Today we decided to venture away from our usual posts to focus on lessons we’ve learned so far about travel. We are relative travel newbies so to our more travel-savvy readers, our lessons learned might still seem naive but hopefully this post will help other noobs avoid some of our pitfalls.
We are late-bloomer travellers. Besides our many of road trips throughout North America, our first trip that felt truly international was to Cuba on an all-inclusive package in 2003; it was only my second time on a plane and we were in our early 30’s. Despite the pampering and financial security of the packaged tour, we managed to get off the beaten path by travelling to Holguin City on our own, meeting up with a bartender from the resort and spending the day with him. This was certainly unplanned and not a tourist industry sanctioned tour (at the time, Cuba had very strict rules about locals fraternizing with foreigners) and it was wonderful. So wonderful in fact, that we went back several months later and spent more time off the resort with our Cuban friends than on the resort getting pampered. Our Cuban buddies gave us their unofficial guided tour of their city, introducing us to family and friends, and refused to let us pay for a thing.
On a whim, we were invited to a Cuban wedding at a rural farm and treated to freshly brewed beer ladled from a pan and rice and beans cooked over a backyard fire, the best tasting and most memorable meal we’ve had in Cuba. And despite a scooter accident that left Al with a cracked elbow and some permanent scars, we learned a very valuable lesson from this trip. Well, two valuable lessons… first, learn to drive a scooter before speeding off on the rural roads of a strange country in which being cut off by a farmer suddenly herding horses across the road is a common occurrence… and second, have flexibility in your plans and the sense of adventure for the “secret destinations” noted in the above quote. Although we took the first lesson to heart, the second one seemed to have been forgotten a few years later when we decided to backpack through Europe.
In 2004, for our ten year anniversary, we took a three week trip to Europe. This was our first true backpacking/independent travel trip and we had about seven months to plan it. Being a travel research junkie, I (Carol) set to work on planning our itinerary. Now even the most anal travel planners out there would have been shocked by my attention to detail. We had three weeks and I planned an itinerary that consisted of flying into Paris, travelling by night train to the French Alps with the hope of taking the cable car across to Italy, visiting Milan, Venice, Florence and Cinque Terre, then Monaco, Nice and Cannes before heading back up to Paris to celebrate our anniversary and meet up with my brother who would join us for a week as we visited Brussels, Bruges and Amsterdam and then made our way back to Paris to fly home. An ambitious plan that saw us moving on every two to three days and carrying a notebook with phone numbers of all the meticulously researched budget hotels, departure schedules for all the necessary trains and the costs and operating hours of all the tourist sites. As we soon learned, whirlwind trips are taxing on the body and mind. We never made it to Monaco, Cannes or Bruges and we crashed physically and mentally in Milan after a gruelling bus and train ride because the cable cars were closed by high winds. We did not see much more than our hotel room in Milan (but all our laundry got done in the hotel sink).
Although we have great memories from this Europe trip, we left each location with a sad sigh, wishing we had more time to explore. Our brisk pace meant that all the cathedrals and museums became a blur and opportunities to enjoy the ambiance were fleeting. Our best memories from this trip were the times in which we fell away from our plans to linger over a meal rather than hitting that third museum and took chances on patronizing places that weren’t listed in my trusty notebook. What we learned from this trip was that less planning and fewer destinations would have allowed us a deeper sense of the places and more chances to interact with locals and other travellers. We agreed our next big trip needs to be less ambitious and have more flexibility. And, after a few quick week-long trips to Panama, Mexico and revisits to Cuba and Paris during the years in between, we jump ahead to 2009 to our backpacking trip through Egypt.
Due to the fact that I was working in Cyprus for the two months prior to this this trip while Al was still in Toronto, planning our Egypt itinerary went out the window. Skype and Google-Talk were our main communication tools (often with poor internet connections) and, with so much catching up to do, travel planning discussions were not a priority. Plus I was too busy working and enjoying the sites of Cyprus to want to spend hours researching Egypt. So we winged it.
All we knew for sure was that we were going to meet in Cyprus to fly to Egypt together and we wanted spend a few days in Cairo, see the Pyramids in Giza, take a Nile cruise to some of the other antiquities, include stops in Aswan and Luxor and then go to the Red Sea for snorkelling before flying back out of Cairo. The only solid plan we had for Egypt was our first night’s hotel booking. Although Al kept reassuring me that everything would work out fine, I left for Egypt wishing I had a trusty notebook.
Now, for our first excursion without prearranged plans, Egypt is not an easy country for independent travel. It’s tourism is organized around tour groups so, at times, it was a real test of our travel skills to find transportation to the antiquity sites and negotiate reasonable rates. Luckily, we met up with another couple while on our Nile Cruise and we travelled together to some of the far-flung sites. It was a great experience and a nice break to not have to make all the decisions and negotiations on our own for a couple of days. The lesson we learned from this trip was that having a very general itinerary meant we were free to enjoy the company of our new travel buddies. And at the end of the trip, the only wistful thought was wishing for more time by the Red Sea – but with snorkelling like this, who wouldn’t want to stay longer?
So we returned from Egypt with a fully entrenched belief that “less planning is more” and an increased confidence in our travel skills (after having dodged dozens of touts at every tourist attraction and having successfully navigated crossing the roads in Cairo’s rush hour, we felt like intrepid adventurers who could slay dragons – if you’ve been there, you know what I mean…). However, we also learned the importance of budgeting for emergencies. An embarrassing story for another time… needless to say, emergency money was budgeted in on our next big trip – Southeast Asia.
With travel experience and new found love for “on the fly” travel planning, we left for Bangkok knowing only that we would spend the first few days with Al’s niece, Laura who was living there and then we would head to the islands for a much needed chance to de-stress on a sandy beach. We also had a notion of possibly going to Chiang Mai, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia but no definite plans. The only bucket list things were that we wanted to snorkel, eat street food, get Thai massages and I really wanted to see monkeys and elephants. In the end, we accomplished our bucket list and much more and had an amazing trip. We spent about five days in Bangkok and then went down to the islands for just over a week, had another brief stopover in Bangkok again before heading up to Chiang Mai for the Christmas holidays. We booked hotels on the fly, which meant having to move hotels three times in Chiang Mai due to holiday season booking issues, and we spent too many hours in front of computer screens arranging travel for the next leg of our trip.
When we finally left Chiang Mai (three days later than we planned due to no available flights), we were starting to feel the panic of our vacation time coming to an end and, interestingly enough, because we had touted this trip as a “Southeast Asia” trip, we felt an odd pressure to ensure we saw more than just Thailand (silly, right?). So we flew from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, did a 3 day whirlwind tour of Angkor Wat and then flew to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam for our final days before going back to Bangkok. Sadly, as soon as we sped up our travels and started focusing on seeing sites instead of really experiencing the places we were in, we physically exhausted ourselves and got sick. We spent the last weeks of our vacation with a nasty virus that switched from stomach flu symptoms to sinusitis and got so bad we weren’t sure if we could manage flying the 27 hours to get home! Due to rushing and illness, we didn’t experience “real” Cambodia or Vietnam and we were disappointed in ourselves for falling into the trap of a whirlwind itinerary again.
So, after all these experiences, what have we learned? Well, for starters, we’ve learned that slowing down and seeing fewer sites made for a more enjoyable experience than rushing to meet some imagined or notebook-written itinerary but we also learned that some preliminary research and itinerary ideas will save us from hours of computer time when we’d rather be out enjoying our surroundings. We also learned that as soon as we start thinking about a trip as being “once in a lifetime”, we feel the pressure to see and do everything and that “whirlwind travel” pitfall leads to exhaustion, illness and the disappointment that only comes from having had too high expectations.
And what will we do differently on our next adventure? To answer this question, I will turn to a Buddhism lesson we’ve learned from a Monk in Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, we participated in a Monk Chat at one of the temples and this has led to an email friendship in which we receive lessons on Buddhism and meditation and he gets a chance to practise his English (again, a good example of travel’s “secret destinations” – if we had rushed to see the sites in Chiang Mai, we would never have befriended a Buddhist Monk). Triratana often refers to Buddha’s wisdom of “following the middle road” or, as we interpret it, maintaining balance.
In our future travels, we will strive to find that middle road between researching and “winging it”. We plan to research enough to know where to go, what to see and transportation options available while maintaining flexibility in our plans to incorporate all the secret destinations that will be revealed to us. Oh, and we will continue to strive to travel lighter because, although we’ve improved with each trip, we still brought way more stuff than we needed. I will write a post about packing light, if I ever manage to actually learn that lesson (don’t hold your breath…).
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