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Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve managed to keep myself alive for a full 26 years now. If you ask me, that’s one heck of an achievement – especially when you factor in my history with plants and/or goldfish. Prime example: I bought a coriander plant the other day in a half-assed attempt at making my Indian cooking taste more ‘authentic’. I affectionately named him Colin, cradled him in my arms all the way home, yet he was basically half-dead by the time he landed on my windowsill. It turns out that wind is not good for coriander plants so now he whimsically leans to the left just like my old pet dog Preston did after he got hit by a car.
Apparently he’s still alive (so I’ve been told – the plant, not the dog) but I’m not really holding out much hope of him reaching his 1 month milestone. RIP in advance, Colin, my friend.
Anyway, sweeping all talk of coriander and dead dogs aside, it’s my birthday! Happy birthday, me! Today (or tomorrow, if we’re going to be specific as, ya know, I was born in GMT) I turn 26 years old, which means I’m just 2 years shy of reaching full life expectancy of a giraffe in captivity and am also exactly twice the age of the girl I saw celebrating her 13th birthday in Burger Fuel last week.
Two years ago, when I was seeing in my 24th birthday alone in my favourite hotel room in Thrissur, India, I wrote this not very serious post about 24 lessons I’d learnt in my first 24 years on Earth. Then last year, when I was seeing in my 25th birthday alone in my bed in Cardiff, I wrote this slightly rambling post about time going too fast. It’s sort of become an accidental tradition to write something reflective on my birthday, so to keep that going I thought I’d combine my new age (26, yelp) with my favourite thing and the one main focus of my life for the past 8 years (travel) and put a figurative pen to paper with this post, 26 things travel has taught me.
26 Things Travel Has Taught Me
1. Taxi drivers are the original Secret Keepers
No matter where you are in the world, the local taxi drivers know everything! Looking for an off the grid hole-in-the-wall for lunch? Ask your taxi driver. Want to know the best neighbourhood for street art? Ask your taxi driver. Taxi drivers are an absolute wealth of local and international knowledge, and are often more useful than a guide book! Post-Brexit I actually had a really interesting political discussion about the state of UK politics with a Peruvian taxi driver, and he ended up loving the chat so much he rounded the fare down!
2. Money doesn’t make the world go round, kindess does.
One simple act of kindness can go a lot further than even £1,000,000 if gone about the right way. Loving thy neighbours is important, but so is loving thy strangers. Donating your small change, picking up a hitch-hiker, simply lending an ear to someone who needs it… all tiny little acts that really do make the world a better place.
3. Being lonely can be an exceptional healing method
This is getting deeper than the holler now, but bear with. Solo travel, or just trotting off on your own for a little while and not necessarily travelling, can be an immensely powerful thing. It has more healing qualities than the Ganges on a Holy Day. Less than one month after my mother passed away I swanned off to the Balkans for 3 weeks and I honestly believe that those 3 weeks helped speed up the grieving process tenfold, and I would not have coped half as well as I have been if I’d stayed at home.
4. Everywhere looks the same
Hear me out on this one. In Cardiff there’s a flyover (Gabalfa Flyover, for anyone who knows Cardiff well) and every time my bus goes over that flyover, and I look down at the little row of shops and takeaways on the left, I get flashbacks to being in the middle of Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. The layout is the same, and if you substitue a piano tuners for a Subway then you could absolutely be looking at the same place! I get the same “comparison flashbacks” everywhere I go – here in New Zealand, winding throught he remote country roads I keep thinking I could be in Goa, India. There’s also a lot of exclamations of “THIS COULD BE WALES” going on, but that’s because of the sheep.
5. There is more to food than sweet and spicy
One of the not really very funny jokes that I repeatedly tell my Indian friends when I can’t quite cope with their level of blow-your-face-off spice is that British people don’t have tastebuds. And although that’s not a scientifically accurate statement, it’s sort of true. Traditional British food doesn’t really have much flavour, and I don’t think we really use much herbs or spices beyond salt and occasionally black pepper, if we’re feeling feisty. Travelling the world – especially India and South America – has truly opened my tastebuds and my mind to so many different tastes and flavours I didn’t even know existed!
6. Travelling solo isn’t all that scary, and you probably won’t be kidnapped or raped
If you’re female and in the process of planning your first or even second or third solo trip abroad, the chances are you’ve already heard some variation of “Isn’t that dangerous?! What if you get kidnapped/raped/attacked/all of the above?” about 35 times already. If I had 50p for every time somebody said something similar to me over the years, I’d own my own boat by now. The funny thing is, despite all of the helpful ‘warnings’ from friends and relatives, I was kidnapped and I was sexually assaulted, neither of which was brought on by anything other than some shitty luck. Odds are you’ll be absolutely fine, and your solo travel experience will only be solo for like, the first day, before you meet a whole ton of new friends. It’s not scary, it’s empowering.
7. My accent is fucking awesome
Excuse my language, but it was a little bit essential to really put my point across. The Welsh accent (specifically the South, wink wink) is sing-song beautiful and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise. I always thought I sounded like an uneducated farmer, but from the first Canadian I ever met in Peru asking me to talk him to sleep, to the Nepali orphans who asked me to sing songs they couldn’t understand just because they liked the sound, to my Italian colleague who just really loves the way I say potato, I’ve repeatedly been told how beautiful my accent is. And I’m finally accepting it.
8. First-language English speakers can be unapologetically ignorant, and it stinks
Nothing winds me up more than being in a different country and hearing a fellow first-language English speaker raising their voice and speaking SLOOOOOWLY and condescendingly at the waiting staff. I mean, come on Sandra, nobody’s expecting you to gain full fluency in Russian three days before your cruise to St Petersburg, but don’t expect the rest of the world to bend over backwards to try to understand you.
9. Some of your best friends can be made “on the road”
Fun fact for you all: I didn’t make a single friend at University in Wales. Yep, despite spending 3 years living and studying with the same people, there’s not one person I would look back at and consider a friend. My Erasmus Year Abroad, however, is a completely different story! The two best friends I made, and stuck with during my time living in Forli, Italy, I’m still in touch with now and just know will be friends for life. The same can be said for a lot of the guys I met in India, and my best gal pal from Colombia. The bonds you make abroad, more often than not when you’re both in the same “Away From Home” boat, can be so strong. Your friendships builds faster, stronger and more unbreakable than most ‘at home’ friendships.
10. Not everyone is your friend
On the contrary to the previous note, no matter where you go, there will be people who see an international tourist as nothing but a walking, talking bag of money. Street vendors will try and rip you off, taxi drivers will charge you too much, people will lie to you to get money. Unfortunately this is part and parcel of travel, and something even the savviest of travellers will experience at some point in their lives.
11. Fear is natural, but you shouldn’t let it stop you
If you’re sat teetering on the edge of a plane, about to plunge to the ground from 35,000 feet high and there’s not an ounce of fear running through your veins then either you’re a sociopath or Chuck Norris. Scared about travelling alone for the first time? That’s totally normal. Worried about flying? That’s okay. Fear of the unknown, and fear of some of the known (like my irrational fear of caterpillars, despite knowing they’re absolutely harmless) is completely natural. But a little bit of fear shouldn’t hold you back from doing something you really want to do.
12. The best things come when you least expect them
You know when you’re having a really bad day, feeling sorry for yourself and then somebody compliments your shoes?! Yeah, that’s not happened to me yet but you catch my drift! Travel-wise it’s like, you could spend weeks gearing yourself up to see one specific destination, and in the end the most WOW, I CAN’T BREATHE moments are the little things and places you saw along the way, that you weren’t exactly planning on. The coastal views, the quaint little towns, the random birds.
13. He who holds the phone charger holds the power
For anyone out there planning their first solo hostel-rich trip abroad, an absolutely infallible way of making friends is to be the charger guy. Have a spare phone charger, keep an extension lead in your bag “for emergencies”, and maybe even a Power Bank too?! I promise that you will be the most popular person in your hostel.
14. You don’t need to travel with intent
You don’t need to have an “end goal” for your trip. You don’t need a list of places you must visit, food you must eat, views you just can’t miss. You don’t need to even know what the heck you’re doing. It’s okay to travel without a plan, it’s okay not to know what you’re doing, it’s okay to just go.
15. It’s never as simple as “If I can travel, then you can too!” and this mentality should get in the bin
It’s easy for the middle-class, Caucasian, fully-abled girl with the First World passport to proudly pronounce “I quit my job to travel in 2 easy steps and YOU CAN TOO“. That mentality, that pushy attitude is absolutely toxic, and not at all relevant or attainable to maybe 80% of the world’s population. What about the guy with the Afghanistan passport, which enables him to visit 5 whole countries visa-free? Or the girl earning the equivalent of £60 a month in India? Or the people living in some of the remotest parts of Earth, where a plane ticket to the next country costs half of their monthly wage? Or the wheelchair-bound MS-sufferer who has to plan everyting meticulously in advance to ensure the world is accessible to her? It’s not as simple as this ‘get up and go’ attitude we’re having thrust down our throats, and sayings such as “the only thing holding you back is yourself” are small-minded and damaging.
16. White privilege is real in travel and should not be overlooked
Leading on nicely from the above, I’ve been able to travel extensively to 40 countries so far. Do you know how many countries required me to apply in advance for a visa? Two. Do you know how many times I’ve been stopped from entering a country based on my skin colour, nationality or religion? Zero. Do you know how many times my true intent has been questioned? Once, but that was my own fault. I’ve travelled with British friends of Saudi Arabian and Bangladeshi heritage – the treatment and looks they get at airports and international borders varies massively from what I receive, despite us having the same passport. The only difference between them and me is skin colour. White privilege, as well as passport privilege, is real.
17. It’s hard to maintain relationships while travelling
Maintaining relationships back home when you’re travelling is tough. Navigating different time zones, special occasions and events while you’re a million miles away is very, very difficult. Even though you’re gone, life back home continues, and when you return there’s a lot that you’ve missed out on. Friends get engaged, have babies, break up, move home, get new jobs and you find yourself walking around in a permanent state of “When the heck does that happen?!” Yet no matter how hard you try while travelling, keeping those relationships maintained is bloody hard work, and you don’t always get a very good return of investment.
18. You won’t fall in love with everywhere, and that’s okay
There will be places you visit that have been massively bigged up on social media or in print, yet when you get there it falls completely flat. Buenos Aires was this for me. I was mega excited about visiting, but I ended up just not getting it. It didn’t meet any of my expectations, and looking back I don’t even remember anything from my time there. You don’t have to love everywhere you visit; you don’t even have to like it. Everyone has different tastes, different preferences, and it’s exactly the same in travel.
19. Memories and photos are the best souvenirs
When I first started travelling I was a sucker for a cheap souvenir. I came back from my first ever trip to Peru in 2011 with a suitcase full of at least 25 gorros, 3 decorative knives and an undetermined number of keyrings. I swear I had something for every person I’d ever met in my life! Nobody even wore the hats, but it’s the thought that counts, right?! Over time my little baggie of souvenirs has diminished to nothing but the occasional cheesy t-shirt for my niblings and perhaps a bar or two of interesting local chocolate for my sister and stepdad. Cute magnets, keyrings and other bits and bobs are great and all, but in the grand scheme of things you’ll eventually forget about them. The magnets will fall off your fridge and break, and you’ll lose your keys on a drunken night out. There’s no souvenir more invaluable – or long-lasting – than photos, and the memories that go alongside them.
20. Technology has spoiled us
Where would we be without Google Maps? Booking.Com? WhatsApp? I’ll tell you where we’ll be – stuck in the middle of nowhere with no idea how to read a paper map, and no accommodation for the night because we don’t know where the nearest hotel is. Technology is absolutely incredible, and has the power to bring the whole world to our fingertips in mere miliseconds. But at the same time, it’s sort of ruined us. We rely on technology for so much that can you even imagine taking a trip without it?!
21. Travel slows you down
Personally, travelling and experiencing a few of the more secluded corners of this beautiful planet has made me more appreciative of the little things, and less bothered about ‘fitting in’. With the crowd, with friends, with societal expectations… you name it. It’s also made me really love dumplings, but that’s by-the-by. If you’d asked me 10 years ago where I see myself at 26, I probably would have said married with maybe a sprog or 2, owning my own house and car to boot. In reality, I am definitely not married, the closest thing I have to a child is Colin the semi-dead coriander plant, I own a Nutribullet and still don’t have a driving licence (but I do have a bicycle back in Wales). Friends back home are starting to settle down, buying houses with their significant others, getting engaged and having children, and whereas a year or two back this would have had me crying in a hole in the ground about how far behind I am, I’m actually totally chilled about it. There’s time for everything, eventually.
22. There is such thing as bad chocolate
I never thought I’d say this but there is such thing as bad chocolate after all *shudder*. Even more shocking, there is such thing as bad Dairy Milk chocolate. American Dairy Milk chocolate is bad, Australian Dairy Milk chocolate is bad, New Zealand Dairy Milk chocolate is bad, Indian Dairy Milk chocolate is bad (except Silk which is deeeelicious). Maybe I’m being a bit harsh here, especially as I still eat the stuff, but it’s not the saaaame. Third world problems, amirite?
23. The NHS is freaking amazing
If any of my fellow Brits out there ever hear somebody complaining about the state of the NHS, or suggest it should become privatised, tell them to look into the cost of medical treatment in the United States, or Mexico, or Hong Kong, or anywhere else really. My appreciation for the quality free healthcare available on the British NHS has magnified since I began travelling, and taking an interest in healthcare overseas.
24. Knowing a second language is invaluable
Growing up in Wales means that I had the luxury of being surrounded by two languages from the time I was born. Our road signs are in Welsh and English, our government facilities and public buildings are bilingual, and our websites give you the option of Welsh or English. Learning Welsh was obligatory up to Key Stage 2 (aged 14-ish, I think) but beyond that it’s our choice. I didn’t choose to continue studying Welsh, so unfortunately am not bilingual in Welsh & English (ask me my opinions on smoking, though, and I’ll fly through it!). I did, however, choose to study Spanish. I then went on to continue my Spanish studies at University, picking up Italian, Catalan and Arabic on the way, and came out the other side with a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation & Interpreting with Modern Foreign Languages (Spanish, Italian & Catalan). Having a second language I’m almost fully fluent in (Spanish) as well as a third and fourth that I’m okay-ish at has opened so many travel doors for me, even beyond the Spanish-speaking world.
25. The Earth is magnificent, powerful and terrifying, and should be respected
Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes… natural disasters seem to be happening more and more frequently in recent years. Is it a result of Global Warming? Is Global Warming a myth? Who knows?! But the fact of the matter is these disasters are happening, and we should take them as stark reminders to look after Mother Earth, because she is absolutely terrifying and could flatten us all with one tiny flick of her finger.
26. The world really isn’t so big after all
From pole to pole, the circumference of the Earth is only 24,860 miles around. A half marathon is 13.1 miles, so the Earth is actually only 1,897.7 half marathons around, which doesn’t sound all that big, right?! Lol. But seriously, it takes less than 2 days to fly from one side of the world to the other. 2 days. You think the other side of the world being unreachable, it’s so far away, but in reality it’s definitely not. Everything is closer than you think.
So that’s it – all 26 things travel has taught me. There are, of course, other lessons like there’s no such thing a bad Punjabi samosa, you don’t need socks in India and Havaianas are the greatest brand of flip-flops out there, but they seem a little bit trivial.