#TravelLife. Even though laypeople and insta-celebrities alike both use this hashtag to document their travels, it won’t take you long to notice that many of these posts are impeccably choreographed–shots that seem too perfect, too clean, too serendipitous to actually resemble what #travellife is all about.
And while there’s no problem in trying to capture the perfect shot, there’s a danger in the fictional representation of real life, when hundreds of thousands of people take a photo on face value and feel subpar, envious, and disappointed for not “living the dream.” A few people, such as @youdidnotsleepthere and @Saramelotti_, have taken it upon themselves to expose some of the more fraudulent instagrammers who dupe the public with (in some cases fake) photos, as well as rake in thousands of dollars per post.
My aim is to discuss something that many travelers don’t talk about; the harsh realities that travelers – people who travel for weeks, months or years at a time – come up against, versus the picturesque #travellife photos that simultaneously inspire awe and jealousy. The chief purpose here is to present a more realistic side to the equation of travel that isn’t in the mainstream today. Namely, that travel can often be an arduous and tiring undertaking versus a relaxing and relentlessly photo-worthy event.
Traveling can be expensive.
While traveling on a budget for a prolonged period of time is certainly possible, travel, in general, can be quite pricy. #Travellife photos tagged at the Blue Lagoon, for example? Entry to the Blue Lagoon is $57 for the cheapest package. And, even in countries that are relatively cheap, such as Cuba, certain needs, such as accommodation, are pricey. I regularly paid $30 / night for a room at a casa particular in Havana. Food, accommodation, a few nights out on the town and entrance fees to various sights adds up quickly; sometimes quicker than you imagine.
One night, a guy in Nicaragua asked if I wanted a massage. I was sitting with a friend in the lounge area of our hostel, and saw the guy give someone else a massage. The recipient looked thoroughly satisfied, so I said, “sure.” The massage was heavenly, and I thanked him before he went on his way. The next day, I saw him and thanked him again for the massage. “Um, sorry to ask,” he said, “but can you spare a buck or two for that massage last night? I have no money, at all, and the hostel won’t give me my passport back until I pay my balance.”
Moral of the story is that traveling costs money, and if you’re unprepared, you could find yourself S.O.L. and be forced to give massages to weary travelers in exchange for cash, which wouldn’t be the worst way to make some money.
True romance is hard to find.
Finding people to spend time with is one of the greatest joys of any traveler. That girl you saw reading Milan Kundera on a beach in Koh Phi Phi and spent two exhilarating days snorkeling with. A guy you spotted on Tinder, who loves dogs, and spent a romantic week in Berlin and Paris with exploring the sights.
These unexpected and serendipitous experiences are what travel can be about. But, the reality is that hanging with someone for a few days is much different than spending weeks, months or years getting to know them. And, if you felt like what you had was real, and you end up investing time in learning more about them, the person you end up discovering may be different than the person you spent a few awesome days with.
Over the years, I’ve met a handful of people whom I thought would end up turning into something real and lasting, only to find out that when distance between two people increases, feelings you thought were strong can easily fade. The harsh reality is that finding someone lasting and worthwhile takes time, patience and effort.
You can go days without adequate sleep.
Unless you decide to rent an Airbnb, or private bungalow (I paid $11 / night for one in Bali), getting adequate sleep can be difficult. This is because when you stay in a hostel, or even couch surf, you’re not staying there alone. There are other people renting out the bunks around you, and they’re usually partying into the wee hours of the night, which makes falling asleep, and sleeping through the night, incredibly hard.
While in Guatemala, I decided to stay at a hostel that wasn’t too far from Volcan Acatenango, which I planned to hike. I booked this place while forgetting it was Halloween. That night was pure hell. I had to get up early in the morning to hike the volcano — and falling asleep was nearly impossible, with people coming in and out, screaming and even, at one point, pulling my curtains open (the beds had curtains you could close around them) to see if their various friends were there. And, while this was Halloween, it’s sometimes the norm in many hostels. If you can’t beat them, join them. Or, if you have something to do the next morning, use earplugs or headphones.
Constant partying wears you out (no surprise) and can kill you (surprise).
This is a no-brainer, but it needs to be said because you’ll rarely, if ever, see a photo of someone puking their brains out or almost comatose in their bed via #travellife. Instead, you’ll see people cheering with beers, wine, popping bottles of champagne, drinking on yachts, mountainsides under starry nights and a handful of other sublime vistas.
The truth of the matter is that constant partying, especially with cheaper alcohol, and the occasional foreign substances people choose to consume, can put a huge damper on your travels. And, unfortunately, travelers partying it up in foreign countries die every year from a myriad of causes. Some including poisonous alcohol, bar fights and drugs. But, no one talks about this while you’re downing your tenth shot. I know, because I’ve been there.
Top destinations where Americans died from drugs, 2014 (Data obtained from US Department of Commerce, National Travel and Tourism Office, July 2015)
The world is generally safe, but danger still exists.
Contrary to what the media may want you to think, the world is generally a safe place. Most people you encounter in majority of countries (yes, there are still a handful that people should avoid) are decent, kind and welcoming. You’d likely be surprised at how generous people in hidden corners of the world can be when they encounter a foreigner. However, the fact is that people who can afford to travel are often targets for those looking to make a quick buck via a scam or physical intimidation / harm. It happens every day, but it’s not likely that you’d know that from #travellife photos.
I’ve had more than my fair share of dangerous run-ins, ranging from a boy cornering me in an Indian town, claiming to be “a real life Slumdog Millionaire,” and the Indonesian mafia of Mount Bator threatening to kill me if I didn’t pay them to hike the mountain. These things (and worse) do happen. But while it’s important to be aware of it, you shouldn’t let the mere possibility make you paranoid or think that everyone is out to get you.
Not every local will welcome/fawn over you.
People from western countries are prone to thinking that, to quote Kanye West, their “presence is a present.” This isn’t true. You leaving your “first world” country and heading to a developing nation to travel, experience different cultures, and see the sights isn’t cause for the citizens of those developing nations to worship, cater, or even listen to you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard people arguing with taxi drivers, waiters / waitresses, police, airline staff, horses, cows, goats and anyone else who’ll listen, saying, “I can’t believe this! This would never happen in (insert developed, usually western, nation name here)! I’m going to report you!”
The truth is that people in these nations routinely live harsher lives than many of us, and experience hardships that we usually can’t begin to fathom. So, if some don’t seem enthused to have you rent bicycles and snap photos in their villages, c’est la vie. Being able to visit their countries and have a glimpse into their worlds is a gift to you, not them.
The world isn’t your oyster, rules still apply.
Different countries have different rules and customs. What may be acceptable in your own country – e.g. public displays of affection, drinking in public, saying whatever you want about the government – can be incredibly unacceptable, or even illegal or dangerous, in others. And, while it’s easy to view some countries’ rules as “backwards” they still need to be followed and respected.
Unfortunately, I’m guilty of not following a country’s rules time and time again. Whether it was acting like a local (my ambiguous skin color frequently allows me to blend in) to enter a site for a reduced price, or not wearing a helmet in Bali and expecting to not pay the fine for it, what I did was wrong if only because I wasn’t following a country’s rules — and because I thought I could get away with it.
“Good food,” is relative.
What you may think of as being “good food,” could be the complete opposite for others. Maybe your stomach just doesn’t vibe with a particular culture’s cuisine. Maybe the majority of a country cooks their dishes with an ingredient you’re allergic to. Or, maybe, you find yourself in a desolate location that doesn’t have a restaurant within a ten-mile radius. Whatever the cause may be, finding food that suits your palate and taste buds can sometimes be an arduous task, forcing you to live off of crackers and juice until you head off to your next destination.
Before leaving Kenya, a few friends and I decided to make spaghetti and marinara sauce for a handful of the guys we met. We were all excited to share this typical western dish with them, which, we assumed, would be considered a delicacy since they typically ate large blobs of a white, dough-like, starch called “ugali”. When it came time for all of the guys to chow down, they took a bite of the spaghetti and marinara sauce and made faces of disgust. “What’s wrong?” we asked. “Uh, we prefer ugali,” one said, to which the rest nodded in agreement. We couldn’t understand how they could possibly prefer the bland, blobby ugali to spaghetti and marinara sauce, until we realized that it was just what they were used to, in the same way spaghetti was something we were used to.
“Good food” is relative.
Not everyone speaks English (duh).
Not everyone in every country speaks English. This is included as a “harsh reality,” because there’s still an overwhelming number of travelers who burst into a supermarket demanding that a cashier be able to speak English, who demand a bartender bring them a menu in “the language I understand,” and claim that “Being able to speak English will bring you farther in life than your dead language.” The irony of all of this is that these are the same people who make absolutely no effort to learn even “please” and “thank you,” in the language of the country they’re visiting.
It’s not out of the ordinary for the smiling local you see next to a happy traveler posing for a #travellife photo to not be able to speak English, or the traveler’s language, which is beautiful in and of itself. The joy of traveling is that you can easily see how futile and clumsy communicating through words can be.
Traveling is a privilege.
Travelling, especially for weeks, months or years, is a privilege that not everyone gets to experience. And it’s because of this that it’s important for people to know that traveling isn’t just an experience full of choreographed photos of breathtaking seascapes. It’s a journey that is relative to who you are, where you are and when you are.
So, travel as you are. Travel with a mind and heart open to new people, different ways of living and worlds you’ve never seen. And, most of all, don’t travel to mimic the journey of another; find your own.