The ups and downs of long term travel

We’ve been away from home for around a month and a half now, which isn’t really that long but with an average of two nights per city we’ve managed to see a lot of places. We know we’re really lucky to be able to travel for so long and we’ve already seen some amazing things but it’s not all lazy days and slow tours.

I wanted to write something which goes past the shiny Instagram feed full of hand picked photos, to expose some of the tougher parts of being away from familiar places for an extended period of time. This isn’t really a post to get sympathy, but more to help anyone who might be planning a trip to be mentally prepared for the things which can go wrong. It’s also for anyone who might be following us online and feeling jealous because all we show there is the good times.

The touts

Our journey so far has taken us places where as white tourists we stick out like a sore thumb and it sometimes feels like we’re holding signs up which read “I’ve got money”. Every time we land in a large city we spend hours telling people we’re not interested in a taxi, a tuk tuk, street food, clothing, tailoring, tours or holding their baby for money. When all you want to do is explore it gets so tiring turning people away and in places such as New Dehli, Agra or Colombo you have to look men in the eye and tell them to stop following you as you’re never getting into their vehicle.

Tourist rates

When you’re travelling in less developed countries nothing seems to ever have a fixed price and it’s pretty easy to get stung by bus drivers who ask for 5x the price a local would pay for a bus ride. Finding out the local rates requires a bit of research and there have been a few times when we’ve had to ask the locals what we should be paying before handing our money over.

It’s not just buses which can cost more for tourists either. If you choose to buy from a market stall or a street food vendor, expect to be ripped off if you’re not willing to ask for a third of the price and haggle from there.

Food poisoning

We’ve been pretty fortunate so far as we’ve been taking probiotics every day to avoid getting ill. Getting some sort of stomach bug was inevitable though and I managed to get a bad one recently, which I actually think was my own fault for not washing my refillable water bottle. I hadn’t used it for a while and instead of washing it before use I just refilled it from filtered water and the next day the cramps began.

As I mentioned before we’re moving pretty quickly, so for the past week I’ve just had to deal with the stomach pain (etc.) and just keep going.

Burns, bites and bruises

When you’re tired after a night of travelling, or exhausted after a long day exploring temples and climbing rocks, you tend to be less in control of your body than usual. I managed to sprain my knee while walking down Sigiriya Rock (thankfully I grabbed the bars in time to not have a serious accident) which was already swollen from roughly 10 mosquito bites in the same place.

Mark has been sunburnt to the point where massive blisters formed on his arm and we had to bandage him up to protect it. He’s also had to ignore a sprained foot for a few days though in comparison to me he’s done well.

I seem to be a delicious feast for mosquitos and I’ve discovered that in some regions I have pretty bad allergic reactions to the bites. I’ve had small bites turn into swollen areas larger than my hand, which ached for days as I took antihistamines and pain killers to try to ignore them. I now have scars from the bad bites but thankfully no severe reactions since Sri Lanka.

Bigger injuries

If you read my post about Talalla you’ll know I had an incident in the sea which sent me somersaulting over, smacking the sand with my face and hurting my back in the process. For almost two weeks now I’ve been dealing with back pain as we’ve been exploring, which makes things interesting when I have to carry my 19kg of stuff to the airport or to a hotel from the bus station. Had I been at home I might be okay now but our busy schedule has kept me on the move and it just becomes one of the things on my list of uncomfortable stuff to ignore.

Right now I’m hurting inside and out, but I’m not going to let it stop me wandering around or trying out delicious foods on the street. No way. 

Late flights, early trains and uncomfortable buses

Getting around a country can be a breeze but the more comfortable you want it, the more you’re going to have to pay for it. We’ve used express trains, sleeper trains, flights, local buses, mini buses, taxis, tuk tuks and a scooter so far and we can never predict how the journey will be.

We’ve had cramped bus rides which we expected to be two hours but turned out to be more like five. Our bus from Thailand to Cambodia didn’t have air conditioning so we spent five hours melting until we crossed the border and we had to get on a sleeper bus instead. The ‘night bus’ we booked from Cambodia drove us for three hours to Phnom Penh before dropping us off at 1am at a different bus station. We then had to wait until 6am for another bus company to take us to Vietnam on a bus which had definitely seen better days.

Sleeping with strangers

When you stay in a dorm room you have no say in who you share the room with. Rooms can be massive with 16 or more people living together temporarily for short periods of time. We haven’t really had any major issues in the places we’ve stayed, but we’ve heard some first hand horror stories that could put you right off dorms. 

Our issues have been with the loud people who completely ignore their sleeping roommates and turn all the lights on when they enter the dorm at night. We’ve never stayed in a hostel without a common room so anyone who rolls in at 1am and carries on chatting in the room with all the lights on is a terrible human being. We’re not partying backpackers and usually have to get up between 5-6am for our next journey, but we pack the night before and leave as quietly as possible. It’s hard to resist the temptation to make a lot of noise and turn all the lights on when we leave sometimes though.

The smell

Living from a backpack and moving city every other day makes it awkward to properly wash clothes and keep the same hygiene standards you’d expect at home. Just a few days after doing a full laundry wash your clothes already start to acquire an odd smell which follows you around, especially after spending the day travelling in 35°C heat. Opening your backpack up is like a Russian roulette of smells and it’s a skill to keep the clean clothes away from the worn ones in there.

The various toilets you come across when travelling range from porcelain holes in the ground which you squat over, to bowls with no cistern which you scoop water from a nearby bucket to flush. There are western style toilets too but in South East Asia the sewage system can’t handle toilet tissue, so you have to use a hose to blast your rear and bin any paper you might use. When washing your hands you’d be lucky to find soap and anything to dry your hands with too, though I’m not sure I’d want to share a towel in these regions.

Often showers are cold, so you don’t want to spend long under the water to get properly clean, though on hot evenings those showers are a welcome relief. There’s a reason I haven’t posted many photos of myself online from this trip and I’m not sure you need to see us looking so tired, unkempt and unclean.

Micro friendships

When you travel you’re never far from new friends and interesting people. Sometimes you meet a person who you really connect with and in the short time you’re in the same location it’s excellent. It’s usually not long before you’re going separate ways though and the faces which were beginning to be familiar are gone. 

Thankfully Mark and I have each other so we always have a consistent companion, but we also miss the familiar faces of home too. We’re constantly reminded of family members and friends when we’re wandering around and I find myself wishing people were here to share the experience with us.

So those are most of the frustrations which we’ve had to deal with so far on our trip. Some days they all come at once and all you want to do is curl up in your own bed at home. Most of the time though it’s just the price you pay to have the freedom to travel the world, which really isn’t very much to pay at all.

For anyone who might be jealous of our Instagram feed, just remember to imagine me behind the camera with a smile on my face, having back spasms and stomach cramps, smelling like a wet dog, covered in mosquito bites, tired from 4 hours sleep on a hard bed in a loud dorm, having fought my way through touts to get there.

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