Do you have travel aspirations, either nationally or internationally? Many people do, and just don’t know what to expect or how to start. I am a professional photographer, blogger and international traveler, but it wasn’t always that way. Like so many of you I was once a corporate guy, slogging my way through life just trying to make a living, and hating it. It doesn’t have to be that way. Travel is liberating and rejuvenating, whether you do it on a part-time basis or on a full-time basis like me. Here are 10 things that have helped me in my travels.
- Don’t let fear influence your decisions. Anytime we venture out of our comfort zone we can expect a certain amount of anxiety, but fear can be debilitating. Faced head-on fear usually dissipates quickly. Media is not your friend. Media is designed to be dramatic and sensational in content, and this applies especially to travel. If I had listened to the media hype I would never have explored Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua or Colombia to name but a few.
- Get over your paranoia. Not everyone is out to get you, that is a travel myth. Traveling internationally I find quite the opposite to be true, most folks are generous and sincerely want to help you. This includes taxi drivers, shop owners, sidewalk vendors and even the police. Terrorists are not lurking around every corner, and muggers and rapists don’t roam the streets en masse like zombies after the apocalypse. In four years of travel I have never been the victim of a criminal act, not even petty theft.
- Lighten up. Don’t take life so seriously. Your anxiety can be contagious. Situations always resolve themselves, and usually for the better. My friend Tony in Cuba is fond of saying: When things don’t go as planned is when the adventure begins. It’s the adventure that you will remember: the people, the experiences; not the ruins, cathedrals and museums. Traveling is all about new experiences.
- Stay positive and open. Drop your expectations and quit trying to plan each and every detail of your trip. Be flexible like a reed blowing in the wind. Be in the moment. Get “out of your head” by not dwelling in the past or projecting into the future. The Buddhists call this being present in the moment. If you’re constantly in your head you’re going to miss the good stuff. Smile and laugh, like anxiety they are also contagious. People the world over respond positively to a smile.
- Eat the food. OMG eat the food. The prohibition against eating the local cuisine is another travel myth. Who starts these myths anyway? Local food is healthier, tastier and way cheaper in the long run. Eating well is one of the perks of travel. Eating abroad can be a sensual experience for those of us who enjoy food, and really who doesn’t? Eat the street food sold by sidewalk vendors, do you really think they would stay in business if they were poisoning everyone? The locals would quickly sort that out, they frequent these stands too. Street food has never made me sick, the only times I’ve suffered from the symptoms of food poisoning is when I’ve eaten at high end American-wannabe restaurants (there must be a lesson in that somewhere).
- Travel like the locals. Use the buses, collectivos, taxis, tuk-tuks, riverboats, pangas, bicycles and your own two feet. It’s cheap, exciting and educational. Most countries have great travel infrastructure, because not everyone can afford a car or even a motor scooter. Get out of the tourist districts and head into the local neighborhoods for a truly authentic experience. The residents won’t murder you, in fact they will be thrilled to see you, you will oftentimes be a sensation. I wander into these neighborhoods all the time, usually with my expensive camera gear, and I’m always welcomed with open arms.
- Learn some of the language. It is the polite thing to do. You will be amazed at how this is received. Nobody expects you to be fluent, but simple things like: please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry and where’s the bathroom go a long way. Smile and laugh at your own shortcomings, and you will make instant friends amongst strangers. And don’t forget greetings like good morning, good afternoon and good evening. Need an English speaker to help you translate, just look for the youngest kid in the crowd.
- Checkout the local adult beverages. Often as not this will be the local beer, usually plentiful and cheap. But almost every country has its own “hard stuff.” Whether it’s tequila or mescal in Mexico, rum in Cuba, or Pisco in Peru, imbibing the local brew can be fun and a real icebreaker with the locals. Coffee and tea can be fun too, remember to keep it local and forego the ubiquitous Coca-cola (try the local fresh squeezed fruit juices instead).
- Suspend judgement. You are going to see and experience lots of new things when you travel. Just enjoy the experience and the uniqueness. If things were the same as they were at home it would just be boring, and what incentive would you have to travel. Just because things may be different from what you’re used to doesn’t automatically make them wrong. Locals do things for a reason, even if you don’t always understand the reason. You don’t always have to understand, just accept.
- Just do it. Nike coined that term years ago. You can always come up with excuses, rationalizations and justifications for not doing something, but in the end it’s only you who loses. Just do it, you will be happy that you did. And when you get home don’t fall into the bad habit of sharing horror stories with your friends, you will only perpetrate the negative travel myths that abound. Share the good stuff: the new friends, experiences, food and drink you enjoyed. Remember what my good friend Tony from Cuba says: When things don’t go as planned is when the adventure begins. Bon voyage my friends.
Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer and World Traveler