(photo: Christopher Romaguera)
Long trips are thrilling and exhausting, and the beginning is always such an extraordinary moment. I always think of the scene early in Moby Dick when, after all the preparations have been made, the ship lurches out to sea, past the protective barrier of the harbor and into the open ocean. There’s no going back. They are in the deep blue with a couple years of sailing ahead of them.
No more preparing for a new life. This is the life now.
I recently started on a trip like that, and unlike my previous journeys, this one has no end in sight. Maybe that’s why, unlike my previous journeys, I’ve put so much thought into how I can keep myself from falling into old, ugly patterns. How I can keep myself centered no matter how far out to sea I get.
I’ve always been a man of bad habits, and my biggest Achilles heel while traveling, particularly when I start out, has always been money management. I have a bad tendency to blow it out at the start of a trip, and leave myself fumbling later on, worrying how I’ll manage to come home without my tail between my legs.
This is why it is so important to…
1. SET A DAILY BUDGET—AND STICK TO IT
Man, is this tough that first week or two. The first launch into a journey is such an opiate—the sudden switch from preparation to actually being on the road—that there is a sense that every experience must be jumped at, no matter the cost. Furthermore, the beginning of the trip is most likely when you will have the most money you will have at any point on your journey. It’s very hard to resist every temptation. You think, I’ll just have a big meal on the first night. So you do. Then you think, I’ll just go out drinking tonight to celebrate my arrival. And you do. And before long, a solid week of days like this are strung together and you’ve blown through half your budget and hardly started your journey.
I’ve never been terribly good at budgeting, which is why I put this at the top of my list. It’s a skill I’m still trying to put into daily practice in every aspect of my life. So to set a daily budget for this trip, I built it around one expense I know I’m going to have every single day: A place to sleep.
In my experience, a room for the night is usually going to be your biggest regular expense of the day. You’ll pay for more expensive things, of course. Tours and transit and so on. But you’re not going to need a bust ticket every single day, whereas you will always need a place to stay for the night.
So for my daily budget I calculated what I could expect to spend on a room every night. Then I doubled that figure. That’s my daily budget.
If you’re going to follow this advice, I’d advise shooting well above your average as far as nightly accommodation. Some cities will be more expensive than others, and I think it’s better to set your average on the higher end. For starters, it gives you more breathing room in case you get hit with a more expensive spot. But it’s also a nice bonus for those nights when the cost of shelter gets eliminated completely. You might volunteer at a hostel, or find a place on Couchsurfing, or camp out for the night. But those will feel like bonuses rather than necessities to make ends meet. Everyone needs a place to stay for the night, and operating in a way that allows you to always have a good one is a form of self-care.
And setting that budget is also a good reminder of the marathon-nature of a long trip. You don’t have to feel bad about saying no to that extra beer or the night out dancing because you’re going to have plenty of those opportunities ahead. If you got the money to do those things, live it up. But if tonight is a night you’re tapped out, bow out gracefully and go to bed. It’s good practice.
And speaking of good practice, a good thing for both your budget and your sanity is to…
2. COOK AT HOME, WHEREVER HOME MAY BE
Okay, there’s the obvious budget control that comes with this. If you’re eating out every day you’re spending a lot more money. Big meals out are murder on a tight budget (which is why I’m such a big fan of street food), and they can also help set a pattern of overspending.
Cooking is a great thing to do on the road. But here’s the deal: You need to be cooking real food. I’m not talking super organic type of stuff, but just something that doesn’t come in a microwavable cardboard container. Cup O’ Soup ain’t cutting it. Processed food like Cup O’ Soup might be cheap, but it doesn’t give you anything, it’s pretty unhealthy, and it tastes like ass. Also, what the hell are you doing eating instant soup? It’s not like soup is hard to make. You throw a bunch of onions in a pot with oil and let them sweat for a while, then add in other veggies and meat (if you’re using it) and cook it a bit, then add whatever spices you want and a liquid. Broth, wine, water, whatever. Then you reduce it. Boom, you got dinner. This isn’t rocket science.
But for a lot of people, at least in the culture I grew up in, cooking is perceived as something difficult, and time-consuming. This isn’t true, or at least it doesn’t have to be. I’m from the States, and the dominant idea there is that everyone is simply is simply too busy to cook. Which is bullshit in general, but especially if you’re on the road. On a long journey, the one luxury you do have is time, so use it and make yourself a decent meal. You’ll eat healthier, and you’ll save money.
And as for it being difficult…well, just start cooking and see what happens. You don’t need a lot of recipes, and they need not be complicated. Rice and pasta dishes are filling and pretty easy to make. And I already talked about soup. Salads couldn’t be easier. Just learn three or four things and make them over and over again. Then add to your menu. If you can make a different dinner every night for two weeks, you’re pretty much set for life.
But there are other reasons to cook, and my favorite one is its social value. If you can figure out how to make a couple of tasty meals that leave plenty left over, you can share that food with the people around you. Is there a more generous way to tell someone they are welcome than to feed them? It’s a nice way to pay people back when they let you crash on their couch, and it’ll help you make a lot of friends fast. Just cook something that smells good in your hostel and ask a random stranger to taste it. You can get some great traveling companions this way.
Of course, as good as food is for communication, it can’t beat language. And that’s a reason why you should…
3. PRACTICE THE LANGUAGE OF THE COUNTRY YOU ARE IN—EVERY DAY
I’m currently traveling in South America with two friends, and we have a rule for our conversations: when we are out in public, we only speak Spanish. This is the kind of thing that should be obvious, but the more I think about my traveling patterns, the more I realize how easy it is to fall back on my first language as the memory of everything I’ve learned in Spanish class slowly seeps out of my brain.
I write in English. I read in English. And although I consistently tell people how much I want to learn Spanish, I find myself slipping and struggling to remember not just verb tenses, but verbs themselves. And nouns. And all the rest of it. Even more of a handicap is the convenience I have of traveling with someone who speaks excellent Spanish, which means I can always lean on him to do the heavy lifting in interactions. Next thing you know, I’m not really speaking, nor am I listening the way I need to.
This is such an easy trap to fall into. I’m running into people in South America who don’t speak a word of Spanish, and they are still managing to get by. If you can do that, it’s very easy to just improvise your way through and never get better. I’m as guilty of it as anyone, and it’s only when I force myself into the uncomfortable position of looking like a complete dumbass that I start to learn anything. And that’s another reason I suspect that a lot of people shy away from practicing a new language on the street: Nobody likes to feel like a fool.
But I’m going to have to feel like a fool to get better, and if I have to do it then so do you. It’s like dancing. You can take all the classes you want, but if you’re not out on the floor practicing, you’re not getting better. You’ll just keep doing the same five steps you learned in class. In the same way, if you don’t talk to people, you’ll keep relying on your limited vocabulary and memorized phrases. You will never learn to improvise, and you will never improve.
So go ahead and ask for the fish with the balcony sauce. Order a bus ticket with cheese. Make your mistakes. Fail upward. Shut down your social media and talk to people and suck at it for a while. In time, you will begin to suck less. The brain is a muscle, and like any other muscle it needs to be worked out.
Which reminds me…
4. GET YOUR EXERCISE
I hate this advice because I hate exercising. There are a lot of people out there who love exercising, and I hate them, too. With their toned bodies and their innocent, contented smiles, like they know the secret to living or something. Strutting around my flabby ass on the beach like a flock of assholes. I hate them, and I HATE working out right up until the moment I finish, at which point I feel amazing and I wonder why I don’t exercise more often.
What this tells me is that I don’t hate exercising so much as I hate the act of starting to exercise. Once I’m going, I’m fine. (This higher wisdom does not extend to the people who enjoy exercising, though. I actually do hate those people.) Of course, don’t remind me of the fact that I like feeling healthy and accomplished while I’m lounging poolside with a beer and a donut because I will throw my empties at you and then take an aggressive nap.
But exercising is tough while traveling, as anyone who has set out on a long trip knows. Some people get around this by building a physical activity right into their trip. Bicycle tours are a great example of this. Some people do kayaking trips, or head to the mountains to do extensive hiking or rock climbing. I like those people because there seems to be a method to their madness. Yeah, they’re kicking their own asses, but they’re also building the rewards of their trip right into it.
But if you’re not building your trip around a physical activity, it’s hard to stay healthy on the road. For one thing, traveling takes a toll on your body. Plane flights and long bus rides wear you out. Your diet can take a real turn if you’re not careful, because convenience often seems more important than taking the time to eat healthy. And hey, you’re on the road, so why not have one more beer? And furthermore, what’s the point of exercising? I am on vacation, goddammit.
But I’m not on vacation, and if you’re traveling long-term, neither are you. You’re in motion, and you are going to have to create routines to give you stability. The one reference point I have wherever I go is my own body. Whatever trip I take, I’m hauling this carcass around with me, and I’d like to be hauling it around for a while, if I can help it.
I think the best exercise for traveling is an activity you can do anywhere with very little setup. A lot of people I know swear by yoga, which makes sense. A bit of space and a soft surface and you can get started. But for me, that activity is running. The equipment is pretty simple and portable (a pair of shorts and shoes and I’m good to go), but more importantly, it gets me out and allows me to see whatever place I’m in. It’s a great way of learning the streets of a new city, and of taking in the rhythms of a place as the day comes to life. I can listen to the language and smell the smells. I get to feel like a part of whatever place I’m in. And if I stay in one place long enough, I even become part of the scenery. I like that.
But in the end, exercising serves a higher function that relates back to cooking meals, budgeting, and speaking the language. It’s one of the ways of functioning that you would do (or should do) at home. These are all habits that create a sense of stability and presence. If you can stay healthy, shop at the markets, speak to people and live simply while keeping the extravagant moments limited (and therefore retaining their extravagance), you’ll have a longer trip, a more balanced trip, and a better trip.
And however long the trip goes, you’ll feel more like you’ve made the road into your home.