Once you have (reluctantly) pared down your list of where to go, it’s time to decide what to do when you get there.
Since you’re already venturing out of your comfort zone, this is the ideal opportunity to push beyond your limits and experiment with whatever activities you’ve always yearned to try but for which you have never had the chance or confidence. Do you fantasize about trekking through Torres del Paine but fret that it doesn’t seem very “you”? Consider this: riding in a tuk-tuk probably isn’t very “you” either, but if you are travelling through Asia you will more than likely find yourself zipping about in the ubiquitous vehicle that resembles a souped-up version of the Little Tikes red and yellow toddler car. Now, is hiking in Patagonia truly that humongous of a leap, after all?
As with everything in life, you will only get out of an adventure what you put into it. Henceforth, to make the most of your travels, it is crucial to maintain an open mind and be willing to engage in whatever it is that renders your host region famous. If all goes well, then you may discover a new passion; if not, then hey, hilarious misadventures always make for the most entertaining blog posts.
The spice of life
One of the greatest threats that backpackers face (in addition to tailpipe burns from motorcycle taxis in Vietnam, travellers’ diarrhea from ice cubes in India, and the consequences of too many vodka/Red Bull buckets in the Thai islands) is growing unappreciative of something incredible because they’ve overdosed on it. Ask anyone who has been traipsing through Europe for three months if they are interested in seeing another cathedral; they may prefer to spend the afternoon translating the multilingual graffiti scrawled on the bathroom stall at the hostel bar instead.
To avoid too much of a good thing, be mindful to vary your endeavors as much as possible. Had enough of the heady commotion and pungent scents of the local markets? Consider escaping to a natural setting and going for a hike in the mottled shade. Bored of the denim-blue waves and linen-white sand of the beach? Why not explore a moss-ridden temple instead? When planning your trip, be conscientious of oversaturation; you may not want to hit up every museum in Paris, so select only those which intrigue you most.
Taking a vacation from your vacation
In addition to becoming numb due to overexposure, many backpackers suffer from burnout because of constantly being on the move. To break up your travels and allow for downtime, consider working or studying abroad. There are some fantastic resources when it comes to finding exchange-style employment (labour for room and board), and many hostels hire long-term guests as receptionists or bartenders. If you intend to work in one country for an extended period of time, then apply for a working holiday visa before you depart.
Most areas have specific cities or towns that are renowned for affordable language schools and homestays, such as Lago de Atitlan in Guatemala. Homestays are excellent occasions for you to immerse yourself in the local culture and glimpse what daily life is like for residents. Moreover, knowing even a few phrases in the regional language will demonstrate a deeper interest in and respect for your host nation—and that may save you from getting (too) ripped-off while bargaining.
Many backpackers are keen to volunteer on their trip, and while their intentions are unquestionably noble, it can be difficult to find an organization that not only boasts a high level of financial transparency but that is genuinely aiding the community in a respectful and productive manner. There are many sociopolitical nuances that must be considered, and numerous articles are now questioning the effectiveness of voluntourism.
If you do decide to volunteer abroad, extensively research the organization you are interested in working with, and do not hesitate to email them regarding your questions or concerns. (Check out Outpost Magazine #80 (Volunteer Guide 2011) and #86 (Jan-Feb 2012) for international volunteer directories and stories.)
Swim with the fishes (er, in a non-mafia way)
Scuba diving is an extremely popular backpacker activity, especially in Southeast Asia, and many travellers find it worthwhile to obtain their open-water certification. This typically four-day course will not only bequeath you with the skill set required to dive safely and confidently, but will also qualify you to dive on a variety of sites worldwide that are off-limits to uncertified individuals. Koh Tao in Thailand is famed for offering the most affordable dive courses in Southeast Asia while Honduras is the Latin American hotspot, although courses are available at any diving epicenter. Ensure that you select a dive school that is PADI or SSI licensed, and check for these qualifications whenever you are choosing a dive shop.
In short, your RTW trip is your chance to experience and engage with the world; seize the opportunity to challenge your limits, redefine your abilities and smash through the walls of your comfort zone.
The next installment in this five-part series on How to Travel RTW will be Part Three: How to Budget. Stay tuned!