And why they are (mostly) all wrong.
Signs on Direction Island, Cocos Keeling Islands. Here’s a curious fact about Cocos Keeling – it lies 10km closer to Perth than Sri Lanka geographically and is an isolated territory of the Indian Ocean.
Over the past few years while I’ve been travelling around the world, I’ve often left countries wondering where all of the adventurous young travellers have gone. It seems like younger people who are truly exploring some remote corners of the earth have somehow disappeared. Before the end of the 1990s (or the start of the internet generation) there were many people like me who simply went to places because they were curious and when we did, we met others on different journeys in the same place. Where are the young, adventurous people of today?
When I speak of travel, I’m not talking about countries that are well set up for backpacking like those in South East Asia, Europe and the Americas. I’m talking about the “off the beaten track” immersion experiences where you are confronted by a whole different world as soon as you hit the arrivals terminal. Places where virtually NOTHING is the same as home.
I was having a conversation about Senegal with a friend a few days ago. The first thing she asked me was “Aren’t you scared when you land in somewhere like Dakar?” and I sheepishly replied “No”. I am very used to complete culture shocks so Dakar didn’t seem to phase me much, even though I was approached by hawkers as I was collecting my bags off the conveyor belt at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport.
The fear of new things lies at the heart of why many people don’t wish to travel but there are so many other reasons and many of them are baseless.
Here are 10 excuses people use to not travel the world and why I think each is wrong.
Pink Lotus flower growing outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Believe it or not it is still possible to have a relatively off the beaten track experience in Cambodia. Exploring the country’s indigenous cultures in the far east would be fascinating, as would tracing the lives of the Khmer people from Tonle Sap lake to the mouth of the Mekong. Cambodia is so much more than Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields.
This is perhaps the number one reason why people don’t travel and I largely attribute this fear to three things – the media, the internet and the influences of parents or friends.
Today’s media has a lot to answer for. In a world where the only popular news is bad news, where the worst incidents are the most tweeted and the latest terrorist attacks are the first incidents to flood the front pages of newspapers, magazines or news websites. A world where the news headlines feature guns, violence, natural disasters, rape, corruption, the list goes on… To someone who hasn’t travelled, the media alone can make the world appear a terrifying place.
News flash!!! The world IS NOT the place the media paints it to be. By all means, I would encourage every person who is considering travel to watch the news. Understanding what goes on in a country is vital to your own safety and experiences of a country but rather than JUST relying on the news, I would suggest you seek out other sources of information including tourism authorities, some government websites, traveller forums and keep an open mind or a finely honed “bullshit radar” when you read about the country you are planning to visit. Take it all on board then form your own opinions where you can.
The internet is also equally to blame for painting the world as a dire place. If you Google any country in the world and attach the words “violence”, “crime”, “attacks”, “tourist/travel danger” to your search thread and you will find SOMETHING about a place that will put you off. By all means read these things but please bear in mind that attacks against many foreigners on foreign soil are often isolated and exceedingly rare. What you find in a Google search is not enough reason to stop you applying for your passport.
Some of the most powerful influencers of your plans are your friends and your family. Treat these as you would the media or the internet. Ask yourself “When have they travelled to the place you are talking about?”. If they haven’t visited that place, then ask yourself what grounds their advice might be based upon. There’s a fair chance they haven’t had either recent experience of a particular country or that they are just repeating what they’ve heard.
Remember you own your own fear. Your fear does not belong to the media, internet or your parents/friends. Only you are responsible for the fears that stop you from taking the next step into the unknown. Find ways to minimise that fear.
Pablo – the very kind man who looked after our car at the site for Honduran Emeralds, Rio Aguan, Honduras. Honduras gets a lot of bad publicity for being dangerous yet with a bit of common sense, you can travel in many parts of the country without an issue if you are careful.
I Don’t Have Enough Money to Travel
“I can’t afford to travel”. This is a reason I have heard my entire life from different people I’ve met and oddly there is less reason to blame this now than ever before.
Travel in some parts of the world is still very inexpensive and with the ability to book cheap flights, hotels, hire cars and guides online, I would argue that it is perhaps a lot less expensive to travel today, in comparison to what people earn in the developed world, than it ever has been.
While I understand that taking twelve months to travel around the world may have a big impact upon your savings, you don’t need to do such a huge trip to completely immerse yourself in another culture on a budget. In one month you can do a trip that will blow your mind without blowing your budget in the slightest. You have a plethora of resources at your finger tips now that simply never existed when I started travelling and you can use these to work out your budget for your trip.
Henna Hands at Sambhar, Rajasthan. Sambhar is so far off the tourist trails of India that it neither has a cafe or a hotel to stay in. You need a driver to take you there but the hassle and trouble is worth it. Sambhar was one of the most beautiful small towns I’ve ever visited in India and the people are wonderful there.
I was lucky to grow up with parents who taught me to half trust people. When I say half trust, I mean that they always encouraged me to say something to people I have never met but if I didn’t like where that conversation was heading, to walk away.
The wonderful thing about travel is the more you do of it, the more street smart you become with people. You learn to avoid people who are just that little bit too friendly when you first meet them, you learn to avoid street protests, late night walks alone down narrow streets, getting drunk to the point of not being aware of your circumstances or places that are ‘dodgy’.
The reality is that 95% of the world’s people are walking around with the exact same desires as you – to have a safe night out, meet new people, see more of the land they are living in and just want to enjoy a normal life. Often your communications with them come without an expectation of anything in return.
It’s the 5% (and perhaps in a very small number of countries that percentage is higher) that make it hard for everyone. Learn to avoid the wrong people and mostly you will stay out of trouble.
Don’t get me wrong – even with the best intentions it is still possible that you will meet horrible people. I try to keep an open mind when I am in a new place and take people on a case by case basis. For example, in the car park of Dakar airport, I was approached by all manner of people wanting to carry my bags (for a tip), begging for money, wanting to sell me things, give me directions and I was there quite late in the evening. A polite “No Thank You” was enough to send most of them away. Having to use physical violence to scare someone away is rare. If all else fails and you meet a dodgy person in a crowded area, start yelling or screaming. Trust me, in nearly every instance, someone nearby will want to help you. The general goodwill of strangers should never be underestimated in a lot of places.
Poverty versus Dangerous. Poverty doesn’t always mean crime. I have read countless blogs from people who have travelled in impoverished countries saying how frightened they were. During my travels some of the warmest, most generous people I have ever met are those who have lived in a mud hut without electricity or running water. Don’t equate poverty with danger. With few exceptions, the two are very different issues.
Chaos versus Dangerous. In the developed world many countries and the people that live in them have a good sense of order. They know how to queue. Some countries in the developing world are the complete opposite. If you arrive in Dakar on a night flight, the airport is chaos. It isn’t unsafe. It’s just a mess. Boarding the plane in Livingstone, Zambia, I was swamped by people to the point I had to carry my day pack on my head! You do have to be careful of pickpockets in some chaotic areas so keep an eye on your belongings but disorder doesn’t necessarily mean danger. Think about what might happen to you – is someone going to attack you in a room full of people? Probably not. Keep an eye on your stuff and just wade through the melee.
A Fulani tribal elder near Tambacounda in Senegal. The Fulani are so very friendly. I felt like I was talking to my dad when I met this man. He had a smile that lit up the entire street.
I Don’t Speak the Language
Not speaking a language is also not a reason to avoid travel. It’s surprising how much you can get around with so little linguistic skills. Based on the fact that, thankfully, a lot of countries in the world still have English as their second language, learning a bit of Spanish, French, Bahasa, Chinese or Arabic can get you through a lot of situations like understanding simple directions, ordering food, getting a taxi or reserving a room for the night. Grab a phrase book and go. Practice every time you get a chance. Remember a lot of people may want to practice their skills or knowledge of your language with you too. In the case of English when I’ve often tried to speak Tibetan to someone I don’t know, that person has automatically answered in English, not because they think your Tibetan is rubbish, quite often they want to help and also practice their English with you.
I’ve also managed to communicate my need for a room by sign language with my hands pretending I want to eat or by placing my flat hands together and to the side of my face when I’ve wanted to sleep. You can get your message across if you have to. Some things are universal to all people.
Juana – Havana’s most famous Santera woman. Want to practice your Spanish? Juana hangs around the main square in old Havana and in between puffs of her oversized cigars, is usually happy to chat with you for a bit, particularly if you are interested in what the fishing industry is doing in Cuba. Of course she would like you to pay her a small fee for her photo to be taken but she is worth talking to also. You will get so much more than a photo for that fee if you do. She is a real character of Havana.
I Would Miss My Family and Friends
My poor parents. When I first started travelling I used to give them a blanket rule – they had to assume that everything was alright with me until I let them know otherwise. Back in the early 1990s when I first started to travel, I could only communicate by physical mail, telegrams or expensive phone calls. If I got stuck in an emergency, they would worry more about receiving a reverse charge phone call from me than not hearing from me at all.
These days it is amazing how connected the world is. A wifi hotspot will allow you to email, text or skype anyone, anytime and for very little cost. In some places where wifi is abundant you could reach out to home every day if you wish. Missing your family and friends is not a reason to stay at home. If anything you will probably appreciate them more when you come back and you are finally surrounded by those who love you.
The Chorten at Tsada, Western Tibet. Very few people from the west have ever seen this remote part of Tibet. It is very difficult to access and requires special permission from the government.
I Can’t Survive Without the Internet
In late 2015 we were travelling in Patagonia, Argentina, and we stayed at the most incredibly remote estancia, or sheep station/ranch, which was only connected to the outside world by a single cord telephone. There was only solar electricity with a back up generator and water was pumped from a nearby marsh. The family who ran this estancia were incredible and they lived a remarkably comfortable life for having so little in terms of modern conveniences. There was absolutely no wifi and not enough phone signal to provide any service. It was wonderful.
The owner told us about a 28 year old Swiss girl who had hoped to visit for a month to learn about life on a remote estancia, how to handle horses and cattle, herding, husbandry, agriculture and about their way of life on the land. She stayed for three nights. After that she had to leave. The disconnection from wifi was the reason behind her departure.
I was amazed by this story. At 28 years old there is NO REASON WHATSOEVER for not being able to handle the lack of wifi. Posting to social media is not essential to any travel. My partner and I run four businesses between us successfully and even we can go without wifi or being connected to the outside world for a month. If this girl had been my daughter, I would have had a good, long talk with her about her life priorities. She passed up 30 days of opportunity to learn, grow and simply be herself due to lack of not being able to post about it all on Facebook. What on earth will she reminisce about when she is older? The crap online that she missed for thirty days? Or the lost opportunity to do something extraordinary in a beautiful region of the world, with a family who would have treated her like their daughter?
Takeaway Bicycle in Dambwa Central Market, Livingstone, Zambia. Dambwa was one of those places I was warned about as a solo female traveller. I was told that it could be dangerous for a white woman wielding a camera and that I shouldn’t go. Despite this I went anyway. I found someone who could translate and guide me there (the market manager) and I had the most incredible afternoon of my entire African trip in Dambwa. It was a fantastic experience.
I Have No Friends To Travel With
I could write an entire book about the merits and rewards of travelling solo but since I am limited to this blog post, I will say that travelling solo is one of the best ways to fully learn and understand yourself. By doing this you will be a better person for those you love, for those who employ you, for your family and for your life. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is core to understanding how you shape your future.
If you are a woman reading this post, then the bar may be slightly higher for you than solo guys travelling. When I was younger, in my early twenties in particular, much of my travel to remote places was solo but I made a few rules for myself and they included:
- Not sleeping with the local guys (no matter how tempting their offer)
- Not getting drunk with them either
- Going out early in the morning, being back before dark
- Eating your main meal at lunch to avoid doing the above
- Travel with other women – not just women travellers, local women too
It is quite a different playing field if you are a woman going it alone as opposed to a man. Stake your own moral high ground and stick to it but don’t be scared. There are some excellent websites like Lipstick and Wanderlust which are a fantastic resource for solo women travellers and will provide you with all sorts of help.
Regardless of your solo status as a male or female traveller, I’ve always found that I’m rarely alone. I’ve teamed up with other travellers to hitch hike through remote Bolivia, to sail a Felucca down the Nile, to trek the Annapurnas in Nepal, or cross the Atacama desert in trucks. I never started my trips off with any of these people, I simply met them when I got there and I’ve been lucky enough to have some of them remain as my friends for life. We are united by the memory of our journeys and we’ve even met up in other parts of the world and travelled together again!
In 1997, at the age of 27, I hitch-hiked my way through South America from Peru to Chile. During that trip I crossed the Atacama in a 4WD with a bunch of people I met at the start point in Uyuni.
The People are Muslim / Black / Asian / Not Like Me
Addressing cultural differences is probably the single greatest thing you will learn from travelling the world. There is something incredibly special about meeting people in foreign countries. They can truly make or break your travelling experience.
Remember that someone who looks vastly different to you, probably is more like you in their personality than you think. Talk to people. Ask them questions. Most people feel very honoured that you are taking an interest in their lives and they are happy to tell you. Give them that chance and the time to reply. I’ve met some of the kindest and most generous people in the world in places where I’ve least expected it. You generally get back what you give out and travelling helps you to develop a tremendous sense of equanimity with people. Instead of seeing their culture or religion as alien to yours, you see both in a different light and quite often what you learn on the street will differ tremendously from any pre-conceived idea you had of them or anything you’ve heard about them in the news at home or online.
At the time of writing, the heightened levels of terrorism attacks perpetrated by the followers of Islam on the west are stopping many, many people from travelling to Muslim countries and for good reason. I am the first person to warn against going to places where Daesh or cells of extremists are operating. Do some homework first before you visit countries where Islam is the major religion and you will realise that there are still many, including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Brunei, Senegal (at the time of writing) or Oman, for example, that are quite safe to visit and the people practicing Islam in these countries don’t want to harm you or allow extremist problems to take over in their home countries either.
Remember that you can find trouble anywhere on the planet if you look for it, even at home. Just because someone looks different or practices a different set of beliefs to you, it doesn’t mean they are out to kill you. Learning from them will make you a much better person and now, with the internet, you may end up staying friends with them too. Social media has allowed me to stay in touch with my tracker who showed me how to determine the age of Snow Leopard prints in the snow, the man who translated for me while I visited a street market for photography in Zambia, the porters I had in Nepal, the incredible Nepalese guides who have worked with me in Tibet, our birding guides in Senegal and Honduras, my cab driver in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Not only do I get a thrill from staying in touch with these people, I have also supported their families or communities financially, shared many incredible experiences, given them family portraits, played with their cats and watched their children grow. I feel like I am the sum total of a group of incredible people who, for a short time, were so generous of their culture and lives with me. I feel blessed to know them and consider them my friends.
Me and Mohammadou in St Louis, Senegal. Mohammadou and I were united by the belief that we shouldn’t give money to begging children so we were often stopping at roadside stalls to buy fruit, nuts, boiled eggs, juice and local desert berries called Sedem to share with kids we met on our trip. Mohammadou was one of the kindest people I’ve met in my travels recently. I was there with my partner and his selflessness impressed both of us.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
You will never, ever understand what you are capable of until something goes wrong and you are forced to fix it while you are travelling overseas. Travelling is one of the biggest educators of resourcefulness. I’ve had to find help when my car has broken down in the middle of nowhere, go to the police when I was mugged at knife point in Greece, find a room at 3am in Cairo when the hotel I had booked had no rooms available for me when I arrived, navigate my way around the Moscow tube stations when I accidentally jumped off at the wrong stop. I’ve had my bag stolen in Bolivia, ridden on the roofs of trains in North Africa when the tourist class cabins were full, and on and on….
In Cairo once I was involved in a hit and run with a taxi when I crossed the street in the Islamic Quarter. A fully veiled woman instantly ran over to me and started speaking to me in French. I replied in English. So did she (I learned later that she had been to university in the United States) and between us we filed a police report against the driver.
Providing the incident isn’t life threatening, these events are not to be feared, they are to be learned from. The more you learn the less they occur as you travel to more places.
Ait Ben Haddou at Sunrise. As one of most famous Kasbahs of Africa, Ait Ben Haddou is worth the trip over the Atlas from Marrakech to visit. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has featured in many films and television series including Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones.
I Don’t Know Where to Start
Sources of Advice
When I first started travelling I generally sought information from guide books and the news. The British Foreign Office used to have and still does have, some of the most unbiased and up to date information about troubled places in particular countries. En-route I used to have a short wave radio with me and I listened to the BBC World Service when I could.
These days, except for the Foreign Office Advice which I still seek, there are so many resources around to help you plan your travels. Remember what I said in Point 1. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. People can publish all manner of rubbish online about anything. Wade through it all and choose your sources carefully. Lonely Planet has a good forum where you can get good local information called the Thorn Tree. Joining the Thorn Tree will allow you to ask questions of other travellers and even find someone to travel with if you really can’t face going to a new place alone. Don’t be afraid to ask but also keep a balanced viewpoint of the replies you might get.
Hire a Local Agent
Hiring a local agent is also a good idea and can often cost you less than you think. Instead of Googling “Senegal” with “Crime” “Trouble” or “Dangers for Travellers”, try Googling “Senegal” with “local travel agent” instead. The wonders of the internet have allowed many small travel agent businesses to open in countries and they can be a wonderful source of advice. I did this recently before I went to Senegal. I wanted to know if it was possible to do aerial photography over the spectacular Lake Retba, a pink coastal lake north of Dakar. Google searching turned up nothing so I found a local agent in Dakar who replied to me within an hour saying he wasn’t sure if this was possible but he’d need a few days to find out. In a few days I got a reply from him letting me know that it wasn’t possible but his service and follow up was so good that I am thinking of using him for future travel in the country.
Go on Tour
If you are really too frightened to go it alone or take a local agent but you have a particular country that you want to see, then I would suggest you book a trip with a western tour company first and see a new country with them. After you’ve been there once on a tour and you have a feel for what it is like, you may feel more comfortable going to that country alone next time.
Get GOOD Travel Insurance
Buy good travel insurance and read the fine print to make sure you are aware of what you are covered for in case of an emergency. Ideally you want one with good medical cover to cover you for a medical emergency evacuation and one that covers you for theft. You can even buy policies now that cover you for evacuation if you are caught up in an act of terrorism! I would always try to find one with a variety of contact methods to try when you are overseas 24 hours a day. Knowing that you have that cover can give you a lot of peace of mind when you are travelling.
Visas and Inoculations
Make sure you have the right visas and jabs for diseases that are present in the countries you are visiting. Search online for visa information. If you are not sure about what inoculations you need before you travel, see your doctor.
Save Your Money
Skipping that daily coffee and throwing the money in a jar instead can help you with your trip. Shop around for the products you buy. If you get an unexpected discount, put that money towards your trip. Even putting a small amount aside out of each pay goes a long way towards your savings. Count it out at the end of a year and you may be pleasantly surprised how much you already have towards that dream trip.
Although people have different ideas for how they would like to plan their travel, I suggest a good starting point would be to book your flights, first two nights and last two nights of accommodation in the country you’ve chosen. I would spend a little more on your hotels at the start and end point of your trip, then use whatever money you have remaining to budget for your daily spend on the days in between allowing for transport, accommodation, meals, drinks, tips, shopping and entrance fees. Somewhere nice at the start will allow you a full day to plan where you are going next, book a bus, spend some time on the street getting a feel for the culture, food and what it’s like before you head inland, up country or simply to a different city. Having a nice place to stay at the end will give you something to look forward to on those nights in between where the hot water might not work, you miss a shower, or you have to sleep on a bus.
These are just my experiences from over 25 years of travel through 65 countries and counting. Please feel free to join the conversation in the comments below. I’d like to learn from you too.
The Himba People of remote Kaokoland in north western Namibia are both beautiful and very generous of their culture. Find a translator and visit them. They live lives that are so vastly different to the way people live in the developed world, yet they are masters of their environment and know how to survive well in the desert.