Last Updated on: 5th September 2023, 04:50 am
More than three years of full-time travel has taught us a few things. I’m happy to say they are mostly positive. We’ve learned about safety, other cultures and people, and ourselves. Here are fourteen things full-time travel has taught us.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT SAFETY
1. Take Warnings With a Grain of Salt
As U.S. citizens, we sometimes research information about countries we are considering visiting on the U.S. Department of State website. When reading the warnings, it is easy to walk away feeling that the world is a dangerous place.
We have found the best way to get a balanced view of the safety of a place is to check the Department of State website, Google the heck out of potential destinations, and talk with fellow travelers.
Of course, there are countries, cities, and neighborhoods you should avoid. But it really isn’t that scary out there.
As we were preparing to leave the U.S. and head to Europe, several people mentioned the threat of terrorist attacks. My response to this was two-fold:
1. Europe may have more terrorist attacks, but they also have fewer mass shootings.
2. The odds of anyone being a victim of either of these are negligible.
Information from the Cato Institute discusses how unlikely it is for someone to die in a terrorist attack. We are talking about odds of 1 in several million. Not even worth thinking about, in my opinion. If you want to worry about something, worry about auto accidents. You are much more likely to die that way.
Steve had one scary incident during a private ATV tour in Jaco, Costa Rica. The guide’s quick thinking kept them safe. While on an isolated trail the guide noticed a man with a pipe up ahead on a hill. Presumably, he wanted to rob Steve and the guide by throwing the pipe through the spokes of the quide’s motorcycle. The guide signalled Steve and they gunned it, passing the would-be robber sooner than he expected.
2. Unless They’re About Pickpockets
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously!
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket, it would be safe.
During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.
It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First, one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing, another woman bumped him on the other side. They jumped off the car as the doors were closing, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.
Fortunately, his passport was found, and our credit card company denied the $900 charge the thieves attempted.
You can read more about that experience, including our difficulty finding an open police station in “Pickpocketed in Barcelona.”
3. The Greatest Danger is Ourselves
We have had several experiences that either led to injuries or could have. All were our fault and had nothing to do with the safety of the places we were in.
If Steve hadn’t been paying attention while we were on a tour bus in Quito, Ecuador, I would probably not be here writing this. We were on the upper level, and I was facing the back, taking photos. I was unaware that we were about to go under a low overpass. We were going fast enough that the impact would have almost certainly killed me.
I have fallen several times (twice on the same day) because I was busy gawking at the scenery and did not watch where I was going. One time I fell inside a church with a loud smack because I was marveling at the ceiling and did not see the leg of a bench in my path.
I’ve also had two e-scooter accidents that you can read about in “Beware the E-Scooters.” Steve had a near miss while he was demonstrating a moped to me, and he inadvertently took off onto a busy street sans helmet.
So my advice is to avoid the dangerous places, enjoy all the others, and for God’s sake, stay seated on the tour bus.
4. We Are Going to Look Like Tourists
Many articles about tourist safety tell you to try not to look like a tourist. I think this is ridiculous advice because you are going to look like a tourist. The way you look, sound, and walk all give clues that you are not a native.
Not only can people peg you for a tourist, but they can do it quickly. I can’t count the number of times Steve and I have walked into a restaurant and been handed a menu in English before we opened our mouths. Store clerks and museum personnel have spoken to us in English before we said a word.
So we will continue to walk down unfamiliar streets with our camera ready, taking in all the new sights and desperately looking for street signs because most people aren’t a threat, and it’s what we do.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE
5. Most People Are Nice
Since we started traveling, we have been amazed at how friendly and helpful most people are. And even when they aren’t initially, they usually come around.
Steve and I noticed an interesting phenomenon in South America. When waiters greeted us in restaurants and saw that we did not speak the language, they sometimes had a little attitude. Nothing nasty, but we got the feeling that they were thinking, “Oh brother, I have to deal with these foreigners.”
As always, we did our best to be gracious and modest, used the local language as much as possible, and said thank you frequently (also in the local language). Quite often, we left these restaurants with smiles from staff and sometimes even handshakes and air kisses.
This has also happened with other interactions like buying bus tickets. Humility, patience, and gratitude are the keys to receiving great customer service.
6. People in Other Countries Don’t Hate Americans (or America)
Throughout my life, I had heard about how the rest of the world disliked people from the United States and referred to us as Ugly Americans. While preparing for a life of full-time travel, I wondered: would we face animosity overseas?
Even with this uncertainty, I vowed never to hide where I am from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.
Since 2018, Steve and I have visited fourteen countries in Europe and Latin America. We never felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. Just the opposite. Many people seemed delighted when they heard we were from the U.S. and either shared their wonderful memories of visits there or expressed a desire to visit. That doesn’t mean that some people don’t have negative feelings, but if they do, they either avoid us or keep their feelings to themselves.
My travel experiences have led me to ask “Is the Ugly American Dead?”
And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American; I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OTHER CULTURES
7. There Will Be Unpleasant Things You Have No Control Over
The streets smell of urine (Paris).
Nose picking is more prevalent than we are used to (Western Europe and South America).
Protests pop up regularly (Buenos Aires).
An apartment that advertises hot water may only have it in the shower (our apartment in the Galapagos Islands).
We all know that travel sometimes means having to deal with unpleasant or inconvenient situations.
Our worst experience during these last two years was being delayed for 16 hours because of a protest. We were on a bus tour in Southern Peru when this happened. We were luckier than many people on our bus because we would be spending several days in the next town before heading to Machu Picchu. Many people on the bus missed some highly anticipated and costly experiences. I have shared the details in “Stranded on the Road in Peru.”
The best thing you can do is realize that you have no control over these events, although travel insurance and credit card benefits may ease some of the financial pain.
Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes a darn good story.
8. Using A New Language Will Feel Awkward
It’s one thing to sit at home going through your Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. It’s quite another to go out and speak that language to a native speaker.
Some things start to come naturally, like please and thank you. But I often find myself missing a few words to complete a sentence.
One trick is to use an online translator to learn the sentence before you start a transaction. Sometimes you will have to resort to using the online translator as you are completing the transaction. That’s OK too.
We have found everyone to be very patient while communicating with us. If anything, I am the one who tends to get impatient when I say a simple sentence, am confident that I am using the right words and a reasonable approximation of the pronunciation, and I am not understood. UGH. I have to try very hard to hide my frustration.
9. Stores and Restaurants Aren’t Always Open at “Normal” Times
The first city we visited was Barcelona. We arrived on a Sunday morning. After we got settled into our Airbnb, we went looking for a restaurant and grocery store. As we passed place after closed up place, we became concerned that we would not find food. “We’re going to starve to death,” we cried.
We eventually found a small store that was open so we could at least get the basics. That experience led to one of our travel rules: never go to a new city on a Sunday.
It is not uncommon for restaurants in Latin America to close from mid-afternoon until 8 or 9 p.m. when they open for dinner. We found this to be widespread in Cordoba, Argentina. We adapted by eating lunch at the restaurants we were interested in and having a light dinner at home.
When we visited the tiny hamlet of La Cumbrecita in Argentina, we stayed at a hotel that provided dinner. We were not thrilled when we checked in and were told that dinner would be served at 9 p.m. Even so, we accepted this and were quite amused when at 9 on the dot, a cowbell was rung to let the guests know that dinner was now served.
10. Food Portions Are Big Everywhere
Almost every article I have read about things foreigners find strange in the U.S. mentions our portion sizes. It makes me think that the authors of these articles have never eaten a meal in a foreign country.
Every place we have visited has served large portions. They may not use the term ‘supersize,” but the result is the same. This article from the Guardian talks about the growth in portion size and the difficulty humans have with portion control.
11. Tipping Customs Vary
You get the bill at the first restaurant you’re visiting in a new city. Now, what about the tip?
A quick Google search can tell you if it is customary to tip and how much. You can also gather information about tipping other service providers like taxi drivers.
Beware that in some countries, it is common to add the tip to the bill. It may be labeled service charge (propina in Spanish). You can refuse to pay it but probably wouldn’t unless the service was abysmal.
We ate at one restaurant in Medellin where our waiter disappeared, and it took 45 minutes to get our food. We were not happy and would not have paid the propina on the bill, but the manager gave us a piece of flan as compensation, so we called it even.
During our travels in Europe and Latin America, we did not eat in any restaurants that would allow us to add the tip to our credit card payment. Therefore, it is wise to carry small bills or coins in the local currency.
WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT OURSELVES
12. Mistakes Will Happen
No matter how careful you are, you will make mistakes. I talk about some of the mistakes we’ve made while traveling in “Oops! Did We Do That? Our Biggest Travel Mistakes.”
Our most costly mistake was while traveling from Paris to London. My failure to thoroughly read our train tickets cost us $230. However, there were other times when we were saved from more costly mistakes by sheer luck and the kindness of others.
13. Less Really is More
The most sure-fire way to get control of all your stuff is to sell (almost) everything and adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
That pile of papers on your desk that never seems to get smaller? It will be diminished to almost nothing when you cull it every time you change locations (about once a month for us).
The disorganized closet with items you forgot you own? It is easy to keep track of what you have when it all fits into a suitcase or backpack. The downside is that you will be wearing the same things over and over and over ……
Do you love housework and yard work? Me either. It’s easy to keep things neat and organized when you stay in a small apartment. Total cleaning time: less than one hour. Time spent on yard work: zero hours because – no yard.
Looking back over how much time, money, and effort went into maintaining a suburban lifestyle, I wish we had downsized decades ago.
Do I miss buying cool clothes and awesome shoes? Yes, but not as much as you might think. And I get to play dress-up when we return to the U.S.
14. Adaptability and Flexibility Are Indispensable
No apartment will have everything you are used to, no Airbnb host can anticipate your every need, and stores won’t necessarily carry your favorite products and brands. You will learn to make do on the road.
In every city we visit, we end up buying something we need to make our lives easier. We have bought wheeled shopping carts, plastic pitchers, and non-slip shower mats, to name a few. We don’t mind leaving these things behind because they are inexpensive.
These lessons can be summed up quite succinctly:
Most places are safe.
Most people are nice.
You will screw up.
Other people will screw things up for you.
You will discover another side of yourself.
And most importantly, you will cherish all your experiences!
Feature photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash.com