MY TWENTIES ARE COMING TO AN end in a short 4 months. It’s the decade I’ll remember as my travel decade. I’ve visited over 30 countries in the last 10 years, and while I’ve learned a good deal about how to travel, it took me the better part of the decade to learn the really essential lessons that I wish I’d known from age 20. So for anyone who is just turning 20 — and who doesn’t, as I did at that age, insist on learning things the hard way — here’s what I wish I knew about travel in my 20s.
”Wrong” and “different” are two extremely different things.
“It’s just bullshit the way they do ‘journalism’ in this country,” I said. I was having drinks with a middle-aged British journalist in Beijing at the end of a failed internship at an English-language Chinese newspaper. “It’s all kow-towing to the government.”
He shrugged. “That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists,” he said. “I’ve found them to be quite brave.”
“How?” I asked.
“You’ve been here what, two months?” He said, “You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”
It was an important lesson: I had been imposing my value system on a context I understood nothing about, and I had assumed that the western “watchdog” style of journalism was the only right way, and that resistance to oppression had to be loud and open. The “right” thing to do isn’t always universal. In some places, small acts of defiance are infinitely braver than large, dramatic acts of defiance would be elsewhere.
It’s okay to not blend in.
Before leaving to live in London a friend told me, “Yeah, you’re going to need an entirely new wardrobe.” It was a fair point: I dressed like a slob, and Brits care about their appearance more than the average American. But there was one catch: Londoners don’t wear shorts. Like, ever.
A month into my stay in London, it was 75 degrees and sunny out. The parks were full of people, so I packed a picnic with a few friends and, as a fashion-conscious man, I put on a pair of nice jeans rather than shorts.
I hated it. I was hot and itchy, and I wanted nothing more than to feel the grass on my pasty, ugly legs. And as I sat there, clothes soaking through with sweat, I suddenly thought, “What’s wrong with standing out? I am an American, so what’s wrong with looking like one? Being an American isn’t so terrible.” The next time it was warm, I wore shorts.
Travel doesn’t make you interesting.
My travel strategy in my early twenties was to rack up as many countries as possible, even if this meant getting only a superficial glimpse of some of them. One night, while at a bar with some college friends, I took the opportunity to brag about how many places I’d been. I was rattling off a few places and I mentioned Switzerland — a country I’d only passed through — when a friend said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Switzerland. What was that like?”
I didn’t have a single story to tell. And it became immediately apparent to everyone there (including myself) that I was an ass. My strategy after that became slower: the goal was to experience the country in some real form. That meant I had to spend longer than just a couple of days there. I had to go do something cultural. I had to learn something new. Having physically been in places doesn’t make you more interesting. Having become a wiser, fuller person from an experience does.
If bad things keep happening to you, look at the common factor.
By the time I reached the age of 23, I had been robbed, scammed, or pickpocketed seven times while abroad. The last time it happened I had been particularly drunk, and it was particularly expensive, and when I woke up with no wallet and a throbbing hangover, I thought, “Why does this keep happening to me?”
My hangover, mercifully, had me hating myself, so it whispered to me, “Because you keep putting yourself in situations where this keeps happening.”
That simple thought made a huge difference: by cutting back on behaviors that made me more likely to be targeted (wearing baggy pants that a wallet could easily be snatched out of, not being aware of my surroundings, acting obviously lost or obviously drunk, not following my gut when in uncomfortable situations), I’ve brought the incidences of being targeted down to zero since the age of 23. Sure, it may well happen again, but if it does, I’ll at least know I’d done all the right things and just had shitty luck.
Choose your experiences carefully.
It wasn’t until I was 27 that I realized I was never going to make it everywhere. Even if I got to all 196 countries, there were still going to be parts of those countries I never saw. I’d lived in Argentina for four months and never made it to Patagonia or Ushuaia. I’d been to China twice and hadn’t seen the Terra Cotta warriors. St. Augustine famously said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” What he didn’t mention was that no one gets to read the whole book. So you must be very selective about which pages you choose to read.