On my last day of work Kat said to me that there must be a point at which you know how to be a traveller. We both took a minute to wonder how long that would be and how amazing it would feel when you got to that point.
I’m not completely there, but after two months on the road I feel like I’ve moved from unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent. Working my way up that revered NUS staircase, not the whole way, but a step at least. (For those of you who don’t understand NUS jargon, it just means that I’m aware of what knowledge I need to gain)
Here’s what it feels like to be a first-time traveller two-months in:
I’ve stopped getting caught short by always carrying toilet roll. Most public toilets don’t have it unless you pay for it. Most public toilets aren’t even what you would expect from a toilet, but it’s nice to be able to wipe dry after peeing into a hole.
The only positive response you have when asked about the quality of your shower is a giant thumbs up coupled with the word “hot”. You literally don’t care about anything else. It could be in the middle of a field but as long as that water is hot, you’re stripping off, shaving your legs and conditioning your matted hair.
Eating out most of the time starts off as fun. And then you realise that eating out on a budget deprives you of your basic vitamins. It’s mainly pasta, pizza or differently named Cornish pasties (empanadas/salteñas), especially in South America. So your priorities in a hostel shift from a high security rating to a few people saying how great and well equipped the kitchen is. That way you can head to the market and buy as much veg as your daily budget allows.
The only guaranteed free thing to do in every town, city or hamlet is climb a fucking hill/mountain to get to the “viewpoint” (check out my header image of the traditional “picture of me taking a picture at a viewpoint”). It’s always a main attraction, it’s always worth it and it helps you work off the cheap carb overload you’ve just eaten for lunch. Especially at altitude. I have so many city-view panoramas that I can’t tell which one is from where.
Sometimes travelling is binge-watching Game of Thrones after making dinner and doing some hand washing. When you start out you feel the need to do everything all the time. Then six weeks in you book an extra three nights in a hostel because you can sit in the hammock and enjoy good wifi.
I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, as long as it’s moderately clean (as long as it’s not completely filthy and smelling bad). It doesn’t matter if your clothes go together. That’s probably why travellers usually look stupid. They just don’t have any care in the world because they are sick of paying for laundry. And also their leggings ripped so they’ve bought some tourist trousers.
You stop following most world news but still keep a check on the exchange rates. We just lost £1 per day in Argentina because the pound weakened (again) and the Peso strengthened. God damn fluctuations.
One thing I took a while to realise is that there are people you meet that you like and instantly click with, and there are people that you really don’t. Like the people who set an early alarm with snooze in a dorm room that they let go off a few times but don’t even need. They are the ones I don’t tend to click with. I mean, COME ON. It’s the same with places. It’s ok not to like everything. And it’s OK to go a week without making a million new friends. It makes it even sweeter when you find the good ones.
On the back of that point, the second thing I learned is that not all advice from travellers is useful. Some people like to embellish stories to sound interesting. It makes you worry about things you don’t need to. Also, some people just think they know it all and you start to spot those people pretty quickly. They are usually the ones who like the sound of their own voice a little too much.
Contrary to one of my earlier blog posts, where I said the language barrier was difficult and I was going to have to overcome that a few times on entering different countries, what I realised is that you actually just stop giving a shit about the language barrier. I’ve picked up some Spanish but I’m still no good at replying to the barrage you get after you make out like you understand. But after time you just stop caring and start shouting all the words you know at them until they understand you. Sometimes they make an effort to help, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t help, it means you can camp for free. You can read more about that in Alex’s blog post about our Salta/Jujuy road trip.
That said, I’ve realised how mean I was about tourists in London. Stop being mean! They might be blocking your way down the escalator to the tube, or stopping abruptly in front of you, but that’s because they have no idea what’s going on. Don’t huff or give them the side-eye; ask them if the need help finding somewhere. Smile that you live in a place that people want to visit.
I’m sure we’ve still got a lot more to learn. But at this point I think that to become a fully-fledged traveller you just need to stop giving a shit; stop worrying about what other people think or whether you’re going to be on time for your bus. See, this is why I’m consciously incompetent. I know what I need to do but it’s easier said than done.
I used to worry about every little thing but I’m starting to let go. That’s one of the reasons I did this trip, and one of the reasons I would recommend doing something out of your comfort zone for a long period of time. It doesn’t have to be travelling but it has to push you to the point where you realise what’s important and what’s not.