I noticed them while I was brushing my teeth. Just walk right up to them, I told myself. Walk up and say hello. It’s either that or go to bed at 9PM and wake up in the morning with no friends. I stared at the wall, brushing… brushing… brushing. When I’m done, I’ll go over there. As long as I brushed my teeth, I had a reason to be standing nearby, near enough to hear the group of travelers sitting in my hostel’s common room, but not close enough to interact with them. Once my teeth were clean I’d just be a guy staring in a mirror. The guy who stares at the mirror is a weirdo. The guy who brushes his teeth is busy, but busy guy could be important, cool, social, fun. He could be anybody.
I finished brushing my teeth and strode confidently towards my dorm room, in the opposite direction of the group. I have to put my things away. I can’t socialize with a toothbrush in my hand. The guy talking to you with a toothbrush in his hand is weird. I entered my room. The boy in his early twenties still sat in his top bunk, staring at his computer. He’d been sitting in that position every time I entered my dorm room that evening. It was late now. Others had shown up in their respective beds. Some read, others slept. I will not be one of them, I told myself. I will not be him, mentally pointing to the boy in the top bunk.
I exited my dorm room and walked the hall towards the common area. It was a long hall. It gave me time to think about what I was doing. Too much time. I stopped just before the corner, where they couldn’t see me. Doubts swept into my mind. They’re all about to go to sleep. They all know each other— No. I can do this. I stepped out into view. My strides shrunk. My face shriveled. Say hello. Say hello. Say hello! “How’s it goin’?” I said casually. “Mind if I join you?” I moved towards the only empty chair. This was a mistake. Pull back! They don’t know you. I can see the disgust on their faces. Someone is sitting here already. I’m not welcome. They’re going to hate you.
“Sure!” “Yeah!” “Hey!” “Sit down,” came the chorus of responses.
* * *
It’s been six months. Six months in Asia. Six months traveling. Six months solo. It gets easier. The anxiety around approaching new people has faded. The fear of rejection has disappeared. I don’t get along with everyone and not everyone wants to continue the conversation a few minutes after it’s started, but that’s rare. There are lonely days, and there are unexpected joys. I’ve learned and grown but make the same mistakes over and over. I get frustrated with myself for not learning fast enough. Overall, I’m comfortable.
Once you pass five months, you will have traveled for longer than 75% percent of the other travelers you meet. Newcomers will consider you a veteran of the road and expect you to be able to share your wisdom and guide them. I’m a new member of that veteran’s club, so let me share my wisdom now before I learn how wrong I am.
- Eat the street food. Too often the advice you receive traveling is based on fear: don’t eat the street food, don’t drink the water, don’t leave your things out, hide your valuables, stuff your money down your underwear, don’t go out alone. You will get robbed, beat up, spit on, scammed, tricked, kidnapped. You’ll get sick, start vomiting, get diarrhea, flu, fever, cuts, scrapes, broken bones. You’ll be harassed, murdered, killed, sold items for four dollars instead of three. . . . Look. You live on Earth where bad things sometimes happen. Be prepared and be smart, not afraid. Eat the street food. Eat pig intestines and durian fruit and stinky tofu and insects and duck fetus and scorpions; hike through the jungle, trust the locals, talk to your taxi drivers, have a conversation with a salesman, participate in local traditions, say the wrong thing, mess up, be rude, and make jokes; go swimming and cliff jumping and rock climbing and motorbiking and adventuring; get lost, get in trouble, and go to the hospital.
- Learn the local language. It’s baffling how many travelers can’t be bothered to learn how to say more than hello and thank you. Some don’t even bother with that. Faces light up when you say thank you with a mildly accurate inflection and intonation. As little as, “How old are you?” and “I’m 32” spoken in the local tongue will get you a new best friend every time. My friends and I have been showered with gifts (most often beers) with this simple skill.
- Not every sight is worth seeing. Travelers often travel because they want to be able to say they’ve been there. And I do too. But sometimes I miss out on better experiences because I’m too focused on seeing the places that will impress my friends on Facebook. Talk to other travelers when you arrive in a city and listen to their advice. If I’d done so, I could’ve avoided my biggest regret and disappointment on this trip, visiting The Forbidden City instead of the Summer Palace in Beijing.
- Take your time. And I mean your time. All around I see and hear the pressure of the road. “What’re you doing today?” “I have to get out and do something.” “There’s some guy in my dorm who hasn’t left his bed in two days! What’s wrong with him?” For some reason it’s not enough that we’ve traveled halfway across the globe, you have to travel within each city, each province, each country, every day. I don’t know why, but apparently the reason is because you have to. No. You don’t. I also hear, “I have to get out of this town, everyone I know is leaving. I’ve been in this hostel too long.” The pressure of looking good to the friends you made three days ago is high. This is your trip, not anyone else’s. Do what’s best for you.
- I could write a whole post on driving motorbikes in South East Asia. So I did.
- Expect to pay more than the locals do. This phenomenon bothers a lot of travelers. “It’s the principle!” is something I hear (and used to say) frequently. But when you find yourself angry because you saw a local pay 40 cents for his beer* when they charged you 50, maybe you’ve got the wrong principles. Some places will blatantly post local prices side by side with tourist prices. But it’s usually more subtle. You will need to learn to haggle, but you’ll also have to accept that everywhere you go, you will pay more than the locals do, no matter how honed your bargaining skills. Think of it as your tourist tax. The government makes you pay a visa fee for entering their country; the locals make you pay a foreigner fee for being in their country.
- Treat yourself. Every long term traveler goes through highs and lows. The highs are great. Ride them. The lows… they come for us all. You’re in a town you love, you’ve made a group of friends, one leaves, another arrives then suddenly, they’re gone. You’re all alone with nothing to do. Like Tommy and Donna, treat yo’ self! Get a $5 massage, switch to a private room… with AC! Watch a movie. Eat a burger. Whatever it is you like to do but haven’t because of time or money, go do it. Tell yourself, you’re taking a day off from the rough life, the social life and the backpacking haunts. Go out to eat by yourself, bring a book, find a restaurant outside the tourist part of town, enjoy some time with your own thoughts and probably end up talking with the restaurant owner and her whole family.
- Don’t judge the tourists, you just might be one. Apparently there are good tourists and bad tourists. And everyone I meet has a different notion of what a good tourist is. It’s easy to get caught up in a group conversation about all the idiot travelers you’ve met who only do blank (whatever it is you wouldn’t do yourself). You will find this conversation in every hostel across every nation if you look for it, which means someone else, somewhere else is having this conversation about you. No matter what you do, someone will think it’s either too touristic (as the Europeans say) or too dirty, or too dangerous, or too boring, or too popular, or not popular enough. Who cares? If you want to do it, do it. If you want to eat it, eat it. Isn’t that why we travel? To get to do what we want? To experience new things? To learn? To escape the limitations and shoulds and s’posed to’s that dominate our home routine? Eating a cheeseburger with a strawberry milkshake in the Capitol of Laos is still a new experience. It may not be the one your dorm mate wants you to have, but if you traveled across the world to do what other people wanted you to do, you’d have invited your parents.