A Contented Traveller (part 1)

The previous post was way too sedated. It should have been titled “A Euphoric Return” as that is what I am experiencing: riding on a wave of high, happiness & sense of achievement. I kept getting kind comments from friends about a “glow” in me or “sparkle in my eyes”; yes, I’m indeed very contented. And while nothing has changed much back here (except for some superfluous jingles on the MRT), I return to some joyous news from friends: some have gotten engaged, some have gotten married and some are expecting baby.

I shan’t try to summarise my trip, because it is – except for certain legs in Melbourne, Sydney, Quito, Madrid, London, Cumbrian Lake District & Paris – already more or less documented earlier (*editing in process to the earlier posts for language and grammar).

This not being a commercial blog or travel blog, my thoughts here are based on my personal feelings and reactions, and not meant to be a list of how-tos. If you have any specific question about a particular country/city feel free to contact me and I will share whatever travel tips I have accumulated with you.

1. Travelling Solo

1.1 Motivation

This is not my first time travelling solo to places that I have never been before. My very first such solo trip was done 8 years ago during a 1-week trip to Croatia via Budapest – during winter. There had been some strange and some unpleasant – though, luckily, harmless – experiences. Back then, there were moments in that trip that I kept questioning myself “Why am I doing this?!” Yet, at the same breath I was ironically amused by the encounters (keeping a sense of humour is the key to end all misery). Mostly, the feeling post-trip was a tremendous sense of achievement. The second solo trip was to Jiangsu province in China, although that was less of a challenge (as culturally it was not too dissimiliar nor was language a problem) but no less interesting as a solo traveller.

Not that I was looking for a challenge on this trip. What motivated me the most was the desire to see certain places that I’ve always dreamt of. The seed of this motivation was sown long before and I even took some night classes in Spanish some years ago in preparation (how much was retained during the classes is another story).  The secondary motivation was to pick up more Spanish on the trip and also to take a break from work. But this is the first time that I’ve travelled solo for such an extended period of time.

In both earlier cases, tickets were only bought days before the trip. This time round, I too only bought the round-the-world ticket 3 days before I started my journey. The other motivation for solo-travel is the freedom and flexibility to plan and go as and when and where you want.

1.2 Safety/risks

The first hurdle to overcome is the words of concern and more often than not, negativity. When I told friends that I was going to do this trip alone, most reactions were invariably “So dangerous!” or “A girl doing it alone is dangerous!”. It is already emotionally tough enough to face solo travelling alone, and worse still to hear unhelpful comments. More helpful would be comments which illustrate specifics of dangerous situations. For example, one can say that certain places are notorious for snatch thefts, but a more useful comment would be an example of how a snatch thief worked, and consequently certain precautions one can take to try avoid it.

In my opinion, travelling solo is neither more nor less difficult than travelling with a companion or with a group:- needless to say, the experiences would be different in each scenario. But in terms of challenges, I would say the issues that you face are very different in each scenario and it is not necessary safer to travel in a group or less safe to travel alone. For instance, I have witnessed a girl’s purse being snatched while she was in a group of at least 4, and this happened in a world-class city. On the flip side, a British traveller recounted to me a horror story of being attacked by 11 people and would have ended up worse for the wear if not for his friends who were nearby enough to come to the rescue. Some people say that it is more dangerous to travel solo as a woman: I can’t comment on that simply because I do not know whether it is safer to travel solo as a man. I would imagine that the challenges faced by a male traveller would be very different from that faced by a female traveller.

In any event, some safety issues are gender-neutral. A classic example is injury or accident. While on this trip, I had a minor accident while cycling alone on an island during low season. Due to lack of sleep the night before and tired out after cycling for hours, I momentarily lost concentration on the gravel path, skidded across a muddy patch, fell off and sprained my ankle. Yelping in pain into the desolate wild helped relieved the tension, but I could have very well laid there for two hours and there would have been no passer-by because it was low season. While I could hardly walk, luckily the injury did not impact on my ability to cycle back to town (which was another 3 hours ride). The injury could have been a lot more serious and there may not be any help at all until someone happens to pass by. Hiking or trekking by yourself can also be potentially risky for the same reasons as well.

As for men who hassle women travellers (although I heard that the same thing can happen to the opposite sex in certain places), that is inevitable and you either learn to deal with it by assessing the situation quickly or avoid the unwanted attention altogether (although the latter is sometimes impossible). Hiking or trekking alone with a lone guide could be risky for the same reasons as well.

In spite of the risks, if you have the burning desire to travel alone, no one can really stop you. There are many people who travel solo in South America (amongst other places), which is enough encouragement for me. Nonetheless, beware to not fall into the trap of easily trusting another traveller, as there are also travellers (or people who pose as travellers) who are unsavoury characters.

1.3 Costs

All things being equal, travelling solo would entail a higher cost per head, since certain things such as accommodation and transport are more value for money if shared out between a couple or a few more persons. Emphasis again on all things being equal, as you may not make the same choice of accommodation or transport when you are travelling alone as compared to when travelling with other people. Or, if you happen to meet other like-minded travellers while on the road, you may be able to share out certain costs too.

People kept asking me how much I spent on this trip. To the well-meaning friends who wanted to know whether I kept to my budget, I did! To those who want to know the cost of travelling in certain countries, this is a complex question that entails asking yourself: what is it that you hope to experience? As some cities are more expensive than others, which part of the country are you going to? What is your comfort tolerance level?  Do you just want to cook your own meals most of the time, or do you also want to experience dining out or trying local cuisine? Are you the type who would prefer to haggle to the lowest possible price or would you prefer to accept whichever price as long as it is within your expectations? Is this going to be a frugal trip or luxurious trip – and even this question entails another question, do you intend to go on a budget trip all the way or are you prepared to allow yourself a bit of luxury?

Most guidebooks give a ball-park figure of the general cost of things (e.g. accommodation, transport, meals) in each country, but  bump it up by at least 15-20% when you are doing cost-budgeting to allow for inflation and lack of negotiating power during peak season. Better still, talk to people (if possible) who have actually been to those places to get a realistic estimate.  Research for the purpose of costs is just as important for the purpose of planning the itinerary.

It does not take a financier to figure out that travelling on credit is a no-no. Travelling itself is already a luxury, even if it is on a shoe-string budget. Furthermore, the costs may potentially escalate once you commence your journey due to unforeseeable events; adjustments to the budget may even be necessary. On the flip side, it is possible that the cost may be lower than what you expected. Still, at the preparation stage, it is prudent to budget for more rather than less and see whether it comes within the margin of your means.

2. Journal

In the past, I kept a physical journal whenever I travelled. Then that practice stopped for a few years. I find keeping a journal useful, even while travelling for a short period of time. While travelling with another person or persons, I find it harder to find time to write journals. Decided to resume the practice on this trip:-  for me, keeping a journal serves to record the emotions & experiences that are not capable of being capture by the camera. Hence, this past few months’ blog was more of my personal journal as I had substituted writing in a physical journal for writing on an electronic one:- isn’t it amazing that there are now applications on mobile devices that allow you to draft and save and upload whenever you are connected to the internet.

However, I do miss writing with pen and paper!

3. What to pack

I’m ashamed to say that I still have not mastered the art of packing: folding or rolling clothes, vacuum bags etc were all things that I have done to enable efficient packing. Still, one of the things that I have learned from this trip is that I’m certain that I could have survived and still be happy with half of what I packed earlier, considering that I lost certain items along the way (including a very essential item) and still managed to survive. And to quote a friend: whatever you need you can always buy when you are there. Just to add on to that, bring only essential things that you are unlikely able to get in that foreign country.

Post-trip, I would say the essential things which would be hard for me to find in parts of S. America or too indispensable are:

1. spare trekking shoes (large feet and comfort factor are my concerns). Unfortunately, this is the item that also takes up a lot of space!

2. spare camera battery (not the AA or AAA type)

3. spare specs

4. emergency medication

5. …mmm, actually nothing else! I really did bring too much!

Another thought: if you travel in pairs and planned with your partner carefully, you could most likely travel lighter overall as certain things can be shared out.

4. Choice of luggage

I chose to use a trolley bag as the principal luggage, plus I brought along a 35l backpack (that I can travel on for about 14 days), a day pack and a sling bag. Personally, I find walking around with anything more than 12kg on the shoulders (in addition to the sling bag) tolerable but tiring. Hence, the choice of a trolley bag which is easy to wheel around and to conserve energy. The only time this decision backfired was when I was in a town that oddly did not have paved roads, but merely dusty gravel paths. This was completely unexpected, since this was in a country with big modern highways better than that in the UK! Almost broke a wheel while dragging my trolley bag through resistive dust and gravel.  The moral of the story is not that backpacks are better than trolleys, but simply – pack & travel light!

This would be my ideal luggage: one that can be used both as a backpack and trolley, light and small enough to be hand-carried onto planes. It was too big an investment for me at that time, but something to consider in the future.

What about shopping? Try not to buy too many things, as tempting as it may be. Or consider what some travellers do: buy and post them home. But I liked what this Canadian-American couple said the best: “We have a rule; for every thing that we buy, we must give away one thing.” Very Zen.

5. Cash or card?

Cash or card? The answer to this question depends on your personal preference and the specifics of a particular country or city. There are towns that I have been to where ATMs and banks are non-existent. There is also a country where it is very expensive to use a credit card, simply because the charges on the card (which can be as high as 10%) are passed on to the consumers. Key word: research! Find out! Talk to people who have been there!

Travellers’ cheques are expensive and I personally do not find travellers’ cheques more convenient or useful than cash and/or card. Do you have any alternative thoughts on this?

6. Be prepared but don’t plan too much

This sounds like a contradiction from what I said above. Research is important in equipping yourself with certain important information, but it is impossible to plan for all the contingencies under the sun. I thank the lucky stars that nothing very serious happened to me during this trip and would like to think that I have covered all the vital things in my preparation. At the same time, too much research & planning can also psychologically result in anxiety and cold-feet! Another thing about solo travelling is: unlike travelling with another person, there is no partner-in-crime to motivate you to take on this adventure which you willingly take on by yourself.

As much as I often said “I’ll go where the wind blows”, going with the flow also involves decision-making. Post-trip, I look back at the various decisions I made during the trip and while there were mis-opportunities or could-haves, I doubt winding the clock back in time I would have done anything different. As a friend said, you can’t expect every experience to be a wonderful & magical one. Some experiences are for enjoying, and the rest are for learning. And together they make up your entire adventure.

One thing very damaging to any experience is high expectations. I’m very lucky to say that all my experiences on this trip have far exceeded any expectations. Sure, the desire to visit some places stem from dreams of years ago, but dreams are very different from expectations, simply because the contentment arises from very different motivations.


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