As the year draws to a close, thought it would be a good time to reflect on what has been the greatest year of my life. It is hard to overstate how different this year has been from my former life as a semi-jaded office drone in a suit working in the financial district.
You would think after almost a year and half of full-time traveling 15 countries and working remotely I would be somewhat tired of it, but here I am with the same twinkle in my eye, feeling the same excitement, typing this away on my laptop while I wait to board my flight on three hours of sleep.
1- All you have to say is "Hi!"
Solo traveling might sound intimidating at first. To the uninitiated, it might even sound lonely. Rest assured, after over a year of traveling, lonely is not a feeling I can recall. You will meet amazing people all along, and whether it's another solo traveler or a big group of people speaking a language you do not understand, the only thing you ever need to start talking is "Hi"!
It is a magical word, and one that has never failed me. It is crazy to think that I used to feel intimidated talking to strangers. Now it feels as natural as drinking water.
2- Company beats scenery any day
Your most liked social media post might just be that cool sunset melting into the sea over that high cliff, but let me tell you this. Some of the fondest memories I have are drinking cheap booze, in the twilight hours, in the most nondescript places that you wouldn't bother to take a second look at. It is not the scenery that I remember, but how I felt in those moments with the company I had.
3- There will be days you feel like you had never lived before
There will be moments when your life will feel perfect. Days when you feel every breath, every heartbeat, every single caress of wind on your skin, every ray of sun on your shoulders. It is as addicting of a feeling as I have ever felt. It is a feeling you will continue to chase, and one that certainly you will not be able to describe in eloquent words to your friends back "home".
4- Your heart will never be whole again
While solo traveling, your highs will be higher, but your lows will also be lower. On average, the trade-off is one worth to me. Not everyone wants to be on the road full-time. That is perfectly fine. You will find your own rhythm. One downside of traveling is that you will have a crew that you click with, and then people start to leave at some point...
Slow traveling helps to not burn out. If you are moving every week to a new destination, you are more prone to burning out and feeling homesick. Embrace the ephemeral nature of your moment and be thankful for it.
I have been told there is a concept for this in Japanese: mono no aware.
5- Join other travelers you meet, and that includes staff
Your best source of information is other travelers. Ask for their social media if you feel they match your vibe. Sometimes you can travel together, other times you can check out their social media especially if they're going to places of interest to you. When I started traveling, I completely changed my plans because I met so many people I liked that talked up parts of Mexico I hadn't heard about. It lived up to the hype and then some.
Remember that most hostels are staffed at least partially by other long-term travelers. They are usually some of the best friends you will make.
6- To make local friends, do local things
For slow travelers like me, making local friends is essential. Find something that likely would not attract short-term tourists. For me Muay Thai gyms have been an excellent source of local friends since it's far more likely to be attended by locals. Same goes for team sports, art classes, etc.
7- Dating is just ... different
If like me you stay mostly in hostels, the sheer volume of people you meet every day can feel like Tinder in real life. The curse of every digital nomad is falling in love with a local who cannot work remotely... While I am hardly the serial monogamist type, I have had a heartbreak or two here and there. Don't get too attached, and embrace the time you have with the people you meet at the moment. Make every effort to pursue the ones that you must.
Quoting Life of Pi, one of my all-time favorites: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye."
8- You will not be the black sheep anymore
This is one of my favorite things about nomading. The ability to get away from that comfortable numbness of falling into what my friend, Dan King, calls the M&M (Marriage & Mortgage) lifestyle. You won't believe how many people tell me that they envy the life I have. The only difference is that I lived a life by design and not by default. I know the societal pressure to conform first-hand, especially as you get older and all our friends start putting roots down and lives revolve around their kids.
I am well aware that I may miss out on part of what makes me a human, but as far as I have ever known myself not for a second did I wish to get married and have kids.
Here is an excellent source to see what the "average nomad" looks like. Bet it looks different than the average weekend warrior at a party hostel eh?
9- It is less expensive that you think
If you plan ahead and budget, even more so if you're coming from a high-cost country, working remote and traveling might just be even cheaper. I am living on half of what it used to cost me to live in Toronto, and I am not pinching pennies by any measure.
Budget accordingly, and don't starve yourself of experiences thinking that you will come back. Life is short, the world is wide, and there is plenty to do.
10- The view never changes if you are not the lead dog
This was carved on top of the bar in my frat house in college. Don't be reckless, but do not be afraid to take calculated risks either. A little bit of preparation can massively improve your experience, especially when traveling the less trodden path.
11- The vast majority of the people are good and kind-hearted
Most people in this world want to improve their lives and be an upstanding citizen. It doesn't mean that you should let your guard down whatsoever, but that does mean that what you see in the media and how other people are portrayed is just plain wrong. Ask the average North American what they can say about Colombia, and they'll say "Escobar" or "Cocaine". Mexico is reduced to Tulum or Cancun. I cannot tell you how far from the truth these stereotypes are, and how damaging they can be.
12- You are representing your own kind
I have lived in Canada most of my life and can simply say I am Canadian. Yet I always say I am from Iran because the majority of the time I am the first Iranian most people have met, especially in South America. It matters to me that the people I meet along the way to remember that people in Iran are no different from them, regardless of whatever propaganda their governments throw at them.
13 - Choose your home wisely!
I gravitate toward "social" hostels far more than "party" hostels. It is an important distinction I learned quickly. Some of the best hostels I have ever stayed in (EastSeven in Berlin, Selina Medellín, Hostel One in Prague, The Loft in Budapest, etc.) all had some things in common. For starter, they all have kitchens which tends to be where you meet a lot of other people. Having a community resident or experience manager where activities are coordinated by the hostel is another one. I would generally stay away from party hostels where the sole focus is how big of a pub crawl (organized by a third party) you can get. Don't get me wrong, I love a pub crawl as much as the next guy, but I'm guessing that most long-term travelers want to meet each other and not necessarily the 12-person crew who just rolled in for a bachelor/bachelorette party.
14 - Learning languages pays off immensely
Learning Spanish has been one of the best decisions I ever made. Not only it has opened up a whole new continent and culture to me, it is similar enough to Portuguese and Italian that you could muster some basic conversation in either. Sometimes it feels like a magic trick. I remember pounding drinks with this grandpa in Rio speaking only Spanish with him responding in Portuguese, and somehow we talked over an hour about the upcoming Brazilian elections!
Nothing says I care about your culture more than being able to utter a few words in someone's native tongue.
15- Crime is often a game of expected value, not harm
This is somewhat of a difficult topic to explain to people from rich countries. The average Canadian has never experienced or witnessed hunger. People are rich beyond their own comprehension.
Putting aside mental illness, nobody's first ambition is to be a criminal. It is often a choice of expected value that drives crime. The latest smartphone likely sells for over a thousand dollars second hand, so in a world where the GDP per capita is barely 12k USD a year, you should know that stealing your phone versus going hungry might just convince someone to do it, not because they want to ruin your day, but because it is the most lucrative option available to them.
Here is the flip side of it, leave your expensive branded stuff at home and travel light. You'd barely notice you don't have them anymore. I have a second crappy phone for that reason. My pictures look potato quality, but I have yet to have someone pull a weapon on me for it.
Lastly, while I don't look like a MMA heavyweight champion, I don't look exactly like a pushover either. I am aware that being male grants me safer passage than my fellow female travelers. For what it's worth, I have met just as many solo female travelers, and the majority of safety precautions is the same for both. Here is a rapid list of what has worked for me:
- Don't flash anything expensive, new iPhones particularly make you a mark.
- Travel in groups when you can. Ask other travelers whether taking the bus or a cab is safe. Uber usually is safest. Sit near the front of the bus where you are the most visible and closest to the exit.
- Do not ever leave your drink unattended, or accept an open drink from a stranger.
- Share your phone location with a few trusted people, especially if you're doing something unfamiliar.
- Get a good travel credit card and use as much as you can, have as little cash on you as needed.
- If you find yourself facing a weapon drawn, just give away what you have. No amount of money is worth your life.
- The local police in some countries can be corrupt. That's why in some locations you'd see the army patrolling in full gear.
- If you find yourself lost in a sketchy area, do your best to avoid attention. If you need to look at maps on your phone, go into a store before you take your phone out. Call the Uber to the store.
- Take pictures of everything. Of your luggage, your passport, the license plate of the cab you're gonna get in. Even your laundry receipt.
16- Your health is the most important thing
Stating the obvious, but you do need to make sure you maintain a healthy routine. If like me you are primarily staying in hostels, you will always be outnumbered by tourists. Skimping on staying active and bumping up your partying to keep up with people on their "2-weeks" will take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Your body enables you to do the things you want in your life. Take care of it.
17 - Technology is your friend
You'll learn plenty of hacks as you go along. Maximizing USB-C gadgets means minimizing all cable clutter. You might find packing cubes useful. Waterproof shoes can double as every day shoes and hiking shoes. Refundable tickets or onward ticket services can get you out of a bind in countries which insist you show an exit ticket. WhatsApp groups are huge in Latam with invaluable information from expats. Offine Google Maps and Google Translate are essential. Also, get a phone which can take eSIMs, you'll thank me later for it.
18 - Have an amazing adventure!
The most important one! We have this tremendous opportunity for effectively the first time in our history to see most of our amazing planet.
Maybe inside I am still just a little boy who wants to wake up and have an awesome adventure. To feel that today might just even be more exciting than yesterday. That I'll make new friends. Perhaps learn a new skill, or discover a place I had never been to before. Or maybe, I'll work all day because that's just what I feel like doing that day. There is a whole world out there!
To the people I've met along my journey, thank you with all my heart for being part of my adventure! I am sure I will see many of you around 😍