Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days, twenty-four time zones, ten countries, five world religions, two passports, and one remarkable circumnavigation later... it feels good to be home.
In my year abroad I taught environmental science to children living in Mumbai's slums, heard rocket sirens go off in Jerusalem, lived in a forest hut in a Thai Buddhist monastery, picked avocados at dawn on an Israeli kibbutz, climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji and trekked in the Himalayas, was robbed, and realized I didn't need to go to law school.
It's no great insight to say that you learn a lot about yourself, taking a trip like this one. When you cast off all the familiar people, settings, and routines that keep your old identity in place, and simultaneously put yourself in wildly new environments, change happens. Unavoidable. Not always easy. Generally for the better.
Other and better writers have tackled that theme; I'll leave you to them. The point of this post is to share with you seven subtle but valuable bits of insight picked up during the past twelve months. These things aren't obvious and generally ran against my initial assumptions. If you're planning a similar trip abroad, these might save you some trouble. If you're not, they might (hopefully) whet the palate.
1: Good travel planning is a lot like skydiving.
When you skydive (recommended, by the way -- at least once), the ground starts off far away and quickly gets much, much closer. As such, while at first all you can see are big shapes and features (hills, mountains, fields), you quickly start making out roads... then houses... then trees... and finally, after landing, the grass. The closer you get to where you're going (in this case, the ground), the more and more detailed things get.
Same thing with travel planning. Keep your future plans as flexible as possible, but plan as much as you need to as things get closer. If you're traveling for a year, you don't need to know exactly where you'll be six months from now, or even what country. On the other hand, you'll be well-served by buying plane tickets at least two months early, so try and finalize your country plan by then. One month ahead, it makes sense to think about what cities you'll be passing through. With two weeks to go, start reading your guidebook and jotting down things to do.
This style of planning should keep you flexible (and therefore enjoying yourself and preserving spontaneity) while at the same time keeping your budget under control and keeping yourself out of the way of most of traveling's headaches.
2: Traveling, like shopping, is a sport. The champions do more for less.
In this globalized age, traveling is easier than ever (apologies for the awful cliche). Information about where to go, how to get there, and how to stay safe is available in abundance. While once the domain of the rugged and resourceful, international travel is now an option for people of virtually all abilities and inclinations. The tourism industry is booming around the world, with agencies popping up (especially in developing countries) to provide ever-increasing conveniences and services to foreigners... for a fee.
The mark of the skilled, resourceful, and resilient traveler in 2013 is no longer where they went and what they saw (as these experiences are now within reach of anyone with a credit card), but rather how cheaply they did it all. Anyone can lay down ten dollars for a taxi or tour bus to the temple. It is a tougher breed who will brave cryptic bus maps and strange languages to get there for $.25. The winners stretch their dollars.
3: Meeting people is destiny.
This point borders on Paulo Coelho-style metaphysics, so feel free to disregard it if that isn't your cup of tea (or mode of discourse, as the case may be).
I observed a strange phenomenon on the road: upon arrival to a new place, I would usually meet and connect with one or two new people relatively quickly. I assumed that this was because I was simply a gifted socialite, not because these people and I had something special in common. I would usually move on and continue to keep an eye out for new and interesting people, assuming they would keep showing up like the first ones had. Often, though, they didn't, and I would find myself stuck in the company of friendly strangers, rather than strange new friends, realizing that I had missed an opportunity for connection and adventure.
It started to seem (apologies for all the woo-woo) that arrival to a place drew specific people towards you -- people with whom you had relationship potential. You would come across them quickly (destiny?), and could either stick with them and see where things went, or move on and try your luck with the general population.
This didn't hold 100 percent of the time, of course, and interesting people would often pop up a week or month into any stop. But it often did hold -- don't underestimate the potential inherent in these seemingly random first encounters.
4: Markets and bargaining styles are different everywhere.
If you've done even a little traveling (especially to countries where bargaining is commonplace) you no doubt consider yourself a bit of an expert in the "art of the deal." You know the "rules:" counter-offer less than 50 percent of the asking price, pretend the product isn't that good, walk away and come back, etc.
In truth, though, markets and market cultures are different all over the world, and from market to market and street to street in even a single city. One vendor might expect you to counter-offer at 40 percent and act disdainfully, while another will assume you'll counter with 80 percent and act jovial. If you head in with a formulaic approach, you're setting yourself (and everyone) up for a frustrating time. Rules of thumb are valuable, of course, but they're no replacement for cultural sensitivity and perceptiveness. You are dealing, after all, with people. Good guidebooks really pay for themselves in this regard: they'll usually include a section that explains the cultural specifics and idiosyncrasies when it comes to bargaining.
There is one exception to this lesson, though: smiling never seems to be out of style.
5: Most people are basically the same.
95 percent of all the people everywhere have basically the same two desires: to have a decent life for themselves and their families, and to be treated with dignity.
That lovely humanist statement should be tempered with the observation that cultural, political, and material (wealth) factors will affect how these desires are expressed. A group of people who have been living in extreme conditions (states of war, hunger, or oppression) for many years will almost certainly be a bit more aggressive in their approach to things (and more likely to see you only as your money). People raised in positions of wealth and influence also tend to have a higher set of expectations for themselves, and tend not to be quite as satisfied with "just" the basics (it's worth looking at "western" culture and considering how, in a real sense, most people in the west fall in this category).
Most people you meet, however, are regular and decent and curious about you. While its important to be on your guard and keep your safety a top priority, this attitude can be taken to excess and become a real handicap. The most moving experiences you have while traveling will inevitably be the ones where you find a moment of connection with a local person--don't close yourself off to them.
6: Tourists can be a tourist attraction.
When I started traveling, I would avoid "tourists" and "tourist areas" like the plague. I, Daniel "Indiana Jones" Kronovet, was going to brave the big wide world using only my wits and advanced knowledge of boy scout knots. I wanted nothing to do with the gap-year boozehounds and and yuppie pre-packaged tourists. I would stay in remote parts of town far away from the tourist district and generally avoid them wherever I went, focusing entirely on the locals and the culture of the country I was passing through.
After a few months, however, I came to appreciate that your fellow foreigners are as rich and interesting a feature of traveling as the new countries you're all visiting. The tourist districts, while certainly "terraformed" and drained of all local color, are nonetheless unique and colorful intersections of nationality, life-stage, and opinion. The gap-year partier is as interesting a subject of anthropological inquiry as any native farmer, and the young European honeymooners are as fascinating a source of political opinion as any local newspaper.
Foreigners congregating abroad are phenomena, like the aurora borealis or the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire, and are as worthwhile and interesting a subject of exploration.
7: Ultimately and always, YMMV (your mileage may vary).
They say that when you go to India (or Nepal), you get sick. This is seen as an iron law of the universe, and as mandatory an entry requirement as the pre-arranged visa. All accounts seemed to point this way, and so after reading some basics about food safety, I arrived fully prepared to spend a week going through a South Asian trial-by-fire.
Except... it didn't happen. For three months straight, I ate and drank everything -- streetside samosas, palak paneer, fruit juices and yogurt from train station stalls, platters of daal bhat, the ever-suspect panipurri, even the tap water -- and kept on strolling. The only thing I steered clear of were unpeeled fruits and veggies.
What did this mean, other than I clearly have a velvet-lined adamantium stomach, and will soon be starring opposite Hugh Jackman in the next X-Men movie? It means that, while learning from the experiences of others is important (crucial, even), your experience will only be -- and can only be -- your own.
Knowledge has been, and always will be power, but realize: The world is constantly changing. You are constantly changing. What was true yesterday is already false, and tomorrow is nothing but a collective daydream. You are, of course, encouraged to read and prepare and plan, but retain some humility and some openness for what will come, and don't forget that life is only ever found in the present. Things will be more beautiful that way.