Photo: Kate Brady
I BOUGHT MY FIRST PLANE TICKET for a solo trip to Africa when I was 18. I had decided to climb Kilimanjaro pretty much on a whim and with the vague hope of impressing girls, and was looking forward to my first adventure. Before I left, my mum insisted on taking me to an outdoor store where I was piled high with everything from carbon fiber tent pegs (for a tent I did not have) to emergency flares. It seemed that everybody in the shop, and indeed all my mates, suddenly had an opinion on backpacking. I was bombarded with information from all sides and I studied up online to try and work out exactly what a backpacker was supposed to, well, do.
Seven years later and I have spent most of my adult life backpacking around far-flung lands. I thought I knew it all, but it turned out that there are 7 things no one tells you about backpacking…
1. You will never sleep
You will rarely sleep. Instead, you will get up super early to catch a sunrise, take advantage of the free hostel breakfast, steal bread for lunch and head out to go exploring. Around midday, it will start to get hot so you will find somewhere cooler to swim, play cards, and perhaps have a beer or two. You’ll bump into someone you vaguely recognize and seven beers later you’ll be out on the town. Following a glitzy, loud, sometimes point-blank shameful night, you will climb over the bolted hostel gate and stumble into your dorm. You’ll sneak along the hall, make awkward eye contact with the couple having sex under your bed, climb your little wooden ladder and drift off to the gentle rocking of the bunk bed below. Five hours later, you’ll wake up to do it all again. When you do sleep, it will hit you like a tidal wave and you’ll simply lie down in the street to have a little nap. I’ve been known to fall asleep while hanging on to the outside of tuk-tuks.
2. At some point, poo will become a problem.
Now this all depends on where the hell you’re traveling to: if you’re lucky and headed somewhere relatively clean, you might get just a bit of an upset stomach. If you’re unlucky, well, that’s a whole other level. I’ve seen a friend fall into a long drop toilet. Another time, when my buddy came back from a toilet on an Indian train, he didn’t realize his shoes were covered in shit. I trekked with a girl who had giardia for 2 weeks. Another friend of mine had the shits for nearly six months after a particularly bad curry in Delhi. I, however, am pretty much bulletproof and have spent just 2 days out of nearly 1000 with stomach problems. My magic weapon: coconut water. Nothing hydrates you as well as coconut water. If you can’t get that, put some salt in a coke — it’s a poor man’s medicine, but it definitely works.
3. Your definition of “Clean” changes very quickly.
Suddenly, the tank top smelling of beer will become your ‘Sunday best.’ This is largely because all of your other tank tops smell of curry, fish (you hope) or shame. When you only have four pairs of underwear and you’re in a humid, sweaty country, it makes sense to go for dark colors. I tend to wear a tank top for about three days at a time, something I would never do in the UK, and by the time I am ready to wash it, I am usually tempted to don a biohazard suit. Saying that, despite the fact that everybody is wearing sweaty, dirty clothes, backpackers still all somehow tend to LOOK amazing. After a very short period of time, you no longer notice sweat marks, messy hair or running mascara — everyone is fucking hot, which brings me on to my next point…
4. You will fall in love all the bloody time.
You will meet people who you click with and spend every second of the next week with them. They will become your best friends, your partners in crime. You will look after them when their long distance relationship inevitably breaks down, they will look after you when you crash your motorbike while showing off to girls. You will head off exploring together, get drunk together and get lost together. Ultimately, you will have stronger connections with some of these people then your best friends back home. Sometimes while you’re traveling you meet someone who you can fall in love with in just a few hours — if you dig someone and the vibe is right, it’s gonna happen. The hard part is saying goodbye: you know you won’t see many of the people you meet again. And frankly, this just sucks.
5. You’ll come up with elaborate plans to see EVERYBODY again.
Mine is to get hold of a van and drive it all over the world visiting the people I have met on my travels… I then intend on recruiting a few choice individuals to build a village with me, in the forests man, so we can be, like, at one with nature. Seriously though, over a few beers, you’ll decide you simply MUST see so-and-so and will end up booking a random flight to the middle of nowhere, chasing down a bus or hitching out to the jungle in search of ‘the blonde girl with the alibaba trousers’ (I never did find her).
6. You can find something for a dollar almost everywhere.
Whether it’s a handmade scarf in India, a wooden carving in Guatemala or a clay Saki cup in Japan; you can buy something worth having for under a dollar in absolutely every single country in the world. Give me a dollar, point me in the direction of some random country, and I will find something awesome worth having. Since this is the case, why spend a fortune on souvenirs? The best things you can buy are often handmade carvings or paintings, and you can often get these very cheaply if you know how to haggle!
7. People all around the world are generally nice and will want to help you.
It sounds too good to be true, but the world is not as hostile a place as the media would have us believe. Every country has good people and every country has bad. Luckily, the good far outweigh the bad in every single country I have ever been to. I have been helped, rescued, and befriended by local people on countless occasions. Meeting and connecting with different people around the world is what it’s all about and has always been my favorite part of backpacking. I travel not to explore places but to explore new vibes, new people, and new cultures. Always remember: it doesn’t matter how stern someone looks — they will still have a sense of humor (except the French: those guys are stern motherfuckers). If you need to break the ice, I recommend handstands.
This article was originally published on The Broke Backpacker and is reprinted here with permission.