I’m a big fan of backpacking. There’s lots of adventure and you never know what the day holds. I’ve taken a one-way flight into Mexico City and burned up three weeks to get back to home-base, which for me is Austin. I’ve also run all over the Dominican Republic, as well as marched through five countries in Central America. Through these excursions there’s been good decisions, bad decisions and a few lessons learned. Here’s some of those lessons.
1. Know the language.
Obvious? Sure. However, “knowing the language” does not mean to figure out the bare minimum and tote a book around. One of the greatest parts of traveling into other cultures is meeting the people, and not having a fundamental grasp of the local language can come across as disrespectful and puts a wall up between you and the locals, foreigners certainly don’t need additional barriers to work through. Even if you’re going to an English speaking country, it’s wise to practice listening to the local accent to break-in your ears. Traveling abroad is a fantastic opportunity to work on your language skills, so knowing the fundamentals will enable you to hold more than a simple “Hi, my name is…” conversation, which of course allows you to pick up new words and phrases, as well as get recommendations, some of the most amazing experiences aren’t in the best of books.
“some of the most amazing experiences aren’t in the best of books”
2. Be Friendly.
Again, somewhat obvious, but really it’s easy to be so uptight about your safety that your scowl makes you unapproachable. I’ve found that the world is a lot safer than we’re led to believe, many countries thrive on our tourism and make laws centered around protecting Americans. I was actually backpacking in Honduras during the recent turmoil with Zelaya, and other than a couple military checkpoints (where the guards were more concerned with drugs than anything else) it was no different from any other country I’ve been in, people were still friendly and helpful.
It’s important to be yourself. When I’m traveling I tend to be real loose and outgoing, I’m constantly cracking jokes and being silly, it’s always a hit with the natives. More than once I’ve been given rides, shown around town, I even got a home-cooked meal. A bus ride got me seated next to a 10 year old boy, we talked a little and he and his mom shared their food and drink with me, made sure I got off at the right point, corrected any Spanish mistakes, it was a great experience! In Mexico, a conversation at an arcade turned into a night on the town and learning some of the local legends, good eateries and an awesome Italian icee dessert. In the D.R., waiting at a bus stop to hop to a new town, me and my buddies made a friend who, upon arriving at the new town, took us to meet his mother, then found/negotiated a hotel room for us, we in turn treated him to lunch.
Now, I know I said that the world isn’t as dangerous as thought, but exercising your judgment is always advisable. Don’t deal with drunk people, don’t wear jewelry or flash your bills around. You stand out as a foreigner, presumably carrying some money, so if possible, don’t always carry it all on your body. I have the advantage of being six foot, four inches and over 200 pounds, so I probably don’t come across as the easiest target. So, use your judgment, but don’t let fear rule your ability to make friends.
3. Keep a log.
I always take a small notebook, and at the end of each day write down what I did and anything else that stood out such as a running joke with my travel buddies or an argument with a cabbie (more than a few of these). Taking a trip is nice, but being able to pick up my log and re-experience my trip whenever I like is priceless. It’s a good way to wind down the night and empty your thoughts for posterity.
4. ALWAYS negotiate BEFOREHAND.
It’s really that simple. Never get in the taxi until you know how much it will be once you’re at your destination. You kind of have to deal with the fact that you won’t get the same deal as locals, but if the price doesn’t feel right then just walk away. It’s the best sales tactic you can have, there’s always another taxi, another shop around the corner, another tour guide wanting your business, ALWAYS. Sometimes you may walk away only to find out via other negotiations that it was actually a good deal, no shame in going back! Often when you walk away from a pitch you’ll start cutting to the real deals.
when you walk away from a pitch you’ll start cutting to the real deals
I remember getting dropped off at the border of Nicaragua, and as soon as me and my two friends exited the taxi we were absolutely swamped by 20 guys with bicycle powered rickshaws, screaming and shoving for our business, it was absolute mayhem! We couldn’t get 2 seconds to ourselves to talk it out, and the pitch was, “Pay whatever you like, once we get there you can pay whatever you think it was worth to you.” Naturally, once we got across the border, through customs and at the new bus stop the cries were, “Hey, that’s not enough! Come on buddy, it was worth more than that, yes?” They got a big fat, “No, we had an agreement. That is more than generous.” and then I walked away. It would still have been smarter to establish an actual number before using the service. Guilt trips are the biggest tactic abroad, do not fall for it. Hotels, tour guides, all of it, know what’s expected of you before getting in the car or using the service.
5. Don’t be a slave to your itinerary.
Naturally, it’s good to have something lined up, some ideas about what you would like to see and do. I usually research a few things, have some ideas but honestly, other than my flight in and out, I don’t do much planning. It’s nice to not be set in stone. When I flew into Belize, I absolutely hated the Belize City, which is where we thought we would post up for a few days, but we checked out a few hotels then decided to just bounce immediately to northern Belize, turned out to be a phenomenal decision! We got to Orange Walk and got an amazing lodge on the river where I got to pet a wild crocodile (old and toothless for the record, but wild nonetheless I tell ya!), the scenery was gorgeous and the staff made quick friends of us. That would not have been possible if we pre-booked a room in Belize City, a gamble, yes, but backpacking is a gamble in itself!
Your itinerary is needed of course, it should include bus routes and times which are infinitely useful. If you’re backpacking, you should just be open to changes. Our first night in Santo Domingo, we ran into a couple Green Peace workers, and when we told them our time-frame and goals (see the culture, visit Haiti, have fun), they wrote out a few destinations that ended up basically being our bible for the trip! We bussed up to the border of Haiti, checked it out (first time I’ve ever had a culture shock, by the way), hit some beaches, jumped off of waterfalls and met tons of amazing people.
Now, a lot depends on your traveling personality. Backpacking isn’t for everyone, there’s generally a lot of uncertainty involved and being genuinely interested in other people’s culture is advisable.
There’s a lot more to consider when backpacking of course, take gifts, pack light, give yourself enough time, but most importantly smile a lot and you’re sure to have some memorable moments, because I think backpacking gives something unique that resorts can’t give you: adventure.