Wanderlust: A New Travel Series

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Cover photo by Jan Traid, Unsplash.ย 

by Lenna

I want to write about something positive. Posts I don’t half feel like deleting 10 minutes after I post them. ๐Ÿ™‚

So I’ve decided it’s time to talk about my travels.

Life After Trauma

As I’ve mentioned in several posts here, a series of traumatic events began for me in late 2012 and continued for over five years.

A half-decade horror show got me thinking about what really matters. I decided that I would like to see the world.

I know a lot of people who were only able to travel once they retired. If they were lucky enough to have the savings, good health and free time.

But I wanted to travel now. I wanted to hike and backpack and climb mountains. Not see the world decades from now from the window of a tour bus.

Like most people, I faced some obstacles. I’m not rich and I have to work for a living, so my vacation time is limited. But as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Andalusia and Istanbul

I took my first overseas trip in the spring of 2014. I had always dreamed of going to Spain to tour Andalusia and to Turkey. So that’s the first trip I took with a friend.

Masjid, Cordoba, Spain
Photo by Lenna, Cordoba, Spain

We visited Madrid, Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Cadiz, Malaga, and Barcelona before flying to Istanbul. It was wonderful, alhamdulilah.

Since that first trip, I’ve been to over 20 countries spanning five continents. This weekend I leave for another trip, insha’Allah.

I like to write about my trips partly so I can relive and preserve the experience. I also like to help others who travel or at least would like to.

So for this first post, I want to talk about traveling in general, rather than any specific destination. Let’s start with some good news…

The Only Word You Need to Know

Have you ever wondered how people get around in foreign countries where they don’t speak the local language? I always thought that would be really difficult, but it really isn’t.

graffiti bathroom
Photo by Gabor Monori, Unsplash

Human beings are extremely good at communicating with one another. Between assessing the context and gesturing, we can usually manage just fine. Without knowing even a single word of the local language!

But there is one word you should know because it’s not something you want to gesture. Fortunately, it’s really easy because you already know it!

The one word you need to know is…TOILET. That’s it.

I have yet to visit any place on earth where people don’t know what this word means. You say “toilet” and they point. Simple as that.

It’s also handy–though not necessary–to have Google and Bing translators on your mobile phone. I recommend downloading both apps. Neither is the clear winner because each outperforms the other in certain contexts.

Passports

I’ve heard in the past that only a small number of Americans hold passports. In fact, at least 42% actually do. Though this isn’t a majority, I’m glad to see we have far more passport holders than I suspected.

passport - go all in
Photo by Jeremy Durrough, Unsplash

I recently had to renew my passport. I can hardly believe I’ve had it for 10 years!

When you renew your passport, they do send back the old one. So if you’re like me and you treasure your passport stamps from various countries, the good news is they’re yours to keep.

The other good news is the US State Department is very efficient when it comes to processing passports. It only takes 2-3 weeks for a typical renewal, without any extra fee for rush service.

When you travel overseas, it’s a good idea to take a photo of your passport front page and put it on cloud storage. That way if you lose your booklet, you can at least gain access to a digital copy.

Always Have a Pen

This is a tip that almost no one mentions, and it sounds petty and inconsequential.ย But I literally got stuck in a Canadian airport once for what seemed like an eternity.

hand-crafted ivory pen
Photo by Lenna. A pen a friend handcrafted for me out of Siberian mammoth ivory.

The reason? I didn’t have a pen!

We had to fill out some sort of travel documentation and there were no pens provided. Some people had pens but they wanted to fill out their own stuff and move on.

And for whatever reason, there were scads of us who did not have our own pens. Who wants to stand around waiting for 25 people to fill out their forms with a borrowed pen?

Finally, someone just donated her pen to the crowd and we passed it around. It was a ridiculous situation you can easily avoid.

Always, always pack at least one working ink pen!

Backpacks, Airport Security, and You

It seems like every single time I buy something expensive and new, the TSA confiscates it.

Last time they took my brand new,ย  luxurious, sweet-smelling hair conditioner. It was over the ounce limit and the TSA agent threw it in the trash. Grrrr!

sad puppy
Photo represents how I feel when the TSA confiscates my stuff! at the airport. By Matthew Henry, Unsplash

To avoid this sort of situation, take only small tubes and bottles of your essentials. Put them in Ziploc bags, tucked inside your backpack.

Sometimes the TSA seems to think we need to put everything in Ziploc bags, and sometimes they seem not to really care. You never know what they’ll come up with next.

But sealing your stuffย can be helpful anyway. Like if something you pack happens to leak.

Your safest bet is to pack only those things that are half used up and shabby. Shiny new things absolutely beg for TSA attention. Especially if they’re expensive and it would be crying shame to throw them away. ๐Ÿ™‚

Never Check Baggage

One of the reasons I have all my stuff with me when I go through airport security is that I never check luggage. I fit everything into my backpack.

Muslim Woman
Photo by Mohammad Hassan, Unsplash

This means you can travel light, are highly mobile, and never have to wait at the baggage claim. And no one can lose your luggage but you.

I also carry a shoulder bag because I kept leaving my short-strapped purse everywhere, including the Budapest train station!ย Wear a good shoulder bag cross body. You can just put it on and forget about it.

As far as how to pack everything into a backpack, I’ve learned to maximize the space. I take an extra pair of shoes and whatever clothes I need.

If you run out of clean clothes, just find a laundromat or a laundry service. It’s usually pretty easy and the convenience of not having to lug around suitcases is well worth it.

I recommend you purchase an Osprey brand backpack because they last forever. I’ve lugged the same backpack with me all over the world for over four years now, and it looks practically brand new.

Getting Around

We have never rented a single car on our trips overseas. Cars are expensive to rent and I’ve always hated driving.

Not to mention the fact that in some place people drive on the “wrong” side of the road. It can be dangerous just to cross the street as a pedestrian in such places, never mind to get behind the wheel!

Waverley Railway Station,
Photo of Waverley Railway Station, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. By Euan Carmichael, Unsplash.

So I just don’t chance it. And while we’re on the subject of driving, never assume that oncoming cars will stop for pedestrians. That is often true, but not always.

Never test the notion cars will stop for you in cities like Budapest or Mostar. Just assume people in cars will run you over without a second thought and cross accordingly.

We do a lot of walking and otherwise rely on public transportation.

Riding the train is often the highlight of my day. Especially when I travel with friends who drag me around like we’re at boot camp rather than on holiday

I also love to take the subways and busses. Even when overcrowded, these modes of transportation offer a glimpse of the locals going about their daily life.

And now there’s also Uber. Almost everywhere. Uber is awesome. ๐Ÿ™‚

Cheap Flights

One trick for saving money is to search for the city where flights are cheapest.

You can often get a very reasonably-priced flight to Dublin, Ireland. Then take RyanAir to wherever else you want to go. They will peddle trinkets and snacks during your flight but the tickets are super cheap.

airplane on the runway
Photo by Marcus Zymmer, Unsplash

On my last trip, I went to Dublin, and from there to Edinburgh in Scotland via RyanAir, and then to Malta. At the end of the trip, we flew back to Dublin from Malta and then back home.

Sounds crazy, right? The agent in the Malta airport certainly seemed to think so.

She looked me up and down and asked me a gazillion questions. Why was I traveling around from country to country with no luggage?

Because it’s really cheap. That’s why. We visited three different countries and the entire bill for the trip amounted to less than a lot of people pay for a single international flight!

If you fly a lot you also get some discounts.ย Sometimes you can voluntarily get bumped off a flight and get a generous voucher for taking a later one. I almost got a $700 voucher on my last trip to New York City, but someone beat me to it.

My only other tip for long flights is to stay hydrated. I used to not drink very much water because I wanted to avoid the airplane bathroom.

That is a very, very bad idea. I kept getting sick on planes, sometimes coughing for days after a long flight. Then I read that this is common and the cure is lots and lots of fluids.

I have tried hydrating, accepting every beverage offered on the flight, and it works.

Yes, you may wind up standing in line to use that clubby airplane toilet. But you will be glad later when you are not hacking and having your kidney stones removed.

Piggyback with Friends

Another way I’ve been able to keep the costs down is to travel with people who are already traveling.

Years ago, my parents traveled with some Christian missionaries. My parents were not missionaries, but there were extra seats on their chartered plane, and so it was a win-win. They flew to South America dirt cheap.

Tissue Paper Heart
Photo of tissue paper art on display at the Facebook office in New York City. By Lenna.

I have a friend who works for Facebook, a company with offices all over the world. If Facebook is paying a lot of an employee’s travel expenses, you just extend the trip and split the leftover cost. The per-person price is often very reasonable.

Most companies will allow people to extend trips. It doesn’t actually cost them any extra over and above the regular business expenses. But you and your friends can travel at a fraction of the cost.

There are all sorts of creative ways to get around that you’re only going to notice if you’re open to the idea. Youth groups? Student exchange programs? Missionary trips?

People find all kinds of creative ways to travel, once they set their hearts on getting to where they want to go.

Paying for Stuff

One thing you really need to know is how to pay for things in various countries. Not knowing can literally get you stranded.

decorative currency
Photo of currency in Vrindavan, India by Fancycrave, Unsplash

Japan is still very much a cash-based society and they use mostly coins. For this reason, it’s easy to find pretty silk coin purses all over Japan.

If you’re boarding a bus in Europe, your only payment option may be Android or Apple pay. In some countries, you can use your credit card everywhere and don’t even need to exchange your own currency for the local one.

I usually don’t buy local currency at all unless I have to. You’re always taking a bit of a loss, and even more so if you have to change back the excess when you leave.

But the key is to find out ahead of time. And while you’re at it, figure out what kind of electrical outlets each country has too.

You need to bring the correct adaptor. This particular tip has nothing to do with money.ย  But I don’t think it warrants its own section so I just stuck it here. ๐Ÿ™‚

Crime

I don’t worry much about crime in most places. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, and a lot of places are safer than Chicago.

mayhem graffiti
Photo by Peter Hershey, Unsplash

But if the local police tell you not to venture into some particular area, you should listen. If they say not to go into some part of town, especially after dark, don’t go there.

I say this as a person who is anything but paranoid. I feel pretty safe walking the streets of New York in the middle of the night. At least in certain parts.

Aside from listening to the local authorities, don’t worry too much about crime. If you’re American, you’re safer in most European capitals (and lots of other places) than you are in your own cities.

Eating

Get outside the tourist areas.

Food is usually cheaper on the side streets. The best places are the ones that are popular with the locals, not the fancy ones that cater to the tourist crowds.

Lebanese Food
Lebanese food with falafel and fried potatoes at a cafe in Ireland. By Lenna.

We left the tourist areas in Istanbul and had these great little eye-shaped meat pizzas they were selling for a song. We also realized at some point that ordering a “cup of tea” means paying tourist prices, so you should ask for a “glass of tea” instead.

Every place has its quirks, but the local places outside the tourist areas are your best bet for good, cheap eats.ย Hotels that include free breakfast are a blessing

Turkey, of course, has lots of halal food options. Japan does not. At least not where we were, so we ended up eating lots of noodles and seafood. With chopsticks…I never really got the hang of those.

Starbucks ๐Ÿ™‚

Starbucks Japan
Photo from the first Starbucks in Japan. By Lenna.

Most countries have Starbucks. Complete with the ginormous drink sizes many of us have come to know and love.

One of the few countries I’ve visited that does not have Starbucks is the otherwise lovely nation of Slovenia.

Which may explain why First Lady Melania Trump decided to come to the United States.

Starbucks is a great reason to move here, Melania. Donald Trump…not so much. ๐Ÿ™‚

IMPORTANT RANDOM TIP:

Most places today have potable water. But not always in the bathroom!

Check for signs or ask the front desk. You may need to use bottled water to brush your teeth, just to be on the safe side.

Time Off

If you have a standard work schedule, it might be hard to get time off to travel.

I used to feel really trapped in my job. Between the long commute and sitting in a cubicle all day, it dominated my life.

Dublin Office Building
View of an office building from a hotel room in Dublin, Ireland. By Lenna

Now I freelance, and I take time off when I want to. I don’t make as much money, but I’m much freer and happier than I ever was before.

If you feel trapped too, consider quitting your job. Seriously.

I used to feel totally locked into the life I had. I couldn’t even imagine an escape route!

If you decide more freedom to travel and enjoy life is something you really want, you can probably make that happen. And it’s totally worth it. Or at least it has been for me.

People Everywhere Are Awesome

Here’s the really cool thing about traveling. People are really, really nice. Most of them anyway, and that’s true absolutely everywhere I’ve been so far.

Thing 1 Thing 2 - Dr Suess
Photo by Scott Webb, Unsplash

Are the French snobs? New Yorkers rude? South Americans eager to kidnap you and steal your kidneys? No, not really.

People are incredibly nice everywhere on the planet, with a few bad apples here and there. What a happy discovery that was! ๐Ÿ™‚

I would love for everyone to be able to travel and meet people in faraway lands.

We would probably be friends with everyone if we actually got to know one another, instead of judging from what we see on the news.

Skip the news and meet real people. It’s much more fun and interesting. ๐Ÿ™‚

Conclusion

These are random thoughts rather than a comprehensive travel guide. Which I think is okay because no one can really tell you all about traveling anyway.

Every place is different. Every place, even if it’s dirt poor, has its charms.

Budva, Montenegro is literally the ugliest city I’ve ever seen. By a wide margin. It’s also one of the most interesting places I’ve visited so far.

I’ve never regretted going anywhere. If anything, I regret not going absolutely everywhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

I would like to write about all my trips. Not necessarily in chronological order. Insha’Allah.

So if you like to read about travel, please stop by from time to time. And feel free to share your tips and stories in the comments.

I would love to hear about your travels. ๐Ÿ™‚