I am currently about a quarter of the way through a ten month travelling adventure. As we drove off in a van crammed with way too much stuff, we were given encouraging support from so many people, from ‘you’re so lucky’ to ‘we’re so jealous’ to ‘where will you go to the toilet?’.
And they’re right: we are lucky. There’s more privilege wrapped in up in our ability to make this choice than I could go into in one blog post, and I can’t begin to vocalise how grateful I am that we have a crashmat back home if it all goes wrong (please don’t tell my Mam I called her a crashmat).
However: there’s one aspect of travelling which I don’t think is talked about enough. Just how constantly, epically, embarrassing it can be.
To be clear: I know there are people who travel with style and confidence. Who either speak all the languages, or are confident enough in their ability to use sign language and volume to get their point across. Who stride around new places like they are unmarked territory, awaiting their approval.
I am not stylish or confident.
Travelling is a lesson in what happens when you’re constantly stumbling around, looking for toilets and not being confident to ask where they are. It’s like being a shy 6 year old again. I am terrified of breaking rules, and constantly worry I’m in a building, or on a pavement where I’m not meant to be.
When sitting down for food, I try and watch what everyone else is doing, to make sure I’m not committing some grave cultural sin by holding my fork weird (I always feel like I’m holding my fork weird), or touching a napkin which is for display purposes only.
I’ve travelled in a world before smartphones and easy googling and love the fact that you can now quickly check the routes into places, the opening times and how to say ‘I’m sorry I tried to learn more of your language but I’m crumbling under the pressure of saying it to you out loud’ in 40 different ways.
Then, of course, you get the rollercoaster of elation when you get something right: when you manoeuvre your way through a day without doing anything terrible and seem to be asleep in the place you’re meant to be.
For those travelling who have easy access to their inner-squirmer, or who find shyness a barrier to their happiness, I’d offer these three pieces of advice:
- If you can, find yourself time to wander around, without aim or purpose. I need about an hour of walking around somewhere, listening to people, working out the pace of the place and smiling too much at strangers to show them I am incredibly keen and earnest.
- Google some information in advance, but don’t do too much. Part of the reason you went travelling was to push yourself, right? If you didn’t want to do that, you could have done the whole thing looking at streetview and stayed in your PJs at home.
- Remember you can enjoy in hindsight. Not all travelling is immediately fun and amazing in that present moment. It’s too much pressure on your time if you need it to be incredible all the time, and will just add to your worries. Some of my favourite travelling memories have been enjoyed from the comfort of my couch, looking at photos with the space to enjoy the bigger picture and appreciate the experience from afar.
Good luck, travellers. If it all gets too much, there is one final thing you can do…bring a book, find a bench and sit. That counts as travelling too.