early morning mist rises over the mountains

There are a lot of different types of traveller and I probably encountered most of them whilst I was on the backpacker circuit.  I am going to chat about backpackers here rather than the travellers who prefer to stay in AirBnBs or co-living spaces as they tend to be a different breed.

As there are different types of travellers there are of course many reasons for travelling and each traveller is out there and following their own different route and experiencing life in a very personal way.  The standard expectation is that most of the backpackers will have taken time out from college or university, taking a gap year (or two) and are they are galloping around as much of the world as they can, before heading back to where ever they call home and settling  down to study or start their working life.

There are the adventurers who often travel by motorbike, bicycle or who hitchhike and who push themselves to cover as much ground as they can whilst earning money by busking, fire juggling or working on farms. These are often hard core and they can be found bungee-jumping, parascending off the sides of volcanoes or mountain biking down the Death Road in Bolivia.

a wibbly wobbly ancient railway bridge in Colombia

Another subsection of backpackers are the people who want to learn while they travel, whether it is to learn how to salsa, how to cook, how to do a martial art, yoga or who want to to learn to speak a language.  Lessons are generally much cheaper in South America or South East Asia compared to Europe or the US and if you want to learn to salsa then where better than to learn in a country where even the three year old children appear to instinctively know the moves!

Then you have the potential ex-pats who are roaming around and hunting down suitable places where they can one day put down roots.   There are sub-groups within this pack which include those who simply want somewhere cheaper/hotter/cooler to retire to, and those who are beginning to resent the rat race or the economic or political situation in their home countries and who want to escape with their money and their sanity more or less intact whilst they are still able to.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that backpackers are all in under the age of twenty five and are only out to party every night either.  You will find people of all ages; some may finally have the time and/or money available compared to earlier in their lives and others, like the elderly man from Japan that I met in Malaysia, simply cannot afford a good quality of life in their home country compared to a life of slow travel on the road.

Some travellers, myself included, work whilst moving around, living a semi-nomadic lifestyle.  Some put down tentative roots whilst they volunteer for an NGO, teach a foreign language or work in hostels.  Others are write books or are travel bloggers.  There is a whole realm of work that can be done digitally and supporting websites are popping up all over the place, and more so now since the pandemic changed how the workplace can operate.  Writers, programmers and even virtual admin assistants are out there pitching for projects and working.  I even came across a lawyer from the US who worked remotely from a hostel room in Medellin.  Paypal and the new generation of online banks come into their own too as earnings are paid into bank accounts where they can easily be accessed via the ATMs in the local currencies.

I can’t count how many people that I met over the seven years whilst I was travelling, but it amazed me how few began their journey from a starting point of privilege or ease.  Maybe it was because I usually preferred to use backpacker hostels rather than staying in plush hotels but I met all sorts of people from all walks of life, many of whom were, like me, travelling with some sort of emotional baggage.  I met a lot of people who were recovering from broken relationships or bereavements or who were travelling and coping with issues such as social anxiety, depression or mental health issues.  Following my divorce, experiencing loss and with absolutely no belief in myself when I first set out I found comfort with and I could relate to so many who, rather than remain in the safety of their home communities had decided that the only way to thrive was to do something incredibly difficult and jump right outside of their comfort zone.

These were certainly not people who were running away (as I believed myself to be doing at this stage) but these were people who dug deep and found a strength and power within themselves so much more than many others would ever dream of doing.  Many of us were not simply travelling to fill in a gap year but we were travelling to find truth, freedom and knowledge.

My own journey would take me through more than fifty countries where I would experience some fabulous things, but my biggest takeaway of all was of self belief, acceptance and pride in my capabilities.

How did I keep busy whilst travelling?

700 plus steps but the view was worth every one

I wrote a travel blog but it wasn’t all wall-to-wall pleasure and fun.  Well, it was for me but it may not be the sort of pleasure and fun that you might welcome or enjoy.  In exchange for free or discounted accommodation and other benefits I wrote reports or included links on my blog.  I took these seriously and they could be very time consuming, so rather than doing touristy, interesting things, I may be found chained to a desk or a table somewhere.  Granted, I usually tried to find a table with a view or preferably a hammock, but I still needed to knuckle down and produce some quality (I hope) articles.

I also engaged with various kinds of volunteering work which tied me into a place and, shock horror, a timetable!  To date, I volunteered and worked for three months at SKIP in Peru where I was teaching English.  I have worked in a hostel on the beach in Ecuador, I lived with a family in Cali where we all learned about our different cultures (and I hope that I went some way to helping the daughter of the family who is at university to improve her English), and I spent five weeks working on a perma-culture farm and teaching English to children in the local school in the countryside close to Medellin.

…and this was the view!I supplemented my feeble attempts at learning Spanish with formal lessons when I could find them cheaply enough – and I have also took some salsa and yoga lessons, although apart from one dance lesson from an amazing professional dancer in Cali, these were all free of charge, given via other travellers in hostels.

And then I have to factor in the travelling.  Getting around in Latin America for instance is relatively easy with its amazing network of buses, BUT for me, at any rate, who is not fluent in the language, travel can sometimes be quite traumatic.  First you have to find the Terminal Terrestere – the bus station.  Then you have to identify which is the correct and the safest bus from a swarm of touts who yell and push you around, and who do their best to part you from your rucksack.  When you do choose your bus you generally get on and sit and wait whilst it fills up, and once it is finally underway the next problem is trying to work out where you are supposed to stop and get off.  Then there is always more trauma while you run the gauntlet of cabbies when the genuine and the scammers all look the same, dodge potential hi-jackers and find a hostel.

So why do I do it?

Even after you factor in the air fares you can live so much more cheaply outside of Western Europe or the US.  Money goes a long way and generally saved more than half of what I was spending to live day to day in the UK – which was just as well as because I wasn’t one of the lucky lottery winners.

sunset over the Pacific Ocean

I enjoyed my last job in the UK, but who wouldn’t choose to be their own boss and to work for themselves?  You can decide what projects to apply for and, contracts permitting, when to move on.  If you have a day with no deadlines you can weigh up whether to get a bus up into the mountains, laze around in a hammock chatting to other people or you can take yourself off to a coffee shop and watch the world go by.

I saw sights that I only ever dreamed of such as Machu Picchu and sights that I never even knew existed such as the Quilotoa crater lake.  I learnt a foreign language, I practised yoga at sunrise, I slept in mixed dorms and courtesy of some very kind hoteliers I stayed in some very nice hotels.

even with a storm looming, the world is a beautiful place

The distance from my home country was a double-edged sword.  On the one hand I missed my friends and family with a vengeance but on the other, the distance made my loss slightly less painful.  I didn’t set out to travel because I don’t care about those that are left behind, but sometimes when you have nowhere else to go you have to move forwards.  Every so often I would have a major melt down when I thought about my children and I would have loved to share my life and experiences with them; but the sheer scale of the continent and the totally different way of life, language and cultures, not to mention jaw-dropping spectacular landscapes enclosed me in a bubble that suspended reality and cocooned me.  It nurtured me and gave me strength and a determination to find peace.

I can’t count how many people that I met over the next seven years whilst I was travelling, but it still amazes me how few began their journey from a starting point of privilege or ease.  Maybe it was because I usually preferred to stay in backpacker hostels rather than plush hotels but I met all sorts of people from all walks of life and what really struck me was that so many were, like me, travelling with some sort of emotional baggage.  I met an unbelievable number of people who, rather than remain in the safety of their home communities were travelling and coping with social anxieties, low self confidence or emotional issues such as depression. These were not people who were running away (as I believed myself to be doing at this stage) but were people who dug deep and found strength and power within themselves to jump much further out of their comfort zone than so many others would ever dream of doing.  Many of us were not simply travelling to fill in a gap year but we were travelling to find truth, freedom and knowledge.

My own journey would take me to more than fifty countries where I would experience some fabulous things, but my biggest takeaway of all was of self belief, acceptance and pride in my capabilities.

I spent one year in South America and contrary to my original plan to return to the office, I continued to travel and live a nomadic life until the pandemic forced me to stop.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  I want to take you back to the very beginning, to the months before I caught that plane to Peru.

 

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