11 Tips to Backpacking Safely

Get not one, not two, but three bodyguards for safety.
Get not one, not two, but three bodyguards for safety.

 

1. Research first
If you already know your destination, do a little bit of research on it. You don’t have to find out every single detail, but at least know where you’re going and have some vague idea how you might get there. Find out if there are certain periods you should avoid – elections, strikes, national holidays are some. Talk to friends who have been to those countries or cities, or read up tips on forums and blogs.

2. Don’t remain alone
Yes, you started out the trip alone, you’ll be making up your own itinerary on the go, and you’ll head back alone. No reason why you can’t meet people, make friends and/or hang out with others while on your trip. In fact, isn’t that one of the best perks of travelling solo? Those moments spent with new friends I’ve met while travelling are actually some of my best trip memories. Where to meet people? Try hostels, cafes, restaurants, tour agencies, tourist attractions, tourist services (even a laundromat or currency exchange)… so many places! Just be open to saying hi and starting a conversation. Don’t worry about not having a common topic to talk about – for one thing, you definitely both love travelling!

3. Hostels are great
Sure, it’s great to bag a room for 2 bucks. But try and stay in top rated and popular hostels (check Hostel World, Hostel Bookers etc) nearer to the city centre or in crowded locales. Not only are they probably safer, but they are a great place for you to meet people. Make sure the hostels you pick have a communal lounge area or kitchen, or offer dorms of 4 or more, otherwise there’s a high chance you won’t see anyone there for the entire duration of your stay. There are pros and cons to being in a 12- or 16-bed dorm of course – meet more people! But also, a higher chance of ending up with a snorer in your room!

4. Be a tourist
You know what they say about trying to “blend in”? Yeah, well, if you’re a white Caucasian travelling in India, that’s gonna be just a tad tough. And especially for backpackers, with our hippie elephant print pants and hiking boots – and that enormous backpack – it’s gonna be hard to try and smoke anyone that you’re NOT a tourist. So embrace it. Stay within the tourist area, always be aware where the tourist police or embassies are, and rely on tourist booths and information counters when you have queries. And when you want to get the authentic experience, make sure you do the homestay with a buddy.

5. Have a flexible itinerary
Everyone seems to think having a flexible itinerary means NOT having one at all. Well guess what, being fixated on not having a plan isn’t being flexible at all. Some days you’ll find yourself heading off to who-knows-where with a bunch of really fun people, other days, it’s fine to sign up for a day tour or land package with a friend or on your own. What’s most important is that you’re flexible enough to stay or leave. If you like the place, hang around a couple more days. But if you think it stinks, go!

6. Share the adventure
Especially if you’re planning on some adventure, always grab someone along. When you’re out camping or trekking, I’m pretty sure it makes a big difference having someone to call for help when you fall down a ravine. And if you’re planning on doing a solo hike, getting a guide is a huge MUST – and one from a reputable travel agency, not a random local who’s the brother of the cousin of the fourth auntie of your taxi driver – don’t take risks when it comes to your life. Also, don’t take risks with your gear. If you bought your gear cheap in Asia, word is, it won’t last you more than 2 treks. I wouldn’t want to test that rumour.

7. Plan safety
A certain degree of safety can be planned in advance. Book the first night’s accommodation so you don’t get accosted when you hop off (more like stumble off groggily) an overnight train; have the name, address, telephone number and better still, map of your hostel ready for the taxi driver. The other bits of advice will sound a little like common sense: Don’t get drunk if you’re not in company you can trust; be one with your backpack at all times (practice squats with it on if you’re heading to Asia, hint: public toilets); leave the fancy stuff at home (luxury brands, jewellery); try not to get lost alone; get a local SIM card to stay contactable; and always let someone know where you are, even if it’s the teenager at your hostel’s front desk.

8. Money, money, money
You’ve heard this one tons of times before: Don’t carry all your money on you. This is where people start getting creative with hiding their money – in their socks, shoes, hidden pockets, bra… (Just a note, money pouches worn under your clothes only work in cold seasons, when you can actually hide it under layers; try “hiding” a money pouch under a tank top in summer.) But also, don’t carry so much money to begin with. Especially if you’re doing a long trip, sometimes it’s worth paying the extra admin fees to withdraw from an ATM when you need it instead of travelling with thousands of dollars and stressing over where to hide it.

9. Important stuff
Make sure you have both hard photocopies – and soft copies, whether in your email, cloud or dropbox – of all your important docs: Passport, ID, driver’s license, visas, travel insurance, credit cards etc. If you get a new visa or trekking permit along the way, take a photo of it. I try to remember to snap every train ticket as well, just in case I lose it. Also, pack all your medications you currently or usually require (especially if you have certain allergies or conditions), as well as any you might need for your trip i.e. Diamox for altitudes.

10. Lonely Planet
Yeah, this is a whole breed of traveller, and it’s somewhat of a tender, bonding moment when you bump into another traveller with guidebook in hand. I’m all for doing Lonely Planet trips, as long as you don’t turn into one of those people who think the best experience is only the one as exactly stated in the guidebook and who aren’t open to local tour guides, exploring, and creating their own paths. But having said that, as a solo traveller, you can pretty much trust that going with whatever’s listed in the Lonely Planet puts you well within the confines of safe travel. One thing to note though, if you’re taking advice with regard to how much things should cost from the guidebook, check that it’s a recent edition; always leave a little buffer for this thing called inflation.

11. Women travelling solo
A lot of feminists will tell you that it’s just as safe for women to travel solo as it is for a man. I think that’s bullshit. We’re the weaker sex. It’s much easier for men to overcome us by sheer force. And especially for Asian women travelling alone in Asia – it’s easier for people to get away with kidnapping you just because it doesn’t appear as out of the ordinary for you to be in the company of locals as it would for a white female because you (unfortunately, in this case) look local.

So admit your weakness and put in the extra effort to stay safe: Don’t walk around alone at night (actually, after dark), don’t put yourself in situations where you’re alone with a man, always act like you know what you’re doing (confident women appear more in control), dress appropriately and modestly, and try and travel in groups or with other male travellers as much as possible.

Never admit you’re travelling alone when asked, especially by over-inquisitive locals (say you’re with friends), lie about having a boyfriend or husband, heck, even wear a fake wedding ring if you need to. Make up an alias (that’s believable, don’t call yourself Britney Spears) that you can give when fishy people ask for your name, and ask for people’s emails and numbers instead of giving out your information (better still, add them on Facebook, you can always unfriend them later). And if you ever find yourself somewhere that you feel unsafe, immediately head towards families, tourist spots, or religious buildings.

Better yet, try and befriend cute, handsome and/or gorgeous male travellers to be your bodyguards on your trip. ;)

Are You There, Love? It’s Me.

*beep*

Hey? Are you there, love? It’s me. Yeah, I knew I’d get your voicemail. Sorry for all those drunk messages I left you late at night desperately questioning where you are all the time. I was lonely. That’s no excuse, I know, but loneliness sometimes does strange things to me, makes me a little crazy. I just wanted you to know that I’ve gotten help with that. I forced myself to be alone with myself, and guess what, I’m absolutely fine with that now. I can totally be by myself and enjoy my own company. Turns out, it’s not so difficult to make yourself laugh. I laugh all the time now.

I’m sorry there was a period where I was a bit obsessed about you and calling you all the time and thinking about you 24/7. Things have changed. Right now, I’m super dedicated to myself. I’m focused on pursuing my passions and interests and growing as a person. And I hope that you are too, because if I ever met you again, I’d love it if you were the best version of yourself, the way that I’m the best version of myself now, only because us being the best versions of ourselves would just be completely awesome. And we could push each other to become even better versions of ourselves – imagine all that potential for growth! Wow!

I know once upon a time I told you that I would want you only if you fulfilled a list of conditions. I know, I know, I had a grocery list of must-haves and dealbreakers. Okay, fine, some of them weren’t even very rational. But you know what? I don’t feel that way anymore. You’re welcome to come however you wish. I don’t have a type, you know that. Well, scratch that, I’ll always have a type. But it’s got nothing to do with how you look – it’s more of how you… make me feel, I guess? When I’m with you, you should make me feel… alive. Actually, since I’m already living my life in the most amazing way I know how, and already feel alive every single day, being with you should make me feel ALIVER, if there ever was such a thing. (I don’t care, I’m coining that word now.)

I don’t know how exactly it should feel, but I think it should be easy, natural, free? No pressure, no stress, no mind-boggling games, no doubts, no funny feelings something’s not right. And I promise that I’m gonna be completely 100% open to you. Yeah, you’ve hurt me before in the past, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna lock up my heart in a chest and have it guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Next time, we’ll start afresh, okay? You don’t deserve to be penalised for all the mistakes you made as a different person. You deserve my heart, my soul. Yeah, it’s a huge emotional risk to take, but I’m willing to take it. Sometimes you just gotta take some risks in life, isn’t it? Not immediately, of course. But when it feels right, I will. I’ll give you all of me.

Just to make it clear, I’m not waiting for you to come rescue me or make me feel whole or make me happier or anything. I’m not empty. I’m not broken. I don’t need fixing. I’m not miserable. I’m actually… pretty good! I like the way things are now in my life. I know what I want, I know what I’m worth, and I won’t settle for less. Hmm, come to think of it, I don’t really need anything. I’ve got everything I need, I’m living the life that I want… I guess whether you come my way or not isn’t that important right now, but well, I still have to say, it’d be nice. It’d be nice to have someone complement – not complete – me. Kinda like, my life’s like a gigantic sundae of ice cream topped with hot fudge topped with whipped cream… and you can kinda be the cherry on top. What say you?

But, but! Only if you’re happy too. I choose to be happy everyday, so I hope you do too, because then we can choose to be happy together. Only if you are also in a good place in your life, and crave adventure and peace and music, can take a few minutes everyday to appreciate the beauty of a sunset or a rainbow, and are willing to enjoy little moments and create sweet memories with me. I don’t want you so I can have you and hold on to you. I want to share myself with you, the bits of me that I know you’ll appreciate. I want to inspire you, as much as you inspire me. I want to be able to share you with the world because you’ll bring joy to people as much as you’ll bring joy to me.

So yeah, I think I’ve said all I needed to say. Thanks for listening to me. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t think I was ready for you before, but I am now. Just so you know, I’m not going to look for you anymore. Because I know that one day, while I’m just minding my own business being awesome, you’ll turn up. Somewhere. In a cosy cafe, on a hiking trail, walking along the river… I don’t know where exactly, but you’ll be there, and I’ll be there, and we’ll just bump into each other, and you’ll smile, and I’ll smile. And we’ll just know. And I’ll say, “Why, hello love. It’s been a while.”

*beep*

How The Hell I Do It

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I’ve been travelling for about eight months now (only!), and needless to say, it’s been a blast and I’m looking forward to more. One of the questions I get asked the most, after “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” is: HOW?? Or to quote some, “How the hell do you do it?!” It is a question that stumbles me, because I’ve never thought of a real answer. (At some point, I’m sure Nike will take me to court for always replying, “Just do it lor” despite my local spin on it.)

Anyway, to clarify, apparently this question questions the financial aspect of my travels. Most people actually know how to travel (duh), it’s basically a question of how I manage to travel and not work, i.e. not have any income whatsoever. (Yes, this was a choice. I don’t want to travel and work freelance. It’s distracting.) My usual answer is I’m looking for a sugar daddy – but then, since I haven’t yet found one, they again question my current source of “riches”. And for the hundredth time: No, I didn’t “strike lottery”. So I thought about it carefully, and here’s my answer, in 9+1 parts.

HOW THE HELL I DO IT:

1. Save money
Old school way, no quick fix about it, I’m afraid. I don’t earn that much, but for six months I put about 70% of my monthly income into savings. Yeah, that means I can’t buy a lot of stuff, but really, what’s there to buy in Singapore? I sometimes shop like hell when I’m overseas though – like a monk gone rogue – (and my travelling companions can attest to this) but I try not to spend too much here.

2. Be debt-free
I’m lucky in that I am 100% debt-free. No mortgage, no car payments, no education loan, nada. The only installment package I had was for Brazilian wax but that’s paid off now and I still have a good year’s worth! I am kinda defaulting on my rent and utilities, but I’ve worked out an agreeable plan with my landlord (aka Mum).

3. Travel alone
Going solo, I can choose exactly when I travel. I can just check out Skyscanner and scan the entire month and pick the date with the lowest fare. Whereas, I’ve found that my more expensive trips have all been with friends – because they can only travel during weekends, public holidays or peak periods – but of course, the extra that I pay, I pay for the wonderful companionship that can’t really be measured in dollars and sense. I mean cents, ahem.

4. Travel with someone
If the dates match up, I’ve found it otherwise better to travel with a buddy because it works out to better savings. For example, I get to pay half the price of a private room, or get a discounted fee for a day tour if booked in a pair. Some tour operators even charge a premium for single bookings. Taxis are cheaper when divided by four, stuff like that. Also, I get to try more food while paying half the cost if there’s someone/other people to pinch from. Heh heh heh.

5. Shack up
There’s a totally cool way in which you can enjoy a comfortable stay and not pay any money (and not have to sleep with anyone), but that’s not the essence of Couchsurfing. It’s about meeting people from all over and the exchange of cultures and knowledge that comes with it. I can’t do it very often because you need to invest time and energy and effort and sometimes I’m just too drained from travelling and just want a quiet place to rest by myself. But when I can, it’s been an absolutely awesome option.

6. Travel easy
I’m pretty easygoing when it comes to a lot of things travel-related. I can fly budget, I can sleep in 136-pax capsule dorms, and I can survive on a loaf of bread. I’ll shell out 500 bucks in one second on a skydive, but I can take a little so-called ‘hardship’ here and there when I need to. It helps if my travelling buddies are similarly aligned too; otherwise I find I usually end up paying a little more for hotel rooms and restaurants, which I suppose is a nice change every now and then.

7. Make friends
Sometimes I hang around a common area in a hostel and kinda scout for anyone who wants to be roomies with me so we can share a nice room. Also, there have been times when I’ve met amazing fellow travellers on the road who’ve had an extra bed or couch in their room (or some space on their extra big bed) and have let me crash at theirs for free (I mean, in exchange for my awesome company).

8. Make real friends
Not just the kind you use and abuse (wait, whut?!). I’ve had the pleasure of meeting really, really wonderful people on my travels and I’m excited that I’ll be able to visit them soon when I head to Europe! Yes, I’m not only grateful to them that this will help with my expenses, but it’s also what will make the trip so much more meaningful and fulfilling, because otherwise, every city is a just a bunch of buildings, really.

9. “Live now, worry later”
It’s a terrible motto to have in life (please stop spending your income on $20 cocktails and start saving for your retirement, yes, even now!), but it’s my mantra for this year of travel that I’ve embarked on. Ever hear that complaint “Got money, no time; got time, no money”? I figured I’m never gonna have both time and money to spend this way again at the same time, so I’m gonna go all the way. Spend now, recoup later. Risky, but you gotta take some risks in life, right?

BONUS: 10. Just do it. Seriously.
Then, there’s always that one part of the question that usually goes along the lines of: “How the hell do you just drop everything and travel?” Simple. You just do. A year ago I read this quote somewhere, and it changed my life completely:

“Do it. Don’t wait for the right time, the right person, enough money, enough time. Do it now, or it’ll never happen.”

I will never forget the day I made up my mind to do this. It was 12 noon. I made the decision, felt good about it, then went for lunch. When I came back to my desk, I received an email telling me I was getting a pay increment. How great! If I just worked another few more months, I’d be able to save $X more, which means I could travel X more months… Then I remembered the quote. There’s never going to be “enough money”. Do it now, or it’ll never happen.

I typed up my letter.

Car Crashes

Thing about living just by a bend on an expressway is, ever so often I just stop whatever I’m doing when I hear a loud screeching and I wait for the inevitable bang that follows.

My parents will immediately run to the window and try and make out where the car is, and what happened, and proceed to curse all the trees that might block their view.

I always find myself sitting down and thinking to myself, “I hope they’re alright. I don’t want them to be not alright. I wonder what they were thinking as the car was crashing. Did their life flash before their eyes? I don’t ever want to be in an accident. And I don’t ever want to lose anyone I love in an accident.” And I’ll start to whimper a little and then feel a lump in my throat. And then I’m fine after a while.

Thing about growing up listening to this is, by right, I should be used to it by now. But a car just crashed two minutes ago, and I find I’m still just as affected as when I was six. And I hope I never lose this fear.

Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t drive.