The idea of setting up as a freelancer and backpacking around the world for years at a time is enough to give most people butterflies. That glorious feeling of tingling anticipation occupying some elusive space between the chest and stomach can get pretty intense.
It was certainly like that for me before I left.
If you’re reading this article right now, there’s a good chance you’re at least considering firing your boss and/or booking a ticket to some faraway place for remote work and a major life reset.
It’s also likely you’ve heard how such global gallivanting can change you for the better, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and a bunch of other words that end with two L’s and a Y.
As someone who’s been travelling for around three years so far, I can assure you that the hype is very real. And while serendipity is indeed a noble pursuit, there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned heads-up about one or two things before you leave.
Here are 10 things I wish I’d known before I booked my first one-way ticket.
1. It’s totally achievable (the haters were wrong)
In spite of all the excitement, there was a small but undeniable knot of doubt residing stubbornly in the pit of my stomach as I ordered new my Gore-Tex backpack online.
That said, and as I’m sure you can probably relate, it was largely due to certain social circles in my life who were less than encouraging about my unusual plans.
Don’t get me wrong, I have more than my fair share of great friends that I love dearly, all of whom were very supportive. But, some people just can’t help themselves when they see you’ve got a good thing going. Let’s face it, we all know the reasons why…
In spite of the fact that I’d done both the research and the tests with my freelancing work to know it was achievable, the naysayers had planted their intended seeds.
Almost three years of incredible, life-changing adventures in astounding locations down the line, I wish I’d really known they were wrong so I could have revelled in the anticipation of the backpacking adventures ahead.
2. Selling all my stuff was definitely the right move
We’re all guilty of becoming a little too attached to material possessions. Whether it’s arguably more justifiable to lust after a Gibson Les Paul than it is a Dyson vacuum cleaner, selling all your stuff is kind of hard.
Even when there’s no emotional attachment, putting your washing machine onto Craigslist or eBay is when things start feeling real. It’s a no-going-back kind of move that’s a heady reminder of the paradigm shifting decision that stares you in the face with an Indian Airlines logo in the top-right corner.
As the number of possessions I’d accumulated dwindled in the face of my imminent departure, and even some of my more loyal friends (despite their best efforts) couldn’t quite help but reveal the fact that they quietly harboured doubts of their own, I wish I’d known that selling my stuff was definitely the right thing move.
It would have spared me the separation angst as my material possessions were translated into a single bag and a bunch of hard currency.
3. Tropical sun makes jerky out of nerd skin
I grew up in a pretty poor family and, as such, had never before seen tropical turquoise oceans and white sandy beaches. In adulthood, my holiday preferences tended more towards music festivals and winter sports.
So naturally, when I landed on the stunning beaches of Thailand and gave myself the obligatory pinch just to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, I was a little cautious about that fierce sunshine.
After a couple of days tentatively picking my way around the shade and reluctantly accepting the fact I wasn’t about to spontaneously combust, I decided I’d probably be fine. I picked up my newly hired bike to ride around the island and seek longer term accommodation.
As I enjoyed that relaxing ride around the ring road of Koh Samui, I had the living crap burned out of my poor white nerdy skin…
This is partly because I’m British which means I have a genetic predisposition to produce a perfect tan of bright, sore red and borderline-illegal white. And yes, that means the kind of red that’s so sore, it makes other people wince.
Just remember, if you have fair skin and an LCD monitor tan like mine, be careful in the tropical sun. Don’t let your guard down. It’s won’t “be fine just for a while…”
4. Credit cards save you a fortune on withdrawal fees
When I first left for Southeast Asia, I had my regular bank debit card and credit card for emergencies only. My debit card withdrawal limit was around £200 (around $300) in one pop and my bank charged me between £4-6 for the privilege of obtaining my own money (thanks, Lloyds).
Little did I know that not only do credit cards offer significantly lower withdrawal fees than debit cards, but there are many international travel credit cards with no withdrawal fees whatsoever. I could have saved hundreds…
It’s a big subject because different credit cards will appeal to different people in different places for different reasons. But, all you need to do is set aside an hour to check out this article from NomadicMatt.com (one of several websites I wish I’d found before I went travelling the world).
5. Giant bugs are rare (but you might see one or two…)
This is not supposed to deter you from travelling okay? Just sayin’…
Upon returning from the glorious Nikki Beach one day, I went to get my towel from my bag only to see a red giant centipede the size of my forearm whizzing its way round the bundled fabric like a spaceship orbiting a planet in a sci-fi movie.
The ensuing moments were the closest I’ve had to a primaeval caveman fight in some crazy survival instinct scenario. Lucky I was so careful.
Because later, my Thai lady kindly informed me that their bite is so painful that I would “wish I was dead” and there’s “nothing I could do to lessen the pain for two weeks”.
After two years in Southeast Asia, I’ve seen six bugs that were so large, the only way they can get into your house is if you leave the door open for them.
Only 2/6 of them have a sting, so that’s one per year which really isn’t that bad. I was a little apprehensive of bugs the size of Labradors, but they’re genuinely rare.
That said, don’t leave bags and backpacks outside at the beach, and make sure you get a place with bug screens on the windows when possible.
6. Drugs are cheaper overseas
Before you hit up your local chemist and get antimalarial tablets for Africa (or indeed, anything else for anywhere else), check to see if they’re available locally. Drugs that cost you $5 per day in the West are often available at $5 per month overseas.
Also, it’s worth knowing that Thailand (among other places) offers pretty much any pharmaceutical you could want without prescription in the pharmacies.
If there’s you need anything that’s prohibitively expensive in your country such as Ritalin, Valium, Xanax (none of which I take, for the record, but I understand they’re popular) keep that in mind before you stock up for your global backpacking adventures.
That said, even relatively inexpensive drugs such as Ibuprofen or antihistamines (which I do take sometimes…) are usually cheaper overseas.
7. You’re going to be stared at. A lot…
If you go backpacking through China, Southeast Asia, India, Africa or other countries where white people are in a vast minority, get ready to be stared at. This is especially true if you have blonde hair and blue eyes like myself.
After eight years of living in the metropolis of London, diverse ethnicity is the absolute norm to me.
But, when you go to other countries, people are likely to stare at you, comment on the unusually round shape of your eyes, your height, your size, your hair colour or whatever else is relevant to you personally and unusual for that location.
It took me some time to get used to this, and a heads-up certainly would have helped. There you go.
8. Read up on social faux pas’
Just because picking your nose and farting on a busy bus is rude where you come from doesn’t necessarily mean it is in other countries.
Elsewhere in the world, sitting down and eating a cheeseburger at the train station alone may be the height of inappropriateness while reading semi-pornographic material in a crowded train carriage is absolutely fine (“You shouldn’t have been looking at his book, anyway! What’s wrong with you?)
Check in on the country’s etiquette before leaving. That way, you won’t get to Thailand and show the bare soles of your feet or touch anyone on the head, both of which are considered very rude.
9. People might think you’re “one of those” foreigners
I actually had a heads-up on this because I lived in the French Alps for a couple of years some time ago. That said, I was reminded when I got to Asia and it’s a point worth sharing.
Hard as it is to believe, a small number of individuals adopt the idea that people who don’t speak English must be stupid. Because of this belief, however ludicrous, a small but very noticeable minority of obnoxious foreigners visit other countries and shout English words “looong aaaand sloooow” without making any effort to learn the local language.
As you’d probably expect from individuals with such a small minded perspective, their general behaviour is often less than exemplary. Consequently, some people have a bad image of travellers and may assume you’re “one of those” people just because you’re foreign.
Make sure you go out of your way to be cool, polite and respectful to let people know you’re willing to at least try and engage in their mother tongue, and be a gracious guest in general.
A little effort goes a long way to you being welcomed.
10. Tread carefully around political issues
Okay this is another one I knew about already, but another that’s well worth a mention.
The narratives of various political issues (including and perhaps especially military engagements) are portrayed differently in different countries and people often expect you to know a lot about your country’s government and political agendas.
If you do, that’s fine. But many people get heated in their opinions and that won’t necessarily make you a popular guest when you’re essentially seen as an ambassador for your country.
Make sure that people know your government’s views are not necessarily your views. And whatever you do, never insult the local royalty, government or anyone else in authority.
Just be diplomatic with your approach to these things and you’ll get on fine.