Itchy Feet

Itchy Feet

After three, four, or more years at university, most students are pretty keen to get overseas as soon as possible. Whether itís going on exchange, heading to London for the big OE, or backpacking in Southeast Asia, the drive to travel is an innate part of the Kiwi psyche. Well-travelled olí man Joe Stockman searches his Alzheimers-addled memory for some tips for getting the most out of life on the road.

On the Road

The earliest book that I can remember reading was a childrenís encyclopaedia which had a very basic map of the world. I pored over that map, dreaming about the amazing and exotic people who must live in all of these incredible places. Even as a very young child I was filled with the desire to travel in order to meet these people and see for myself what the rest of the world was like. Once I finally left New Zealand, each new country I went to only fed my travel addiction. Over four years of working and travelling overseas I racked up 50-odd countries and four continents.

Not everything about travel is great. Spewing your ring out in a dingy Khao San Road backpackers quickly loses its romance, as do 18-hour bus rides on third world roads. But the rewards are huge, and unless youíre a truly heartless bastard youíll come back changed by the people youíve met and the sights youíve seen.

The following information is pretty widely available on the internet, but is also loosely based on my own experiences and stories swapped with other backpackers on the road. If youíre looking for more info, head to www.travelindependent.info. Sheís a great wee website packed full of useful guidance.

Where to go?

This is either the hardest or the easiest question. If youíve always wanted to see the canals of Venice and canít think of anything more fantastic, then youíre set. If, on the other hand, youíre more in love with the idea of adventure and travel generally and canít decide amongst the ridiculously plentiful options where exactly you want to go first, then youíre going to have to make some choices.

There are two restrictions to keep in mind: cost and time. If you had unlimited money and unlimited time, then you could go everywhere that your heart desired. But the reality for most of us is that we have perhaps a few months before weíre due back at uni, or at that grad job, and will be funding our trips with the limited coin that we managed not to piss away during semester. Here is a really rough breakdown of the different parts of the world you could target.

Asia:

Asia has become a fun park for young Western backpackers. Itís cheap ($15 ó 20USD a day will keep you very comfortable outside of the big resort areas of Southern Thailand), and it has such an extensive backpacker infrastructure that youíll never be without a place to stay or further from your next destination than an easy bus trip.

On top of that, there is the opportunity to engage in several different types of travel at the same time. You can go crazy at the full moon parties down in Koh Samui, ride elephants up near Chiang Mai, volunteer to save endangered bats in Laos, visit the memorials to the Khmer Rouge victims in Phnom Penh, and crawl through the Viet Congís tunnels, all in a nice tidy six-week timeframe.

Europe:

Europe is great for so many reasons. Itís overflowing with historical sights, itís packed full of dozens and dozens of different languages and cultures, and there is an endless supply of festivals and events that you can skip your way between. That said, it is expensive. Probably worse than North America when you consider the extra youíll want to spend on getting good authentic local cuisine. Sharing costs, expect to spend Ä40 plus/day, and more whenever you move between places, so you can quickly find yourself staring at Ä100/day. Itís at this point that a tour becomes a tempting prospect. You get your food, accommodation, and transport organised for you, and usually a half-decent guide to tell you about the places youíre visiting. If you want to see as much of Europe as quickly as you can a 24-day trip will get you to the best of the best, then if you want you can backtrack and spend some more time at your favourites.

Africa:

I have spent limited to no time in Africa and Latin America, so full recognition to the friends/travel blogs/guide books that helped me bang these sections together.

From a travel perspective, Africa is easily broken down into the North, East, South, and West. For the sake of convenience, letís deal with the North as part of the Middle East. Letís also presume that unless youíre a nek-level backpacker youíll be avoiding the pretty dodgy and unsafe West African region (war, Islamist terrorism etc). So really, the options are East and South.

South Africa is a logical starting point and an underrated backpacking spot. Tours, or even better a hop-on-hop-off backpacker bus, are a great, cheap option. Youíre not wimping out on the real travel experience, simply making things work ó the risk of riding around on South African public transport with a backpack and a wallet full of cash just isnít worth taking. Either that or hire a camper, but now youíre talking some serious dollars. DO NOT walk around with your money belt or your pack.

The rest of southern Africa is safer crime-wise than South Africa, and there is still plenty to see and do. If youíre not heading anywhere else youíre going to want to go on a safari, but expect to spend $120 ó 150USD a day.

For my money, East Africa is where itís at. Ethiopia is underrated and cheap ($20USD a day); Kenyaís safaris are cheaper ($100 ó $125USD per day) and arguably better than anywhere else; Uganda is as friendly as anywhere youíll find, and there are gorillas ó yes, gorillas (though expect to spend about $500 USD to see them in the wild for an hour). Add the lakes and Mt Kilimanjaro of Tanzania, and youíre onto a winner.

Latin America:

Do not be fooled. Latin America is huge, and has this mountain range you might have heard of running through it. Oh, and a really big river named after an online bookstore. The point is, donít bite off more than you can chew. Youíre really dealing with at least three distinct areas: Central America, the more developed Westernised south (Brazil, Argentina, Chile), and the ďless developedĒ (read: Westernised) Amazon basin/Incan countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia.

Top tip: A little bit of Spanish goes a long way (except in Brazil of course, where they will politely tell you to fuck off in Portuguese). Even really basic words will make your life a lot easier. Generally visas and borders are easy, but there are certainly some areas where you want to take a bit more care than usual. Getting robbed, as in having every single thing you own taken, is not uncommon if youíre going off the beaten path. Accept that itís going to happen and plan how youíll deal with it. If it doesnít happen, bonus.

The Big Three of Latin America would have to be the Iguassu Falls (border of Brazil and Argentina), the Inca trail (Peru), and the Amazon river (lots of places). When you have to put cities like Rio outside of the top three, you know youíre onto a winner. Flights in and out arenít cheap, and your daily spend can get up to around $50USD. But for most people, itís an unbeatable experience.

The Middle East:

Bombs! And terrorists! Terrorists with great big bombs! But not really. The Middle East is roughly as safe as anywhere else in the world, and while some hot spots like Syria should probably be avoided at the moment, youíre really not going to run into any serious trouble, and generally the level of crime is lower than in Africa or Asia (probably due to the very serious punishments for minor crimes).

Most of the Middle East is Muslim, and they are generally very hospitable hosts. Sure, they may not be keen on Americaís foreign policy, but theyíre hardly going to blame all Westerners for that. You can expect the average person to know a lot more about the state of affairs in the world than you could in any Western country.

Turkey is a real highlight ó taking the ferry across Istanbul harbour to watch the sun set on Europe is pretty cool. Israel and even Palestine are great spots to travel through, and really very safe though undoubtedly more expensive than other countries (for Israel youíre looking at $45USD a day, for everywhere else, around $30USD). Itís important to remember that Israel is usually best done last, as some states still wonít let you in if you have an Israeli passport stamp...

Iran is supposed to have the friendliest people in the world, while Egypt has, you know, those pyramid things. If youíre a bit cautious about Middle Eastern travel, try out Turkey first. If you feel comfortable, just keep going.

Other stuff to keep in mind

Cash Money

Travel is expensive, with the biggest outlay for Kiwis those initial flights to get off these little islands and all the way to another hemisphere. Round the world airfares can be very good value, and with the ability to travel overland through some sections and then pick up the flights again theyíre a great option. The only restriction is that most of them require your trip to be completed within 12 months (some are now up to 18). So theyíre not ideal if youíre doing a seriously long trip.
Youíll often get told to buy an ISIC card, but truth is theyíre pretty useless. The only decent discount you get is at the Louvre, but they can get you good discounts on flights. If you need it for the flight discount, get it and take it with you just in case. Your Otago ID will not be accepted anywhere, so donít bother taking it.

Do not carry cash. Obviously, youíll need to carry a couple of dayís worth, maybe even as much as a weekís, but do not set out with bundles of notes, and donít fuck around with travellersí cheques. Search around for a good credit card with a low fee for international transactions, and load up a bank travel card with the currency youíre going to use the most. Then keep all of these in different places. That way, if/when you get robbed youíve lost a piece of plastic instead of, well, everything. Save the international contact number for your card provider along with your card numbers in your email account, so if you do get mugged all you need to do is access your email to be able to cancel the card and organise getting a new one.
Travel insurance is 100% essential but is simultaneously one of the biggest rip-offs in the travel industry. The commission on insurance is 40%, so make sure to barter if you are buying it from a travel agent. If youíre buying flights or a tour from them as well you can definitely get the cost down by as much as 25%.

That said, you donít want to cheap out on insurance. If you tear yourself up overseas, medical care and evacuation back to NZ can cost upwards of $250,000. As one poor Kiwi found out recently in Thailand, most insurance policies donít cover you to ride a motorbike, either as the driver or passenger. Motorbikes are a common method of transport around Asia, so you probably want a policy that will cover you for this.

Pack light. The old adage ďlay out everything that youíre planning on taking, then halve it and take twice as much moneyĒ is basically true. Having too much stuff is a nightmare, and being able to walk lightly and easily down to the train or bus station is fantastic. Do you really need serious tramping boots if youíre really just going for a few light treks? Do you really need a sleeping bag if youíre going through Asia in summer? Do you really need a second pair of jeans? Iíll admit that I travel very, very light. If my bag weighs more than 6kg, somethingís got to go. That said, I usually stick to more tropical climes (even then, always have a good fleece, aircon can get cranked so high on some buses/trains that youíd think you were back in your second year flat in July).

Take a good pair of waking shoes or cross trainers and a pair of jandals. Only take two pairs of socks, and wash them then dry them out at the end of each day that you use them. Be careful about doing too much walking in your jandals, you can blow out your arches.
The number one rule with packing is that basically every single thing that you may decide you need once youíre out there can be bought on the road.

Solo? Or teams?

It really depends what you want out of your trip. If youíre off to a tropical paradise to sit on the beach and suck back buckets of gin and juice, then sure, take as many of your friends as possible. But if youíre heading off the beaten track and want to find out something about foreign cultures, or yourself for that matter, then travelling solo can have some big benefits.
I would suggest that the number one rule is that just because youíre mates with someone doesnít necessarily mean that you two will be good travel companions. Similar to getting along with your flatties or your significant other, how you deal with money, tidiness, adherence to the plan, and arguments are the traits where you want your personalities to line up. If youíre an easy-with-your-money free spirit who is quite happy to change plans at the last minute, donít head off with an introverted, money-conscious guy who spent six months planning out the itinerary to the nth degree.

Vacinations and Health

If youíre heading to the third world you need to vaccinate against a raft of different infections and viruses. Some of these require multiple shots over long time frames, so get onto this early. If youíre heading somewhere malarial youíll need a prophylaxis. All of this stuff can add up to hundreds of dollars before youíve even left, so budget for it.

Shit hits the fan

Stuff goes wrong when you travel, from explosive diarrhoea to cancelled flights to getting kidnapped by local militias. The thing to remember is that you are crazy lucky to be able to afford to travel in the first place. The intrigued locals you meet on the road are fascinated by you partly because they could never afford to leave their homes and go and see the rest of the world just because it was interesting. There is nothing worse than the arrogant Westerner who shrugs these people off, who complains because the food is different, who bitches about the language barrier, or who gets angry about their flight being delayed by an hour. In the final telling of your trip the worst bits will become the best bits, because you learned the most and had an actual experience. Just enjoy it.
This article first appeared in Issue 22, 2012.
Posted 5:17pm Sunday 2nd September 2012 by Joe Stockman.