Lessons From The Road
Every week I get emails and facebook messages from people who tell me that I’m brave to be travelling on my own. They’re smitten by the idea of such a grand journey and all the amazing experiences I’ve had. But, any experienced traveller will tell you that ‘The journey’, especially on a shoestring budget, is only glamorous in retrospect!
I‘ve made my share of mistakes and then some! But I’m wiser for having had these experiences and hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the second leg of my trip.
Barely two weeks into my trip, I was in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was still adjusting to the idea of being on my own and made some rookie mistakes that landed me in many embarrassing situations.
I was trying to make my way to a National Park in the north of Vietnam and had casually jotted down the address in English on a post-it. The misery began at the bus station. I couldn’t find anyone- staff or local, who spoke any English! It took me 2 hours to figure out which bus I needed to take. An 8 hour journy later, the bus had reached it’s last stop- a small village who’s name I shall never know!
They gestured for me to get off the bus, all attempts at trying to enquire where I was, or how I should get to the national park were met with peels of laughter from the locals. No one spoke English, and by now my yellow post-it was soaked in my sweating hands.
I was taken to the village chief’s home, who summoned a young lad with a motor cycle and gave him my precious post-it. The boy asked me to get on his bike. At this point all I wanted was to flee the scene- a lone foreigner surrounded by twenty odd locals, all laughing hysterically!
As soon as we were out of the village, the boy demanded that I pay him for the ride! I agreed. The 20 minute bike-ride cost me 3 times the bus fare. But, he dropped me right at the doorstep of the National Park’s office. Phew!
Lesson learnt: I should have asked the hostel staff in Hanoi to write the address in Vietnamese. Or at least call on my behalf to figure out the buses and names of towns along the way. It’s shameful, but I did not even have the National Park’s phone number!
I took a flight from Vientiane to Kula Lumpur at 7 in the evening. It’s never a good idea to arrive in a new country late at night. Once I’d cleared immigration and collected my backpack, I started looking for my hostel’s name and address, which I’d written on a piece of paper and hurriedly stuffed into my cabin baggage. It had disappeared! I emptied out the entire bag in the women’s toilet and found nothing!
Ok! Don’t panic. So what If it’s almost midnight and the airport looks really spooky! Just find access to internet and you’ll be fine! Knowing my luck, the Airport Wifi was down! So I went to the help desk and asked them to show me a list of hostels in the area where I’d booked my hostel.
Second mistake- I took a taxi from the airport to the city and eventually paid almost 70 dollars for the ride. KL airport in incredibly far from the city. I should have taken the shuttle bus and then switched to a taxi while I was hunting for my hostel.
I checked in at 1:30 am, after walking into 2 other hostels before finding the one I‘d booked. Fortunately, the girls in my dorm were still up. They’d returned from a night of partying and seemed rather nice. They were a group of five British girls between the age of 22 and 25.
I joined them for breakfast the next day and the conversation was casual and comfortable. I spent the rest of the day on the city tour bus and came back bone tired. The girls were not back yet, I crashed by 11 at night.
When I woke up at 7 the next morning, the girls had checked out. I showered, ate breakfast and started organising my day pack for the next day. At first I couldn’t find my Lonely Planet guidebook, then I realised that 300 Ringet from my wallet were missing! I couldn’t find my sun-glasses either. I’d hand washed some clothes and they were hung to dry on the frame of my bunk bed- all gone!
I went to the staff and asked if anyone had been in my room. At first they didn’t comply, but when I turned really irate, they showed me the cc-cam footage. We went thru all the footage from 10 pm to 9 am and the only ones to go into the dorm were my former British roommates!
Lesson learnt: Don’t be quick to drop your guard when you meet nice people on the road. I should have locked my stuff before I went to sleep that night. I’ve met amazing people on this trip- many will be my friends for life and I’m not a suspicious person by nature, but I am certainly more careful now!
I was so happy to be in Boracay. A place I’d dreamed of going to for many years. On my first night there, I’d been hanging with a Fijian-Kiwi fellow who I’d met at my hostel in Manila. Really nice kid, who was teaching English in Korea and was on his summer break.
I’d taken off my flip-flops to wade through the ankle deep rain water that had collected outside my budget guesthouse. My feet kept slipping in my flip-flops and it was just easier without them. I walked up the two flights of stairs barefoot and as I was unlocking my room, I stepped on some shards of broken glass. I’d managed to cut myself really deep and there was blood gushing out of my toe!
Apparently, my neighbours had come back inebriated and had broken a glass and a coffee table. The staff hadn’t cleared any of it and were very apologetic the next day, but the damage was already done!
I washed my foot in running water and dabbed some tincture on my toe. The next day, even though my toe was rather sore and raw, I went into the ocean and stayed there for a long time! I was in Boracay damn it! What was I supposed to do? Sit on the beach sulking?
Umm, yes. I should have stayed on the beach sulking. By late afternoon, my foot was throbbing and I was walking with a limp!
I spent the next two weeks in a lot of pain. I couldn’t wear any shoes and I stubbed my toe a hundred times. Not to mention the huge ugly bandage cramping my style! I couldn’t walk around much, I was running a fever from the infection and had really started to regret not seeing a doctor in Boracay.
Lesson Learnt: Your body is maxed out when you’re on long haul travel. Be over cautious and be kind to yourself! I should have paid to see a doctor in Boracay, it would have been so much cheaper than all the bandages I bought and all the taxis I took later because I just couldn’t walk anymore!
I met more Aussies than any other nationality on my trip. While staying at the Pink Flamingo hostel in Krakow, Poland, I met four lovely fellows from Melbourne. It turned out that all of us were heading to Prague next. So we decided to book the same hostel and take the same train.
There’s an overnight train that leaves Krakow at 8:30 every night and arrives in Prague at 6:30 am. I was using an unlimited Eurail pass for my trip around Europe and assumed that I could just hop on, and pay the ticket checker the 10 Euros over and above my pass, for a sleeper.
At 6:30 I realised that I needed to book a sleeper in advance. So I had to rush to the train station and spent a very panicky half hour with a non-English speaking railways employee for my ticket! Then I had to wait in the blistering cold for the train.
The journey was uneventful and I shared a taxi with my Aussie friends to the Mosaic Hostel. Of course we got ripped off- according to the staff, we paid almost four times the regular fair. Oh well!
When we were paying for our individual bookings, I realised the Ausies paid a lot less than what I was being charged! It turned out that they’d used Hostel Bookers site and had gotten their beds for 6 Euros a night on a special offer. I’d used Hostel World and paid 20 for mine!
Lesson Learnt: When you’re on a tight budget, thorough planning and research will save you a ton of money! Also, assume nothing! I should have checked the mandatory bookings for the overnight train earlier in the day!
I spent more time in Paris than any other city on my entire trip! Please see ‘Penniless in Paris’ for details!
My bag was stolen in a restaurant in the Bastille area. And I was living my travel nightmare for a good ten days. I had made some rookie mistakes- I was carrying my passport in my day bag- because it was the only form of ID I had with me. I had my camera, phone and iPod in it as well. So in one sweep- I lost over 3000 pictures with my camera, my phone with my all contact numbers and all the notes and email addresses I had been jotting down for 6 months on my iPod Touch!
The other mistake I made was that all my cash, travel cards, credit cards and my extra phone sim-card were in my wallet. I had no safety cash stashed away in my backpack and no emergency-use credit card either!
And since I’d lost my passport- I didn’t have a visa to be in Europe any longer and I had a month before I was due to return home! Fortunately The Indian Embassy in Paris was incredibly forthcoming with help and the Dutch embassy issued me a fresh visa in 4 days. This would have taken twice as long if I’d not had a photocopy of my passport/visas in my bag! Thanks Mom!
Lessons learnt: Always keep some emergency cash stashed away somewhere in a pair of dirty socks or in a book about Algebra. Don’t start any over-seas trip without a copy of your passport (printed & uploaded in your email) and have a secondary ID that you can carry around. Your passport should be in a safe in the hostel/hotel! Don’t procrastinate about backing up your pictures, information from phones and iPods! You might part company with them without notice! I would pay big money to have my memory card returned. Also- if anyone every meets a lovely Spanish girl called Laura from Valencia, who was in Belfast in October 2010, tell her I tried to find her on Facebook but there were just too many Lauras!
I caught a chill in Warsaw, Poland that landed me in a hospital with a sever Tonsil infection. It’s miserable to fall sick when you’ve got no one to fuss over you. If only I’d dressed warmer the day before and had started taking my multi vitamins like I’d been planning to for a month!
In New Zealand, I knew I wanted to go sky diving. I was staying with a friend’s sister in Auckland and she told me that Rotorua is a great place to go Tandem diving from 14,000 feet. I arrived in Rotorua with a plan to stay for 5 days. The first two days, I went to a Maori village and the museums and even caught a fantastic reggae concert. The weather was glorious!
The third day when I went to book my dive, they told me that there would be none for the next three days because of bad weather and almost on cue… it started pouring. I was heart broken!
In Cambodia, when I was attacked by a drug addled tuk-tuk driver, I thought it was a good idea to stand my ground and fight. The situation escalated out of control in a mater of seconds. The crazed driver could have pulled a knife on me or gathered other supporters and I would have been toast! I managed to get away with a little help from my Irish friend John. I did manage to get in a few good punches though.
On an overnight train ride from Prague to Budapest, the ticket checker informed me that this particular train would pass through Slovakia and that I didn’t have a visa for it, also, since it’s not included in the Schengen, my Eurail pass didn‘t cover it! He was trying to extort money out of me, I preferred to pay the 40 Euro fine instead. He wanted 15!
I took a bus from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang- a long winding drive in the mountains. Once I arrived I found out there were 4×4 cars-for-share that were cheaper and got you there in half the time!
When I checked out of my hostel in Hanoi, after staying for 2 days after my National Park incident, I forgot to collect my laundry! I arrived in Cambodia with only one pair of pants, 3 t-shirts and no socks!
After a two hour binge with my Couchsurfing friends at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany- I stood in que outside the toilet for 20 minutes and couldn’t find my friends after that! I spent almost 4 hours, hanging out with a 19 year old Australian who’d met the same fate! My bag was with my friends, also my jumper! So I was cold, hungry and hangover, till a group of Germans adopted us! At 11 pm, as I was leaving the venue- I found my friends, who’d even contacted the police that they’d lost me!
Live and learn baby!