In the last year especially, there’s been an explosion of articles persuading each and every one of us to drop what we have and just get out there and do it. Travel. Some of them are so inspirational and so motivational, all we want to do is march into our boss’s office, throw that pile of work on their desk and say, “You know what? I quit. I’m gonna travel the world. Hmph!” and then stride out of there with our head held high, smirk on our faces, knowing that life will never be the same again. It’s going to be amazing and wonderful and exciting and– because, well, YOLO, and I’m darn well going to make the best of it.
These articles even tell us how we should be travelling. Oh, the best plan is not to have a plan at all! Just get yourself to a place (in fact, maybe standing at the airport and randomly deciding where to go is the best way to decide), then explore the shit out of everything, follow strangers you meet, go crazy! Advice like this has promoted a kind of reckless mentality in which one flings all caution to the wind, ignores better judgment, and just, does whatever one feels like. Because you can. And so you should.
I’m a bit worried about this kind of thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for travelling. It is and will always be the best thing I’ve done with my life. I saw my first black swan at age 2 and I thank my parents for introducing me to a world so different from the one my peers knew, such that when they were studying hard for PSLE, I was roasting marshmallows in a bonfire next to a babbling brook in the middle of a dewy forest in New York.
And I absolutely think there is something magical about how a chance encounter with a stranger in a teahouse in Tibet can lead to dancing with the locals to Chinese propaganda songs in the middle of a Liberation Square, no doubt about that.
But you have to understand: You can’t throw all caution to the wind. You can’t do everything you want just because. Travelling is a rite of passage for the young that I firmly advocate, not because it’s the only time you can do what you want and get away with it, but frankly quite the opposite – it’s when you’ll be forced to be completely responsible for yourself, and make some tough, grown-up decisions, like:
1. Choosing priorities
Yeah, you’re young and invincible. You can do everything. There will be one million places that you’ll want to visit, each of them beautiful and magical and life changing. You will be less of a person if you miss out on even one of them. It’s going to be the one that people will talk about for ages and you will regret forever that you missed out that one.
I’m sorry, but Reality Check: You’re never gonna do it all. I’m afraid you’ll have to pick and choose some based on the time you have, the resources available to you, the practicality of transport, safety, and yes, sadly, how much money you have. Yes, I hate to break it to you, but you are bound by the same limitations as the rest of us. And it’s a good thing; because you’ll pick up the infinitely useful skill of prioritising, of being able to weigh merits and come to the best logical, practical decision that you can still live with. A skill that’ll come in handy not only in the workplace but for the rest of your life.
2. Choosing value
Crazy public bus VS high-speed train or flight… Crazy public bus will win, every time. I mean, what you would give to be squashed with sweaty strangers shoving their crotches in your face, right! It’s an experience! Besides, it costs like a quarter of a flight! Yay to savings!
Alright, do it once. Take that photo of 30 people balancing on top of the bus. And then realize there are benefits to shelling out a bit more money and getting a more advanced mode of transport, not for luxury, but because it’s safer, or it saves you time, which you can spend recuperating before a trek or exploring the town to look for good accommodations as opposed to reaching a place absolutely knackered and having to settle for the first shady shack you see just so you can crash.
3. Choosing tours
It’s like the most offensive four-lettered word you could ever utter to a backpacker:
T-O-U-R. No, they’ll adamantly refuse, no day tours, no guides, no travelling with other people, I want an adventure, I can do this on my own, with my trusty Lonely Planet guide.
Well, you’ll discover the benefits of a guide on a hike when you’re unconscious after having fallen down a ravine. And you’ll never read the story about how his family was tortured by the enemy in your guidebook. You might not find out how the locals really think about what’s happening. You might not know that they’re facing the same issues in Eastern Europe right now. And you might not discover that secret spot even Lonely Planet doesn’t know about. (*Gasp! No way!*)
There are loads of benefits from travelling with others or on tours. Again, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision that suits you. But just don’t be so quick to toss it out – there’s plenty you could learn from, yes, even a tour.
4. Choosing plans
Somewhere down the line people started looking at you funny like you had herpes if you said you already planned your itinerary. Go with the flow, they say, make plans to break them!
Yeah, we want to live in the moment. When I once said, “What about all that money I’ll owe the bank? Oh, you know what, I’ll just worry about that later,” my friend from Philly congratulated me on successfully sounding like a true blue American. What is this avoidance of planning for the future? Well, guess what, tonight we shall not feast, for tomorrow we shall not die. We’re not gladiators.
You can’t just decide on a whim to go canyoning in winter, just like there are places where you can’t go snowboarding in summer. There are just some times that are better for visiting certain places, and you would do so much better to adhere to these, like avoiding China during the Golden Week, for example, or certain more politically passionate countries during their governmental elections. Plans are good. Plans can keep you alive.
5. Choosing people
This isn’t just a PSA for being wary of strangers. Oh I’ve been crazy stalked, harassed, molested, whatever. Sometimes you just can’t avoid it. I’d like to think it’s a far harder lesson to learn to still be able to want to trust people in general, after having experienced acts of ungraciousness, aggressiveness or violation from people.
But even with the fellow travellers you’ll meet on your journeys – some are worthy friends for a lifetime, others perhaps only for a nighttime. I’ve had some really meaningful connections I’m always still thankful for, and they definitely were not formed waking up the day after a rave in a random fellow’s bed – or barn, for that matter. What you do with the people you meet is entirely up to you, but don’t miss out on the real friendships you could form. Because even when you’re done with traversing the world, these will still mean the world to you. <3