It’s been 5 years to the day since I strapped on my shiny new backpack (pink, of course) and jumped on the tube to London Heathrow to meet my boyfriend Simon and catch our flight to Lima, Peru. I can still remember how excited, nervous, terrified and thrilled I was to finally be going on my big around the world adventure.
I’d been planning this day and this trip for nearly three years. Travel was the only thing I thought, read and talked about, and I’m sure I drove at least a few of my friends just a little crazy.
But what was supposed to be a one-year around the world trip ended up becoming my life and full-time lifestyle. I could probably reminisce and share stories and anecdotes for pages and pages, but instead I want to share some of the travel lessons I learned in the last 5 years, both as a backpacker and as a digital nomad.
So here we go, here are my 5 Lessons from 5 Years of Travelling:
1. Nothing goes the way you planned
Both in travel and in life, we tend to imagine things a certain way. We plan, organise and prepare to make sure everything is just right. #perfectionism
I planned out my around-the-world-trip for nearly three years, so you can be sure I knew exactly what I wanted to do, see and experience. Thankfully this was pre-Instagram days (well, I was a little late to the ‘gram game) or I would have had even more skewed visions of what my trip should look like.
Do you know the quote ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans’? Well that applies to travel just the same.
In three years of dreaming and planning, I never imagined that I would hike the Inca trail for four days with both a sprained ankle and severe food poisoning. But that’s exactly what happened.
Worst of all, on the final day of the hike, when were due to arrive at Machu Picchu, the heavens opened up and we got drenched as we’ve never been drenched before. By the time we arrived at the sun gate (the spot where every Instagrammer worth her Himalayan salt takes that iconic Machu Picchu shot) the site was completely covered in clouds and we could see nada.
Was I sad, gutted, annoyed, frustrated and just a little angry? Hell yes! But did it ruin our experience and memories? Absolutely not.
Because anyone can just go to Machu Picchu on a train and enjoy that view, but I earned it.
Strapping my ankle into its brace every morning, braving the squat toilet situation along the trail (I’ll spare you the graphic details), and shivering my way around one of the 8 modern wonders of the world was NOT how I imagined it, but it’s my own unique experience and I’ll cherish those memories and stories forever.
So don’t be too annoyed when things go differently in your travels (or business, life, love…) than you expect, it’s all part of the fun. Just enjoy the ride.
2. It’s the people that matter and that you remember
Before I went on my trip, I was daydreaming of iconic sights like Chichen Itza, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course, Machu Picchu. I was imagining feeling humbled and inspired by these views and, truth be told, there’s nothing quite like sitting on the side of the Grand Canyon and gazing across to the other side.
But what stays in your memory more than any sight or any tourist attraction are the people you meet along the journey.
I spent some of my best travel days in Panamanian suburbs, in remote jungle lodges and on dilapidated Nicaraguan boats. What made these days so special were the people I shared them with.
It didn’t matter if we were sleeping in hammocks for $3 a night or living on hostel pancakes because they were free, because the company was, just like a Mastercard ad, priceless.
But what surprised me more than anything is how easy it is to form deep and meaningful friendships with people you’ve just met a week, a day or even a few hours earlier.
Travel strips away all the bravado, the pretence and the walls we build up around ourselves.
You get thrown into situations where you can’t help but show your true colours, and the true travel friends you make will accept and love you for it because you shared these precious memories together.
Wow, this got a bit deep.
So let me just say, there’s nothing quite like spending an hour in total darkness on a chicken bus stuffed so full to the brim with people, luggage and actual chickens, that even the locals find it hilarious, and Reggaeton blasting so loud you can’t hear yourself think, while careening down windy Guatemalan dirt roads and swigging whisky from a hip flask to stop the oncoming panic attack.
Alone it would have been a nightmare; with friends it was already a legendary travel story 10 minutes after it happened that has bonded us together for life.
That’s also exactly why I created the DNG Inner Circle: to give us a place to find others who ‘get it’ and to be able to take our global friends with us everywhere we go!
We have coworking sessions, goal setting, book club, accountability buddies and so much more to make that amazing travel life even more amazing with our on-the-go community!
3. There’s no right or wrong way to travel (well kinda)
Let me give you an example. When we first started backpacking I’d read every budget travel blog and book I could find and I’d calculated our travel budget down to the dollar. I knew exactly how much we’d be spending every day in every country on accommodation, food, fun, transport, even miscellaneous (how is that even possible?). I even had the budget tracker app to stay on top of it all.
The only problem was, we didn’t stick to our budget at all.
Well kind of.
We did well on some days, but then crazy overspent on other days. In general, we were always around 10–20% over budget.
I was frustrated and annoyed with myself for months that we couldn’t stick to our budget. Until one day I realised that what we were spending was our budget. I had based my calculations and estimations on other people’s experiences and comfort levels.
Most of these people were backpackers in their early 20s who preferred to spend $3 on a 24-bed dorm room so they could splurge on a box of wine that night and party.
I, on the other hand, had just turned 30 and was more interested in eating my way around the world, visiting incredibly sights, going on hikes and even buying a few souvenirs.
I also value safety, so I’ll usually pay for the nicer safer bus rather than the cheap rickety version. Which is totally fine because that’s my travel style, nobody else’s.
As the years passed and we transitioned from backpackers to working-holidayers to digital nomads; so did our travel style. As nostalgic as I sometimes am for the good old days we spent making friends in hostel kitchens, I’d hate to stay in a cheap hostel now that I run my own business and need to actually work.
I’m also not embarrassed anymore to switch my trusty old backpack (yep, that pink one) for a shiny new hardshell suitcase with wheels.
I guess what I’m trying to say with my budget story is, your travel style will evolve over time, and there really isn’t one right or wrong way to travel; this is also quite similar to my belief that there isn’t a right or wrong way to be a digital nomad.
The only exception to that is, of course, to not be a touristy douchebag who disrespects cultures, the environment or local people. But that should go without saying, right?
Apart from that, there really is no one-size-fits-all travel style. So, bring your own pillow if it makes you happy, splurge on lounge access, or stay in a swanky Airbnb. But equally feel free to
4. Travel changes you
Whether you like it or not, travel will inevitably change you in one way or another, and probably in lots of ways. And I don’t mean that you’ll get a tan, a funky hair wrap and start wearing tie-dye tops and Thai fisherman trousers, though this can even to happen to the best of us.
The change will be much deeper and not quite as reversible as a temporary hippie wardrobe.
I could fill the pages of whole books about this topic, but here are just a couple of ways in which travel has changed me.
I’m incredibly impatient. Take it from someone who once got second-degree burns on her tongue from melted cheese because she’s too impatient to wait for her toastie to cool down (ok, this might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the gist).
However, travel teaches patience, even if it takes an eternity to sink in (#tooimpatientolearnpatience). I can now happily spend 23 hours on a bus, sleeping, reading, staring out the window, knowing I’ll get there when I get there. Travel teaches you to enjoy the ride. Literally.
Travel makes you adaptable. We recently did some cat-sitting for friends who went on a mini honeymoon for a week. We arrived at their house, unpacked our essentials, connected to the wifi and we felt right at home. I think most people would find it incredibly awkward to settle into a new place within minutes, it might even take them weeks. So, it’s kind of nice to be able to feel at home almost anywhere pretty much instantly.
And while we’re on the topic of home…
5. Home will never be the same again
Just as you will never be the same again having travelled for an extended time in your life, so will the concept of home. I’ve not yet met a traveller who didn’t struggle upon returning to their hometown after a long time away.
Reverse culture shock is a thing,
It’s not that it isn’t wonderful to return home, spend time with family, catch up with friends and eat all your favourite foods. It definitely is, especially if you’re lucky enough to call a city as nice as Munich home, as I do.
But there’s also that slight distance that you feel when your friends fill you in about all the things that happened since you left and that you missed out on. And there’s also that nagging feeling that nobody really understands what you’ve experienced since you’ve left, or maybe even cares.
They probably won’t understand how different you feel. And not in a douchey ‘I found myself’ way, but in a way that is almost impossible to describe – as if you’ve just moved on from your old life a little bit.
It took me years to understand that it’s ok to not feel 100% at home in my old hometown anymore. I still love it and love spending time there with my friends. But I also have other cities now where I feel at home and have travel family spread around the world.
As writer Miriam Adeney once said:
“You will never be completely at home again because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
If you also love yourself a good travel inspiration quote, check out some of my other
Bonus Lesson: The world isn’t such a scary place after all
When I found out that I was going on a three-month placement to South Africa during the second year of my PhD, two things happened. First, I was ecstatic and incredibly excited for this opportunity. Second, I had to listen to every single person I knew and met tell me how I would definitely get killed/robbed/raped/taken
It’s not like I wasn’t a little nervous myself already, I mean this was the first time I’d gone that far by myself and for so long. But listening to all the horror stories of people who, I should point out, had never been to South Africa themselves, but had an dentist/second cousin twice/old plumber who’d been there and was nearly killed/robbed/raped/murdered made this 5-foot 3-inch 20-something year old girl a little nervous to say the least.
The news and magazines are filled with horror stories of kidnappings, giant man-eating spiders, tropical viruses and terrorism, of course, to make you want to crawl under your duvet and never leave the house. But once you step foot into the real world you’ll see it really isn’t such a scary place after all.
Naturally, nobody wants you to know that because it’ll mean you might spend your hard earned dollars in a different country or maybe even get ideas that the way we live in the Western world isn’t the only way or not even the best way to live.
What I learned from over 5 years of travelling across 6 continents is that people are kind. So much kinder than we’re told at home. In fact, speaking to strangers isn’t only safe but it’s the only way you’ll really learn about a country.
Like that time our bus arrived with a 7-hour delay in Guatemala city at 2 am and we had no hostel booked. We had made friends with a local lady on the bus who was being picked up at the bus stop by her husband.
The two of them didn’t only drive me, my boyfriend and our friend to a safe hotel they knew, they woke up the doorman to help us check in and even paid for half our room because they sensed this was a little bit out of our usual $10 a night dorm room price class. This was just a few days before Christmas and we remember our saviour couple fondly as Maria y Jose because (a) we forgot their real names, and (b) this was clearly a Christmas miracle, right?
Actually no, it’s not that uncommon at all. In fact, I’ve heard similar stories of the kindness of strangers from many travellers.
The majority of people in the world are good. As one of my travel friends says: ‘Remember that this place you’re scared of is home to someone’.
So, there you go, 5 lessons plus 1 bonus lesson that I’ve learned in the past 5 years. To be honest, I found it difficult to write this post because I feel like I have 10 times as much to share, and many more meaningful lessons, but it’s impossible for me to put them into words.
So let’s just hope I’ll be more eloquent after the next five years! Here’s to new adventures!