Six months of travel wisdom

OR: Things I learnt. Some of these are really trivial, others are more meaningful. I am proud of every single one.

How to choose and book Greyhound tickets really efficiently.

How to keep track of my possessions

To be happy in my own company, at a restaurant,  bar, or show

To be (more) patient

To contort my body into the prime comfort position on bus and train seats

To not (completely) lose it when things go wrong

To spot a postbox at twenty yards

To determine someone’s level of craziness (and potential danger) within ten minutes

To act accordingly to maximise my own safety

What kind of people I want to spend my time with (not you, hostel drunkard!)

To speak and understand basic Spanish

To haggle (just about)

To take better photographs

To describe in words some of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen

To make good meals out of limited ingredients, sparse kitchens and the deadline of checkout to keep in mind

To complain less (or at the very least to realise that my complaints will be ridiculous to someone else) NB. Perhaps not having someone always there to complain to also helped.

To navigate my way around new cities and use local transport

To calculate currency conversions in my head

To budget effectively

To ask for what I want

To do what I want, when I’m worried about what other people think

To challenge my beliefs

To try new things; recklessly and relentlessly

To curb my materialism and think about the things I genuinely want to own

To read amazing books that inspire me to think in literature

To not get burnt!! Yes, it only took 24 years.

To realise what sort of place I want to live in

To meet people who completely change my mind

To shed a lot of inhibitions and concerns about privacy

To pee off the side of a boat,  behind a rock in the desert, or in doorless cubicles.

To sleep on buses, trains, floors, hammocks, a boat, airport and in tents and a luggage rack.

To carry everything that I need

To throw away the things I don’t

To treasure the parts of home I respect the most

Restaurant culture: a comparative study

In many parts of Latin America, you can sit for a good hour before anyone in the restaurant even deigns to acknowledge your existence.

So when I landed in California, I was wordlessly thankful for the fast service and over-attentive staff. The concept of taking food home in a box was novel and charming; it was also good for the planet and my bank balance, effectively allowing me to turn one meal into two.

But I have yet to be offered a dessert menu. And I eat out the vast majority of the time.

To my mind, a meal out in the evening should last about an hour, or longer if you are with company. The American ideal, by contrast, appears to be about 20 minutes.

Being given the check (bill) before you have finished eating strikes me as rude, despite servers assurances that it is for “whenever you’re ready”. A demand for payment is not easily ignored though; it sends a message beyond the immediate. It insinuates that you should leave, and soon. Put your food in a box to take home,  pay quickly and vacate your seat. It suggests that the waiter is done serving you.

I may be being cynical here. But I do think it’s part of a wider cultural prevalence for speed over almost anything else. Don’t Americans ever want to sit and enjoy a meal? Slowly?

To a European (and in mainland Europe this is even more pronounced), food should be savoured. There is time to think, and talk, and digest. You do not feel as if you have outstayed your welcome.

The Latin lateness irritated me at times, but the American extreme goes far too far the other way.

What I wish I knew before

The advice I got before I left for South America was very vague. ´Learn Spanish´ is already obvious, and unfortunately didn´t make it any easier to learn. And confirming the price of a taxi before you get in is something I do in England, let alone Peru.

I´ve been coming up with a list of things that would have been really, really useful to know before I started travelling.

1. Take a Visa credit card. MasterCard is accepted in a lot of places, but Visa is EVERYWHERE. This would have made managing money a lot easier.

2. Unless it´s Easter, you don´t need to book a room ahead. You just don´t.

3. When getting on a bus, always pack water, food, warm clothes, and all your valuables.

4. Watch your backpack being put on the bus, or put it on yourself.

5. Don´t forget about Couchsurfing events – a good way to meet local people.

6. If you get off the bus for a break, eat very quickly and never take your eyes off the bus. Look to other people for clues as to how long you will be stopping – although they might tell you a time, this is always, always, vastly overexaggerated.

7. Change all your local currency at the border. Yes you will get less than a perfect exchange rate, but it´s more than worth it not to drag a load of different currencies all around the place.

And then there was one…

After three countries and a whole lot of word games on the bus, Emily and I have parted ways. She will go back down Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, catching the stuff we missed on the way up. I´m currently in Guatemala and will be heading to Mexico before flying to California next month.

It´s certainly different travelling with a friend, and I´m really glad I got to experience both travel with a partner and on my own. For one thing, it´s simply easier with someone else – you don´t have to listen quite as hard to instructions, or to watch out for our stop on public transport.

With Emily, I also travelled with the guidance of a guidebook, which is a more efficient way to see a lot when you don´t have much time.

It´s also a lot of fun; it´s nice to have someone to turn to when something ridiculous happens, to share that ´what on earth´feeling. It also means that someone will share my memories when I get home and want to talk about it all.

I think you do have to pick a travel companion quite carefully – Emily was perfect, and I´ll miss travelling with her!