11 Random Lessons Learned From A Life Of Travel

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Me showing off my bird tattoo

I’ve been semi-nomadic now for about seven and and half years, and looking back on my time on the road I realized there’s A LOT I’ve learned. I’m far from the girl who set off with her backpack at the age of 20 to Australia, or to Thailand to teach English a year later, or to backpack Europe, South America and French Polynesia solo. I’ve been through a lot and have grown because of it. To give you a glimpse into my realizations, here are 11 random life lessons learned from a life of travel.

1. Don’t Assume

Don’t assume because something is acceptable in your home country that it is okay in the destination you’re visiting. For example, when I visited an Onsen (hot spring baths) in Japan there were 1,001 rules attached to the experience — or at least it felt like it as a Westerner. Why did it matter if my towel touched the water? I had to go in naked? My shoes had to be taken off before I walked into the changing room? To the locals, I’m sure this all seemed like second nature, but to me I was afraid I would sneeze and offend someone (among other things, which you can read more about here).

Moreover, when I taught English in Thailand I had to get used to a number of rules. One, taking off your shoes before entering a home, temple or many businesses. In fact, one Australian girl I met while traveling once forgot this rule at the house we were staying at and was severely scolded by the house mom. Moreover, in Thailand one should never show public displays of affection, wear revealing clothing, speak poorly of the royal family, speak in a loud voice or show a temper, point your feet at someone or touch someone’s head. These are just a few of the many rules visitors should abide by when visiting Thailand.

It works the other way, too. When I was in Ghana people were constantly shouting “oberoni!” (foreigner!) at me and touching my white skin without permission, which I found highly offensive but was told by my homestay mom meant they were just curious about me and trying to start a conversation.

Bottom line? It’s important to be open-minded when traveling and realize not all cultures are the same. In fact, many times you’ll find extremes differences, especially for Westerners when they visit non-Western countries.

2. It Never Hurts To Ask

People are always afraid to for things they need; however, unless it’s something offensive it probably won’t hurt — and you may just be pleasantly surprised. Recently on a trip to Japan my flight was delayed by five hours. Politely, I asked the Air China representative at the ticket counter if I could have lounge access for free in return for my troubles. “No, sorry,” he shook his head apologetically…but we can bump you up to First Class. There’s an empty seat.” Hell yes! Just think. If I wouldn’t have asked I would have had to sleep sitting up for my 18-hour flight. Instead I enjoyed a bed, entertainment and great food for no extra charge.

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Think twice before booking an elephant trekking experience. Photo courtesy of Justin Ennis.

3. Just Because An Experience Is Offered Doesn’t Mean You Should Do It

When I was 22 and not yet working in the world of tourism and responsible travel I booked an elephant ride in Thailand. In my mind, if a tour operator was offering something it had to be safe and responsible. This was anything but. Seeing these enormous creatures changed to fences and being beaten with bull books made me sick to my stomach, and I was actually in tears afterward thinking, “What have I just done?” Do your research before booking an experience — especially a wildlife or volunteer experience. Ask questions about the care of the animals or if tour actions make them less wild (aka more susceptible to becoming pray). If volunteering, are you taking the job of a local? Are you truly qualified for the job? How are funds allocated? Every time you travel you make an impact. Be sure it’s a positive one.

4. There’s Nothing Wrong With Craving The Comforts Of Home

I’m all about going local. Local accommodations, local food, local souvenirs; however, especially for long term travelers sometimes you just crave the comforts of home. When I was in Ghana, Africa, the food and I did not agree with each other. I was living with a family and eating all homecooked meals — which was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world; however, I was really starting to go crazy. I tried to fantasize that the rice water and fufu I was eating was cheeseburgers and pizza, but it wasn’t enough. It got to the point where I took a 2-hour bus ride to the capital just to get some mall pizza. It was the best thing I ever tasted in my life, and my hallucinations stopped. There’s nothing wrong with craving what you’re used to once in awhile. Just make sure you’re not eating McDonald’s 24/7 or only eating at international establishments.

5. Nothing Beats A Homestay

Whether you use a website like CouchSurfing or Homestay.com or book a tour where a homestay is the accommodation choice — like my Amalfi Coast Local Living tour put on in partnership with G Adventures where you stay in a 16th-century monastery-turned-farmstay — nothing beats staying with a local family on the road. Homestays allow you to truly experience the destination through the eyes of a local, from their morning rituals to how they prepare the food (which you’ll get to eat!) to where they would spend a lazy afternoon. These are the types of personal and more authentic experiences you’ll remember way longer than the touristy sites you snapped photos of.

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Don’t let your iPhone ruin a great trip. Photo courtesy of Gonzalo Baeza H.

6. Technology Is Both A Curse And A Blessing

I’ve written many times about my feelings on technology and travel. While it’s typically about the negative side of technology, I do also see the benefit (trust me, I do plenty of instagramming on the road). Technology can be extremely useful for staying in touch, planning outings along the way, utilizing nifty travel apps and sites like CouchSurfing for meeting locals, HotelTonight for scoring last minute hotel deals and Pro HDR for capturing dramatic high dynamic range photos; however, being engrossed in technology can also be a curse. When your eyes are glued to your iPhone screen you miss out on noticing small every interactions and glimpses into local culture — and sometimes even bucket list worthy sightings. I remember a trip to the Galápagos Islands where I had befriended my dive boat guide, *Joe, and he took me to a secluded beach, a local favorite. We were sitting on a rock , immersed in beautiful scenery, when I heard him scream, “Holy sh*t! Did you see that?!”

“See what?!” I jumped out, squinting frantically to see what he did, spying nothing but crystal blue water.

His hands were still over his mouth, his eyes wide. “A shark just jumped out of the water! It was insane! I’m a dive instructor and I’ve maybe seen that once before.”

I wanted to cry. I’d missed witnessing a shark jump out of the water like Flipper, because id been … on Instagram. Something I could have been checking back at the hostel (or not at all). It was one of those moments when I truly realized the downfall of too much screen time.

7. It Always Pays To Befriend The Locals

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love meeting other backpackers and exchanging tales from the road; however, meeting locals is how you’ll really get to know a place — not to mention you’ll often get to have unique beyond the guidebook experiences and get hooked up with deals. For example, along with being a dive operator, the above-mentioned Joe also sold tickets for the local ferry — meaning I got to island hop in the Galapagos for free. Another time I befriended a local in Argentina via CouchSurfing and we went wine tasting together. We became so close from a day of cycling and sipping in Mendoza that he invited me to a get together at his house with his family and friends to sip mate and play games — not to mention I got to practice my Spanish and see the inside of a local home. Impresionante!

8. You Don’t Need To See Everything

I get major anxiety traveling with people who feel the need to cram 100 activities into every single day. I’m the type of person who likes to enjoy a morning activity and maybe an afternoon activity — as well as a nap — before heading out for dinner and dancing. I want to enjoy my day and immerse myself in what I’m exploring without feeling rushed. Sometimes I’ll give my trip or certain days a theme. For example, farms. In this case I’ll focus on the agriculture of the destination, really getting to know its natural and small purveyor personality and skipping the rest. I’d rather leave the destination feeling transformed and educated in some way then be able to say I saw 100 sites for 2 seconds each but learned nothing about the culture or place.

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Making my own soba noodles in Japan. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

9. Food Is More Than Just Nourishment

Anyone who reads my online magazine, Epicure & Culture, knows I love food and drink. This isn’t just because I’m hungry; it’s because I absolutely love food and the way it introduces me to local cultures. Even if it’s something I normally wouldn’t eat at home — like cuy in Ecuador — I appreciate it because it’s a cultural dish. To me, food is a gateway into culture. Ask yourself why they’re using these ingredients? Is there a reason for the spices? What does it have to do with the landscape? The people? You’ll get to understand better why people do the things they do.

10. Take The Public Transport

Taxis might be night and convenient, but in most cities — I’m born and raised in New York and can barely the count the times I’ve been in a taxi — the locals aren’t using what’s convenient. They’re using what’s cheap. Not only will you have an adventure taking local transport, you’ll understand the people better.

11. Your Gut Is God

There have been so many times my gut has led me in one way or and other. No surprisingly, it’s always right. This is the most important travel safety tip I can give. If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. If you’re in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, if there’s a person that makes your skin crawl or a place you can’t relax in, forget being polite and get yourself to a safe place. Your gut — aka your intuition — is the biggest asset you have when it comes to having a successful trip.

What lessons have you learned from traveling? Please share in the comments below.

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2 Comments

  1. Hey Jess, I couldn’t agree more with your point #3. Countless times I’ve seen backpackers paying for experiences or volunteer gigs while still at home, only to turn up and discover that the projects actually have incredibly dubious ethics and practices. My advice is never to book anything like that until you are physically in a destination and can see the goings on of a project and make a judgement from there. Saying that, I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learnt from travelling is that the world is pretty full of great, helpful and kind people – a reassuring thought when times get tough!

    1. @Steph: Great tip! I think that’s really important. I know many travelers who had positive experiences going about volunteering the other way around: getting acquainted with an organization with traveling and then extending their stay to help out (instead of booking a volunteer program and going for that originally).

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