Today marks five years since I first embarked on my maiden backpacking adventure in South East Asia.
I had lived away since moving to England at the tender age of 18; some twelve years ago now, however home was but a stone’s throw across the pond and returns were frequent with extended breaks at Christmas and Easter sandwiching a two-month sojourn every summer.
Like the prodigal son, I rolled up to find the proverbial red carpet rolled out, home-cooked meals and express laundry service making me feel like a king. The novelty would soon wear off and I would find myself taking the rubbish out, longing for the flight back to freedom.
It was only natural that I would take off again once I had graduated and so after meticulous planning and hard saving, the brother and I took off on November 17th 2011, slinging our backpacks and waving farewell to the hometown that I become ever-more distant from with ever passing year of university.
Last May, I made a long overdue visit home to take it the wedding of my eldest sister and after three years away, I felt more lost than anywhere I had ever been in the time before. Wanderlust had gripped me and so before the summer was out, I was en route to Korea.
Now, five years since that first flight into the far unknown, I can look back upon the memories of a dozen countries, many explored extensively. Korea is the fifth country I have called home in that time, having lived and worked in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand & Ireland once again in the past five years.
The time has flown by and no longer do I feel as green behind the gills as that first day. I can’t claim to know it all but I’ve definitely learnt a lot; about myself, about backpacking, about solo travel, about cultures, countries, creeds and races, people, places, characters and situations. It hasn’t all been laughs and parties, sadly. But even with any of the stressful or worrying times, there came absolute gold and I had many moments where I really had to pause and consider how amazing it was that I was where I was, doing things that were but a wild pipe-dream a few years previous.
I’ve learnt countless other things I’m sure, but none more important than these:
1 – Money isn’t everything
It really isn’t. Sure, it helps to have it and with none at all it would be quite uncomfortable to travel – bordering on the impossible in fact. However, there are ways and means to prolong a journey and nothing is ever permanent on the road, even bouts of poverty.
One of the most wonderful aspects of travel is the people you meet and unless you are a complete jerk, you will always find a sofa to crash on, a friend with a small loan, a friendly face to buy you a burger and when the stars truly align, a new job falls in your lap.
In late 2013 in Australia I was banking more money than I had ever made in my life. I was relatively rich compared to my student days and yet I wasn’t jumping for joy. Grinding close to 70 hours a week rendered me exhausted on the weekends and the job was tedious, having me count the minutes to freedom each day.
A few months later I was in a sense of nirvana and loving every minute of my day as I walked barefoot around a village in Northern Thailand. My only job was to train Muay Thai and my bed was as hard as rock but I couldn’t have been happier. With my worldly possessions barely filling a single backpack and my wardrobe consisting of little more than tank-tops and flip-flops, I still felt richer than the really impoverished souls around South East Asia. Even when my savings plummeted and I eventually landed in Christchurch and had to return to hostel life while hunting for a job, I realized the core truth of it…
2 – The people make the place
I’ll admit it was scary to realize my savings were decimated when I was holed up in a hostel, unemployed and alone. But Around the World Backpackers in Christchurch was without a doubt the best hostel experience I’ve had in my life. Within three weeks, I was not only employed but packing my bags again to move into a dream house with a great group of wonderfully, diverse characters.
The following months had their ups and downs but ultimately the social circle there in Christchurch at that time was amazing. Like always with travelling, people come and go and of course the end of an era eventually dawned but I’ll always look back on that period among the luckiest of my travels. An ill-fated solo venture to Wellington magnified this lesson when I found myself back at square one; an unemployed hostel-dweller in a strange city. I missed Christchurch and the people so much I had to return just two weeks later. That experience made me realize…
3 – Culture shock can happen at anytime
It could be day one, or just after the initial holiday buzz wears off. In my case, I was on the road three years. I lived away from home since I was 18 and yet there I was, at 28 years of age, choking back the tears in a private bathroom away from the dorm with a crushing sense of homesickness and overwhelming feeling of failure as I faced the very real fact that I took a huge gamble and it had blown up in my face, thus compromising all my future plans.
Wellington had attracted me for a while and the goal was to work and save enough to swing home for the wedding then bounce on to South America or South Korea afterwards. The problem was I stayed in Christchurch so long that when I arrived in New Zealand’s capital I had less than three months left on my visa, therefore my chances of finding a temporary job and short-term housing lease were severely diminished.
With my finances dwindling perilously, I bagged some part-time bar work and one Saturday night at 4AM, I found myself being told by a 19-year-old girl to grab a broom and sweep the glitter from the alcohol-soaked cobblestone floor in front of the bar. It wasn’t a joke.
As I struggled to complete the task, I realized I was doing it for $14 an hour and was dreading going back to my noisy, smelly, strange hostel room after. Just a week before, I had an absolute gem of sinecure, lounging in an comfortable office chair for $23 an hour plus good benefits, with a great big room in a nice house in Christchurch, close to the city park and a great friends nearby.
I stared at the soaking, sticky cobblestones and scraped the brush against the glitter as hard as I could, but it wasn’t shifting, and yet I had to do it because it was my job and I needed the job to keep the stinking hostel bed. That was the joke, and I was living it.
Extensive travel breeds experience but new challenges appear all the time. Even a veteran can be rocked and knocked back on the ropes. Sometimes, to keep on fighting, you have to become adaptable and do things you don’t want to do. Personally, I swallowed my pride and got lucky that my old boss valued enough to take me back at Christchurch. But there has been other times, where I’ve took other jobs. They may not have been my wheelhouse, but I discovered something along the way.
4 – If you can try, the job is yours
This may not apply to elite professions. I’m not advocating anybody takes a leaf of Di DiCaprio’s book and tries to pass themselves off as an airline pilot or doctor after watching a few documentaries.
My point is, I’ve heard it said by more than a few people, that a certain opportunity just isn’t ‘their type of job’ or that they have never done it before, so they never bother to knock the door.
I arrived in Australia in January 2012 as a journalism graduate who could multitask with a phone and computer plus if the thirst had you I could pull a half-decent looking pint but for the love of jaysus, don’t ask me to change the keg.
By the time I left, just shy of two years later I had went through so many jobs that I lost count. It became apparent that a CV was just an initial boast to earn a conversation, after which you had to impress at the interview or registration where your ability to talk absolute waffle could get you into positions and pay-grades that far exceeded your skill set. Don’t believe me? Two words for you: President Trump.
Even with a cautious attitude and limited experience, I found myself as a gas station attendant in the Outback, a door-to-door salesman, a rookie carpenter, a citrus orchard farmer, an electrician’s trade assistant on massive substation projects, an administrator in a major law firm and a pipe-layer/truck-driver. I also learnt how to change a keg without flooding the room and wasting valuable booze.
Some people really pushed the boat out . One guy on the electrical substation was a plumber by trade but was getting paid a sparkie’s wage. He simply stood close to the real sparks and copied what they were doing.
Confidence is key. For example, I told the pipe-laying company I had drove trucks once or twice.
The real truth was I only passed my test before leaving for Australia and hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car since. Furthermore, the only truck I manned was a Tonka truck, inside which my brother jammed our hamster. Technically, I think that meant old Monty was driving the truck, he died soon after. Possibly from the wreck or the PTSD.
In any case, they bought it and a week later I was driving a truck and trailer down the busy highway of Sydney city. At night. In the rain. Alone.
More importantly, even if you are scared, even if you think you will mess up and get found out, you can always resort to the old line – ‘Ah, we do it a little different back home!”
Ultimately, you don’t know where it will lead. The first substation job led to a second, then a third. I was making money hand-over-fist and got to live and relax as a jobless, flip-flop-wearing-Muay-Thai-training hobo in Thailand for four months and travel Burma in luxury because of it. Who said honesty is the best policy? Take a chance.
5 – You meet everyone for a reason
Not literally every human you meet or look at, nor everyone that you acknowledge or spare a word for, but every one that you meet and converse with, just enough to claim you really met them. I’m not a very spiritual or superstitious individual, however there is something with this one that holds true for me. Often the realization comes with hindsight and only after the person is gone that you appreciate just what they offered, or in fact, what they gave to you.
It may be the older vet who regales you with wise tales from when traveling was really hard, the lonely guy who traveled too long and missed the chance to really settle down, the foreign girl who makes you more aware of the fragility of health, the elderly couple who taught you some local lingo, the brief relationships that fizzle out or the sad people who fell out with their best friend or long-term partner because life on the road together simply broke them.
The challenges can test people in unimaginable and unrelenting ways, summoning strength and magnifying flaws you may never had acknowledged before. Sometimes, best friends become strangers because your journey must move on without them. Other times, that stranger in the hostel or street can become your best friend, maybe for a night or a week or maybe only for a few minutes as you chat in the hostel and when they leave your mindset will be altered in a fashion that makes life that little bit clearer.
6 – There are angels everywhere
Phone is dead, no GPS, no map. It’s dark, you’re cold and far beyond lost. Circling the city roads with all sense of direction gone, you shiver as your hoarse throat mumbles profanities at the frustrating trap you’re stuck in. Finally, some two hours later, your aimless driving takes your bike into the middle of a passing group of motorbikes. Out of necessity, you turn with them and find yourself stuck in the middle of their group. Within a few minutes, they have lead you to the road back to your village. Coincidence? Probably.
However, good people are doing good deeds all over and many of the most frustrating times on the road were almost immediately alleviated by an act of kindness from the locals. From broken-down bikes, dropping wallets, losing phones or struggling with technology in a foreign tongue, there’s usually a savior close by to help you get to the promised land.
7 – There are idiots everywhere
It’s an unfortunate truth but no one country seems to be free of the occasional jerk or absolute muppet. That being said, although I’ve found myself in some hairy situations, I’ve never been attacked or mugged in my time away. I met plenty of people who had been with a shocking number of victims in Nha Trang, Vietnam having their possession removed from them by force.
I disarmed a crazy Thai woman on a beach who charged our group with a glass bottle and have also had met my fair share of ignorant people. They’re in every country but to be honest, when it comes to feeling welcome or safe in a bar full of drunks, I probably felt less at ease ‘at home’ in Ireland. Go figure.
Bottom line, travel gives you the opportunity to meet a lot of different characters and personalities and over time, you get to be a pretty good reader of people. The confidence and spark they have passes to you and even the bad ones can teach you something valuable.
8 – You are braver than you think
I would have considered myself middle-of-the-pack when it came to exploits that required daring and dangerous action. Travel offers plenty of chances to test your mettle and once you’ve put life and limb on the line a few times, the confidence flows and simple things that once unnerved you become easy.
Drive a motorbike, jump out of an airplane, crash a motorbike, get lost in a jungle, roll down the side of a mountain, go white-water rafting, get in a tuk-tuk crash, jump off a cliff, train Muay Thai, zip-line through a forest, ride an elephant, take a boat journey through a storm, lie about your asthma and poor swimming capabilities and scuba-diving to lung-crushing depths.
Hopefully you’ll survive each one. If you’re afraid, even better, do it twice.
9 – Roughin’ it ain’t so bad
I think after four months living in a tent during the winter in Queensland qualifies me to have this opinion.
Flash hotels are great but when you wake up on a deflated airbed and stagger through frosty grass and empty beer bottles to a stone-cubicle every night for months on end, you realize two things. One, you need to stop drinking so much beer every night and two, it isn’t that hard to downsize life to the essentials. If you’re eating, sleeping and earning alright, then anything else is just a bonus. Plus, an added bonus of staying in treehouses and log cabins is you get unexpected friends to ward off bugs.
10 – Irish people are so incredibly white
This became painfully apparent within a week of setting off as any river parties or beaches would inevitably provide ample opportunity for scantily-clad backpackers to note the rather blinding shade of white our pasty skin was. Even our English neighbours seem relatively golden standing next to us.
Paddy had the added woe of turning lobster rouge with every solid day in the sun. A small mercy of genetics gave me my mother’s tendency to turn a healthy shade of yellow, at least for a a few days before the milky hue rose to the surface once more.
11 – There’s no Christmas like home
Next month will be my 7th Christmas in-a-row away from Ireland, with the last one I celebrated with family in Australia 2010.
Paddy was with me for a couple
after that but since flying solo in late 2013, I’ve had Christmases in Thailand, New Zealand and Korea.
The conclusion I’ve reached is that it’s just not another day. Christmas is for family and nowhere else seems to cut it. Barbecued prawns by the poolside was definitely different, pizza on the beach in Koh Phi Phi great and snowboarding in Korea was fun last year but when it comes to Christmas, nothing beats home. I’m sorry to say it’ll probably be another one or two before the universe guides me back to mine for one. It’s long overdue.
12 – Monkeys steal stuff
The aptly named Monkey Beach can be reached by kayak from Koh Phi Phi within ten minutes, less if you are an Olympian kayaker. Bring plenty of booze and be on your guard the monkeys will take it. Don’t think your bottle is safe because it has the lid on, those crafty little buggers know how to deal with that.
All over Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam we heard tales of people having food ripped from their hands by monkeys. One rumour was doing the rounds that monkeys were trained to rob swimmers at the seaside when they left their belongings unattended on the beach.You have been warned!
13 – Sometimes scary things happen
It could be a health issue because you simply have been putting your body through the ringer with the constant partying and poor booze-sleep-eat ratio. Losing control of my motorbike near the side of a mountain road was pretty terrifying for a heartbeat until I pulled myself to the ground just short of a twenty foot drop off into a forest hill. But the most terrifying thing to happen in all five years was with Paddy just two short months in. Working our first job in Australia at a roadhouse on the Nullarbor Highway, we had to find some ways to relieve the tedious boredom that threatened to kill us if the oppressive heat and infestation of mice didn’t take us out first. Lucky for us, the owner was happy to lend her motocross bike for us to muck around on.
A routine cruise around the bush-land at the back of the property was going fine until I urged Paddy to get closer to a family of kangaroos. He gripped the throttle and we bounced the motorbike through the shrub and sand, I clung on with one hand, my camera at the ready. The family of kangaroos hopped away faster than we could have anticipated and no amount of rallying by Paddy could catch up with them as they bounded all over the place, leading us far away from the well-trodden tracks home. By the time I got the shot, we were a mile off track with all sense of orientation reduced to little more than a hunch. Our attempts to trace our path only lead to more confusion and eventually the bike crunched hard against an upturned branch, causing damage to the under-carriage. Finding a clearing, we pulled up to mend the bike and compose ourselves.
Stranded with nothing but sand and bush in every direction and no sense of orientation as the sun rose high and the petrol trickled low. Water was but a dream and time of the essence as dusk brought creatures through the long grass that we didn’t care to meet. Even the now-curious kangaroos who hopped into the vicinty couldn’t help us now as we stared wide-eyed at them, hoping to summon concise directions home from them.
Those were the longest twenty minutes of my life.
All that being said, sometimes it can be boring to follow the same old track. Rather than succumb to the prosaic simply because it is expected or accepted as the norm, dare to go off-road. The adventure is worth the worry.
I believe it was an old slave who said “All receive advice, yet only the wise profit from it.” He would later use his wit and wisdom to earn his freedom. Many believe long-term travelers to be lost souls or dreamers who are unwilling to join the ‘real world’ as they bounce around the globe in search of something undefinable. Wisdom still eludes me everyday but one things for sure; I already have my freedom.