Okay, let’s be honest; longterm travel isn’t always pretty. I know you see all these beautiful pictures that I, as well as all other travelers post, and yes, we do see amazing places and do a lot of amazing things, but as I’m sure you can imagine…it is not always that pretty. There is a not so majestic side to travel that most travelers do not tell you about, and do not post about because well, for one, sometimes it can be quite embarrassing and two, because they want you to believe it’s all rainbows and butterflies. They want the, “Oh my gosh your life is so amazing!” response that gives them fuel to keep going. But I am gonna tell you how it really is; the good, the bad and the ugly.
Some of you are most definitely going to judge me or look at me differently after reading this, but…since I’m being honest…let’s go there.
I’ll start with the obvious: While traveling long-term, and staying in hostels, you will have absolutely no privacy. That’s right, you will never be able to poop “in private” as long as your accommodations are dorm style. That means your entire dorm knows your every bowel movement. That is, unless you want to pay more money than your budget probably allows and get a private room. Which believe me, every once in a while is a necessary expense.
And the snoring! Earplugs can not even begin to touch it. But even worse than that are the rude people coming in at all hours of the night, or getting up earlier than most, who don’t bother trying to be quite; turning on lights, letting doors slam and taking as long as possible to get themselves (and their shit) together. Rustling around in their bags and taking no one else into consideration.
And while we’re on the subject of dorms, one more qualm is the cold, low water pressure showers. They’re just something you must try (key word there is TRY) to get used to; a hot shower is something to celebrate as accommodations are usually very basic (you get what you pay for) the beds are typically less than comfortable and there is often no air conditioning (which you will just get used to).
And if you can’t handle bedbugs, mosquitoes, lizards, snakes and sometimes cockroaches, then maybe long-term travel isn’t for you, because it is going to happen at some point. That is unless you want to spend big money on a nice hotel every night and do zero exploring of the amazing places you visit (and even that doesn’t guarantee immunity.) I have gotten bedbugs three times, have seen many cockroaches and woke up to a lizard crawling on me a few nights ago.
You will quickly get to the point that nothing and I mean nothing will surprise you anymore. You will see things that will make you look not only twice but even three times because there is no way you just saw that. But you did.
As far as necessities…there are two things (besides ear plugs and an eyemask) that every traveler must have on hand at all times (whether traveling for a week or a year), and that is toilet paper and hand sanitizer. In my experience so far, I have found most places do not provide either toilet paper or hand soap. They just don’t. I can not count the number of times I would’ve been in a really awkward situation had I not had toilet paper in my bag. And though many people do not bother to wash their hands (even when there is soap), I find it incredibly disgusting not washing up, so I always carry hand sanitizer.
And have I told you about the squatty potty? Now I grew up in the country so I’m no stranger to squatting. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I’m somewhat of a pro (TMI…I know!) So when it comes to squatting, no problem. But I must admit I have never had to use my skill in an actual bathroom; that is until now. Until I started traveling, and because I am being honest, I have got to tell you…I actually prefer the squatty potty. But they’re certainly not for everyone.
Now, this next one took me a while to get used to, but again, I have learned to prefer it, it’s what some call the “bum gun” or bidet sprayer. And no, I’m not talking about the bidet that looks similar to a toilet; this looks like the sprayer on your kitchen sink. So here’s what to expect when using the toilet in Asia, and Eastern Europe and sometimes Western Europe: You walk into the bathroom and in front of you is a porcelain hole in the floor. You pull down you pants (its much easier if you are wearing a dress, btw) and squat over the hole. (tip: get as low as possible to prevent the “splashing” effect) After you have done your business, remember chances are there is no toilet paper (which is why you’re carrying a roll in your bag), you then grab the hose and spray yourself clean. Unfortunately you will be wet from the bum gun, but no worries…you will dry quickly. By this point you have probably noticed the bin of water next to the squatter; that’s what you’ll use to flush. Sanitize your hands and you’re done. Remember, there’s most likely no soap, but it’s OK because you have sanitizer in your bag (please use the sanitizer!) And that’s it.
Also, your idea of dirty and clean will change considerably within a week or two. And because you’re on a budget you will be hand washing your clothes…if it passes the smell test it’s good to go. Again, since I’m being honest here, there have been a few times I may have gotten a wear or two too many out of an outfit between washes. And sometime you just wash your panties while you’re in the shower because you can’t be bothered to wash all of your clothes. Every once in a while you will have to splurge and pay to have a “proper wash”. Oh and whenever you find a hostel that actually does have soap…you refill your 3oz bottle…it is technically not stealing, it’s just over use (my dads nickname for me is “Ms. Excessive”.)
You can go ahead and forget trying to impress anyone, your fellow travelers will understand as they too have probably given up on that notion. You can’t be bothered to shave more than once a week (…if that) (with a few exceptions), do your make-up (with a few exceptions) or do you hair (again, with a few exceptions). Too many things to do and see to waste your time with such nonsense. You will wear the same couple of outfits over and over until you can hardly stand to even look at them…(to the point your mom tells you she is tired of seeing you in the same sweater in every picture.)
And my condolences to all you curvy women out there; I understand your pain. If you are a curvy girl (or guy) trying to replace clothes when the weather changes or one of your four outfits gets worn out…GOOD LUCK and get used to saying “do you have big big size” (of course using hand gestures to get your point across the language barrier). I once painfully watched as the sweet little Thai girl went to ask for help from the male assistant to dig SIX bags deep (the store consisted of black trash bags stacked on top of each other) to find shorts big enough to fit me (whatever your tag says back home…double it or even triple it). To make it even worse the size is not only on the inside of the clothes but also many times on the outside, so everyone knows you wear an XXXL!
There will be many hours spent in small, cramped, overcrowded planes, trains and buses. These can be almost unbearable at times and you pray you will be able to just sleep through it or read a book if you don’t get nausea. Believe me when I say they will not stop for you to throw up if you are unfortunate enough for this to happen. I know firsthand. I had to hold my bag of hot vomit for an hour while listening to another passenger continuously vomit before we stopped at the halfway rest area. When I got off the shuttle bus to toss my bag of vomit the other woman saw the bag and began dry heaving again. I really felt sorry for all the other passengers on the bus…especially the ones sitting directly next to us with weak stomachs.
While we are talking about transportation, there will be times when you will miss your plane, train or bus; you will just have to accept it and move on.
There are no toilets in the wilderness…if you didn’t know. So when nature calls and you are in the middle of let’s say the Spanish countryside or the Swiss Alps, you gotta do what you gotta do. The wilderness is no place for a lady. This would be another time when that toilet paper would come in very useful.
And since we are on the subject…recently on a 15 hour train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok I dropped my phone down the train squatty potty. I had held it as long as I could- 14 hours! And could hold it no longer. I headed for the disgusting tiny little train squatter that you can smell long before you ever see it. I was wearing a dress so I had no pockets and tucked my phone into my bra, like I have irresponsibly done many times before. And just as I was finishing up, it happened. Everything went into slow motion as I felt my phone slip through my dress and watched as it fell out the bottom, straight through the tiny hole and out onto the tracks below. Oh well…Shit happens. Things will be lost, stolen or broken but life goes on.
Chances are you will eat something that does not agree with your stomach at some point. When this happen pray there is a toilet nearby. You may lose a few days as a result but it could be worse. But like I was told by someone on vacation, “It doesn’t matter if you get sick because you are traveling “long-term” so it’s not a big deal”. Not that I think it doesn’t matter how long you’re traveling when you’re on the toilet with your head in the trash can. But like I said “shit happens”.
When you find another traveler you get along with, its nice to jump on the opportunity to share a private room with a double bed, as it is actually cheaper than each getting a dorm bed, and you have more privacy…kinda! Me and Jo, one of the girls I traveled with, decided to jump on the opportunity and booked a private room in our hostel. We checked in, spent a few nights and checked out thinking nothing of it. We knew we would be back in the area a few days later so we decided to go ahead and book for our return, at the same hostel. When we went to check in on our return visit the guy behind the desk (the same guy from before) apologized that the private room was not available, but said that he put us in a double bed in the dorm room (who does that…a double bed in a dorm room?). As he walked away I turned to Jo and said “I think he thinks we are a couple.” We couldn’t stop laughing! That night as we were crawling into bed we laughed some more about it and asked the guy in the bed across from us if he too thought we were lesbians and he said, “Yes. I thought that was just like a thing here because I have seen so many”. Our other two roommates were also males…three men in single beds and two women in a double bed. (Every guys dream.) My new nickname for Jo is “sweet ass” …it was no wonder men didn’t seem to be interested… in either of us.
You will stand out as a foreigner no matter how hard you try. Usually people will be more than happy to help you but there will be situations where you are taken advantage of, usually having to do with money. You may be overcharged on your bill, given incorrect change, charged WAY to much when it comes to taxi’s, refused to be given your change back, or have someone pretend not to understand you when you know they do. But like I said, usually people are more than helpful. Be respectful that you are in their country and try to learn the basics in their language…it will be much appreciated.
Every long-term traveler will experience a rut at some point in their travels. You may be in the most exotic and beautiful place in the world when it hits and all you want to do is lay in bed, you can’t be bothered to talk to anyone and you may even (probably) cry. When this happens you just have to ride it out until it passes. Usually it only last a day…maybe two. And sometimes it helps to finds those comforts that remind you of home. For some people this may be McDonald’s… I usually try to avoid them but it has happened on a couple of occasions (usually when alcohol is involved because let’s admit it…there is nothing better for a hangover than good ole Mickey D’s!)
And though the world is a beautiful place there will come a day where the last thing you want to see is another waterfall, temple, cathedral or beautiful sunset hike. When this happens you need to stop and reset yourself. Take a week or two and volunteer your time somewhere to feel useful, head to a meditation retreat or just relax on a beach and do nothing (take a vacation).
A common misconception is that long-term travel is just a long vacation. Though it may seem this way to an outsider it is far from the truth. Long-term travel is a lifestyle choice and therefore must be treated as such. You cannot travel like you’re on vacation all of the time, for a few reasons. One: you will quickly get burnt out. Two: you will probably blow your budget. Three: your body can only handle a few weeks of “vacation” at a time (that’s why “vacations” typically last just one or two weeks).
Of course there is the amazing, beautiful, majestic, fabulous, eye-opening, life-changing, did I mention amazing part of long-term travel…but I’ve already told you about that.