While I don't covet passport stamps and don't really pay attention to my little blue book anymore, I hit a travel milestone a couple of weeks ago that I couldn't ignore. My trip to Montenegro and Bosnia marked the 65th and 66th countries I've set foot in: a fact that floors me since I never intentionally set out to see a certain number of countries in my life. At 21, I had never left the continent of North America. Jaunts to the U.S. and the Caribbean to visit family were the extent of my world travels. But a year-long study abroad in France in 2003 changed everything for me so that, 10 years, 66 countries, and six continents later, travel has become a way of life for me as natural as breathing.
Have I learned anything from my extensive travels? You betcha. Travel has probably been one of the greatest educators in my life and has schooled me in more ways that I'll ever be able (or willing) to truly verbalize.
Below are 20 of the many things travelling to 66 countries has taught me (about myself, my preferences, my dislikes):
1. I prefer the status of expat more than traveler. At the tender age of almost 31, I am a six-time expat who has lived abroad in Latin America, Europe, and Asia for over 7 years in total. I love really getting to know a foreign land or culture better and feel I can only achieve this by living in a foreign destination for a year or more.
2. One should never check luggage unless they absolutely have to. Waiting in line for bags is just too annoying, especially after a long haul flight. I avoid checking luggage whenever possible.
3. As much as I like people, I thoroughly enjoy solo travel. HUGE discovery for me. I love my own company, love how traveling by myself affords me the freedom to do my own thing … or, alternatively, opens me up to meeting new people.
4. My stomach is a traitor. I get food poisoning. A lot. If I go somewhere foreign I usually get sick. Does that stop me from traveling? Not at all. But I prepare myself accordingly.
5. Getting sick when traveling alone is the WORST. This happened to me in Guatemala and was a horrible experience I hopefully will never have to repeat.
6. Travelling and travel blogging have lead me to meet the coolest people. I've met amazing people (usually whilst travelling solo). Blogging has also connected me with people I am now honored to count among my friends in real life.
7. Miscommunication and linguistic barriers can actually be fun. My recent move back to Hong Kong has reminded me how amusing and enriching not being able to get your point across can be (I use a lot of sign language and sweeping hand gestures here).
8. I really like slow travel. Lazy days exploring a new place with no rush or agenda is totally my thing right now, as is taking longer trips where I intentionally plan fewer visits to cities and attractions. No disrespect to fast travel, though — travelling fast is a great way to get the flavour of a place and decide whether or not you want to go back.
9. Sometimes the places everybody digs just won't resonate with you. I didn't love Machu Picchu, though most people think it's the most amazing thing they've ever seen. I think Madrid is cooler than Barcelona; but again, I'm in the minority. This is no biggie.
Sometimes I go against the traveller status quo and that's perfectly okay.
10. Smiles are currency. You may not speak the local language but smiles are universal. A smile is probably one of the most important tools one can arm oneself with in unknown territories.
11. Love is often found in the strangest, most unexpected, and most faraway of places. I met Liebling on Halloween at an Oktoberfest party in Hong Kong. Nuff said.
12. I'm not the daredevil I thought I was. While I did a skydive last year, my sheer petrification upon jumping out of a plane at 12,000 feet (I'm afraid of heights, you see) led me to solemnly vow never to do such a ridiculous thing again. For all my big talk, I'm pretty conservative when it comes to adventure and have an aversion to risk (particularly when it involves potentially harming important body parts). So I tend to stay away from the wild, crazy, and unsafe activities that give adrenaline junkies life. (Except for that time I went whitewater rafting in Nepal despite not knowing how to swim. And that time I hiked an active volcano in adverse weather conditions in Guatemala. Ahem.)
13. Always (and I mean ALWAYS) check to see if you need a tourist visa to enter a country before your trip. Or the plane might leave without you. I learned this the hard way when I attempted to board the plane to Dubai last year and found out that a random diplomatic dispute between Canada and the UAE resulted in Canadian travelers requiring an advance entry visa. Unaware of this skirmish and subsequent change in policy, I didn't have a visa in hand … and thus wasn't allowed to take my flight. Many tears, lots of stress, and a rush visa costing $600 USD later, I eventually made it to Dubai, two days later than planned.
14. Where I'm from is pretty awesome. The more I travel, the more I realize that my native country of Canadia is pretty cool after all. Eh.
15. Travel privilege is real. While one can attribute my travels to drive, determination, and extreme discipline with a budget, it's undeniable that having the "right" passport has opened the world up to me. As a Canadian citizen with a little blue travel document, I am mostly allowed to discover the four corners of the earth without restrictions. As long as I have the will, time, and money, I can go mostly anywhere my heart desires; this freedom is something I have entirely taken for granted in the past. Because the reality for many of those who didn't win the "nationality lottery" is that there are a lot more barriers to travel. People in the world from the "wrong" countries frequently suffer lengthy, costly, and often demoralizing processes that assess whether they will be permitted to travel to the country of their dreams. I can't imagine having my passport dictate where I can and cannot go; the concept is alien to me as much as it is distressing. Humbling, too — I often don't realize my privilege, but I am surely thankful for it.
16. As long as you're not hurting anyone, there's no right or wrong way to travel. I may not approve of the guy who blows through 23 countries in 25 days, but is it really any of my business? Unless it's harmful in some way, I let people travel in the way that makes them happy: as different people with a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and interests we are bound to travel differently from one another.
17. Sometimes best friends can be the worst travel partners. No horror stories here, but I have come to realize that the quirks you may find endearing about a friend at home can be wildly annoying once on the road. Beware.
18. You should really invest in travel insurance. I got pickpocketed in Egypt and lost $275. The good news? Travel insurance reimbursed me every last penny. Don't leave home without it.
19. Good walking shoes are the cornerstone of any successful trip. I get to know a place best on foot, so having comfy walking shoes has proved invaluable.
20. I love travel, but it doesn't define me. Travel is not the be-all and end-all for me. I may have a blog called Oneika the Traveller, but travel is only one part of who I am. I am many things and define myself in many ways — travel is but one aspect of a very full, multi-faceted existence that I am continually trying to cultivate.