You’ve saved up, planned an itinerary, and you’re ready to take off on a round-the-world journey or months of backpacking. Great!
Are you really ready though for life on the road?
Most people I’ve met who are backpacking around the world end up adjusting reasonably well, but a fairly large segment struggles, especially in the first month or two. The ones who have it worst are the ones who leave London and land in the chaos of India with fresh shiny backpacks, ready to be scammed. It’s not fun getting ripped off badly within 24 hours of arrival.
Here are some novel things to do before you take off that will get you ready for a trip that is planned for months, a year, or more. Try these and you’ll have that worldy-wise, grizzled seen-it-all look about you from the start instead of the deer caught in headlights look.
1) Wear the same two outfits for a week. The wardrobe you have stuffed into a backpack will be limited. Get used to it.
2) Eat in the very cheapest ethnic restaurants in your city. Find the hole-in-the-wall places where you live, the ones where you see that particular ethnic group dining. If it’s one of the only tenants n a failing strip mall, that’s a good sign. If they failed a health inspection or two in the past, even better. They’ll give you a little taste of your upcoming dining experiences.
If there’s a temple near you for immigrants from a certain country, see if they have a day where they serve food and invite foreigners, like this Thai one in Tampa does. It’ll be a cultural eye-opener.
3) Eat at street stalls. Whether your city has hot dog carts, falafel stands, taco trucks, or something else, spend a few days straight eating lunch at these places. You will be getting lots of meals this way when you’re a budget backpacker on the move and you’ll be getting your stomach ready for it.
4) Spend a night in the worst motel you can find, either in your own town or when you take a road trip/weekend getaway. Odds are, this motel will still be better than many of the places you will be spending your nights, especially if it has hot water and real water pressure in a private shower. Which brings us to…
5) Take nothing but cold showers for a week. Sure, it sucks, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s reality in much of the world if you’re on a shoestring budget. At the cheapie guesthouses level, hot water can double the price of your room. You won’t have it regularly, especially in tropical places. If you do it might look a little scary.
6) Spend the afternoon walking around with a loaded backpack. Stuff everything you were planning on taking with you into your backpack, walk out the door, and keep going for miles. Don’t forget that other smaller bag that will hold your gadgets, books, chargers, etc. If you’re taking one of those, carry both. Walk for a half hour at a time, take a short break, and do it again. Stop somewhere and get something to eat, finding a place to put down that big pack and whatever else you’re carrying. If possible, come back on the public bus. There was your simulation of a day on the move.
7) Take (bad) public transportation. What’s the worst way to get around where you live? What’s the cheapest way to get to another city from yours? Hop on and go. You’ll be repeating that experience a lot, but with less legroom.
8) Pay for everything with cash and keep track of your expenses. You will be on a budget and you will need to keep monitoring that budget to see if you’re on track. In much of the world, cash rules. So get used to carrying it again, and figure out how you will keep it tucked under your clothing.
9) Hoard your change. This exercise will feel the silliest at home, where every store always has change, but it will be very different when you’re in developing countries (even Mexico), so get used to holding onto all those small bills and coins.
10) Turn off the phone. It pains me more than anything to see travelers staring at the little blue screen or thumbing out text messages while wonderful things are going on around them in a place they’ve never been before. It’s especially cringe-worthy when they’ve waving around an iPhone that costs more than some people nearby earn in an entire year. (It’s also like putting a sign on their back that says, “I’m distracted. Rob me!”)
Yes, I know, social media can be addictive, so break the habit now. Get some practice now experiencing, learning, and observing with no interruptions instead of cranking out more forgettable chatter. Spend a whole day having real face-to-face conversations with all gadgets turned off. (You’ll interact more if you wear a real watch and take a real camera—avoiding two things that cause you to continually turn on your phone.)
11) Navigate a new neighborhood or city. Land in a new place, bring or get a map, and spend the day finding places on foot and by bus or subway. Walk into areas that make you feel uncomfortable—though you probably want to do this in the daytime. Get lost on purpose and see what you find.
Bonus practice: If you are headed to India, Egypt, or Morocco, one more bit of homework is required. Go around for several days interacting with strangers and shopkeepers, all the while asking yourself this question: “What if everything they are saying to me is a lie? How does that effect my decision?” You will then be a little bit more ready for the touts, the scammers, and the low-lifes who prey on the gullible.
Last, I doubt you can find a place with a squat toilet like you see at the top without leaving your home country, but if you can, get some practice on it. If not, go camping for a weekend and practice your squatting position in the woods. Work those leg muscles in the gym—you’ll be using them a lot just to go to the bathroom.