Illustration by Katie Rewse, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
Leaving home for the first time is daunting. Whether you want to backpack through Asia for six months, work a farm stay in the Austrian Alps, or just book a one-way ticket and see what happens, living abroad is a challenging, exciting and ultimately very rewarding experience.
I took my first international flight 10 years ago, and I’d like to consider myself something of an expert on the topic, as I’ve lived abroad for the last seven years on two different continents. So how do you prepare to travel abroad for a long period of time? Here are some of the most important things that I’ve learned:
You’re Going To Feel All The Feelings
As in life, there are highs and lows on the road, and when you’re far from home, you tend to feel things more intensely. Be prepared for both gut-wrenching loneliness (beer helps) and euphoric highs that make you want to punch the sky. The experiences you have now could shape you forever, so don’t be discouraged. Just feel your feelings!
Traveling Isn’t A Competition
It’s easy to get sucked into pissing contests with other travelers about who’s been on the road for the longest or who has been to the most countries. Avoid it. Not only is this kind of talk boring, it doesn’t really prove anything. Who are you traveling for, anyway? You or them?
Things Will Go Wrong At Least Once, Probably In An Expensive Way
If you’re lucky, it’ll just be something like missing a 13-hour international flight because it was at midnight and you thought it was for the next midnight, and then you have to shell out to catch another plane with a different airline (…not that I’m speaking from very personal experience or anything). But seriously, screw-ups like this happen to the best of us, and they’re just part of the bargain.
Your Friends And Family Back Home Won’t Always ‘Get It’
Sadly, no matter how well you describe things to them, you’ll never really be able to share the moments you’ve lived with anybody who wasn’t there too. That means it’s all the more important to live these experiences for yourself, and nobody else.
You Can’t Rely On Your Memory
You will forget a lot of your experiences, even when things seem so funny and weird that you’re sure in the moment that they’re etched into your brain forever. Write a diary, send yourself emails, blog, spam people on Instagram, vlog, draw sketches — whatever! Just try to record as much as you can, because time flies and your memory is — what’s the word again? — fallible.
Prepare To Be Exhausted
Moving frequently and living completely without a routine is very demanding mentally. Quite aside from the physical tiredness that comes with walking, sightseeing and climbing stairs, you’re going to be doing a lot of mental gymnastics such as decoding maps, checking into hostels, and learning new job skills. Even if these are in your native language (which they may not be) they all require a lot of energy. Get your naps in!
Set Personal Goals Before You Go
Choose things like “I want to be more adventurous while eating out,” or “I want to make two new friends in each country,” or “I want to have conversations in a new language,” and check in occasionally to see how you’re doing. If you manage to knock off a few goals, your whole experience will feel more meaningful and satisfying than just being able to say that you ordered sandwiches in seven different countries.
Plan, But Don’t Marry Your Plans
Generally, the most interesting stuff happens when you don’t expect it, but giving yourself some guidelines is essential. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but if you plan every day six months in advance, you won’t be able to take up that amazing offer to live on a pygmy goat farm in Greece. On the other hand, pitching up to a foreign city at 2 a.m. in the dead of winter with no accommodation booked is really not fun.
Be Sensitive To The Places You Visit
They are real places, homes and people, not just backdrops for your experiences. It’s easy to feel like the star of your own movie when you’re traveling, because, in a way, you are! But while the hi-tech toilets in Tokyo may seem super weird, and balut in the Philippines seems really gross, for millions of locals these are just regular everyday things. Tomorrow when you leave for the next town, they’ll still be there, as will the impression you left behind. Make it a good one.