#DoYouIndie Travel Challenge: Traveling is not Vacation and Other Realizations

Day 3: What has long term travel taught you?

I could fill a book with all the things that occurred to me as we circumnavigated the globe last year, and in other trips with Jon or our children.  Although many of these are not profound or deeply introspective, they are just a few of the things that come to mind as a sit down tonight to take on this writing challenge.  I hope you enjoy and that it causes you to ponder the same thing – what have you learned in your travels…about yourself or about the world in general.
  1.  The world up close is not as scary as it looks on your TV.  Americans are really cautious people, and we get even safer with each passing year.   My brother who is 12 years younger than me, rode in a car seat from day one.  Me?  My mom used to let me ride around in the trunk!  My parents tucked me and my older sister into sleeping bags in the back of our blue station wagon and cruised off to the drive-in movie hoping we were sound asleep in the back (we weren’t, and I’m still afraid of sharks).  And I am not that old (I keep telling myself that).  Before we left on our trip, I had planned to check the US Dept of State website and also register each segment of our trip with them (S.T.E.P.). A few countries in, I realized that reading an alert on a website is very different than actually being there, and largely abandoned this process. We had very few close encounters with criminal activity in one year abroad.   One ipad was stolen, but it was an inside job by someone who had a key to the volunteer apartment we were staying in while in Nairobi. And Jon was pickpocketed on a bus in Denmark, of all places!  One of the “scariest” places we went, at least if you were to listen to the news, was Turkey. Even in Instanbul, where we spent nearly a week, there was no evidence of uprisings that were so famously displayed on the news, and no sense of unease at all.  In fact, our children agreed that the nicest people on the planet live in Turkey (which was Jon and my conclusion when we visited there 18 years ago).  One of our flights out of Egypt was cancelled by the airline, due to civil unrest (July 2013), forcing us to reroute that part of our trip.  Otherwise, we were safe, even when taking public transportation late at night, or letting the kids run short errands on their own in nearly every country we stayed.  And back to the car seat point, we accepted that Vivian, at 6 years of age, and Maggie, at 8, were done with car seats the moment we left the US (and I still get the occassional disapproving scowl when I tell a fellow mom here at home that Vivian doesn’t need a booster, even though **gasp!!** she isn’t 4’9″ tall or 9 years old).  Of course when we weren’t riding in a Songthaew, Tuk Tuk or some other prewar era vehicle, we insisted on seat belts for everyone, because at the end of the day, we are Americans.

    It wasn't all helmets and seat belts for us....David preparing to plummet from the 111 meter Victoria Falls Bungy

    It wasn’t all helmets and seat belts for us….David preparing to plummet from the 111 meter Victoria Falls Bungy

  2. People are generally very nice.  Of course there are always those people you encounter that clearly were bitten by the grumpasaurus as they stepped out of bed, and we encountered a few of them on journey, notably in France and Austria, but for the most part, people are kind, friendly, generous and open.  And the good far outweighs and outlasts the bad. In fact, the same day we encountered the crazy guy chasing us down the canal, we had taken our family on bikes to a nearby market for some food. It started to rain so hard just as the store was closing.  Rather than letting us venture out into the deluge with our bags of groceries, the store owner insisted that he drive us back to the canal boat in his truck.  It is no secret that Americans tend to be a little more stand-offish and travel has helped to smooth those hard angles a little for me.  Now when I’m traveling, if someone I meet in line waiting for food invites us over for dinner the next night at their house, I smile and accept, where as before, I might have demurred, assuming they couldn’t possibly mean it, that the invitation was only a friendly gesture that I was meant to decline.  But no, in other countries people really are that nice.  They want to show you their hometown, introduce you to their family and their customs, and share their food.  One of my favorite memories of Iceland is that when departing, instead of giving the expected “ciao” or “goodbye”, they simply say “bless”.  It always made me feel hugged.  Whenever I looked back and thought about how much I enjoyed a place, it was always the people that mattered; they ultimately became the measure of a city or a country.  Kind of a sobering thought when you apply that to how foreigners visiting the US might perceive our country!P1020938
  3. Our country is not the greatest country on earth.  Before you start berating me for my traitorous wasy or accusing me of being an ingrate, just think about it. The US has affluence, many freedoms, and political prowess, but we are not first in education, safety (no matter how many laws are written to prevent us from harming ourselves), or even happiness. The best post I have found on this topic on the internet is here, and there are great statistics to back up these rankings. No single country is the “best” at everything, and it was impossible not to compare each place we went to the last, and also to our good ‘ole USA.   We traveled to some of the poorest countries on earth and saw the happiest people, with no worldly possessions but emanating pure joy.  An empty water bottle given to a small child in a school in Nairobi created such a stir, it might be compared to telling an American child that he has been given an all expenses paid trip to Disneyland and we would be leaving that moment!  In Cuba, where I was just last spring, I had a little insight into what a truly communist country looks like.  The people there have awesome health benefits and can be educated in any field (for free!) but they can’t earn a salary that will allow them anything “extra” over fellow countrymen.  Our guide remarked on Molly’s braces, which in the US cost us $7000, but for his daughter in Havana, they were paid for by the government.  As I was struggling to come to terms with this painful disparity, he told me that he was taking his daughter the following day to be a “dolphin trainer for a day” at the local aquarium.  The price?  Fifty-two cents.  I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.  When I asked him why pay anything at all if the fee is so small and he replied with an unreadable expression that I took to be sincere, “it pays the trainer’s salary”.  So there it is….they have many freedoms but are not free in the full sense of the word.  They are not in control of their destiny and the undercurrent of sadness was palpable in many places.  I learned that our way was not always the best way, it was simply one way of many≠≠.  I saw the opposite side of many conflicts, and it was enlightening.  I will never forget my trip to the “American War” museum in Vietnam.  I gained a new perspective on many things that I had only considered before from a single dimension, the American point of view.P1030911
  4. Traveling ≠ Vacation or in other words, traveling can be a lot of work!  Especially with kids.  I think we were four weeks into the trip when it kind of hit us like a ton of bricks that we were really travelling and this was no longer a trip that we would soon be returning home from, but “this” was actually our home for the next year!  As expected, sometimes our frenetic pace became too much and we needed to slow down.  Although, because there were so many places we wanted to go, our maximum stay in any one place was 2 weeks, and because we had all become so accustomed to the thrill of doing something new every day, 2 weeks felt like a long time, almost TOO long to stay in one place.  We tried to keep our minimum to 2 nights, so that there was at least one full day to actually go do something without our “stuff” in tow sandwiched between two travel days.   In that same vein, travelers ≠ tourists.  But if you are reading this, and you follow travel blogs like Bootsnall, then I’m preaching to the choir.  There is a huge difference between staying in a resort, and staying in someone’s home; taking a prescripted tour and traveling independently. I’m not sure I gave a ton of thoght to this before our big RTW trip, but now it is something I notice every time I travel, and my kids do too.


    A familiar travel day scenario. I think this was in Sri Lanka, where seat belts actually might have made me feel a bit safer (in case we were to collide with an elephant or tuk tuk)

  5. Living in the moment is not easy.  At the beginning of the trip, I stated that this would be one of my big goals, and I found it to be an even larger challenge than anticipated.  When you travel long term, each day, each city, each experience has three different dimensions, and they overlap so that on any given day, you are dealing with the future, past and present of several different parts of your trip.  Confused?  So was I, and often.  Sometimes, I had to give up on documenting an amazing experience on our blog (Prague) so that we could enjoy the country we were currently in (France), or even plan the next leg of our journey (Austria, which we arrived in just one day after we had booked our stay and with no transportation to get us there)!  It was a constant battle of preserving our precious memories, savoring the awesomeness of what was actually surrounding us, and planning ahead a little so that we could optimize our experience in our next destination.   But not planning so much that we couldn’t be flexible….or live in the moment!P1030250
  6. However hard it is, document it.  Whether it be Instagram, a journal, the Notes feature on your iphone, a blog, or even black and white film. If you don’t tell your story somehow, the colors, smells, names, faces, tastes, and intensity will fade with time.  I’ve already mentioned Prague, but there are many, many, many other small moments, days, and even entire countries that remain undocumented.  However hard I try, if I were to write about it now, the story would be different, just removed enough that you couldn’t feel the weight of the dozen keys that were meant to get us into our apartment, or the name of the restaurant where ran into our friends from Seattle.  The framework for the story is there, but the feeling of being there is gone.
  7. Less is more.  I still can’t believe how few clothes I had with me compared to what is currently in my closet (until I look at the photos and see the same blue shirt a million times). For a long musing on this topic, see yesterday’s post, but basically, it was just kind of exhilirating to realize that sometimes washing four things in a sink and drying them on a bush to stretch another week out of my wardrobe was worth it if it meant we got to spend an extra 6 hours doing something we really liked, in a place we had never been.  I also took to cutting my own hair, mending my beloved smart wool socks with my little sewing kit, and many other strategies that saved us a lot of time hunting around for “the western equivalent” or spending a lot of money.  I went a year without a pedicure, without highlights, and with the same 2 pairs of shoes. But, never the purist, I did lug around my heavy Sonicare for a year, and carried extra tubes of my favorite mascara
  8. If you see something you really want, just buy it!  First of all, your money stimulates the economy and it is likely that whomever you paid for the item needs the money far more than you even if you are traveling on a “shoestring” budget.  Second, if you don’t buy it, you may waste hours futiley searching other shops in nearby towns for that exact item, to no avail. Believe me, there were those hand knitted, double thickness gloves at the highest peak in San Pedro de Atacama, and that bag in Venice, and countless other items I passed up because of various uncertainties, and then I wasted time and energy and sometimes money seeking out that exact item elsewhere, and never really finding it.  I realize that there are entire posts on travel websites all over the internet telling you the exact opposite, that if you see a souvenier, hold off on buying it because it is probably the same thing you will see in all other shops for a better price elsewhere.  But I’m telling you, if you see something that really speaks to you, sometimes it is worth it to just trust your excellent taste and intuition, and fork over the cash (after a fair attempt at haggling over the price of course).  And third, it will be a treasured momento when you return home to the sameness of your life – it will be a little bright spot, a carved wooden story on your nightstand, a woven silk memory under your bare feet.


    One dollar well spent

I’m stopping here.  I have to save something to write about later this month, right?  And I’ve now taken so long with this post that it is actually the 4th!


1 ping

  1. Dani

    Hey Gretchen, you’re answers are awesome! We really love these lessons. :)

    Do you have a social media account? We stumbled upon your blog by accident and saw you are also taking part in the 2015 indie Travel Challenge. We can’t track your blog posts by tagging #DoYouIndie in the post alone. For us to track each post, and see and share it, we need you to link to your post and use #DoYouIndie on social media (like on facebook or twitter).

    If you don’t have either of these, twitter is free to sign up and you can use the account just for this project (without putting in your info. A few contributors are doing that). If you have any questions, email me. i’m happy to help.

    In the meantime, im adding your posts to our track & share document. :) Cheers!

  2. Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

    Ha! This is GREAT!

    We’ve been traveling for about seven years, full time with our kids and I SO feel ya. I loved “No matter how hard it is, document it.” YES!! And also “Living in the Moment is NOT easy.” It’s not.

    Such good stuff here! Expect to see yourself quoted on the round up on Friday at BootsnAll!!

    Keep going!

  1. #DoYouIndie Day 6 Travel Challenge: » Roaming Jones

    […] Tip #3: Give your kids an allowance; it engages them in day to day transactions, gives them greater independence, and teaches them valuable life skills! I think we were a couple of countries into the trip when Jon and I had finally heard the last we could stand of “can I have a smoothie with lunch” or “can we please get gelato?” We explained to them that if we were to buy a beverage with each meal for each of us, then that is automatically another $20 on our tab in some countries. We hastily decided on a $5 per week per child allowance, paid in the local currency and life on the road got a whole lot more enjoyable for all of us. Of course, $5 went a lot further in SE Asia than it did in Australia, but the kids quickly learned to scope out the best deals, save their money up and buy what we really spoke to them. Which, is a “sub-point” here that I want to reference from a previous post: If you really want something while traveling, just buy it! […]

Comments have been disabled.