Photo: Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock

What Do You Wish You'd Known Before You Traveled for the First Time?

by Sarah Menkedick Nov 27, 2009
What would you tell your younger, travel-innocent self?

Over at Anderson Cooper 360, Chris Guillebeau wrote a post about the things he wishes he’d known before he went traveling. Some of the items on the list? Be aware of different notions of personal space, be firm with people who haggle or follow you, always carry cash, and don’t speak out against the government.

I particularly liked the points about being tolerant of smoking (I would add being tolerant of meat-eating) and not being a colonialist and assuming people who don’t speak English aren’t as intelligent as you are. For as obvious a point as the latter seems to be, many people miss it.

I know I still throw out “the locals” all the time without really thinking about it – it took my husband, a bonafide Oaxacan “local,” mocking me constantly before I grew wary of the phrase. (He proposed setting up a booth on the main pedestrian street with a sign “Ask A Local! 10 pesos.” The travelers quest for contact with “the locals” is a whole separate can o’ worms I won’t delve into here, but suffice it to say that both glorifying and pigeonholing The Locals are bad ideas).

I seem to have moments that linger somewhere between nostalgia and regret after each experience abroad. In China, I wish I’d known just how intense the censorship would be, and psychologically prepared myself for living in a country saturated with propaganda. I certainly wish I’d known to never, ever separate myself from my passport in South Africa, when I had everything stolen in what was a guarded parking lot (it was no longer guarded when we returned from Table Mountain).

And yet, at the same time, knowing these things would’ve flattened out that learning curve that made traveling in China and South Africa so revelatory, and taught me hard and fast. Of course I’d rather not have had anything stolen, and obviously a little practical kick in the ass would have been preferable to the learning experience of weeping in front of a bombed out car in a parking lot. But sometimes the slap-you-in-the-face lessons you learn on the road are the ones that stick with you longest and teach you most.

So if I could choose a few things I wish I would’ve known when I started out, sure, there’d be the practical stuff about taking enough cash, and duct-taping my passport to my body at all times, and all that good stuff. But the stuff I really wish I would have known would be less tangible. Here are a few examples:

1) You don’t have to see or do anything. Follow your instincts. You don’t have to feel guilty for not seeing Machu Picchu if you don’t want to see it, or you have something else in mind. This isn’t to say it’s not worth it to go – but if it’s not in your plans or you improvise something else, that’s ok too. There’s no checklist.

2) Travel can be just as monotonous as anything else. If it feels monotonous, or you start to get disenchanted, stop. Take a break. Go home. Stay somewhere and get a job. But don’t assume travel will always be enlightening, or you should be able to do it forever.

3) You can do almost anything independently if you have the time, patience and perseverance.

And you, Matador readers? What do you wish you’d known? If you could look back through the wormhole at your greenhorn travelin’ self, with wide eyes and an overstuffed backpack, what would you tell him/her? Please share below.

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