30 Lessons from Life on the Road

“I can tell you’ve been traveling for a long time,” not one, but three strangers have said after talking to me for a few minutes over the last month.

“Really?” I’ve asked each of them. “How’s that?”

“You just seem really… I dunno. Relaxed. Easy-going. Zen.”

At that last part I always have to laugh. Six months ago, three months ago, no one in their right mind would have used the z-word in reference to yours truly. But as I sit here and realize, with no small amount of shock, that six months have already passed since I first started my adventure, I can’t help but believe there might be a grain of truth in these strangers’ unusual choice of adjective.

I don’t have it all figured out by any means. I still have isolated days when I wake up and wonder where this is all going, how I’m going to replenish the bank account I drained traveling Asia, and what it would be like waking up in a double-bed in my own room instead of a top bunk in a room full of strangers. But even if I don’t have this whole thing down to a science just yet (and, hey, why would I want to?), It’s getting easier to go with the flow the more I learn. And I’ve definitely learned a thing or two. Or 30.

On Travel

1. Don’t skip the places you’re unsure about. Sometimes, the destinations you can’t get excited about pre-departure turn out to be your new favorites.

2. The journey can be just as important as the destination. So don’t forget to look out the windows, take your time, and mix it up.

Village life on the Mekong as seen from the open-sided slow boat into Laos.

On Backpacking

3. Any backpacker with a ukulele or guitar will inevitably play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” before the night is through. They will not know all the words — and even after countless late-night singalongs around fireplaces, beers, or open-mic-night stages, neither will you.

4. A hostel is only as clean as you think it is. Sometimes, the people cleaning and washing the laundry have no idea what they’re doing.

5. An organized tour bus is a great way to meet people. It’s also a great thing to move on from.

6. Packing cubes are a game-changer.

7. After a while, you start conversing with your backpack as though it were a living, breathing person — specifically a disobedient child. “Why won’t you close? You closed yesterday and I haven’t added anything new!” “Do you really need to keep hitting me on the leg, strap? Really?” “I swear you’re heavier than you were last week. How is that even possible?”

Hayley illustrating the typical size ratio of backpack-to-backpacker. I’m pretty sure if she were sitting beside me right now, she’d want me to point out that her tan improved a bit after this picture was taken.

8. Even your lightweight MacBook Pro feels as if it weighs a metric ton after you’ve schlepped it across eight countries.

9. Finding a truly great hostel is like being a crack addict who’s been saved by the Church: you’ll tell anyone who will listen about how this place will change his or her life. Hyperbolic hand gestures and solemn testimonials will follow.

On People

10. It’s much easier to talk to strangers than you think.

11. The first question people ask a new acquaintance back home is always “What do you do for work?” On the road, you ask “Where are you from?” “Where have you been?” “Where are you headed?” and “How long are you traveling for?” The question “What did you do back home before you came traveling?” is an afterthought, if it’s posed at all.

12. Even when you’re traveling solo, you’re never really alone. You meet new people, you run into them again, you part ways, you make new friends. The social possibilities of the backpacker are fluid and endless.

Instant buddies in the back of a jumbo tuk-tuk. I can’t take credit for this picture — some new friends took it and posted it to Facebook. So, thanks, girls!

13. Still, moving around so much makes you miss your old friends like never before.

14. Be nice to the girl at the pastry shop. She’s probably sick of serving yahoos like you all day.

15. It’s refreshing being surrounded by other backpackers, if only because none of them have any idea what they’re doing, either. And they’re just as happy about it as you are.

16. Compared to other nationalities, there are not a lot of Americans out there traveling the world. And I don’t have a great answer when people ask me why.

17. There’s something very cool about entering a room full of people from Germany, France, Sweden, Taiwan, and hearing them all converse with each other in comfortable and fluent English. Other backpackers often ask me why more Americans don’t learn a second language. Again, I don’t have a good answer for them.

18. Native English speakers pretty much won the travel lottery. People from non-English-speaking countries have to learn English just to have a few mutually understood words traveling not just Anglophone destinations but in places like Vietnam or Laos. Seriously — why don’t more Americans take advantage of this?

On Fashion

19. Flip-flops are surprisingly versatile — if you’re not at all self-conscious.

20. When choosing outfits, I used to strive for matching, venue-appropriate, occasionally even slightly on-trend. These days, I strive for “borderline clean.” It usually doesn’t bother me. But some days, I think I’d trade my backpack in a heartbeat for a flowing dress and a pair of heels.

When did “sneans” become an acceptable wardrobe choice? About two months into my trip.

On Food

21. The food that people can and will make in hostel kitchens is truly astounding. I’ve seen full-lattice-top cherry pies, foccacia and challah, bagels from scratch, fresh stir-fries, Asian noodles and soups and salads nailed down precisely to the last spice and sauce. I’ve tasted homemade cookies, quiches with rolled-out crusts, hand-made springrolls, fried rice, and yes, even Yorkshire pudding. If you want to see young people who don’t just cook for themselves but take pleasure in doing it, go traveling.

22. You can get some amazing, exotic, exciting food when visiting other countries. But damn it if the sight of a humble Subway sandwich shop can’t make my face light up after weeks on end of fried noodles and curries.

23. A 50-cent meal purchased from a street cart, packed up in styrofoam or newspaper or cellophane, and eaten with chopsticks in the back of a tuk-tuk is often a more delicious and transcendent experience than eating a fancy meal in a restaurant.

Many thanks to my good friend Eli for demonstrating the proper way to eat and run.

On Life

24. There are few bad days that can’t be improved with a cheap bottle of red wine and a big ol’ block of chocolate. If that doesn’t work, try buying plane tickets.

25. Itineraries are only rough sketches. Plans are just ideas. Commitments are overrated. The best moments are often born of spontaneity and irresponsibility.

26. I’ve barely watched any TV in six months (the occasional NZ news segment notwithstanding). I wonder sometimes what Sally Draper’s up to or if Ted Mosbey’s met his wife yet, but other than that, it’s kind of nice being out of touch, forgetting the stuff I used to rush home to be on time for…

27. …but I’m still composing a mental Instant Netflix queue for my eventual return to the States.

28. I still can’t decide if settling in one place long enough to unpack, buy full-sized toiletries, and develop a routine is the light at the end of the tunnel or my worst nightmare.

29. There are adrenaline-fueled activities you know you want no part of, and there are new experiences you dream about but don’t think you’re brave enough to try. Don’t get them confused.

30. I’ve been extremely fortunate so far in my travels: I’ve made some incredible new friends, traveled with relative ease to places I’d never dreamed possible, and had work just fall into my lap. But the more I think about it, the less I believe it’s all been thanks to dumb luck. I’m starting to think serendipity is the good stuff that happens when you finally just get out of your own way.

Impulsively purchased plane ticket + perfect timing = happiness.

What are your favorite lessons learned from travel?


25 thoughts on “30 Lessons from Life on the Road

  1. Nice work as usual Shug. As an American who has never let loose for a year on the other side of the world, I imagine it has some to do with our place in the world both literally and figuratively. I know more people that spend time in Central & South America than Asia. And we hate other people right?

    As I have followed the blog I have wondered how different your year would have been braving the 50 states vs far Eastern Hemisphere. I would guess less of a community feeling but still 20 of your lessons would apply? 25? JQs Whimsy is probably mindset that a lot of people would use wherever they are.

    • Great points as usual, Chris. I do think that a lot of these things are probably universal for travelers no matter where they are, though I do think that some of them are also just a result of being taken out of your home country and seeing what the rest of the world sees. Still, I have been thinking a lot lately that it’s crazy how little of my own country I’ve seen in comparison to how many other countries I’ve visited. So maybe a trip around the US – with a stop in Arkansas, naturally – is in order!

  2. loved this!!! I CAN’T STAND number 11 back home! Maybe because I’m from Europe originally, i think that that question is incredibly rude and tactless … love the fact when i travel, i almost never hear it.. can’t wait to get back on the road : )

    Great points!

    let there always be a road..


    • Thanks, Elena! I agree that it’s nice not having people ask immediately what you do. It’s refreshing to define yourself in terms of the places you choose to go and the experiences you hope to have rather than the job you do 🙂

  3. Great entry!! As a fellow American travel addict (and girl) it’s lovely to see another American soul out there doing the great journey. I’d say in the last 8 years I’ve probably spent half of that abroad and every trip I encounter all of your points, especially in regards to Americans. Good for you! You rock! And to Nerdy Chris’ comment above, I’d say that America is VERY different than many cultures. Every time I come home from abroad I always come back with that traveler care-free and zen-like attitude in regards to meeting ppl and trying new things….and every new person I meet stateside thinks I’m nuts. There is something about traveling and cutting free from the safety nets that allows you to connect to another human without the usual preamble. It’s liberating… 🙂

    • I always wonder if, whenever I get back to the States, I’ll still be just as comfortable talking to strangers and trying new things on my own. I can only hope I will, and that not everyone will think I’m crazy for it 😉

  4. This just convinces me further that I need to get out there and travel. thanks for a lovely tip list and when the right time comes along I will be sure to refer to it!

  5. Jess, loving your blog. So glad you’re having a such a wonderful time. I was reading through some of your experiences traveling through Viet Nam, couldn’t bear all of it, too many memories of my own, less than fun, “backpacking” there before you were born.

    The good thing is life goes on, people overcome and make the most of what there is.

    Whether you stay in NZ, return to the States, or move back to Cambodia you’ll have “seen the world” and lived some life too few people have the nerve to do.

    As for #29 go ahead and confuse them sometime, if you live through it you won’t regret it.

  6. Serendipity or not, but I just found this piece as I start counting down the last 30 days until my 7 months backpacking trip starts! Indonesia, South East Asia, India and Southern countries of Africa. I need to look better into your blog for advice! Your writing is great and I smiled as I read your list, remembering what I’m getting myself into again! See you brought your MacBook Air, do you think I should bring mine? I prefer to be able to write on it. Safe travels girl! Best wishes from a Swede living in Norway. http://inwardsun.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/nobody-is-lost/

    • I’d say if you have something smaller and less valuable than your MacBook, I’d bring that. I love my computer and it’s fantastic for keeping a blog, but I wish I’d brought either my old clunker PowerBook or looked into purchasing a netbook or even an iPad before I left. The MacBook is heavy, but most of all it’s a liability. I’m constantly worried about where it is, if it’s safe, and whether or not I remembered to lock it up. All that said, I still love having it 🙂

  7. Definitely have felt number 22 :), I love trying new foods, but after I came back from Kenya, boy, did that milkshake taste good! I’m glad I discovered this great travel blog!

    One question, is it difficult to travel as a woman alone?

    • So glad you stopped by the blog, thanks!
      As for being a solo woman traveling, I would say that for me it’s been 100% wonderful and I absolutely recommend it. I’ve never felt unsafe just because I was a female and on my own. That being said, as I mentioned, it’s so easy to make new friends when you’re traveling alone that you really never have to make decisions like whether or not to walk home alone at night. Also, I think my comfort level has just as much to do with the friendliness of the places I’ve gone as my willingness to try them solo. I think you just have to be smart about where you venture off to on your own and follow common sense when you get there 🙂 Hope that helps!

  8. Pingback: Vegetarian Vietnam « My Year on a Whim

  9. Pingback: My Own Private Skyfall « My Year on a Whim

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