Six life lessons I learned from traveling

Many people would define travel as going to a new place on a vacation or for work. I think of travel as something that takes me out of my comfort zone, a new experience- it may be within my own state or country or outside. It’s been an exciting, scary and rewarding journey each time I’ve traveled someplace new and here’s some of what I learned along the way.

1. A life lived in fear is a life half lived

A few years back, I decided to quit my job and travel- it was my New Year’s resolution. I was afraid that I would fall out of the highly competitive Indian job market, that I did not have a Plan B and my career might get impacted. But then I asked myself..what was the point of the education and pedigree if one can’t even take such a small risk.

On 2 Jan, I quit my job, gave up my apartment, packed my bags and took off!

Last grapes of the harvest :)
Last grapes of the harvest :)

During this short sabbatical, I volunteered at an organic wine farm in South Africa (through WWOOF). The work involved 8 hours of harvesting grapes, collecting vegetables, cutting and preserving fruits, pruning trees daily..all in the 38 degrees hot summer! The wineyards had waist high weeds (as they did not use any de-weeding chemicals) and the ground was littered with snake pits! But I went out to harvest everyday..stamping my feet on the ground to scare away any lingering adders, boomslangs or black mambas! It was my own safety mechanism.
The farm itself was next to townships which were infamous for rampant drug abuse, and high crime rates- there had been several break in’s at the farm. I spent the first few nights alone on this farm (before the other volunteers arrived) tucked 70 kilometers away from the city!

But each time I bulldozed through my fear and drove through the fog.. I had a great experience and looked forward to the next challenge. I traveled for 3 months across North East India, South Africa and North America. When I came back, I got back to corporate life, all recharged!

2. Plans get made

When I arrived in Cape Town, I didn’t know anyone..since I was living and working (WWOOF-ing) at a farm in Wellington, I hadn’t sent out any couchrequests either. I had briefly checked the Cape Town events page where I read a note from a couchsurfer saying that she had tickets for the local red-bus tour and would split the cost with anyone who was interested. I had never been on a red-bus tour in any city (its blasphemous for a backpacker to do something that touristy!) but I thought I’d give it a shot as I didn’t have any plans.

On the red bus.
On the red bus.

So I met M at Kaapstad and we headed over to the boarding point. Oh boy, was it a fun time! The bus drove past Table Mountain, Camps bay, Clifton, Green point, V&A Waterfront, Long Street, Kirstenbosch and finally reaching Groot-Constantia– the home of South African wine! We had the funnest time, drinking wine, chatting, cracking jokes, we met other backpackers on the bus and had a gala time that evening at the bars on Long Street!

Fun with friends at Cape Town.
Fun with friends at Cape Town.

Later that week, we made plans with my friends from the farm and from couchsurfing. We went for summer concerts at De Waal park, discovered neighborhood cafes, markets and local watering holes. M met a Russian wall street trader, who had his friend’s car for a week, and coaxed him to do a road trip to Table Mountain national park…perfect for our hike and picnic! It was the most unplanned yet eventful week ever, I met some wonderful people who are good friends now, explored the city with them and had a great time.

So ya, I learnt not to stress too much about planning every single day of my travels or my life…plans get made!

3. Plans get unmade

Boarding a ferry to Koh Tao.
Boarding a ferry to Koh Tao.

Last year, I was traveling extensively in South East Asia. And of course, Malaysia and Thailand were the first countries I visited. Gifted with such a vibrant and varied coastline, these two countries are perfect for diving, snorkeling and swim-through caves. I also wanted to try cave diving here after getting my dive certification.

I started out in Kuala Lumpur, weaved my way north through to Teman Negara. The plan was to go to Perhentian Islands- I had read about the caves, gorgeous dive spots and met travelers who had recommended it. At the train station, I was told that the trains to Tanah Merah (Kelantan) were full! The only other way was to take a bus which would take over 10 hours. So I decided to take a train to Butterworth and go to Georgetown (Penang) instead. I was going to Koh Tao-Thailand in any case and had plenty of opportunity to dive there…or so I thought. My travel from Penang to islands off Thailand’s east coast weren’t the easiest!

The route map.
The route map.

From Georgetown I took a ferry to Butterworth, and then a bus to the Malay border town of Bukit Kayu Hitam. Here after clearing the border control, I took a shared minivan to Hat Yai. On reaching Hat Yai at dusk, I searched for a backpackers to spend the night at. The next morning I took a bus from Hat Yai to Surat Thani near the coast.

Island hopping at Thailand!
Island hopping at Thailand!

On the bus I started chatting with another solo traveler- B, he was heading to Koh Tao as well. So we traveled together the rest of the way. At Surat Thani, we changed buses to get to the ferry point to Koh Samui. By the time we reached Koh Samui, the last ferry to Koh Phangnan had already left. So we found a backpackers for the night at Koh Samui. It gave us time to enjoy Thai street food. We were famished after the cross country travels! The water front stalls selling curry mee, khanom thuay (rice cakes), kuey teow (glass noodle soup) and of course, beer, were fantastic!

Finalmente estamos aqui! Koh Tao.
Finalmente estamos aqui! Koh Tao.
Chilling at Koh Tao.
Chilling at Koh Tao.

The next day we took two more ferries to finally reach Koh Tao! And as fate would have it, all the backpackers were full (it was high season at this divers’ paradise) after a lot of hunting we found thatched huts for a couple of days. It took 4 days to get to Koh Tao, and I had only 4 days left for my flight back home from Bangkok, the time wasn’t enough for my dive certification.

Alas, I had traveled across countries by buses, trains,boats, mini vans, more boats…only to reach a little too late to accomplish the mission I had set out for in the first place…my dive certification!
But on the bright side, I spent my days there snorkeling, swimming, eating lovely Thai food, drinking beer, meeting other travelers and having a whale of a time!

Even when plans get ‘unmade’ (which happens often), good times are still possible!

4. Build your survival skills, become self reliant

This has been my foremost learning as a solo traveler. There were many unforeseen situations for which I could have been better prepared.
A few years back I was traveling in France. My friend was hosting me at Notre Dame-Saint Michel in Paris, before I headed to Nice. It was a Monday, I packed my bags and headed to Gare D’Austerlitz to board my train. On the way I stopped at the local post office there, to send a package back home. On reaching the post office I realised, they did not speak any English and I didn’t know any French. All the forms were in French, so I couldn’t read them and hence couldn’t post it. My backpack was already bursting so I had to carry this box full of books and art supplies, in my hands. I headed across to the train station…’for a Monday morning, it doesn’t seem busy at all..’ I thought. The lady at the counter told me that all trains had been canceled due to a strike in the city! Little did I know that this was common place in Paris. She told me to go to Gare de L’Est to reschedule my tickets.

Back to pavilion!
Back to pavilion!

I lugged my 20 kg backpack the entire 6km, lost my way there, the metro trains were not plying and there were hardly any cabs or buses on the road. (Read my travel hacks on how to travel light). After getting my ticket rescheduled, I hiked all the way back to Notre Dame-Saint Michel another 4km away, by then my backpack felt like it weighed 20 tons! I reached A’s place huffing and puffing and stayed in bed the rest of the day. (Read more about my Paris travels)
Well..lesson learned, I needed to become fitter. From then on I made it a point to go for a run or do yoga daily, even when traveling. For the rest of my travel days, I made sure I navigated the city using a map rather than asking people for directions (which is so common in India but not so much outside), by the end of my travels in Europe I was a pro at navigating with maps- a skill which came in handy in so many cities and countries thereafter.

Navigating with maps!
Navigating with maps!

The assumption that I could get by with English every where I go,was a misconception and if I wanted to travel off the beaten track, to smaller towns, then I’d better know other languages! I started by learning  basic phrases in French and Spanish. I can now speak enough Spanish to survive on my own in a Latin American country for at least a month.

Fruit picking at the farm.
Fruit picking at the farm.

While volunteering at the farm in South Africa, I learnt how to build a fire from scratch (from picking out the right bits of wood to using paraffin soaked tea bags),how to braai (we had some fun braai parties at the farm!), how to build a bund, prune trees using farm tools, the process of mulching, how to harvest grapes and process them to make wine. These might not sound like they’re very useful skills but these experiences definitely taught me to become self reliant.

5. A smile is all it takes!

Ernest Z's street art . In Georgetown.
Ernest Z’s street art . In Georgetown.

I was in Georgetown, Penang. It’s a quaint town on Penang island off the north-west coast of Malaysia, with a unique mix of Chinese and Buddhist cultures and endearing murals by Ernest Zacharevic.
There’s a ferry from the Butterworth train station, on the mainland, that reaches Penang island at 5 am. I walked around for about an hour till I found a backpacker with a dorm bed available. There were other travelers there, they were chatting and sharing jokes- in the oriental style lobby, with bean bags, straw mats and low tables- waiting for a dorm to free up. I was sitting there in a corner, unsure if I should walk over and talk to them or if they were a group traveling together and didn’t really want to mix.
At breakfast, one of the girls from the group came over to the coffee machine where I was adding some sugar to mine, she started chatting about how she arrived on the same morning ferry-where she had met all of them. When the others saw her talking to me, they waved me over to join them. During brekkie, one of the guys remarked that he wasn’t sure if I had wanted to interact as I was sitting in a corner by myself almost frowning!
At that moment, I realized that all it takes is a smile and a cheerful demeanor which sends out a positive vibe. The more hesitant you are the more it reflects in your body language. And its so easy to make friends while traveling solo, all you gotta do is smile :) Everyone is looking for company but might be equally hesitant.
Later that evening, I was sipping beer at the bar next door, I saw a couple of backpackers enter, they looked quite lost and tired. They sat down on the table next to me, I just smiled and nodded at them. We started chatting, sharing travel stories and ended up having a great conversation, we explored the local market and had dinner there together.
Simple social experiment..it works!

6. Trust in the goodness of people, pay it forward

With Hin, Nice.
With Hin, Nice.

When I arrived at Gare de Nice-Ville, Hin was there with Jav (her son) to pick me up. She oriented me to the neighborhood where she lived, the supermarket, metro stops, the central Place Garibaldi and the park where the locals were playing Pétanque (played with hollow metal balls, thrown at a wooden ball- quite common in France).

Exploring Nice on Hin's bike.
Exploring Nice on Hin’s bike.

When we went to her place, she showed me around and took me to the guest room (at least that’s what I thought). When I asked her where she and her husband would sleep, she said they’d take the couch and let me use their room!No amount of convincing worked, she insisted I use their room because she had a son with special needs and getting him ready in the morning would disturb me if I slept on the couch in the living room. I was so touched by her hospitality. She even cooked authentic French dinners for me, helped me with guide books and lent me her bike to use in the city. Jer, her husband, bought me some wonderful French wine. I couldn’t have asked for better hosts.

The two women who helped me find Friedhof der Namenlosen. Vienna.
The two women who helped me find Friedhof der Namenlosen. Vienna.

Five summers back, I was trying to find my way to a cemetery on the border of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. I got off at Simmering, the last station on Line D in Vienna. From there I had no clue how to get to the cemetery. I asked a lady sitting on a bench near the station. To my surprise, she offered to walk me to the bus stop a few kilometers away.

Past the warehouses
Past the warehouses

She chatted with me about the neighborhood, her life there, and I told her about my travel experiences in Austria. On reaching the bus stop, she introduced me to her friend, who happened to be going right to the cemetery. An hour’s bus ride and a short walk away-hidden behind large warehouses-we found Friedhof der Namenlosen.

Coffee and crepes at Friedhof der Namenlosen.
Coffee and crepes at Friedhof der Namenlosen.

She told me about the cemetery, how it was built for those who drowned themselves in the Danube, and when the river would flood the bodies would be washed ashore. A kind man built the cemetery and gave them a respectable burial. Inspite of the eerie history of the place, there was a peaceful air about it. After exploring, we had coffee and crepes by the river and watched the barges go by on the Danube, into Hungary.

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At Friedhof der Namenlosen. Wien
At Friedhof der Namenlosen. Wien

I met so many such kind people on my travels, they helped me in small and big ways. It made me trust in the goodness of people, the world wasn’t such a big bad place as it was made out to be. After experiencing such wonderful hospitality, I started couch hosting extensively, it was my way of paying it forward to other travelers. I have since hosted, met, traveled with over 40 couch surfers in my city, of 18 different nationalities.

With South African, Finnish and German friends at Cape Town :)
With South African, Finnish and German friends at Cape Town :)

Has traveling had an impact on you in some way, share your experiences here.

© All text, images and ideas on this blog are copyrighted by medeaspeak and cannot be used without explicit permission.

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