Three years ago, I sold pretty much all of my stuff and bought a one way ticket outta town for a backpacking trip through Asia. It’s not a unique story these days, but since then, I’ve been traveling off and on, adding things to my bucket list faster than I can check things off. I’ve learned a lot during my backpacking trips, and I can tell you that no matter how much advice you get before the big takeoff, it never really prepares you for what’s to come.
The truth is that travelers often forget to mention the moments when they basically wanted to give up. With social media, traveling can also look entirely different than the actual experience itself, creating an illusion that travel is easy all the time. I myself am totally guilty of posting a photo that made my life look insane, when really a lone tear was rolling down my face as I tried not to scratch some strange rash that was taking over my entire body. It’s just not stuff people want to hear about when they ask you, “how was it??”
Example A: You can see here below, that all looks well in this photo of me smiling nice and pretty on one of the world’s nicest beaches. I am the one in pink, and seemingly in paradise:
In reality though, my broken arm and fractured wrist were in a 90-degree angle cast that smelled like sweat, and was so immobile that I couldn’t even put my own hair in a ponytail. It happened the day I arrived to Thailand, and I could barely hold a plate, turn a doorknob or sleep on my side. This whole part of my experience was entirely hidden from view. In that apparently blissful picture, I was actually in the middle of missing out on a $725 non-refundable yoga retreat.
So….This is really what it looked like. At least I could still sit on a beach and get a nice tan:
The point is that backpacking comes with its own set of challenges that are often completely overlooked. No one wants to talk about the bad stuff, so I’m here to put that all on blast because we all deserve to know what we’re getting ourselves into, amirite?
So here they are, the not-so pretty things that people never tell you about backpacking. If you think they won’t happen to you, well…I got $5 on it:
Unless you have a stomach of steel, get ready for some gnarly bodily functions that you frankly won’t be able to control. From the accidental ingestion of shower water, to strange new foods, your body isn’t used to the bacteria that you’re exposed to on the road. You will probably master the art of making “THE FACE,” which communicates that feeling of, “f*ck I’m going to be sick.” Luckily “THE FACE” can be translated across many languages and is usually met with an understanding point in the direction of the closest appropriate spot to relieve yourself. Sometimes this is on the side of the road. Sometimes it’s in a hole that drops directly into a lake. Ya never know.
When you have about 3 t-shirts, you quickly realize that the smell you previously thought was disgusting, can easily be covered up by some fake perfume you just bought at the market. When it comes to showering, well, a cold trickle of water in a dirty, poorly lit room just isn’t all that appealing. You need to conserve your bath products anyways. See what I mean about being clean? Screw it, everyone else is filthy too.
The reality of traveling is that you are vulnerable and at risk for harassment. Maybe you get haggled for money, someone tries to scam you, or worse someone might try to make a move on you. Either way, harassment exists, and it sucks. One evening, I was walking down a busy street in India with another girl. I was “doing everything right,” but as I was strolling, a man rode up behind me on a motorbike and slapped my ass as hard as he could before driving off into the smoggy sunset. I was in complete shock, it reallllly freaking hurt, and all for what? Who knows.
We’re spoiled with our internet, and it’s not just the developing countries that experience wi-fi woes. Once in Hong Kong, I spent the better half of my day on the floor of a Burger King, waving my phone like a madman trying not to drop my Skype call. My bank was holding up a much needed money transfer and spotty internet was not helping.
This kind of goes in line with the whole bad wi-fi thing. When traveling, it’s so easy to get disconnected from your life back home. It’s hard for your friends to relate to your life and keeping up with your relationships can be especially challenging thanks to crazy time zones and sketchy internet. There is nothing worse being in the middle of an important phone call only to realize you’ve got a “poor connection.”
Jet lag can seriously make you feel like your body was hit by a truck, and can turn the most energetic of people into zombies (i.e me). There’s plenty of times I didn’t experience jet lag in any form, and other times where I felt wiped out for days. Either way, when someone says they’re jet lagged, don’t make fun of them. Or do, but know you’re kind of being mean. You know, I actually do think people talk about this one, but no one really takes it seriously. Take it seriously, dammit!!
From 36 hour bus rides on windy mountain roads (these exist), to crossing overland borders, travel days are the worst, ugh. Once I had a flight land at 3:30 in the morning that was followed by approx. 2 hours of waiting in line at immigration with a million people crowding and pushing their way to the front. I mean it’s definitely all worth it, but these days of travel are usually more stressful than you think.
I’m the most paranoid person about bed bugs, and unfortunately I’ve slept in some seriously questionable beds. I usually give the full inspection to any bed that even looks remotely suspicious. But even after ripping off sheets and checking the mattress obsessively for the tiny little buggers, I’ve still managed to come face to face with bed bugs. Literally. The worst part is that bed bugs don’t spare you any humiliation. It’s definitely embarrassing to walk around with pus filled bites on your face, while simultaneously fighting the urge to just break down and scratch your butt in in public.
At some point, you’re going to take risks and do those things you wouldn’t normally do back home. From climbing mountains, to scuba diving or riding motorbikes, you’re definitely more likely to injure yourself, or get sick. You have to really be careful because things can get dicey when you start relying on local medical care for help. Getting stitches in a hospital where no one’s wearing shoes is a little scary and having the flu when it’s 100 degrees outside with no AC is definitely miserable. Unknown rashes, painful bug bites, dengue fever, broken bones…They all suck.
You meet so many incredible people throughout your travels, and I doubt you’ll ever say goodbye so many times as you will on a trip. The people you meet always feel like instant best friends, so it just makes it that much more emotionally riveting every time you have to part. It’s hard to process that you just shared some of your most special experiences with someone you legitimately might never see again.
So there you have it, the debbie downers of backpacking. The stuff no one intentionally leaves out, but just tends to get removed because there are way more epic adventures to talk about. At least that’s what happens to me. I’d much rather tell you about the 500 foot canyon swing I jumped off of, than the 6 days of terrible BMs I got from a questionable batch of Pad Thai. Ya with me on that?
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