorite pieces, sell the extras, and use the money to go skydiving.
Hands down, the hardest part about backpacking is saying goodbye to the close friends you’ve made during your travels. You bonded over sleepless nights, rainy hikes, and cheap street food. You’ve gone on this rollercoaster together, and it’s time to get off the ride and begin another new journey. You probably feel sad, nostalgic, and confused when you part, but realize that you’ve made a life-long friend in them, and can always hop on a new rollercoaster in the future together (maybe even one of those cool, loopy ones this time