Ah, the open road. Endless possibilities abound on winding paths, highways and alleyways. They spring from terra incognita and the Wonders of The World. All strangers are scholars of the unknown and every moment is one step closer to a limitless horizon. All you have is to do is take that first step.
So, what are you waiting for?
Probably to snap out of it.
Traveling can be one hell of a nuisance whether you’re a wide-eyed wanderer or a seasoned cynic. The possibilities are endless for your plans to get derailed. Those highways are soul-sucking stretches of boredom. The alleyways are dangerous. The strangers strange and the Wonders of The World expensive.
But dammit, you’re going. There are souvenirs to buy and Facebook friends to make jealous. And, frankly, we desperately want you to go and have the time of your life—really. Just do it with your eyes wide open. And send us a postcard when you get there.
It may sound like a spontaneous and original idea to, say, backpack through Asia, hitchhike across Europe or use your gap year for a around-the-world adventure. But about 983 million other folks, according to the World Tourism Organization’s latest report, also have that idea.
The truth is that backpackers spend more money than other travelers and are an increasingly mainstream demographic on which tourist economies worldwide rely. The success of popular party hostels allow chains to spring up on backpacker circuits, formerly known as “off the beaten path.” Consider the path beaten.
So, you’re the 99% and would like to occupy something other than your less-than-glamorous New York City shoebox apartment. You can barely afford the Big Apple so should you be setting your sights any farther?
A few things to take into (or out of your) account: plane tickets, gear, currency exchange rates, visas, ATM fees, hotels, car rentals, travel insurance, emergency healthcare, the tourist traps you will inevitably fall for, and, you know, food.
To keep costs low and adventure-level high, many middle-class travelers head to developing nations on their initial sojourns, usually resulting in their first exposure to poverty, and with it, danger.
As tenacious as many travelers tend to act, web forums and hostel conversations are still teeming with the predictable question, “Is it safe?” And the onslaught of “Ten Most Dangerous” lists offer little help to abate that fear. When you go, be smart.
You’re fearless and loaded. Discomfort does not discriminate. Progressively, travelers learn the art of accepting that which they cannot control. For example, let’s say: your plane gets delayed; crying babies take over coach; your luggage gets lost; someone is yelling at you in an alien idiom; tears are falling down your face in response; insects are feeding off your fresh and blood; the guidebook promised WIFI, I WAS TOLD THERE WOULD BE WIFI; hot water is not a thing; and you’ve realized there’s no toilet tissue—after the fact—and you’ve only just landed.
On the road, your body and mind work overtime to take on all the extra energy that travel demands, making you more susceptible to illness. It’s only a matter of time before the bacteria of your new environment breaks into your system and does the mambo. Parasitic infections can come down on anyone, whether you get it from tap water or hostel sex (for goodness’ sake, please bring your own condoms).
Sure, run-ins with illness is a backpacker’s badge, but get seriously sick abroad and the apparent glamour floats away like piss in the Amazon. By the way, don’t ever piss in the Amazon.
The solo traveler prefers to make decisions out of intuition and intellect. They’d really rather not babysit a doe-eyed newbie or a listen to the yarn-telling spinster. But, the downside of the solo road is when a crisis strikes and you need a rescue or when loneliness starts to creep up on you. But hey, it could be worse …
You could have company. Choosing a suitable travel companion is an art. Your mate can be the constant narrator who won’t shut the fuck up, the frugal first-worlder who haggles strangers to shreds and considers everything a rip-off, or your neurotic acquaintance who won’t drink the water, won’t talk to strangers, won’t go outside.
Much of the travel writing canon is stuffed with stories on how movement changes us within, but what about the impact the traveler has on the places they inflict with their presence? As Scott Hamilton stated in his lecture Ripping Off The Brands: A Rough Guide to Anti-Travel, “Tourism is about the consumption of place. Like every other form of consumption, it is dependent upon brands and Majorca and Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levis or Calvin Klein.” A business like any other, tourism has a way of creating unsustainable economies that serve the tourist rather than the local.
The sensation of novelty that travel brings with it can become addictive, so be wary of escapist delusions. As essayist Scott Russell Sanders once said, “We live in a move-away society. Since the frontier days, Americans have tended to deal with problems in one place … by moving somewhere else.”
The best reason not to travel is contentment. Traveling offers distractions for those looking for them. It allows you to investigate other cultures instead of exploring our own. But, setting down roots in one place that can sustain you long-term takes courage and time. Some people can only feel whole in the one place they call home; some places only reveal their full wonder to those with the heart to bear it.
Whether you’re in Paris for the first time or taking a different route to work, one that you normally don’t, you’re bringing your mind on a new adventure. Veering from the familiar creates fresh neural pathways that open your brain to difference, to new ideas, like exercise. They form an impression of something that was not there before.
Many travel not just to be somewhere new, but to feel new. However, introspection and personal growth may not be on your itinerary. So ask yourself, am I ready to not just be somewhere new, but to be someone new? Have you saved up enough? Are you prepared to deal with danger, or illness, or loneliness? Are you ready to change?
Go out there and have the time of your life. But remember: new paths are forged by those who know where they’re coming from. As is often the case, this work, the trip of life that occurs mostly in the mind, is an adventure in itself.
A queer mestiza travel writer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador,
mission is to decolonize travel media.