You’ve decided to spread your wings and venture out into the wild world of backpacking. You’ve read tons of travel blogs, read countless reviews on hostels and destinations, bought far more than needed in terms of travel supplies, and have a huge itinerary of places you want to go and things you want to experience throughout your journey. Even with all the due diligence complete, nothing can quite prepare you for when you finally touch down and embark on your priceless journey. With that being said I present to you the 5 Things To Expect Your First Week Backpacking.
Your fears will quickly begin to dissipate – Traveling across the world, where you know virtually nothing about the area nor the people or culture is surely exciting; albeit undeniably scary to some degree. Arriving in your first country, even the most subtle differences such as the flow of traffic or humidity in the air will make you feel just how far from home you are. Add on the VAST differences such as possible communist propaganda posters, strange offers from Tuk Tuk drivers that are simply wrong on so many moral levels, and just completely different culture and way of life and you have yourself in a very strange position. You may think to yourself “what the hell did I get myself into”, and that’s fine, I think the initial fear leads to an even more enhanced excitement once you realize all will be.
Some people’s fear or reservations may dissipate naturally by just walking around the city for a while and getting accustomed to a new culture, but for many (including myself) your first hostel is where the change occurs. Entering your first hostel may feel like the first day at a new school at first, but within a very short time you will acclimate to the “backpackers” way of life. You realize you are merely one of MANY going on the same (yet different) journey you are on. You will be able to share your relatable first experiences with others, and they will gladly share theirs with you. You will realize that you are not alone in feeling the way you do, and others will take you under their wing. I’m not sure if it’s the feeling of nostalgia that coincides with taking someone brand new to backpacking under their wing, but on my first day people I had so many people offering to take me out and show me the city.
You will toss away your itinerary if you made one – Prior to backpacking S.E. Asia I spent literal days researching and planning where I would be every day of my travels, what I would be doing, and how I would be getting there. Part of it was because I knew there were certain things I wanted to see, but the major part was a fear of not having everything planned out. When I arrived at my first hostel the people I met laughed when they saw my itinerary, saying “you wont be using that much longer”, and they were absolutely right.
The people you meet, the stories you hear, and the vibe you get in each place will guide throughout your journey. You may absolutely hate or love a certain city you are in, and with no itinerary there is nothing stopping you from leaving that very night or extending a few days. Remember, traveling is a business, so anywhere you may go, there will be plenty of services to help you get to a cool destination in the area, or services to help you travel to another city or country.
You will also hear about places you never even knew existed, and are going to want to visit them all!. In my first few days backpacking I heard about 3 places around Hanoi that were not even on my radar, and 2 of them ended up being some of the highlights of my trip. Talk to people, hear their stories, and let the journey flow as natural and unplanned as possible.
You will be shocked by how fast you form close relationships- Back home most people you meet are consumed by societal norms, expectations from family and friends, and begin to wear the mask of what they feel is expected of them. Forming close relationships with people whether it be work associates or friends of friends sometimes takes months, even years. I like to think that building a relationship with someone is the process of 2 people taking off their masks ever so cautiously to reveal their true selves.
While backpacking you will come to realize that mask has already been taken off. People will express themselves to you in their truest and purest form, partly because you will already have so much in common being a fellow backpacker, and partly because they’re all the way across the world so who gives a shit what anyone thinks. As long as you are willing to say “hi”, you will begin to form bonds at a rapid rate. The conversations you have will be rich with thoughts and experiences. Throughout my travels I can say with absolute conviction that I have made dozens of true friends that I will keep in touch with long after my travels have concluded, and will never forget.
You will learn real fast how often you have to say goodbye – I remember my first 2 days in Hanoi, I had linked up with a group of friends and we did everything together. Out of 8 of us I was by far the newest to backpacking, so when one of the kids got his bags together for the 30 hour sleeper bus to Laos I was shocked at the dynamic. There were hugs and the occasional “make sure to add me on Facebook”, but then he was gone, just like that. He hopped on a bike that would take him to the sleeper bus, and everyone else went back to what they were doing.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when you’re saying goodbye to people you’ve grown extremely close to; however learning to say goodbye will make you that much stronger and wiser throughout your travels. You begin to learn the beautiful yet tragic truth about just how large this world really is, and how small we as individuals actually are . The French Novelist Gustave Flaubert once said “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”. Just as water constantly flows down a river, so to will the people you meet.
You’ll realize you have made a life changing decision – I believe this moment of awareness is so personal to each and every person I would be doing an injustice saying when this moment will be. There are so many reasons people decide to go backpacking, whether it be to come to terms with something serious that has happened in life, to gain a better understanding of the world, or to just experience something completely new. There will however be a defining moment very early in your travels, and when that moment comes you will be enveloped with an indescribable feeling that the journey you are on will forever change you.
With all that being said, none of this is possible if you don’t step outside your comfort zone. Sadly I witnessed people stay in their dorm bed all day and watch movies on Netflix, something that surely can be done within the confines of their own home. Speak to travelers, but also make sure to speak to locals. Eat what they eat, dance how they dance, try to speak with them in their language even if it is just a word (believe me they will love you for it). Enjoy all the scary, exciting, awkward, sad, indescribable experiences that backpacking has to offer. Go out and experience the world, and don’t be scared to make an absolute fool of yourself. And remember, you are far from being alone.
“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” – Wendell Berry