Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Travel tips: Europe Inspired and Asia Acquired

Tips for the beginner backpacker

I didn't grow up traveling, but always dreamed of doing so during and after my time at university. I've added a few notches in my belt: time spent in easy going Australia, historical Europe, and exotic Asia. I'm by no means an expert, but here are some lessons I've learned along the way.

A Seasoned Traveler

My boyfriend awaiting our long overdue boat to Gili Air, Indonesia
One realization I would have loved to know a few years ago is that becoming a good traveler isn't some innate natural quality or ability, it's an acquired skill: a constant flux and an ongoing learning process with each new place visited. I assumed I wasn't the best traveler... not the most adventurous, and, as my boyfriend can attest to, hardly the greatest sense of direction. However, many skills are acquired along the way: patience for long train rides, understanding when encountering new cultures, having any idea of where to start in a new city... Traveling takes practice.

There Goes the Fear...

Feeling nervous before a big trip, or any one trip fir that matter, is normal. Fear of the unknown, simple as that. What if the flight doesn't work out..? What if I don't get through immigration..? What I miss my train...? All these problems are generally over thought before leaving, and are all solvable, worst case scenario.

To quell your worries, know that:
A) Once you leave, much of your anxiety will be left at home with the rest if your other non essentials. 
B) Although this could be your first time traveling to this particular country, odds are it's not their first time dealing with tourists like you. Far from it! Thousands have most likely come before you. Though applying for a visa or passing through immigration may seem daunting, the officials are used to it.
C) Research calms the mind. Look into the country before you leave, at least to have an idea of what to expect and to calm your nerves. What is the exchange rate? How does one say thank you, please? Where are the best hostels? Lonelyplanet.com, Wikitravel and travel blogs are great ways to start.
D) Do a checklist. Passport? Photocopy of it? Music? Sunscreen? VISA? I didn't realize until very close to my flight (days, admittedly) I would need an entry visa for China. Oops! One crazed and stressed week later, I thankfully boarded my plane with my visa safely secured in my passport. Make sure to check entry requirements before you head out!

Travel Styles

Cooking ingredients
My Balinese cooking teacher making curry
What type of traveler are you? There are many different types of activities that could make (or break) your interest in seeing the world when you go on your first trip. Do days filled with adventurous trekking, unusual culture, or relaxed days by the beach excite you the most? Keep an open mind when deciding what type you prefer. It may sound obvious, but adding new elements other than museums and beaches can add a great new dimension. In South East Asia I tried my hand at Thai Massage and Balinese cooking. Loved it!

That being said however, what works for one person might not work for you. I recently realized I don't like deserted tropical islands. Somehow the days I spent on islands in Australia, Greece and Indonesia disinterested me. Bizarre, I know. I would much rather spend my days wandering through meandering streets in a foreign town than snorkeling through coral reefs. Look for what pleases you, not what's "meant" to interest you. 

Knowing what style of travel suits you best plays a vital role in how much you will enjoy your time away. Just because you went once and didn't like it, doesn't mean you dislike traveling altogether. Maybe you need a different partner. Or museums aren't your thing. Think of things you enjoy at home. A new country's version of that activity (think translating snowboarding to surfing) could be your best shot.

Stay in Hostels

The view from a lovely hostel in Paris
A few of my friends once admitted to me that they aren't interested in backpacking because they're less than thrilled with the idea of staying in a hostel. Though I may have taken a while to get used to the idea (the word princess still lingers in my memory from a few years back...) it's well worth it. You have the opportunity to meet many more globetrotters, which is part of the joy of seeing the world in itself. They may also have great suggestions of where to go next, what to see, what to eat... 

Furthermore, not all hostels are the same. I've stayed in some less than perfect ones, but other "designer" ones too. Check out hostelbookers.com and you'll see there is a huge variety, ranging from the oh-gosh-please-don't-make-me-touch-that-bathroom-floor to the-wow-how-I-even-find-a-place-this-lovely? Read the reviews from previous guests online. It helps!

My Last Little Tip for this Post: Scents

Although I know I am slightly more scent sensitive than most (choosing a new body wash and spending an embarrassing amount of time in the drug store smelling each one brings me an unreasonable amount of joy), scents can be a great addition to tour trip. Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, after all. Bring a favorite scent that reminds you of home when you're homesick: lotion, shampoo, perfume... I find it to be a great pick me up. And, buy a new one that you use only on your time abroad! That way, a few months later, the smell will remind you of your glorious weeks spend away from home. Such a small purchase could bring you back in a way far stronger than any selections of photos could.

Happy travels!