Pateando Calle: My 6 Tips for Backpacking Survival
In a couple of weeks I’ll being writing about my trip to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year, but before I have a series of posts to show you about stuff I did and interesting things I noticed, starting with my own outlook on travel. Here are my 6 Tips for Backpacking Survival.
A Bit of Context
When you travel on your own with little money, it’s important to stay healthy physically, mentally and emotionally (yes, backpackers have feelings too!).
There will come times when the things you take for granted back home — like, say, the company of your friends or a toothbrush within a few steps reach — will turn very hard to live without and you need to be prepared to face the possibility that none of them will be available when you need them.
It happens to everybody and that’s why backpacking makes you reflect and better understand who you are when the amenities of life at home are taken away from you. It is also then that the chance for crazy stuff happening increases, forcing you to think more creatively about solving problems in an original and practical fashion. I’ll talk about this last bit on a different article, but for now let’s focus on the five rules that helped me stay sane and safe while exploring Asia.
Please remember that these are not commandments set in stone and that they are relative to the situations you may face and your own judgement. They are merely guideposts that helped me have a good time and avoid a bitter existence, so I’m passing them on to you.
Note: This advice was put together with help from Stefanie, AKA The Terminator, and my personal travel experience. Stef is not only a very cool Dutch girl and my first travel buddy ever, but also someone I look up to as a bit of a backpacking coach.
I’ll write about her and our travels together in the Philippines soon (edit: here it is!), but now let’s get down to what we came for:
1. Look After Your Stuff
First things first. Don’t be alarmed by what I’m about to say, but as sad as it is, it’s also very true: robbery happens quite often when you’re traveling as a backpacker, but the fault doesn’t lie with the pickpockets alone.
Yes, I’m looking at you. Right now. Through your screen monitor. If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you, the chances of getting robbed increase dramatically, but let’s leave aside the blame game and politics, because let’s face it: even if it wasn’t that frequent I would still go out of my way to take care of my belongings and avoid situations that compromise them.
Take it from a guy who travels with a laptop and a bunch of other equipment to work while traveling. If any of these things were to be stolen or damaged (and they have been on occasion) I’d be in a lot of trouble, so I try to avoid it as much as possible.
In every country, you’ll find hundreds of guides on ways that people scam you out of your money, passport or gadgets. Almost every hostel I visited in Asia and Europe had information about this, but it really doesn’t matter how many of them you read, because for the most part, unless you’re actively mugged by a man with a gun or knife, the blame of getting robbed lies mostly on you.
Stefanie taught me that your most important personal effects (passport, cash, phone, etc.) should always be inside your small carry on bag. If you only carry a large backpack then your most important valuables should always be on you or some place under lock and key. Generally, your passport stays under lock and key and you can carry a photocopy in case you need it.
Another way to avoid bringing attention to your belongings is by not showing them in the first place. You can avoid tempting pickpockets by wearing a travel belt with your passport, cash and cards on your chest or neck, hidden under your clothing.
If you do have a small carry-on bag, carry it on your chest and then haul the large backpack on your back. This helps in two ways: first, it won’t be easy for another person to pull the small bag away from you because the straps of the large backpack will get in the way; second, with the small backpack on your chest, it will always be in sight and you’ll avoid getting things taken out of it unnoticed. Never put valuables in pockets you can’t readily see.
I know it sounds obvious and dumb, but even moving around turns easier if you have to walk a lot (and you will walk a lot) with your stuff, besides leaving your hands and arms free to maneuver.
I travelled for almost 5 months in Asia, with a 6 pound laptop, a graphic tablet, a smartphone and all the chargers and cables. I was a walking workstation and even though my phone screen got cracked and my laptop fried in a storm, they were never stolen. What did go magically missing was a pair of Quiksilver board shorts. You never know, so always be alert.
2. Water and Toilet Paper Can Save Lives
There’s a local beer in the Philippines called Red Horse — “Pula Caballo” in Tagalot — and it kicks just like the animal. It’s sold in only two ways: half a liter and 1 liter bottles. Take two liters of this stuff while walking down streets, beaches or night markets eating the crazy good and cheap Philippino street food and I assure you you’ll remember this tip in the morning (with a smile on your face, if you follow my advice).
Picture yourself staying at a hostel with maybe two or three shared toilets where, come high season, there will be anywhere from twenty to a hundred guests depending on how big the place is. Each one of them has a sensitive stomach that’s not used to drinking every night while eating pig intestines back home. Toilet paper is not an infinite resource, is all I’m saying.
Have you ever used a bum gun? Sometimes it’s the only option, but believe me: you never want it to be your only option.
On the other hand, carrying water with you (except for when you’re boarding airplanes) is also a great idea. Not only do you need to be as hydrated as you can, but water can be useful for much more than drinking. It can clean wounds and things, you can brush your teeth with it, refill a motorbike radiator or just splash it in your face when the heat gets too hardcore.
Sadly, bottled water can get a little expensive depending on where you are, and I wouldn’t recommend refilling an empty bottle with tap water unless you’ve drunk it before and survived.
Pro Tip: Don’t be stingy. Unlike water, toilet paper is dirt cheap (like 10 cents of a cent cheap) everywhere you go. There’s no excuse, just buy two rolls if you have the space! Worst comes to worst, toilet paper gets lost every day at big hostels and if you think that’s stealing, let me put it this way: when I can do my business in a bathroom and not in any other place that is not a bathroom, we all win.
3. Get Out There and Connect with People
You can be in the middle of paradise with a cold beer in your hand, surrounded by beautiful palm trees in the sun and still feel miserable because you’re hanging out with shit people, or you can be in a hellhole balling like a true player because you’re surrounded by awesome, fun friends.
Your attitude and outlook dictate the way you see the world and how much enjoyment you get out of it.
Backpacking should be a fun, inspiring and revealing experience about your self, but no man is an island and the more you travel, the better the chances of meeting new, diverse people. Interesting people who can have fun, inspire you and reveal parts of your self you didn’t know were there. Don’t let that opportunity pass out of fear of rejection or a bad experience. Even bad experiences give you stories to tell and things to learn!
Don’t come backpacking if you’re planning on standing on a corner judging those who are having fun or at least trying to.
Without a doubt. The best part about backpacking is that you are experiencing freedom at all times. If you’re not clicking with the people, or the locals or the place, you are free to find another spot where you feel better. Search until you find that sweet spot where you feel comfortable and motivated to enjoy life and then party like a boss until you’re satisfied. Then pack your stuff and look for the next new place where you can repeat this.
Don’t come backpacking if you’re planning on standing on a corner judging those who are having fun or at least trying to. Also unless you’re looking for solitude, please don’t come if you plan on staying in a private AC room by your lonesome at a hostel with no common lounge area, and plan on doing everything your Lonely Planet book says without thinking first about what you really want out of this experience.
4. Do NOT Chase the Booty
If you can avoid the things in the last paragraph, you are likely to find people you can connect with at mach 6 speed, sooner than later.
Ain’t nobody got time for dinner and a movie when you know one of the parties involved could leave town the next day.
When you travel, that feeling of finding someone you can connect with is indescribable. I’m Panamanian and not once did I find a fellow compadre while in Asia. The closest I found was an Argentinian dude and a Spanish girl, and in both cases I was amazed at how important something as small as speaking your own language can be, specially when the other person gets you and even better, when they share your sense of humor.
Extrapolate this to things like finding someone who shares your tastes in food, outlook on life, favorite Damian Marley song or cat video on Youtube, books, Batman. You name it. The list goes on and you’ll realize that connecting with someone is easier when everybody is a stranger. Humans are gregarious by nature, so we want and need to be social for our survival as a species.
In just a few hours, a stranger can be closer to you faster than most other people who’ve known you for decades and that’s a beautiful thing. Ain’t nobody got time for dinner and a movie when you know one of the parties involved could leave town the next day.
The key thing is knowing what you’ll do and how you’ll handle yourself once that magical fun time is over and gone.
Every backpacker has a plan at some point, and if your plan doesn’t match that of the girl or boy you met at the bar last night, do not chase dat ass. Move along and avoid changing your plans out of an assumption that this person you met for just a few hours the day before is thinking about becoming your best friend or something more.
If the girl you met last night at the beach happens to have a ticket for the same bus you’re in (which hopefully you booked before you met her), good on you! Sit together and talk shop. If the guy you met at the hostel asks you to come along, at least you know he wants you around and you can choose to take his offer or not.
Never assume that a moment is more than what it is. Otherwise you might end up having a bitter experience and missing out on a lot of stuff you planned to see or do, simply because you’re chasing a booty. Just like you managed to connect with him or her, surely you’ll find someone else in your journey as long as you stay positive and put things in their right place.
5. Time is a Fickle Thing for Locals
Is time important to you? Depends. Are you talking to a possible hookup at a bar or are you running to catch the next train connection on your way to the airport?
Even in this age of technology where most countries have set guides to reach their popular spots, with maps and time schedules, you will inevitably find yourself in places where the only reference you can hope for is asking a local for time and distance from A to B.
My advice? Never trust them.
If a local tells you reaching a spot by bus will take one hour, multiply this by 3 and at the very least you’ll have an idea of what the actual arrival time is, and this is not just a tip to overcome scheduling problems (ALWAYS leave at least 3 hours earlier than you think!), it’s also a useful tactic to prevent frustration.
Ever seen that episode of Community where they put a bunch of students in a room for an experiment and then every 5 minutes they keep telling them the teacher is late and the text will begin in the next 5 minutes? People start leaving and those who stay begin to slowly break down because of the wait.
That’s kind of what happens to some people when they’re told the bus will arrive at 10 a.m. and they look at the clock and it’s 3 p.m.
I’ve been guilty of this myself! Back before I worked at a hostel in Panama I had no clue how long it took to get from the city to certain beaches. I would just try to help by throwing a random ballpark assumption of the time, and more often than not I would get told on afterwards. Locals in most countries have a natural predisposition to be helpful, sometimes to the point of throwing white lies at you.
Don’t blame the locals, just prepare yourself.
6. Don’t Be a Pussy and Live, Dammit Live!
How do you know you don’t like scorpions if you’ve never had one? How do you know you don’t like bungie jumping if you’ve never done it? How do you know that 5 Jägerbombs is where the party ends for you?
The answer is: you don’t know until you’re there.
The point of getting out of your comfort zone is, well, that you do stuff out of your comfort. 9 out of 10 times you might find you don’t like what you’ve learned, but that 10th time? You’re gonna become addicted to it for a while and you’ll be unable to explain how you lived this long without it.
…think a bit before going out of your comfort zone… …but don’t think too much or the chance could slip away.
Sometimes you’ll be cooped up in places where there isn’t electricity past a certain time of the day, or a visible difference between the toilet and the shower. Often times you’ll eat things that you’re not used to or sleep in bed sheets that are less than clean. Sometimes you’ll be sitting on a chair at the beach in the middle of a thunderstorm with 40 degree fever, popping pills like a cookie monster.
Sometimes backpacking works this way, so suck it up and embrace it.
Sure, like everything in life, try to err on the side of caution and avoid extremes. Don’t base jump off a cliff without travel insurance and for the love of Batman, don’t make the stupid mistake of getting drunk or high in a bar with no friends to look after you and then go out to jump naked through fire hoops by the beach. Just saying, think a bit before going out of your comfort zone, because it can be rough out there some times, but don’t think too much or the chance could slip away.
In the end, do whatever the fuck you want. That’s the whole point of freedom. That you are free and allowed to do exactly what makes you happy when you want to. Just try not to screw over too many people when you do it.
Forget everything I just wrote up there and just figure out what it is you want to get out of traveling and do it on your own terms, with your own rules. Ultimately backpacking is about learning and experiencing new things, so you decide how to put yourself in the best position to do that and there are as many ways of getting there as there are ways of thought.
For me, traveling with a backpack is an adventure that makes me feel like an international super spy. I’m suddenly Sean Connery in a foreign land where no one knows me and I know no one, where beautiful people sip on drinks and flirt with their fates to and fro, with high speed chases on motorbikes in exotic places that could turn dangerous in the blink of an eye. Sometimes there’s even explosions and hot women in bikinis… with machine guns.
The point is, you decide how you see the world around you and on principle I would hope adventure is somewhere in the list of reasons why you chose to start backpacking. So don’t sabotage yourself by being too self-conscious and just enjoy it. It’s a journey in which the thing that turns experiences into good or bad memories, is simply how you choose to face them.
Pateando Calle (Kicking Streets) is a weekly column about my backpacking adventures across the world, documenting how a Panamanian traveller survives with little money and no clue of what he’s doing. For more adventures, read the archive.