Learning to Miss the Unmissable
Travelling long term will always throw up a completely different experience to the two week dash of the holidaymaker. Where one seeks to bleed dry every second of their precious moments, the other wants to explore deeper, slower, more thoughtfully - and learn far more as a result.
For me, eighteen months on a South American adventure has led to some surprising insights about how I travel, what I need to see (and miss out), and the friendships and experiences I have along the road. If you’re currently travelling, or thinking about planning a long trip abroad, here’s some of the realisations that might come your way.
There is time for “everything” – if “everything” means “some things”
In Sucre, Bolivia, I met a British guy who told me he had intentionally “missed out” the “unmissable”: Iguazu Falls. “You can’t see everything,” he said. I was aghast. “You missed out something on the unmissable list?!” It was like he’d squarely given the finger to the travelling Gods with such a brazen act against the dictates of conventional travel.
But the longer I’ve travelled, the more it makes sense. I see my fellow backpackers pinging between night buses, tourist hotspots, devouring their fill of the “unmissables” but finding themselves grouchy, frustrated; in need of a holiday from their holiday.
Firstly, South America boasts such a borderline-hilarious lack of tourist infrastructure, which, combined with its culturally loose approach towards timekeeping, makes this form of travel almost impossible. But, more importantly, I’ve experienced the dawning realisation that travel like this will always leave you craving more: you could come back once, twice, twenty times and still never see everything that each country has to offer. As a result, my travel motto has since morphed into this: travel slower, see less, and, most importantly, enjoy a day filled with cups of tea, cake, and a good book at least every once in a while.
Who knows who you’ll become?
When you first start your adventures, it probably doesn’t yet strike you that there’s quite a strong chance you’ll return home - if indeed you do go back – a very different person to that one who stepped off the plane. Of course, it’ll be a gradual, barely noticeable change: think of the travelogues of people who’ve filmed themselves over the space of a year and whose videos reveal the accumulation of the daily, subtle changes which become a sudden assault of difference, ending abruptly in excess facial hair and a knowing, awakened glint in each eye.
While I’ve yet to grow a beard, each day I know I’ve moved a millimetre away from the person who always needed to be in control of a situation. I can now successfully sit and watch as my fellow travellers make an absolute fuck up of pancakes for our dinner, and instead of grabbing the frying pan to beat them with it, I can manage a laugh. I will then offer to help rectify the situation, of course.
But I’ve started to wonder exactly how I would ever reintegrate into the tiny burrow of existence that I inhabited before I left. Is a 9-5 job ever a realistic possibility now I’ve tasted the glorious nectar of freedom you sup from travel’s glorious teat? Realistically, how long will it be before that unrelenting voice in my head whispers into my ear, “Where next?”
Travel is a dangerous game: you never know the person you’ll become, and the further you get, the more questions – and far fewer answers - about life and your future it seems to throw up.
You are, and always will be, a foreigner
One of the things I most hated when I first travelled in Bolivia was how much everyone stared at me. Yeah, so I was a blonde girl travelling alone in a country full of black-haired indigenous people, within a culture which didn’t exactly promote independent-minded or active females. Seriously, why were they all staring?
Stupidly, it took time to realise that, to the locals, I was the equivalent of a slimy, golden-haired anaconda that had slithered out of the Amazon River, sprouted walking boots, and popped into their café to ask for a salteña.
It’s since dawned on me that I will always be a foreigner when I travel outside of the UK, but that I do have some control over exactly how “foreign” I seem to those I meet. Cultural sensitivity is a term easily thrown around but often barely remembered when we arrive on foreign shores and get cross that someone doesn’t want to sell us fruit from their market stall or won’t engage us in conversation. I’m not saying that this behaviour is right, but we sometimes forget that in countries that see few tourists, or who even have very different attitudes towards how much they feel they need to sell to make a comfortable living, the expectation that someone does as we ask because we’re the customer, and do it right now please, is going to be met with some resistance.
Cultural sensitivity is not about agreeing with how everything operates in a country, but learning how to travel through that country without allowing these perceived annoyances to drive you mad. I’ve found that learning Spanish so I can chat properly with women at their market stalls and (most importantly) complement them on their cooking is a powerful way of ensuring that someone feeds me. I smile at young people, pensioners, and shop keepers, and see this surprisingly simple act (but one which is often forgotten when we’re nervous in our new surroundings) makes a huge difference.
If you want to feel accepted in a country that perhaps doesn’t yet have a real history of tourism – or even a very clear understanding of how it can benefit their lives – then the most you can do is go beyond your comfort zone so that the people you meet don’t feel too pushed out of theirs. Investing in the local language, stepping off the main square into side streets, and making every effort to dive into the real life of the local people will allow you to peel back the skin of a city and discover the delicious fruit within.
Just because everyone else is travelling doesn’t mean you have to like them
I’m generally a very chatty person, and will soon find myself engaged in conversation upon arriving at a new hostel. But what quickly becomes apparent after a long time on the road is that not all travellers are created equal, and just because you evidently have shared interests, doesn’t mean you’ll actually like every person you meet.
Granted, I’ve encountered few people who have sparked a raging fire of hate in my angry heart, but I’ve met a surprising number of racists, shouty misogynists, and the often most annoying kind, the “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” type whose long, drawling lectures on where you must go send me directly to the nearest bottle of anything so that my mouth’s full and I can’t tell them to piss off.
When you start travelling, it’s easy to be the excitable golden retriever: “love me, love me, LOVE ME!” you shout with waggy-tailed excitement, as you bound around the hostel trying to find the funniest, coolest person to spend your time with.
Now, I can find myself alone in the corner (with that cup of tea and a good book I was raving about), watching events, but sure to step into conversation if I stumble upon people with generally interesting travel tales or takes on life. Sure, there’s no reason to be rude to anyone, but when you meet more backpackers than stray dogs, it pays to be a bit selective and save your conversation for those who really pique your interest.
What’s more, those who do warrant your time will often be the ones whose friendships you know will outlive the length of the trip and whose instant, powerful connections are some of the greatest reasons why we travel.
Steph Dyson writes about adventure travel and meaningful volunteering on her website, Worldly Adventurer. She left her job as an English teacher in the UK to travel the world in 2014. So far, she's made it to Bolivia and Peru. Follow her on Twitter @worldlyadventur