There is nothing more humbling than being passed on a hike — twice — by an elderly man who is using a walking stick and holding an umbrella.
“Don’t go too fast,” the man said in broken English as he sped by me. “One step at a time.”
Thirty minutes later, when he passed me going back down the incredibly steep Penang Hill in Malaysia (I didn’t reach the top for another two hours), he just smiled and nodded at me.
I’ll never know if the old man was mocking me, trying to give helpful advice or was simply Edmund Hillary reincarnate. But I do know that I was a few heart palpitations away from collapsing to death on that god forsaken hill.
It was just another of those lonely, challenging obstacles I’ve had to overcome and learn to embrace while traveling Australia, Southeast Asia and now Europe over the past ten weeks.
I’ve written a lot about how glorious and life-changing this journey has been so far. These things are true. More than I can ever express in a blog. But I would feel insincere if I were to continue posting and leave you all thinking everything is pure bliss over here.
The truth is, traveling is HARD. Really hard.
It becomes difficult from the moment you step onto that first airplane. You leave the comfort bubble of family and friends. You leave a place that speaks a familiar language and trades with a familiar currency. You leave, perhaps most difficultly, a daily routine and embark on the nomadic life.
There (most likely) won’t be any five-star hotels, nutritiously-balanced meals, access to a gym or dressers full of clothes to choose from. You are accepting that your nights will be spent on couches, shitty hostel beds and train station benches. Your meals will be from your adopted country’s value menu. Your workouts will consist of all the walking you will do, whether that be exploring a new city, hiking a volcano or frantically running from one train platform to the next (while hauling a 30-pound backpack, of course).
Oh, and your clothing? I hope you don’t mind seeing the same shirt-shorts-sandals combination on yourself in every picture. It’s happening. Accept it.
Having trouble finding your hostel in a tiny town on an island off the coast of a country you’ve never been to before? Don’t bother getting out your iPhone – you won’t have WiFi. I promise.
Better ask someone how to get there! Oh, you don’t speak the language? You better be damn good at hand signals or operating an old-school paper map.
You’ll find that one of the hardest parts of traveling is spending what seems like three-quarters of your life bouncing from hostel to hostel, city to city, or country to country by cab, train, plane or ferry. The second you get used to one place, you’re probably moving on to the next.
Sure, you can chat with your parents or your friends via WiFi from wherever you are staying. You may even get them on Skype if the multiple-hour time difference is manageable. But the loneliness of solo travel will bother you at times. Skype and WhatsApp can’t replace face-to-face discussion, and as much as you like meeting new people, sometimes you’ll just need someone who already knows you; someone you can bullshit with over a beer.
You will be worried about blowing through your savings. You will fret over choosing the right places to visit (and develop a nice case of FOMO along the way). You will be tired, all the time. You will get blisters and sunburns and bug bites. You will not be hygienic.
Instead of watching The Bachelor or settling down with a glass of Merlot after a busy day, you’ll probably be scribbling in a journal, playing cards with a stranger or stomaching the cheapest boxed wine you can get your hands on.
You will forget your toothbrush and have to use your finger because your flight gets in after all the airport shops close. You will be surprised by an immigration fee and have to run around the airport looking for an ATM and an open money exchange counter. You will most definitely be stared at by the majority of locals as you stroll down the road to dinner.
…you will also learn to appreciate your family, friends and home more than you imagined. You will become really good at being spontaneous. You will learn useful phrases in native languages and become a mad mathematician when calculating exchange rates and budgets. You will push your mind and body further than they’ve ever gone before. You will realize that how you look and how you dress isn’t really all that important. You’ll become a more patient, independent, decisive person. You will become a problem-solver. You will try foods that look, taste and smell like nothing you’ve ever known before. You will make new friends from all over the globe and grow close to them in a very short time. You will be reminded that our world is a massive place full of unique, kind-hearted, curious people.
You will make unbelievable memories. You will get in touch with yourself and the world in ways you didn’t imagine possible. You will gain a surprising amount of confidence, very quickly. You will fill up your passport and become a true global citizen. You’ll be incredibly, inexplicably happy.
You will really live.
As I was doubled over on Penang Hill, debating whether it was my time to die and watching an old man hobble past at warp speed, one other thought ran through my mind: “I don’t think I would have finished this hike two months ago.”
I laughed out loud, all alone, and made my legs start moving uphill again.
Get out there and do the damn thing. Expect to struggle. Prepare to succeed. Enjoy the adventure.