Should one compare travel experiences? | Backpacking observations

Uyuni salt flats - driving

I´ve frequently mentioned to others that I´ve found my backpacking expeditions far more valuable than my four-year university degree in terms of the educational and ‘real life’ benefits; however, backpacking itself as a way of life is certainly an art/craft that is perfected over time.

Most individuals who have never gone on an extended trip – with a limited budget – have this romantic notion that backpacking is like an all-inclusive excursion to a posh resort where food, drinks, sun & tan are the epicenter of activities.  This is not at all the case.  The reality is that backpacking on a budget (especially in developing countries) means giving up loads of creature comforts one normally takes for granted back home.

Moreover, depending on where you are traveling conditions change dramatically.  A cozy bed, running water, healthy food and an internet connection may or may not be available at all times.  At the worst of times you´ll be ripped off, stranded, delayed, robbed or even forced to evacuate yourself from a hotspot (political or weather related) with limited resources.

The romantic notion that backpacking is a ‘holiday’ really needs to be examined with a critical eye.  It´s a way of life.  I´m often more busy and involved during my travels with various commitments than I am when I´m working or studying.   I´ve worked, traveled and lived overseas for most of my adult years.  I´m in no way a rookie in terms of what it is like to be overseas on your own making a living or blazing a path down an unbeaten trail; however, since I´ve come to South America I´ve realized that what I took for granted as a backpacker in Asia, I could no longer rely on as gospel in South America.

(Editors note:  This article was written in April, 2010 after experiencing a few too many misadventures while backpacking in South America.  My trip improved significantly as time went on & I’m itching to get back and explore more of this great continent)

Dirt road - Salar de Uyuni

The differences in travel between South East Asia and South America is quite striking.  If you´ve done your first backpacking trip to South East Asia consider yourself spoiled.  The norm of backpacker ghettos (clusters of guesthouses and tour shops taking over blocks) and highly developed travel services are just not found in South America.  It´s a region where DIY (do it yourself) is how one is going to survive on a day-to-day basis.

Wading through literally hundreds of bus companies at an enormous bus station to find a ticket as opposed to having your bus ticket booked, confirmed and departed from a travel agency next to your guesthouse is the standard.  Spending half a day going to various banks to cash your travelers checks (after visiting 20 different branches) and then waiting two hours in line is not uncommon.  The threat of violent crime and petty theft is also a lot more serious here as well.  As a seasoned traveler I don´t wander around town alone with my valuables dangling off of my wrist or neck; however, even playing it smart, I was a victim on the streets of Montevideo where a man came up from behind me with a knife demanding I empty my wallet immediately.

Most importantly, the audacity for somebody to just get on a plane and arrive in South America alone without even basic Spanish skills is not terribly clever!  If you at all think you´re going to get on backpacking across South America ignorantly barking English at the locals you meet you´re in for one rude awakening.  The fact is that without basic Spanish skills you are really limiting yourself in terms of what you can and can´t do on your own and how much you´re going to experience in terms of relationships with others.  If I could do things over again I would have stayed in one place for a month to take some Spanish courses.  Instead, I’m rolling with the punches and picking up a phrase or two everyday :P

Backpacking is not an art that´s mastered and carried over and applied in other parts of the world like a cookie cutter mould.  There are things you learn from every backpacking experience that you can carry over in any situation but to naïvely think that you can just use the same skill sets from one area of the world and apply it to another (which is exactly what I thought prior to my trip) is setting yourself up for failure.

Not only will you lament every negative experience you encounter, but you´ll constantly be comparing each experience with a biased opinion.  In my humble opinion, it´s best to create each backpacking experience as a separate entity – much like a blank slate.  If you have a clear mind you´re going to encounter each situation as a new experience instead of as an occasion for resentment when a certain level of respect or treatment just isn´t up to snuff.

I´ve found myself at times yoyo-ing in between these two states of mind, but more recently I´ve been leaning more towards the side of being completely and totally open-minded.  I really suggest that anybody who is going to travel to another part of the world consider that what you may expect to encounter may not be the reality and that being flexible, open minded and ready to encounter new situations will give you the best opportunity to really value and cherish your journey in a unique and special way.

Nomadic Samuel Jeffery

Truck - salt flat - Salar de Uyuni

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Micamyx|Senyorita July 13, 2011 at 4:34 am

Nice post Samuel :) Backpacking is a way of life. It is quite through though that one gets spoiled in any SouthEast Asian trip since tours and guides are available, but i am not quite sure in other continents. I’ve been to some SEA countries and the UK so i can’t really say much yet :D Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

Have you been to the Philippines or are you planning to go anytime soon? :)

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Nomadic Samuel July 14, 2011 at 2:28 am

Thanks!

I love being in SE Asia :) It’s my home away from home. I’ve yet to visit the UK. How was that? I have not yet been to the Philippines but it is a VERY HIGH priority on my next trip. I have an Aunt from Cebu and she keeps telling me to go there. Any recommendations?

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Micamyx|Senyorita July 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Cebu is one of my favorites :D I love Boracay, Guimaras, Camiguin, Davao, Palawan, Baguio, Pangasinan and more! You must at least stay here for two months or more hehe. Just keep on reading my past entries at my travel blog. If i’m already ok with my schedule, i’ll blog about the rest of my PH and UK trips. Hope to see you here soon!

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Nomadic Samuel July 16, 2011 at 2:05 am

Thanks for all the tips! I’d most certainly need two months to check off the ones you’ve listed. I’m quite interested in Baguio – if I remember correctly that’s a retreat north of Manila? I will definitely be checking out your blog to hear about your experiences in both places.

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Traveling Ted July 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Good post. I have never been backpacking in South America, so it is good to know what to expect if I go.

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Nomadic Samuel July 14, 2011 at 2:30 am

Ted, I hope you get the opportunity. I honestly encountered all of the rough stuff within the first month (when I wrote the post) and then it was smooth sailing thereafter. I wish I could wake-up in La Paz or Buenos Aires tomorrow :)

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flipnomad July 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

i agree with you man, it’s a tough way of life if you’re travelling on a very limited budget… it does though brings out the best or worst in our character :-) i remember when i got home after my first backpacking trip (2009), my mom (she’s never been out of the country) cried when she saw me because i was so thin and have bruises on my arms and legs (some minor accidents) she thought that when someone travels they usually stays in hotels and lives a pampered life… i told her the things that ive been thru just to travel and she asked why i have to subject myself to suck kind of life whereas i had a comfortable life when i was still working… words just couldnt explain the happiness I feel when i’m travelling…

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Nomadic Samuel July 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm

That’s exactly what most people believe about travel because many only go for a weekend or short holiday and then do tend to spend a lot and pamper themselves during this time. I think as backpackers we understand the rigors and wear and tear of travel along with all the splendid moments that make it all worthwhile. My Mom REALLY worried about me as well and it almost appeared as though she was relieved to see me still alive when I first came home from my backpacking trip in SE Asia in 2008. Now my parents are kind of used to the idea that I’m constantly on the move and they actually joined me in Vietnam and Cambodia this past winter and plan to make a trip of their own next year to the region.

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Andrea July 26, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Great post! I think travelling this way can be somewhat of an endurance test. It’s worth it, though!

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Nomadic Samuel July 27, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Andrea, it definitely is an endurance test but -as you mentioned – well worth it! I’m addicted :)

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Raymond @ Man On The Lam July 28, 2011 at 4:11 am

I have to agree that backpacking SE Asia is pretty sweet. It doesn’t take much work at all…so far. I was spoiled in Central America because I was there for work, so had a driver (I know!), but hopefully going to get back there and to South America next year to experience it a bit more up close.

Great post!

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Nomadic Samuel July 30, 2011 at 1:47 am

Raymond, I’d do just about anything to get back to South America :) I’m off to Korea this fall to save up for another journey.

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Zablon Mukuba July 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

You are right some places are totally different from other places but the experience is totally worth it

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Nomadic Samuel July 30, 2011 at 1:44 am

Zablon, that’s definitely true :) I think keeping an open mind makes for the ultimate journey.

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Scott July 28, 2011 at 10:06 pm

“Expectations.” Check ‘em at the door . . . and that’s the door of your room, BEFORE you leave. Leave in the drawer with that fourth pair of socks . . . third pair of pants . . . they can – in my experience – only hinder what would/could be an otherwise amazing experience; once at your destination you turn every corner, “expecting” some-thing, instead of seeing, being aware of, what IS there. Let’s imagine that a million people have traveled to India: there are a million India’s . . . one for everyone who’s been. They may, of course, each trip, share some similarities . . . but . . . other than that, the trip is yours!

The word “budget”, too, I think, is much overused to explain what “we” do. Everyone is on a budget, some simply have a higher or lower one than we do. What I think “we’re” talking about is making the money we have last for as long as we can, and keep us in a style of living that keeps us more-or-less fed, healthy and alive. At least that’s my deal.

As for knowing the language: I purposely do not, have not, will not learn Hindi or any other language found on the subcontinent of India (anyone getting the drift that India is My Place?:). I prefer not to know because I don’t want to sit in a bus, in a restaurant or anywhere else and shift my own concentration (I write) to anything else. It does have it’s drawbacks, certainly, my way . . . but it does serve me and my needs. But let me into any Spanish speaking country and I’m good to go!

Keep doin’ your thing, here, Samuel . . . you’re growing daily :)
Namaste
Scott

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Nomadic Samuel July 30, 2011 at 1:41 am

Hey Scott, thanks for the thoughtful comment. I love what you’ve said: ““Expectations.” Check ‘em at the door.” I will try to live by that from now on when I travel. I agree with you about learning languages – not necessary everywhere you go.

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Scott July 30, 2011 at 1:54 am

Maybe read some Alan Watts . . . This Is It is a good place to start :)

Expectations . . . nothing good, in my experience has ever come of them. Continuing to have expectations is kinda like eating dirt, for the tenth time, and “expecting” that somehow it’s gonna be different this time :)

As for language . . . I do sometimes miss not knowing Hindi . . . but all in all, I’ve rationalized it for myself, and it works for me.

You’ve got yourself a nice little niche here, Samuel . . . Walk On . . .

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Nomadic Samuel July 31, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Thanks Scott, Alan Watts is a great author :) Best wishes with all of your projects.

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Jason Castellani September 20, 2011 at 1:10 am

We started our backpacking with Central & South America, so we should be in good shape if we ever get to SE Asia? I think the fact that you can compare both is an educational experience in itself. You have an understanding of what these dramatically different cultures and like and how to cope with them and when you just can’t cope with them. I am a much more patient and tolerant person today, as I am sure you are now too. Can’t buy that at a college.

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Nomadic Samuel September 20, 2011 at 7:22 am

Hey Jason, I don’t think Central or South America are harder areas to backpack – especially if it is your first go at it. I just found having been based in Asia for quite some time a bit challenging because I was comparing both experiences directly. Once I stopped doing that I was right in my element. I’m actually planning ‘the mother’ of al trips – from Alaska to Patagonia overland once I’m done teaching in Korea. It should be one heck of an adventure! I definitely agree with you about being patient and more tolerant. Backpacking teaches one a lot of valuable lessons.

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Paul February 6, 2013 at 6:11 am

Great post Samuel (Sam?). I certainly agree with the idea that travelling is not a holiday. Long term travel takes work, and in itself requires a holiday just to relax. I mean I’ve just gotten into blogging properly this full week and it itself is very time consuming and in some ways, more in-depth than a lot of tasks that one does at work.

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