So you've decided to travel around the world. This is an excellent thing to do. It's a precious place, this planet. We should see it. Forthwith are seven tips for turning your dream into reality.
1) Go to school in Canada. Let's deal with the elephant in the room right here at the top - money, or the lack thereof. For the last 10 years or so, I've been wondering where, exactly, did all the young American backpackers go? Back in ye olden days - the Nineties - they were everywhere, whether teaching English in Bratislava, obtaining onward visas in Istanbul, or trekking in the Himalayas. Today, sadly, the American backpacker is about as rare as a Snow Leopard. For a long time, I assumed that was simply an unfortunate consequence of 9/11. The world suddenly seemed scary to many. Best to stick close to home. I thought this because, from time to time, I'm kind of a moron. As any twenty-something will tell you, it's not fear that keeps them tethered to the homeland. It's debt. No other country in the world asks its young people to begin their march into adulthood with tens, even hundreds, of thousands in student loans.
This is madness, and until this changes you should get your degree in Canada. Or Australia. Or New Zealand. Or somewhere in Asia. Anywhere really. There's a reason that there are oodles of young Aussies, Germans, Japanese, even Chinese backpackers traipsing around the world. They are unencumbered by debilitating student loans. No such luck for the American Theater Arts major with $120,000 in loans. Let's be blunt: This person is not going anywhere for a long, long time. Don't let this be you.
2) Take the time to do it right. I was in the South Pacific recently, following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, and while I was in Samoa I met an Argentinean woman, a student of anthropology, who was in the midst of a round-the-world voyage. She had spent three months working as a hotel maid in New Zealand to finance nine months of travel. "My plan is to go to five countries," she said. "Maybe I will even visit the northern hemisphere."
I admired both the ambition and the modesty of her plan. Some people travel as if they're merely checking off items on a to-do list. Malta, Maldives, Morocco, Monaco. Been there, done that, they'll say. When prodded a little, they'll concede that they've never lingered anywhere for longer than a week or two, before launching into a diatribe about how filthy India is. When asked where in India they went, they'll mention Delhi and Agra and then speak of the joy they felt when their plane departed after a 10-day jaunt. 10 days? It took me 10 days to figure out how to buy a train ticket in India. It took me another two months before I could do a competent Indian head bobble. These things take time. The goal should never be about collecting passport stamps; it should be about collecting experiences. If you want something more than a bewildering array of first impressions, count on dillydallying.
3) Make a plan, and then deviate. Having a plan is good. It concentrates the mind and gives the journey purpose. Few things are more enjoyable than lingering over the atlas and plotting a trip. But then situations arise, circumstances change, and we have to adapt. Let's say it's been your dream to travel around the world. You've given yourself six months to do the journey before starting a new position at corporate HQ. You're in Cambodia. You become interested in Buddhism. And food. You really, really want to become a Buddhist food blogger in Southeast Asia. Should you do it? Should plans be upended? Yes they should.
4) Leave the laptop and the tablet at home. I know. This. Is. So. Hard. What about Instagram? And Facebook? How will you cope? A smartphone will do just fine. With a wireless connection, most likely found in a café somewhere, you'll be able to stay connected just enough to let people know where you are and to check out pertinent online info. Anything more than a smartphone, however, and you'll find that it is your tech gear and all that it entails - security, usability, access - that dictates the pace of the trip. And that is wrong. It misses the point of the big, life-changing circumnavigation of the world, which is to experience life on the far side of the world. And if you do ultimately decide to become a Buddhist food blogger in Phnom Penh you can have a buddy mail you your precious laptop.
5) Get vaccinated. Really. I know. Duh. But even professional travel writers have been known to forget. Occasionally, they subsequently come down with, oh, I don't know, typhoid. Ahem. We don't need to draw this out, but do yourself a favor and check out all the vaccinations you'll need. Get them. All of them. Nothing spoils a trip like a bout of yellow fever and diphtheria.
6) Don't be a travel snoot. There's a reason some paths are well-trodden. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Pyramids in Giza, Machu Picchu near Cusco; everyone wants to see these places. They're special. They speak to all of humanity. And very often, while visiting, you will feel as if you are surrounded by all of humanity. Just roll with it. You'll have plenty of time to visit the more obscure, out-of-the-way places, but you won't forgive yourself for missing the Great Wall of China.
7) Write it down. At the end of the day, take some time to write about your experiences in a journal. The simple act of recording the day's events focuses the mind, etches the memory deeper into the brain, and forces you to mull and think and reflect about the sights and sounds of our great, blue planet. Later, when you're back home, you can flip through your jottings and recall just how varied life on earth really is. And if you're feeling bitter and twisted about returning to work, just scroll down to the page where you wrote about the dodgy red snapper you ate in Kiribati.
J. Maarten Troost is the author of the new book HEADHUNTERS ON MY DOORSTEP.