editorial: the truth about backpacking europe (and why I will never do it again)
Over the past seven days I have disappointed a lot of people when I tell them about my recent trip to Europe.I realize that I could avoid this by lying, but instead I chose to tell the unfortunate truth, then witness as their eyes begin to shift, the awkward laugh and the shaky follow up question, “but there must have been SOMETHING you liked?”
The answer is no, or it’s somewhere between kind of and maybe.
By the eighth day home I was beginning to justify the trip; looking back from the safety of a memory where I could not feel the exhaustion and frustration, I began to think that it wasn’t so bad, maybe I had learned a lot, and after all I DID meet some nice people.
Then I realized that this is exactly what happens, and why soon-to-be travelers aren’t adequately prepared, both mentally and physically, for what it takes to make it out there without getting eaten alive.
So I push forward with what I vowed to say…
If you are thinking of traveling then read this post to the end, think it over, and still go, but go differently. And if you have already traveled then I expect you to leave a comment telling me how wrong I am and that traveling like totally changed you, man.
This is my story and your hippie mantras can’t save me now, the damage has been done.
From day one I found myself stuck in purgatory, between being a full blown dirty back packer and craving just a smidgeon of class (is a soap dispenser in the bathroom too much to ask for?).
While your friends will tell you to bring baby whips to clean yourself on those long bus rides, I am here to tell you that no amount of toilettes will be able to cleanse your soul from the debauchery you will bear witness.
When my travel companion Kate and I organized a low key Hookah night at a place down the road from our hostel in Barcelona, I decided to ask some girls from Ireland if they wanted to join. What they said next basically sums up my interaction with most females on the trip. “Oh sorry, we are just here to get shitfaced.”
This brings me to my first point.
Be clear about your intentions to travel
I saw a man pee in another man’s mouth. This happened because I was not clear about the reasons why I had decided to travel: food and culture. While pee fits in neither of my categories, it may for you if you want to drink and party. There is no shortage of pub-crawls, body shots, hostel parties, booze cruises, or one night stands, I assure you.
Before you leave you need to seriously ask yourself what you want to gain and what you can live with when you get home. You’re already carrying backpack; you don’t need the extra baggage.
Whatever your reason for traveling, make it clear.
Trust me when I say that your answer will either attract the kind of people who want the same, or they will think you’re lame and walk away. Good riddance silly British man from Athens, I think you suck too!
Your clear intentions are the difference between ending up at a classy restaurant eating souvlaki with Greeks, or stuck in a bus full of people who think farts are funny, watching a movie about bulls having sex and wearing a T-shirt that says, “rub with the balls.” I was not stoked.
In a land where not getting drugged, raped or robbed qualifies as a successful day, it’s important to mentally prepare yourself beforehand, and check yourself throughout.
You aren’t a turtle so get that thing off your back
The moment I considered donating my spleen to the black market for a suitcase on wheels was the moment I knew I had made a mistake.
I like to consider myself to be a fairly happy person. Put a heavy bag on my back and tell me I need to walk 45 minutes to my hostel in the blistering heat in a city I don’t know (Venice) surrounded by hundreds of tourists and street vendors shoving fake Prada in my face and you will get a very inconsiderate and sweaty shell of a human void of all personality, and you better have a room available when I get there, so help me God.
You want to backpack? Sure. But seriously consider what it is that you are about to do, and that you aren’t just doing it because you think that’s the only way to get around.
If someone would have just said, “why not take a modest suitcase instead?” I would have saved myself many sore muscles. There was no terrain I encountered where a little luggage on wheels would not suffice.
I’m not kidding when I say that before you decide to gallivant around Europe with images of you looking all cute with your ponytail and your bag, test it out at home.
Stuff that sack full of clothes and carry it around for a bit, maybe walk around the block and really become accustomed to the idea that your pony tail will actually be a sad sweaty bun, and no one looks cute as an angry turtle.
Don't have expectations, you will only be disappointed
I thought that when I landed in Europe, I would be whisked away by lifelong travelers who would convince me not to shave my legs, take me to some hidden beach without another tourist in sight, where we would talk about philosophy around a fire, feel small under the stars and smoke until the sun rose, with our arms around one another singing “We Are the Champions,” or something like that.
Prepare yourself for every road to be congested with tourism and cheap trinkets, clustered beaches and cigarette butts, the Coliseum full of sweaty white people complaining of sunburns, the Parthenon roped off and under construction, the path in Cinque Terre that you want to hike closed off, and someone convincing you that “it’s really easy to get to Italy from here,” except that 300 euro later it’s not. And no sir, I do NOT want to buy your pig’s head nor would I know what to do with it.
If you recognize that these unexpected pitfalls are possible, then you will handle them much better when they come. Again and again.
It was only once Kate and I decided to “go with the flow,” which meant not booking our hostel ahead of time, no longer taking advice from other people, and throwing out every idea we had about the way things were supposed to be, that traveling became much scarier, but also a lot less disappointing.
These are my stories and you can't have them
What happened to someone else was a result of a bunch of tiny decisions they made that led them to that moment. Boom.
My friend told me tales of jungle parties and cliff jumping, but those were HER stories, and once I stopped trying to find them for myself I was able to start making my own. A matter of fact, the best moments came when I stopped looking for them, and instead let the world carry me like a wave to shore.
Kate and I ended up having an incredible night in Athens because we got lost, wandered into a café and ordered double gin and tonics instead of herbal tea.
One night in Rome our pasta dinner was made by an ex hit man for the mafia who was released from jail each night to cook at the family restaurant (bless the Italians). This only happened because we met a local with a car and a kind heart.
I will not tell you that my trip was made up entirely of those good moments, but I will tell you that they were made better after all the shit I had to go through to get them.
The world is full of strangers and they are all in Europe
Everyone is a tourist, except for you. Going to popular destinations means you get to see famous monuments and people will nod in awe when you talk about the places you went, but it also means that everyone else is going there too.
It’s important to remember that during high season (July and August) it is near impossible to escape the throngs of tourists, get a photo without a zillion heads or find a slice of beach that you can call your own.
If you want to be alone, you have to go to the places that no one else wants to go, or have heard of.
Take the small village of Greve de Chianti in Tuscany for instance. My travel buddy and I had a system where we would arrive in a new city, find a coffee shop with WIFI and Google hostels and things to do in the area.
When we got to Florence however, it looked like just another city, and so we decided to take a chance, and get on an hour-long bus to the middle of nowhere. Our only knowledge was that it was the region that produced my favorite wine, and sometimes that’s all it should take.
We were the only two to get off at that bus stop. A good sign! What followed was the best four days of the entire trip, and all because we made the choice to go where no one was going and not be held back by the fear of the real unknown.
NO I didn’t go to Santorini like everyone else, and I don’t care that you “can’t believe I came all this way” and didn’t visit the Vatican.
I drank wine with an old man on his vineyard while eating boar meat and telling tales of love. You can’t find that on a brochure.
The difference between a tourist and a traveler is a shower
When dirty talk becomes telling your boyfriend that you haven’t showered in three days because you’re stuck on a bus, it’s time to reevaluate your choices. Cleanliness can no longer be a priority when survival is.
Some mornings we would wake up with no idea where we were sleeping next, and honestly, it’s impossible to feel clean when you are always sweaty. So why bother right?
My advice is to do your best with what is available to you, but just know deep down in your dirty soul that your next good shower comes when you get home. If you can handle that, than you're already halfway to becoming one of them.
Most who wander DO actually seem quite lost
Wasting a precious day being hung-over is not getting you closer to discovering who you are.
Eavesdrop as often as possible, because overhearing conversations on purpose is a great way to measure what you want and don’t want.
Strangers seem to speak the loudest, and if you are lucky enough they will do it near you, which will offer a glimpse into places you may or may not want to go, and who you may or may not want to hang out with.
For instance, “I have slept with way too many people on this trip so far” is a classic that I heard on the bus ride from Dubrovnik to Split.
As was, “I hate my life back home.” Or, “I have been traveling for the past year because I don’t want to have to get a real job.”
Am I being judgmental? Of course I am. And I will not apologize for it, because these are real conversations I overheard and real people that I avoided.
Successful navigation is one part instinct, one part research and one part learning from other people’s ignorance.
If you treat traveling like like a race, you won’t win
I wish I had spent more time in fewer places, opposed to thinking that I had to get to as many locations as I possibly could. This strategy resulted in never feeling settled (which may appeal to some travelers) but for me, each location suffered because I was constantly worn down.
I suggest staying FOUR nights in each place.
But that’s almost a whole week when there is so much to see, you say.
Settle your wild heart tiny traveler and know that one of those days will be completely occupied by getting there, finding a place and adjusting to your new surroundings. If it’s the difference between, say, Greece to Croatia, then you are also dealing with an entirely new language.
By going fewer places, you will actually see more.
Overall, I see traveling as a series of moments, some of them good and most simply a cluster of confusion, stress and uncertainty that you will do your best to wander through with a smile.
Travellers are like extremely skilled surgeons with the ability to cut out a bad moment, and sew together all the good ones to make the whole ordeal look much more seamless.
But that’s not the truth.
Traveling is a grueling marathon of tiresome planning not for the faint of heart. When you bring home tales of all the awesome parties you went to and the crazy cool people you met, don’t leave out the part where you got stranded on an island and had to sleep in an abandoned bus all night, witnessed a grown man poo his white pants, slept in a leaky tent, or narrowly avoided death in a story that will only ever be referred to as “The Dirty Sangria Incident.”
I am not so much against traveling as I am against the idea that it’s some sort of checkpoint in growing up. I had this idea that it was something I needed to do, like if I didn’t travel than I’ve only “turned one page in the book of life” or some stupid quote along those lines.
There is no doubt that traveling will change you, challenge you and open your eyes. Yes, the world does begin to feel smaller, and some moments, places and people will blow your mind, while other moments will make you feel just like everybody else, or worse, like you're wasting your time.
If there is one thing I have realized (here it comes) it’s that it’s more liberating to just do what makes you happy. It's the most expensive lesson I have ever learned, but maybe, just maybe, it was worth it.
If staying home and drinking a glass of wine on a Friday night in your hometown makes you happy, do it.
If laying your roots down and starting a family makes you happy, who is right to tell you that you’re missing out?
If it’s traveling you want, then go!
In whatever you choose to do, be brave, be tolerant, and know that it is only by preparing for the worst that you can learn to appreciate the unexpected breaks life will hand you.
There is a whole world to discover, and sometimes it can be found right where you are.