I just returned from a 50-day vacation.  Would complaints about how exhausted I am fall on unsympathetic ears?

Woe is me.

Yes?  Fair enough.  Rather than wax all whiny or nostalgic about my trip, I suppose I will be more constructive and write about some realizations I had while away.

Towards the beginning of my journey, a friend asked me what my favorite vacation has been thus far.  I started traveling at a young age and am fortunate to have visited many memorable places, but I seriously struggled to answer his question.  I couldn’t recall a completely fulfilling vacation, which made me feel both foolish and ungrateful for all of the trips I have been blessed with.  My friend hypothesized that my temporary amnesia was somehow linked to the fact that I am ALWAYS on vacation (touché), and therefore my memories are a bit murky from having meshed together.  I suspect that my hesitation runs deeper than this.  Good travel takes practice, and I am just now becoming seasoned at the craft.  It involves a distinct skillset, which if left uncultivated, can result in trips that are more hectic and tiring than the routine you are taking a break from.  I spent a considerable amount of time these last 50 days contemplating what constitutes good travel, and below I will discuss the conclusions I have drawn.  My reflections are presented in the form of travel tips, which are listed in no particular order.

1. Know Thyself.  In Cutting For Stone, Abraham Verghese writes of owning your old raggedy slippers, or in other words, embracing the not-so-desirable parts of yourself.  This easily relates to travel preferences.  A friend recently guffawed in my face when I answered her question of, “How long of a hike would you like to go on?”, with an admittedly laughable, “25 minutes max.”  It’s not glamorous to concede that you detest doing anything even remotely athletic, but it makes for a better trip for all involved if you are honest about your limitations.  Along the same vein of embracing the good, the bad, and the ugly of who you are, I believe we all need to let go of the notion of things we “should do” or “must see” on vacation in the spirit of doing only that which inspires us.  Bragging rights from having seen this and done that are ephemeral, whereas true contentment is not.  If you prioritize seeing famous attractions over nurturing your true desires, you will end your vacation feeling dissatisfied.  For example, had I been cognizant of the actual size of the Mona Lisa before waiting in a long line to see her, I would have ditched her to eat my fourth Nutella and banana crepe outside the Louvre (“OMG Lindsay, you are SUCH an uncultured swine!”).  Seriously mull over your inclinations before taking your next vacation, and don’t compromise your itinerary just because you are ashamed to admit that you went all the way to China and didn’t visit the Great Wall.

There’s no better time than now to acknowledge that you prefer chocolate statues to historic ones.

Mmmm break me of a piece of that!

2. Commit Your Passport Number to Memory.  It is more likely that you’ll be asked for your passport number than for the actual document.  Exerting the paltry brain power necessary to memorize your digits will prove a worthwhile investment, especially considering your passport is valid for ten years.  The less you take it out of that geeky money belt of yours, the fewer opportunities you’ll create for it to be lost or stolen.  ‘Nuff said.

3. Establish a Portable Way to Center Yourself.  Since traveling can be stressful and new places can feel threatening, it helps to come equipped with a strategy to soothe yourself when overwhelmed.  I once heard a woman talk about layering dryer sheets throughout her suitcase when she travels, so as to remind herself of home’s scent each time she opens her luggage.  For especially challenging moments, she spritzes a scarf with her favorite perfume and places it in a Ziploc bag in her purse.  She visits this accessory when she feels deluged by anything malodorous or intimidating, or even when she just needs a reminder that she is never too far from home.  Many of us are slaves to our olfactory system, and our sense of smell is that which is most closely linked to our memory.  For these reasons, I appreciate the above recommendations.  However, since I can’t eat dryer sheets or scented scarves, I personally require a different approach.  Lately, I have become addicted to ice-cold Coca-Cola, but only when it is served in a glass bottle.  Water is typically my beverage of choice, but in “crisis”,  there is something almost medicinal about the saccharine bubbly goodness that is Coca-Cola.  In addition to comforting me, my consumption of the product helps me keep tabs on my emotional well-being.  Since my affect is generally muted when I am overstimulated by a foreign locale, I can rely on my soda intake to gage how I really feel.  I recently caught myself drinking my fourth Coke of the day, which clued me in to the fact that my itinerary needed to be majorly tweaked.  Coca-Cola, I both love and loathe you for existing everywhere in the world, but I suppose 50 cents a pop (excuse the AWESOME pun) is a small price to pay for stress relief.

And yes, I do know that Coca-Cola is so acidic that it is used to clean blood off of highways after car accidents.  That knowledge stalled me for about five seconds, but as the addict I am, I have regretfully relapsed.

4. Don’t Micromanage your Itinerary.  I have been called reckless for my lack of planning, and I wouldn’t disagree with that description.  I am incompetent when it comes to budgeting for a trip, and I rarely research what I will do while there.  These logistics feel like work to me, and I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants as to further welcome spontaneity and adventure (this does NOT mean I lack the good sense to be cautious in new places).  Typically, the extent of my travel investigation is to Google, “Where can I hold a baby sloth in (whatever country I am visiting)?”  Before I start blubbering about how this dream has yet to come to fruition, I will tell you that I recently cursed my nonchalance towards planning after being forced to sleep on the street in Alta Gracia, Argentina.  I do not recommend this.  I learned my lesson and now book all hostels before traveling, and I always ask the hostel staff the cheapest way to get from the airport/bus station to their location (buses and metros generally cost less than a dollar, whereas taxis can cost upwards of 20).  That is the only thinking ahead that I do, and I like it that way.  Once I am settled in my hostel, I let spirit of the place (what am I?  A raging hippie?) guide me towards friendly locals who never fail to share their insiders’ secrets with me.  It works like magic, but only if you are willing to push your comfort zone a bit.

5. Pack Wisely.  Packing is a definite weakness of mine, as you might be able to glean from this picture:

Thank goodness I packed those Daffy Duck pajamas.

Despite my blatant ineptitude, I am dedicated to perfecting the skill.  Here is what I have learned so far:  Pack only what you can carry comfortably in your lap, since sometimes there won’t be any other space available for your belongings.  A towel is a necessity.  Last month I had to purchase one during a trip, which frustrated me at first, but afterwards I was incredibly grateful for its versatility.  It reminded me of the part in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a towel is characterized as “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”  The author goes on to hilariously detail the myriad ways a towel can be of assistance to you, from disguising you from galactic beasts to protecting you from inclement weather in space.  “Of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough” is the last suggested use the author proposes.  Since you probably won’t be going to outer space (or am I being presumptuous?), we will focus on more practical uses for your towel.  It can be a blanket on cold bus rides or under picnics, a pillow, a protective layer around fragile souvenirs, a cushion for when there are no chairs, a superhero cape for costume parties, etc.  You’ll also save money by bringing one since many hostels charge for towel usage.  Other items I always like to bring on trips are pretty stationery and a few small gifts.  I always meet at least three people throughout my travels who touch me enough that I want to write them a letter or give them a little something to commemorate our time together.  My new friends seem to enjoy the gesture.

Here is my winning packing list, though I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever followed it to a tee:

  • Five outfits with layering capabilities
  • Five pairs of socks and quick-drying underwear
  • One going-out outfit
  • One light jacket
  • Flip-flops (especially for use in public showers)
  • One pair of sneakers
  • One pair of dress shoes
  • A hat
  • Sunscreen
  • Toiletries
  • One quick-drying towel
  • One across-the-body purse
  • Ipod and Kindle
  • Passport
  • Stationery and a pen

Bam!  You’re good to go!  (Dad, I trust that you’ll remind me of this list next time I am packing).

6. Practice the Art of Relaxation, Repeatedly.  If you don’t know how to relax before your trip, you are not going to know how to relax during your trip.  I think people from the U.S. don’t excel at relaxation because we are programmed to believe that it’s either lazy or overly hedonistic, or a luxury that only economically privileged people can enjoy.  I fall into none of the above categories, but consider myself a master relaxer.  How do I take a load off?  First off, I don’t subscribe to the idea that relaxation must be extravagant or time consuming.  I am at my most relaxed when I am doing something simple, like wearing my pajamas whenever I am in the house, even if it’s 2pm.  I can’t be carefree or creative while jeans are restricting my every movement.  Second, I have adopted a rather embarrassing bird-watching habit.  I once spent 15 minutes at work watching a Blue Heron swallow a large fish whole in our garden.  I felt so at peace watching nature do its thing.  When my boss called, I shamelessly admitted what I was doing, and he laughed and told me that I should watch the bird fish for his next catch.  Find ways to relax every day, and surround yourself with people who encourage this.  That way, when you go on that well-deserved vacation, you will be skilled at relaxing and won’t feel at all guilty doing it.

7. Snack it up.  Unless you have a tried and true restaurant in mind, I recommend snacking over sitting down for meals (at least most of the time).  If you are visiting a major tourist destination, most restaurants you stumble upon will be money traps.  Wasting cash on subpar food is one of my biggest pet peeves, which is why I choose to cater to my many snack attacks instead.  Perusing the aisles of a local market for snacks offers an excellent glimpse into a culture, and the small treats you find won’t fill you up too much that you won’t feel like exploring more after eating.  Snacking might seem unhealthy, but many countries offer readily available wholesome snacks like bags of mango slices or freshly roasted nuts.  Let’s face it, these options are healthier than the hamburger you’ll probably order in a restaurant.  I generally have six snacks a day (fine, it’s more like ten), which gives me something to look forward to every step of the way and also ensures that I am trying as much of the local flavor as possible.  I also like the snack tactic because every time I eat at a restaurant, I immediately find two or three things that I would have enjoyed more upon exiting said restaurant.  Snacking leaves enough room in my belly to have it all!

Mango mango bo bango

8.  Avoid Tourture.  I’m just going to say it:  I hate tours.  To me, there is nothing more irritating than a know-it-all, so why would I pay a tour guide for being just that?  I like to read about things on my own, and explore them at my own pace.  With that said, I find some tours to be acceptable, but I can definitely count on one hand those that I have enjoyed.  The criteria I use to assess tour worthiness is as follows: Tours must involve, a. an element of risk, b. food, or c. animals (preferably of the furry variety).  Tours that incorporate all three of the aforementioned components get an extra large tip from yours truly.  My favorite tours have been a bike tour through the frenetic streets of  Buenos Aires, a Pablo Escobar tour led by sociology students in Medellin, Colombia, whale watching in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, and a tea tour at the Celestial Seasonings factory in Boulder, Colorado…which I took three times in two weeks.

9. Money Matters.  A friend recently asked a mutual friend of ours if I was secretly a trust fund baby, since all I seem to do is travel.  This amused me.  Just a month before when I was in Ecuador with another friend, we joked about how the beggars on the street probably had more money in their cups than I do in my bank account.  That’s entirely probable.  The truth is, I am likely one of the poorer people you know, but travel is a top priority of mine.  If you find yourself complaining that you don’t have enough money to go on a trip, you probably don’t really want to travel.  That’s fine, as it’s not for everyone.  If it is for you, though, keep in mind that you don’t need much money at all to go to most places (I have gotten my expenses down to $50 a week, and that’s including EVERYTHING.  Most of us spend WAY more money than this in the U.S.).  Bring what you have and make it work.  Actually, bring less than what you have.  I find that the more money I bring, the less cultural my experiences are.  If you can’t afford a place to stay, visit websites like www.couchsurfing.org for free housing.  Save money on food by cooking for yourself or eating the economical set meals that many restaurants offer.  Rely on your Chevro-legs, buses, and the metro to get around, and avoid taxis unless you are in a large group.  To me, traveling is the cheapest education you will ever receive, and it is the most worthwhile investment you can make.  I don’t regret even the worst trips I’ve taken.

10. Don’t Get too Comfy in your Natural Habitat.  Complacency promotes fear of the unknown, and if you stay anchored for too long, you may never feel compelled to get out and see the world.  The happy bubbles we live in work fast.  I felt dissuaded from traveling after just two months in the U.S.  Everything feels so easy and comfortable and safe here that thoughts of another country started to scare me a bit.  If you’ve ever read Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear, you know how unwarranted the majority of our anxieties are.  Yes, traveling involves definite risks, but they are really no different than those which exist in the cities where we live and work.  Instead of shying away from travel, think of how you would prevent or respond to your worst-case scenario.  For instance, I am really attached to my memories, and therefore obsess over losing my pictures.  For this reason, I take my memory card out of my camera and hide it every time I am in transit from one point to another.  That way, if my camera gets stolen, I still have access to all of my photos.  When you really sit down and examine possible perils, you’ll find that your preoccupations are merely a product of an overactive imagination.  No fear is worth staying home for.

So how about you get packing and come join me?  I assure you that the grass is greener where we’re headed;).

See?  Told ya so!