If you read my recent post 101 Ways Travel Changed Me, you’ll know that this month marks the third anniversary since I set off on an around the world trip that would change my life, career and home forever.
And what a trip it was.
However, every adventure has room for improvement, so, with the benefit of hindsight, here are 10 things I would have done differently on my around the world trip.
1. Taken a different camera
I bought a relatively expensive point and shoot camera for my trip, a Sony Cybershot DSC-TX5. It cost around $350 at the time and the inexperienced camera purchaser in me thought that was indicative of quality. It wasn’t. I picked up the camera mainly because it was supposedly shock-proof (i.e. it wouldn’t faint if it saw another traveller naked?!), dust-proof and waterproof. The first one broke within three months. The second one less than a year later. Apparently, it wasn’t Indiana Jo proof.
Breakage wasn’t the only problem. In focusing on the waterproof properties (I planned to spend a lot of time at the beach…and in bars), I neglected to consider zoom. One of the most important features I realised in hindsight was the ability to take incognito of the local people – something that is tricky with only a 4x zoom. Meanwhile, I took the camera underwater less than a handful of times (and with a firm traveller budget to stick to, I was super-careful not to spill a peso of beer!).
I now travel with a Canon PowerShot SX260HS. It comes with an impressive 20x optical zoom, which was the best I could find a) in Mexico after having broken my Sony for the final time and b) without hulking a DSLR around. Looking back at my early photographs, I wish I’d had the Canon all along.
2. Carried on going after month 12
Travel burn out hit me hard in month 9 of my trip. I’d been partying ’til dawn in the Thai islands for weeks and the Full Moon Party proved to be the final nail in my trip-zest coffin. All I wanted to do was go home.
However, after a period of rest and rejuvenation, my wanderlust came back with full force. I was 10 months into my trip and could have kept going for another 6 months easily…had I not been riddled with guilt for being on ‘holiday’ for so long.
I half committed to a longer trip by missing the last leg of my flight home, thus eeking out my 12-month trip for nearly 14-months. But, with self-imposed guilt weighing heavy, I headed home to sort out my life.
For the following months I languished in England with non-traveller’s remorse, not really achieving any more than if I’d stayed on the road. I’d under spent on my trip and had the budget to back up a few extra months away and in hindsight I wish I’d carried on going.
3. Worried less at the beginning
Will I find somewhere to stay?
Will it be safe?
Will I keep to my budget?
Will I meet people?
Will I be able to get from A to B?
Will I enjoy myself?
Will I be able to cross borders by land?
Will I be able to access money?
Do I have the right stuff?
Do I have enough stuff?
Do I have too much stuff?
Yes – to ALL of the above. The only time you are likely to worry about your trip is before you go. Once you’re on the road, you will see how easy everything is. (Sadly), we are not Christopher Columbus. As travellers today we are not charting new territory. There is an established backpacker route in most countries you’re likely to visit, which come complete with hostels, ATMs, restaurants, transport links, locals who are not homicidal maniacs and…yes, soap.
I wish I’d trusted in the process and spend all that pre-trip worry time pouring over my dream destinations.
Oh, and if you are second guessing whether you need to pack an item, the answer is probably no. Here is a list of the travel items I found essential.
4. Nailed Spanish in month-one
I spent eight months in Latin America during my round the world trip (and additional time there subsequently) yet I’m still not fluent in Spanish, which I find personally disappointing. I’m not a natural born linguist but if I’d made more effort in the first months to get the language nailed, I’ve no doubt I would have spent more time on my trip practising with locals in their lingo rather than speaking Gringo in hostels. My Spanish learning continues at a depressingly slow pace as a consequence.
5. Checked Facebook and emails less
From busy lawyer to bumming-around-backpacker, I quickly broke the habit of going to the office (not having a job, not being paid and being a continent away helped with that), but I didn’t give up my addiction to being online quite so quickly. Every day I checked my email – it was pure habit. There were no “someone’s going to end up in prison if you don’t answer this 5 minutes ago…it might be you,” messages in my in-box.
I was mostly picking through spam and as entertaining as it might have been to read the million ways I could extended my penis (?!) while sporting a new Rolex (only $39.99), it was a complete waste of my trip time. With no stimulating emails, I’d move to Facebook, another time waster. The reality is that the people at home were still there but while I was reading about their lives, I was missing out on enjoying my own. Setting a limit to my browsing time would have been a better option.
6. Blogged more
If you’re a blogger and you’re reading this, there is every likelihood that you share the same regret (unless you’re one of the diligent type that has a dedication and resolve I can only admire – please send tips, or a bottle of your focus if you have some spare).
My regret doesn’t come from not hitting high reader numbers (I’m pretty sure my parents and a small number of friends were my only readers during my trip). Rather, I started my blog as a trip journal and some time after Guatemala, that record stopped, less than six months in. The more I travelled, the more sporadic my posts became until I eventually lapped my blogs of my initial trip by an entire jaunt around the world a second time.
If I’m looking to point a finger, it extends towards Blogger. The platform was cumbersome for posting on slow internet, which made my blogging less of a pleasure and more of a chore. However, I point the finger at myself more so. Less time checking spam and hitting like on Facebook and I could have migrated my blog to WordPress sooner.
So many posts to catch up on, so many details not retained.
7. Kept up my postcards home
I was so diligent at the start, penning and sending postcards home to my friends and family but, much like my blog, the efforts tailed off within a few months. My mum kept my postcards as a memento for me and I now wish I had a full set as much for me as for the people who received them. I tried to reignite the routine on my second trip, but still have a bunch of half-written, un-posted cards from Mexico and, later, from Hawaii.
The process of sitting in a café and making the effort to share details of my trip on an individual basis was really soothing for me and a great way to connect with the folks back home. I vow to try harder on my next trip.
8. Changed bank before I left
HSBC: “Hello? Are you there?”
Me: “I’m on Skype…yes, the connection is patchy, but it’s going to have to do.”
HSBC: “Sorry, can you repeat that?”
Me: Sigh. “You’ve blocked my card. Again. I can’t access my money.”
HSBC: “Sorry…you’re breaking up…can you call back.”
I can actually count the number of time my UK bank, HSBC, tried to sabotage my trip while I was away – it was every time I crossed a border. I’d contacted them before I left to explain I was going on a horribly exciting trip and would be withdrawing money from random, as yet unknown, locations around the world. And they just didn’t get it.
No, I couldn’t fill in a form accounting for my upcoming whereabouts in the next six months. That was the point of my trip – I would discover as I went. I could nail it down to ‘somewhere between Quito and Mexico between September and May’ but that was barely good enough. Instead, I had to regularly update my account online with specific dates of my country changes.
Fair enough, you might say…if the system worked.
Having duly notified HSBC of my movements, they continued to freeze my account through fears of fraud. Most dangerously, when I crossed from Argentina to Brazil. With no Brazilian currency on me (ok, my fault, but I never exchange currency until I arrive) and desperately lost (small habit of mine), I wandered the streets for over an hour, unable to catch a taxi or even buy water because my damn bank had shut me down. When I finally spoke to them, they confessed they had received my notification that I’d be in Brazil and that, according to my attempted ATM withdrawal, I did, indeed, appear to be in Brazil…but they decided to freeze my account anyway. Just. In. Case.
Skype costs, frustrating conversations and wasted time, HSBC did not serve me well.
Note: lethargy keeps me with the same bank, but moving is definitely on my list. Considering it’s touted the world’s local bank, HSBC sucks for travellers.
9. Got more shots in front of iconic sites
Some people love being in front of a camera, but I’m not one of them. I rarely look at a shot of myself and think “I look good in that photo,” and I can proudly state that I have never taken a selfie (not least because my arms are way too short to capture anything other than my chin line – rarely a flattering angle).
The downside – my trip shots mainly feature buildings and plants. Dull, dull, dull – even for me to look back over! I was definitely better at capturing me in the moment at the beginning of my trip and have forced myself out of my camera-shyness over the few months, but many of the pictures of me during my trip were taken in a bar, when I was barely looking. I have relatively few stood in front of some of the most iconic spots I visited.
10. Not stressed about money so much
Worrying about money is a good mechanic for keeping spending in check, but I wish I’d worried a little less. I under spent on my trip by thousands of pounds and while I was pleased with my effort, I wish I’d spent less time engaged in a mental battle of ‘to spend, or not to spend’.
From excessive cost-benefit analyses over the difference between one hostel and another or first or second class bus, I challenged myself on cost more than I needed to. Ok, it was nothing more than annoying and a mental exercise I didn’t need, but it did have some impacts on my trip – I didn’t go paragliding because I’d spent more than I wanted that week, I didn’t take more surf lessons because they added to my travel bill and I could have found a better language school if I’d spent a bit more money. Overall I suspect I saved less than £300 ($500) by my internal deliberations and frugalness. Just over £1 a day all in. Not much in the grand scheme of things, and not when I was operating under budget.
All of that said, Hawaii, one of the most expensive locations in the world, was probably not the best place to practice my newly acquired approach to more liberal spending. Ouch.
So, that’s my list. How about you – is there anything you wish you’d done differently on your around the world trip?