15 Things I've Learned After One Year of Travel

August 23, 2018

 

One year ago, I gave up my apartment, packed up my cubicle, and said goodbye to the city that I called home for two years. Ten countries and three continents later, I’ve not only learned a lot about the world, but about myself. I’ve shared some of these in small bits on Facebook, while others were written months ago at 3am, when I couldn’t fall asleep in my hostel bed. Some are practical, most are personal, but I’m extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to discover every single one of them. So forget what you’ve seen on Instagram and check out what a year of travel was really like below – the good, the bad, and all the in betweens.

 

 

  • Ignore those “traveler” stereotypes. We’ve all heard the phrase “be a traveler, not a tourist” while on the road. And while generally well-meaning, it’s also ok sometimes to be the tourist. Take that selfie with a camel, throw a coin or two into the Trevi Fountain, strike a not-so-candid pose with your freshly cracked coconut in Costa Rica, make your friend retake that boomerang four times until you get the perfect “cheers” at Oktoberfest - and don’t be ashamed! Remember when Rose dies at the end of Titanic (spoiler alert) and the camera pans to the photos of all she’s accomplished? BE ROSE! Or don’t. Being a traveler isn’t a competition to see if you can fit everything you own into a carryon or whether you need an elevator to get your suitcase upstairs. You want to alternate two shirts with a pair of leggings and those backpacker-staple harem pants for six months? GOOD FOR YOU! You want to bring five pairs of shoes to match the 2 dresses, 4 crop tops, and that cute romper that you saw and just had to have in London? GOOD FOR YOU, TOO! Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, like me, and believe there’s no such thing as too many bikinis. In the end, you’re the only one responsible for lugging around your own bag (unless you have a super helpful boyfriend/travel buddy), so pack whatever you want, in whatever size bag you want, whether it’s a well-worn 30L backpack or a shiny, new hardcover with wheels. It’s about whatever makes you feel good about yourself. If you feel good about yourself, then you’ll be putting your best self forward when facing new challenges, experiences, and people. 

 

  • But with all that being said, you won’t end up wearing half of the clothes you bring with you. Once you realize that no one you met in Seville on Monday will see you wearing the same exact thing in Valencia the following Wednesday, you start to give zero fucks. As long as there isn’t photographic evidence, then I have no shame in rocking my favorite outfits multiple days a week. Packing less also leaves room for souvenirs or, more importantly, new clothes (see note above about must-have romper). If you’re traveling for more than a week or two, then the availability to do laundry might also be scarce; my rule is as long as it doesn’t smell, you’re good to go! I only throw in the towel once I run out of clean underwear. Everyone has their limits. 

 

  • Racism, bigotry, and misogyny is not just a U.S. problem, it’s a global problem. When I lived abroad for a year in Australia, I was shocked at the blatant racism towards the indigenous people and immediately noticed how closely it mirrored the United States' own treatment of Native Americans. Before I left for Colombia last December, friends full of well-meaning concern repeatedly told me to be careful of men while traveling throughout Latin America; that they heard stories of aggression and harassment from a friend of a friend of a friend who visited four years ago. Most people were surprised when I returned home and told them that the worst cat-calling I’ve ever experienced wasn’t in Colombia, where the locals were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, or Nicaragua, where a flirty and harmless “hola chica” was the most outrageous thing I heard. No, my worst experience did not come from Latin America – it came from Italy. Italian men are shameless in their gawking, brazenly bold in their crude comments, and open in their general lack of respect for women, having been followed on multiple occasions as I walked down an empty street, taking unnecessary detours and speeding up my pace. During a night out with friends in Florence, a 20-year-old American student confidently told me that “racism doesn’t exist”. After I listened to him tell his friends that his boots were "vintage," from a WWII S.S. soldier. After I overheard him brag about his German heritage, specifically how his great-uncle “killed Jews.” After his friend excitedly congratulated him with an enthusiastic “right on!” and said he was German (American), too. When myself and a friend confronted him, he quickly backtracked and said the boots were Soviet, but saying S.S. “made the story better.” He defended his bragging by calling it “just history” and explaining his uncle did it, not him. When we pointed out he sounded proud, he said he was, that it was his heritage. When I asked if he thought that that was a valid argument for the display of the Confederate flag, he said “of course, because racism doesn’t exist.” Although this boy was American, there has been a significant increase in anti-Semitic crimes across the globe in the past few years; I noticed prominent swastikas graffitied throughout Barcelona and derogatory terms scrawled across the walls of Rome. This mentality existed before Trump’s America and it will certainly exist far after, across continents and oceans. It is something that is taught, learned and encouraged. If people remain quiet because “it doesn’t involve them” then your silence perpetuates this hatred. I could have said nothing and minded my own business – but maybe in 5, 10, or even 20 years, that boy will remember that conversation when teaching his own son about their heritage and use it as a lesson between right and wrong, not “just history.” It’s unlikely, I know, but remaining silent will never give someone the chance to change the conversation and make a difference, both at home and abroad.

 

  • But kindness can also be found anywhere, if you’re open to it. I had been dying to go to Bar Pinotxo, a small tapas place in La Boqueria that Anthony Bourdain went to in his Barcelona episode of No Reservations. His death hit me hard for many reasons, one of the biggest being that I had always admired him - not only as a fellow traveler, but for his unabashed honesty, no-bullshit attitude, and conviction for standing up for what he believed in. Every time I passed by the restaurant though, every seat was filled. But I was determined to make it happen my last day in the city. I managed to snag a stool (sometimes eating solo has its benefits) and squeeze in at the end. An older Spanish man, maybe late 60s, white hair, clearly another tourist by the impressive camera around his neck, sat down next to me. Also eating alone, he tried his best to strike up some conversation with me, but my Spanish being what it is, didn’t get very far. I apologetically explained “Entiendo mas, pero hablo mal.” The man just gave me a warm smile and nodded, ordering his first of many dishes. I asked him if his octopus salad was “muy bien” and he enthusiastically agreed, so I ordered it myself. The waiter put a small lobster in front of him next and the old man gave me a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders. I just smiled and said “¿Por que no?” at which the man excitedly exclaimed “¡Exactamente!” with a huge smile. I finished up my meal, hopped off my stool, said a final “hasta luego” to the man and let the next person take my place. It’s the small moments like this that I live for and why I enjoy traveling, especially solo, as much as I do. Had I been with a friend, I’d likely never would have even looked at this man, caught up in my own conversation. But that small exchange which lasted maybe only 20 minutes, was a reminder that you don’t need to be from the same place, be the same age, look the same, or even speak the same language to find that kindness is everywhere. He could have judged me, taken one look at my tattoos and pierced nose and chosen not to engage at all - some people do and he was of a certain generation, from a historically conservative Catholic country - but he didn’t. And the more I travel, the more my faith in humanity is restored, little by little, that kindness is there if you are open to it. And there is nothing that forces you to be open more than being alone in an unfamiliar place - to leave your comfort zone, to welcome the awkwardness and embrace those feelings of self-consciousness. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

 

  • Research your mobile plan options. I’ve had Verizon for as long as I can remember, and while their service works great in the U.S., at $10 a day for only 1/2 gig of high speed data while international, it’s a complete money-suck. For the past year, I’ve tried my best to purchase a local SIM card wherever I am. Most countries offer monthly pre-paid options that include unlimited social or WhatsApp, but it’s not always convenient or worth the trouble if you’re only in a city for 4 days. So, I would suck it up and pay the additional $10 a day, sometimes $20 if I ran out of high speed data and needed to re-up. The biggest hassle of being a digital nomad is the necessity to be constantly connected, but more on that later. I only very recently was told about T-Mobile’s wonderful international plan. At first, I didn’t even believe it was true - there’s no way that they not only offer unlimited data and calls within the U.S. but also full, high speed 10 gigs of data per month PLUS texting and calls while abroad, all for $5 LESS than what I was paying for just a Verizon plan without the additional international $10 fee a day tacked on. But they really do. And now I’m a T-Mobile customer. 

 

  • Be a “yes” girl (or boy). Back in November, I randomly met Jenna at an Arkells concert in Boston; after some standard chit chat, we realized we were both connected through The Yacht Week, the largest international floatilla organization. Fast forward a month, I see her post in a mutual Facebook group run by TYW that she was looking to join an adventure for a week or two during some down time between jobs. I instantly reached out to her and invited her on my January trip to Nicaragua. A few short days later, Jenna booked her plane tickets and was set to meet me in San Juan del Sur for ten days of sun and surf. I immediately applauded her courage, messaging her how much I loved that she was such a “yes” girl – someone who is willing to take a risk, despite reservations or doubts, say “yes” and jump head-first into whatever opportunity is presented them. And we had a blast. From racing horses down a beach at sunset, to surfing the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean and leaving a trail of glitter behind us at the infamous Sunday Funday Pool Crawl, none of it would have been possible without The Yacht Week, the Arkells, and serendipity to bring us together. But it was Jenna’s “yes” girl attitude that turned plans into reality, and we both walked away with a new friend. While I was in Rome this past September, I connected with a local Italian girl through the Couchsurfing app, and before I knew it, our couple of drinks turned into bar hopping around Trastevere and an invite to the opening of her friend’s speakeasy the next night. The invite-only opening with Veronique turned into an all-night adventure that I’ll always remember; from meeting a guy whose family owns the famous Modern Pastry in Boston, to post-celebration croissants and espressos at a 24/7 café, to taking in the gorgeous Roman skyline from Lo Zodiaco at 5am. And I still have my membership card from L’Alchimista as a fond souvenir of the unexpected night. I may not have made it to the Spanish Steps and wasted my tickets to the Borghese Gallery, but the well-known sights will always be there, waiting for the crowds of tourists that swarm to see them each day. My adventures with Veronique and her friends were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I would have looked back on and wished regretfully “if only I had done that” instead of “I can’t believe I did that,” had I not been a “yes” girl.

 

 

  • “Living the dream” is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Having to constantly be connected can sometimes be a crutch and is most of the time harder than you can imagine, even with today’s very first world problem of hyper-connectivity. The location independent lifestyle can start to lose its shiny veneer when you have to build-in an additional 4 hours into your already existing 12-hour travel day, just so you can get some work done between flights on your layover. Or when new friends from last night invite you on an all-day booze cruise around the Amalfi Coast, but your client’s monthly report is due tomorrow and you haven’t started. Or when the guy you’re still trying to impress is clearly annoyed that the third anchorage you sail to doesn’t have cell service, which means another 5am alarm and early morning pulling the anchor so you can make your 7am conference call – just to find out it was actually your Mexican SIM card that ran out of data and all that moving was unnecessary (woops).

 

  • Double and triple check mandatory vaccinations. As a seasoned traveler, checking for any visa or medical requirements before heading to a new place is automatically one of the first things I do when planning a trip. But sometimes once is not enough, as I quickly learned when I tried to catch my flight from Colombia to Nicaragua. I had done my research a month prior to departing for my Latin America trip this past winter, and was happy to see that there were no mandatory vaccinations I needed. Yellow fever was recommended for Colombia, but only if you planned on trekking into the jungle; I would only be visiting Medellín and Cartagena, which were supposedly exempt from the prerequisite according to the U.S. Embassy website. Even if you were leaving the major cities, it was still listed as just a recommendation, not a requirement. This was mid-November. On December 4th, this apparently changed according to the date noted on the site, which I obviously didn’t think to check again until the airline staff refused to issue me my boarding pass for Nicaragua without a yellow fever vaccination certificate. The representative explained that Nicaragua requires proof immediately on arrival for anyone coming directly from a high-risk country, which Colombia was, despite no recorded outbreaks in the last year. Without proof, I would be placed in quarantine until the next flight back to Colombia. He told me where I could get the vaccination for free and wrote down the name of the clinic, but since it was not only a Saturday, but a holiday weekend, I wouldn’t be able to get the vaccination until the clinic opened again on Tuesday morning. What I was told next was an even bigger blow: yellow fever had a 10-day incubation period, meaning that even after I got the vaccination, I would still have to wait 10 days before I could leave the country. As panic began to set in and tears threatened to pour down my face at any second, the man quietly told me I could ask them to back-date the certificate to the entry date stamped in my passport, which would mark 11 days in the country; apparently this was a common enough issue with tourists and both a quick Google search and confirmation from the representative told me this should work. But it was still a gamble. After three very long, stressful days, one breakdown, and some desperate begging in poorly translated Spanish, the nurse took pity on me and backdated the certificate. I have never been happier to leave a country or more thankful for sketchy foreign government practices.

 

  • Embracing the unexpected and being flexible becomes a necessity. Complacency and instant gratification are easy patterns to fall into, especially when certain expectations come with certain destinations; when someone mentions Belize, images of sandy beaches and endless sunshine immediately come to mind. An afternoon of rain storms would disappoint anyone, disrupting a much-anticipated day of relaxation, piña colada in hand. A week of rain storms is even worse. But when you’re constantly on the go, traveling for months at a time, it’s unrealistic for plans to work out 100% of the time. That doesn’t happen at home, and it definitely doesn’t happen on the road. When life (or weather, politics, forgetting to set your alarm to catch an early morning flight, etc) gives you lemons, you have to learn to mix them with vodka and chug. Things will happen and there’s nothing you can do to change them; you can’t control the weather any more than you can control mandatory vaccinations or missed flights long after they’ve taken off. You could get upset, throw a tantrum and cry, but it won’t change the outcome. For your own sanity, you have to be able to roll with the punches and adapt to whatever obstacles life throws your way. Have to stay in Colombia for an extra 4 nights? Not ideal, but – surprise! – the airline employee took pity on me and waved the change fees. Going to rain the entire week I’m supposed to be in Belize? No worries, I’ll change my ticket and stay an extra week in Nicaragua - which turned out to be one of the best decisions and weeks I’ve had in the past year. Speaking from experience, the unexpected often makes for the best stories.

 

  • Sometimes you just need to treat yourself. Self-care and health are always important, but it’s easy to get caught up and have them take a back seat when you’re running around the world. You get to a new city, you meet new friends who want to go out partying for the third night in a row, or you eat your fourth deep fried empanada in a day because, hey it’s cheap. After two or three weeks of this on repeat, your body starts to turn against you – you’re tired, you’re bloated, and your face is probably breaking out like crazy. A recharge is necessary before you completely burnout and can no longer physically enjoy the adventure you’re on. Three days at Casa Horizon, a cozy beach house on Playa Escameca in Nicaragua, was the perfect place to take a break from the always-on atmosphere of San Juan del Sur. Owned and managed by the wonderful guys of Free and Easy Traveler, the secluded spot features an open-air yoga studio, surfboards you’re welcome to borrow, and more hammocks than people that are usually there to use them. A good 40 minutes from town, low key movie nights and group dinners followed by a round or five of cards is the norm and was exactly what I needed in order to make it through my last weekend in Nicaragua, refreshed and rejuvenated. Getting my nails done every few weeks use to be my high-maintenance guilty pleasure when I lived in Boston. While these days I typically leave my nails natural (I can’t stand when they’re chipped), I did splurge in Florence and Amsterdam this summer; a great excuse to get out of the heat and just enjoy being pampered in some much-appreciated air conditioning for an hour. There’s also something reassuring, that when everything around you seems to be going wrong and the world is against you and you might have to spend an extra 10 days in Colombia because of a stupid vaccination, you can look down at your still perfectly pedicured toes, and feel, even for just a moment, that maybe you aren’t such a hot mess and you got this. 

 

  • If you’re American, you will get asked about Trump everywhere you go. You’ve heard “so what do you think about Trump” so many times that you’ve almost claimed to be Canadian on more than one occasion. You’ve seriously contemplated learning their national anthem, trading in Dunkin Donuts for Tim Hortons, and perfecting your poutine recipe. You’ve learned to specify where in the U.S. you’re from, in hopes that gives away your political allegiance so you can avoid the conversation all together. But you’re never quite that lucky.

 

  • It’s the people that make a place special, not the location. When I think back to my favorite memories, the one thing they all have in common is that they are focused around the people I was fortunate enough to meet. When someone asks me what my favorite place I’ve visited is, Nicaragua is always included. Although a beautiful country in its own right, my love and affection run deep because of the incredible experiences and the amazing people that made them happen. From horseback riding with Jenna and surf lessons with Meikel; to Sunday Fundays filled with glitter, dancing, and pool-hopping around San Juan del Sur; to the welcoming staff of Hola Ola Hostel and the awesome guys who make Casa Horizon the perfect escape; to treehouse raves with DJ Piña in the middle of the Granada jungle and circus party boats with the fantastic members of Momentom Collective; Nicaragua is a place I’m eager to return to and won’t ever forget, all thanks to the wonderful people mentioned above and so many others. Other places, like Florence, would likely fall to the bottom of my favorite list if it weren’t for the friends I now have there. Returning to the Italian city this summer was solely to visit friends I made the previous fall; two weeks crashing at Casa di Diletti meant movie and wine nights with Michela and Daniela, trivia nights with Evan and the Florence For Fun crew, and squashing FOMO celebrating July 4th on the banks of the Arno River with fellow Americans – highlights that are nothing specific or relevant to Florence itself, but are still some of the most memorable.

 

  • As a solo female traveler, you will get questioned about your reproductive choices and when you’ll “settle down,” from friends to strangers and nearly always unsolicited. A man I had just met at my hostel in Edinburgh dismissively told me “Sorry, but you’ll change your mind about not wanting kids. My cousin did and your clock is ticking.” There is so much wrong with this statement, and what makes it more sad, is that I get it all the time. From assumptions this person felt were valid to voice about a complete stranger, to the fact that because me and his cousin both have vaginas, we therefore will make the same choices and must feel the same feelings. I don’t go around accusing every man of being a misogynistic asshole because he happens to have a dick in common with my president. More so however, not wanting children is my prerogative and I’m entitled to feel that way, just like I’m entitled to one day change my mind without anyone ever telling me “I told you so”. It’s no one’s business but mine and my partner’s if, when, and how I choose to use (or not use) my uterus. I’d like to know how many men are questioned when they voice the same opinions. My guess would be none - after all, they don’t have that pesky ticking clock. Infertility and difficulty conceiving are also more common than many people realize, with the emotional and physical toll often causing depression, stress, and self-doubt, not only individually but as a couple. No one should feel pressured to explain themselves or defend their personal choices, whether it’s to strangers or your best bud.

 

  • The friends you meet while traveling are friends for life. There is an unspoken understanding between people who have connected over the shared experience of discovering a new place that you never have to question. The time that has passed between when you last saw each other is irrelevant and you will always be welcomed with open arms and an enthusiastic hug. Over two years ago, I took my first solo trip to Scotland, where I joined a tour of the Highlands and Isle of Skye with Haggis Adventures. Through the company, I met my guide Lee, and after five days of bonding over whisky and exploring his beautiful country, he invited me out for a night on the town with a few of the other guides. As soon as I made plans to return to Scotland this past summer, Lee reached out and graciously offered his couch and home for a week, despite not having seen each other in two years. Duncan and Rich, two of the other guides, happily made time to catch up for a pint or five on more than one occasion. Several friends from Germany, Switzerland, and Russia I had met in October at the surf house in Portugal purposefully planned their returns to Ericeira around my birthday in May to help me celebrate my 29th year. Even after Meikel (not so surprisingly) missed his flight, he immediately hopped on the next plane out of Munich - even though it was more expensive than leaving the following day, just so he didn’t miss my birthday. My friend Michelle, who I met while sailing in Croatia, called me without hesitation during my not-so-minor breakdown in Colombia, staying on the phone with me until she was satisfied I had calmed down and reassured me everything would be okay. Social media undoubtedly makes staying touch easier than ever, but the connections you make and keep through travel are some of the most genuine I’ve ever experienced and I consider myself extremely lucky to count so many people around the world as friends.

 

  • Similarly, constant travel has also helped me value the existing relationships I have with a renewed appreciation. When you’re only in the country for 3 out of 12 months a year, you miss out on a lot; birthdays, holidays, funerals, births, and many other moments that will leave you feeling disconnected and out of the loop. While this means more effort on my part to keep in touch, it’s more than worth it when I’m sent a video of my friend Bre turning a deep red and doing her best to shrink away as the giant pink, singing gorilla-gram I hired for her 30th birthday party I missed, wraps his arms around her in a very unwelcomed hug. And the effort goes both ways; when I was dealing with a huge personal blow and desperately needed to hear a familiar voice, Bre and Noel dropped everything they were doing on a Monday morning, while at work, to three-way call and support me across time zones. While some friendships have naturally faded out, as distance will do, others have only gotten stronger. And to know that I have people who care about me and are there for me no matter where I may be, means more to me then I could ever express in words or embarrassing singing telegrams.

 

 

 

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