There’s nothing more fun than sitting in a laundry room in Eastern Europe, rain pouring down, talking to a whole bus load of young, first time gap-year explorers who are three months into the adventure of a lifetime.
Full of dreams and anecdotes, dog-eared guide-book-cum-Bible in hand, they need little encouragement to provide enough entertainment to get tomorrow’s clothes dry. One picks a guitar while his friend talks. Another keeps storming in and out, frustrated that the tiny condensation driers aren’t working any faster and lamenting the very things I love about the third world groove.
I listen to the chatter and try to avoid being asked too many questions about my on again, off again life on the road over the past twenty-something years. It’s too hard to explain. I’ve learned a lot in these laundry rooms, and in crawling slowly across continents in vans, planes, trains and boots; on boats, bicycles, camels, and mules; something my young friends haven’t yet, but if they walk far enough they will:
1 – No matter where you go, there you are
People hit the road for all sorts of reasons, to escape, to grow, to become someone else, to observe something new, primitive, or exciting, to absolve themselves of some secret sin or reinvent themselves in some profound way.
There are grand dreams in sepia tone hues of conquering something, becoming, somehow, more than they were at home.
Six months in, the boots have holes, the bags are patched with old denim and most are disappointed to discover that no matter where they go that’s where they’re at. While travel changes location, has been known to inspire and invigorate, has helped more than one writer to find her muse and has alleviated countless midlife crises, it is an unavoidable fact that you take who you are with you.
Your basic character, your strengths, your flaws, these all go with you, for better or for worse. You cannot escape yourself, no matter how far you walk. To try is folly.
2 – Stress is YOUR issue
Sure, stress exists everywhere. No one is immune to it. We Westerners, however, seem to have elevated it to an art, a virtue, and an accomplishment worthy of awarding a PhD. We are simultaneously proud of the break-neck speed at which we live life and interminably seeking to reduce the self induced stress that is the result. In fact, there are multi-million dollar industries that have been created to “help” us find the balance. Please.
The first step to recovery as they say, is admitting the problem: 99% of the stress in life is self-induced. You did this to yourself. This is as true at home as it is on the road. The real traveler learns this and learns to adapt. There is a certain level of “Travel Zen” that must be reached in order to roll with the perpetually late trains in France, the reality of “African Time” on the Sahara and the inevitability of siestas (in every sensible country) interrupting whatever it is that seems important to you on any given day.
We travel to experience something new and different and then spend half the trip being stressed out about what is new and different… like my whiney friend in the laundry room. Find your groove at home and you’ll never have to search for it abroad.
>>read more about how to de-stress on your travels
3 – You’ve got a golden ticket
At the risk of causing you to hum the song from the Gene Wilder movie, I must point out that a passport from any country in the Western world is considered a golden ticket anywhere else. A very affluent African man pointed this out to me within my first hour in his country. It has been his lifelong dream to travel to America, but it is unlikely to ever happen because of the difficulty of a Muslim man from his country getting a visa to visit ours. His prize possession? The one Shengen visa he is allowed each year.
We Westerners glibly fly into just about any country on the planet on our 90-day visa, enjoy the food, culture, music, art and “quaint” customs of any given country and then fly back home to talk about our adventures as if we know something about where we’ve been.
This became crystal clear to me on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental whilst buying bread from a Bedouin woman. I stood there and watched her cook it for us in a clay pan over a fire built between three rocks, in the traditional way. I took it, piping hot, from her tattooed hands and watched her disappear into her tent to look for change. It occurred to me that this woman had been born into a tent like this, spent her girlhood learning to weave yarn made from camel’s hair into strips that she’d sewn together with those same hands that baked my bread to make this tent. She’d lived her whole life between sand and camel hair beneath the brilliant star-studded quilt of the Saharan sky, never having traveled more than a couple hundred miles in any direction.
And here I stood, as alien to her way of life as if I’d come from another planet, buying her bread, smiling at her veiled daughters, with tickets on a ship sailing, in just a few weeks, for another continent. The difference between “us” and “them?” We have the option to fly back to the first world. Travel with this as a conscious thought and don’t abuse the privilege.
4 – The Chicken is always better at KFC
Travel may do a lot of different things for a lot of different people, but one thing it will do for every single one of us is define “home” through what we miss most, and it’s impossible to predict what you will miss most: The big straws that come with a McDonald’s coke in North America? A particular brand of tea? Milk sold in a bag? Milk sold in a jug? Heck, even COLD milk! No matter how much upper class disdain you’ve managed to muster for the affluent, consumer driven, ego-centric culture you live in, you’re going to miss it when you’re gone.
If nothing else, you’ll miss the convenience. You’ll miss being literate, if you travel far enough. After six months on the road this girl has been known to grovel at the feet of a Czech man who offered ICE in her coke at a pizza place on the main drag in Brno, CZ. HOW did he know I missed that? He spent 11 years in NYC running a pizza joint and he always offers the Americans ice in their cokes. He’s my hero.
Children have been known to leap about like grasshoppers and throw a family party over a jar of peanut butter hidden in the bottom of a bike pannier for seven months, discovered at the edge of the Sahara. Chocolate chips. Bisquick. Bacon. Dr. Pepper. These are the things that are “home” to us. No matter how far we travel, no matter how many new things we fall in love with, no matter how great the local Tunisian “plat poulet” is, we’ll still miss home, and the chicken will always be better at KFC.
>>read more about vegetarian dishes worth traveling for
5 – The Mango is always better in the tropics
The same children who were gaga for peanut butter in Africa, once back in America, moped through the first grocery store with dejected faces: no good cheese, no good knoblauch salami, no Milka bars, no Boga soda, no good bread, no fromage blanc, and the couscous and Nutella are too expensive!
“Doesn’t this country have ANYTHING good?” Sigh. And so it goes, they learn as children what all who wander learn eventually: while some things make a traveler pine for home, there are other things, that once home, a nomad spends the rest of his life trying to recapture. The smell of the cheese shops in Brugge. The perfect combination of local red wine, funky little sesame snap crackers, and salt spray found on that idyllic afternoon spent lying on a stone beach on the Adriatic. The smell of spices in an Arab souq. The perfect delight of pink and white layered coconut gelatin found only in Central American mercados (that miraculously doesn’t melt in 95F heat!) The pina colada scent of a huge, leathery, golden vine flower in Acaca Falls National Park in Hawaii.
Hit the road if you must but know in advance that you’ll never be the same. Foreign ghosts will haunt your dreams forever, whether you’re seven, or seventy, and no matter where you call home, the mango will always be better in the tropics.
>>read more about dangerous foods
6 – Your Best Friend is a Rubber Ball
The title intrigues you and you say, “This can’t be true!” Let me assure you, whether you know it or not, it is true. The biggest challenge of life on the road: food? Nope. Lodging? Nope. Calling home? Nope. Finding two-ply toilet paper? Nope. Clean clothes. Travelers are famously dirty people, the sniff test outweighs color coordination in wardrobe planning, underwear really are turned inside out and socks can be worn for at least three days straight because no one sees them, and as long as you keep your shoes on, no one smells them either.
Bad enough as a college student hitching across the country; add four kids to the mix and you get a snap shot of my world. “Why a rubber ball? What does that have to do with clean clothes?” you ask.
Three words: Universal Sink Stopper. Yep. Best fifty cents you’ll ever spend. Stop at the grocery store on your way to the airport and buy one of the big swirly colored bouncy balls out of the machine next to the candies and rub-on tattoos. Get in line; don’t push the six year olds out of the way! Stick that sucker in your backpack and you’ll travel in style, smelling better than most of your friends. Twist that little ball down into the drain of the shower in your hostel, the sink in your swank hotel, the hole in the ground below the hose outlet in your campground, or whatever, wherever, and wash out your socks and undies before bed.
Sure, you’ll have your unmentionables hanging from your tent strings like Tibetan prayer flags each night, but it will remind you to pray for dry weather and give thanks for the sun and it will save you two bucks on the drier. The two bucks is better spent on gelato in Venice, trust me. Approximate amount saved by our rubber ball in the last year: $500.00. That’s a lot of gelato.
Read more about: