Ever since Rich and I announced our intention of traveling for four to five months without a fixed itinerary or end date, people have been asking us, 1) “Why?” and 2) “How?” and 3) “Are ya nuts?”
The why part is easy. Years ago, Rich and I decided that we didn’t want to spend this phase of our lives sitting around waiting to crumble. Instead, we decided to go places and have interesting adventures; crumbling is very much on the back burner, at least for now. Internet memes constantly exhort young people to live their travel dreams, but it’s people over the age of 50, 60, or 70 who should be listening. Because really, if not now, when?
Knowing why helps us figure out how to go. Rich and I are clear that we’re seeking adventure but intend to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort. We want to cover a lot of ground without feeling hurried. And we hope to encounter people and places that make us sit up and say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” — if possible, in a good way. For us, our upcoming Balkans-to-Baltics rail journey seems like a good bet for meeting most of those goals, most of the time.
So, are we nuts? Maybe. But not because we’re about to embark on a long-term, spontaneous, open-ended rail journey. Done right, this kind of travel is tremendous fun. The first step is getting free of popular myths and misconceptions.
Myth 1. If I don’t make hotel reservations weeks ahead of time, I won’t have a place to sleep and will wind up spending the night on a park bench. Not going to happen. While our definition of "spontaneous" rules out long-range reservations, it allows booking lodgings a week or so in advance. Since we received our residency cards on Monday (YAY!) we’ve booked a hotel room in Barcelona and berths on the two overnight ferries needed to reach Sicily en route to Albania. On trips we organize ourselves, we rarely arrive anywhere without a place to sleep; when it has happened, we’ve quickly found someplace decent to stay. Seriously, you are not going to sleep on a park bench.
Myth 2. If a restaurant isn’t in my guidebook, the food will be terrible and probably make me ill. Rich’s nose for good eats (nicknamed “the Sniffer”) takes us into obscure cafés everywhere. We’ve enjoyed countless delightful culinary surprises; the occasional ghastly misstep such as tripe soup or pig’s ears gives us a good laugh before we order something else. Yes, we have occasionally gotten ill, but usually in a fancy tourist place where we were assured everything was safe.
Myth 3. Going abroad is dangerous. Bad things can happen anywhere, of course, and you’ll want to be sensible. But long-term travelers often comment on the astonishing amount of honesty and goodwill they encounter. For more, see my post Can You Still Rely on the Kindness of Strangers?
Myth 4. I'm overwhelmed by foreign environments. The thing to remember is that what’s terrifyingly unfamiliar to you is the most comfortable, homey place on the planet to others. For more, see my post DON’T PANIC! It’s Only an Unknown Country.
Myth 5. I’ll never meet anyone; I’ll be lonely. Not if you reach out! For instance, sign up for a group tour, a night at a hostel, the expat social network InterNations, a cooking class, a congenial Airbnb location, or a group dining experience.
Myth 6. There’s no way I can pack enough clothes for a long trip. Sure you can! I’m heading off for months with a single roll-aboard measuring just 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches. The secret? Buy practical travel clothes and do laundry constantly. For more, see my Packing page.
Myth 7. I don’t know the local language; communication will be difficult, embarrassing, and futile. Write key phrases in a notebook (with pronunciation notes) and add some pantomime; you’ll be surprised how well that works. I find online translators cumbersome, but others love them.
Myth 8. If I get sick or injured, I won’t be able to find competent, professional help. Health care quality varies tremendously, as you've no doubt observed in your own community. I’ve had good medical care in Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Georgia. But of course, it pays to do research and advance planning. Like what? See my post The SOS File: Be Prepared for Medical Emergencies on the Road.
Myth 9. Something will go wrong and the trip will be ruined. If the benchmark is perfection, every trip is going to fall short occasionally; a simple delay at check-in can leave you feeling cheated and disappointed at the “failure” of the trip. But these moments make for the best stories; our infamous departure imbroglio is all anyone remembers about my Cuba trip. And every encounter with the unexpected is a gentle reminder from the universe that we are not, in fact, in control of everything, or even a small portion of it. Which is frankly a relief for people like me, who have a hard enough time managing our email accounts, let alone the course of human events.
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4/7/2016 05:56:49 pm
Karen and Rich
4/8/2016 06:20:07 pm
Thanks for your very kind words, Frank! I sometimes wonder what Rich's father would have thought of all our mad galavanting around the world. I hope he would have enjoyed the stories as much as you do.
4/7/2016 11:34:40 pm
Love your column. My 'hubby' is a homebody, just doesn't get why folk want to travel. So I sally forth into the sunset on my own. For me? THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS is huge. All isn't good in our world, but the kindness of a stranger shows us all isn't bad either. Looking forward to reading of your next adventure.
4/8/2016 06:25:02 pm
Lots of my friends are homebodies like your husband, Angela, and (although they're too polite to say so) they think we're nuts. Good for you to sally forth on your own, proving yet again that we can (at least some of the time) feel at home in foreign places and rely on the kindness of strangers. Enjoy your continuing adventures and I'm glad to know you'll be following along with us in the days ahead.
4/7/2016 11:57:58 pm
"Going abroad is dangerous." All of those listed are indeed myths, but the danger one is the one I hear the most. I'm a nervous Nellie at home, so what difference does it make if I'm nervous somewhere else? A weatherman here in Michigan warned there of "a THREAT of snow flurries today." Well, THAT is scary!
4/8/2016 06:35:08 pm
You're so right, Nancy. How can anyone feel safe in a world where even snow flurries can be viewed as threatening? What should we be afraid of next — puppies? Chocolate chip cookies? Yikes! The world has never been perfectly safe, but that doesn't mean we can't relax and enjoy the good things — and good people — wherever we find them!
4/8/2016 03:40:36 pm
You've reminded me why we should get serious about the resident visa. Buen viaje! Looking forward to your trip reports.
4/8/2016 06:37:32 pm
We were so astonished — and thrilled! — that our residency visas actually were waiting for us when we got back to Seville. Government efficiency; it CAN happen! Good luck with your residency visas, Jackie, and I am happy to know you'll be following along as we head out on our next big adventure.
4/8/2016 04:49:12 pm
Love your travel hints and tales...have a great trip. I'm a little envious as I'm not up to par to travel alone but did go everywhere for many years and have great memories.
4/8/2016 06:41:12 pm
Carol, you've always been a globetrotter and I know you have the stories and memories to prove it. Thanks for your kind wishes as we prepare to embark on the next railway journey. Cheers!
4/8/2016 05:52:56 pm
I don't get to travel as much as u would like but when we do it is invariably the missteps are the things we remember and laugh about for years. I travel for the adventure of it; have never done a group tour and doubt I ever will. The planning, the spontaneity, the discovery, the adventure and managing all of that on our own is the lure of travel for me! Have fun out there!!
4/8/2016 06:46:46 pm
Kim, you are my kind of traveler! I have done groups but prefer to hit the road with Rich, a blank calendar, and an open mind. "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God," according to Kurt Vonnegut, and I want to be able to say "yes!"
4/10/2016 02:41:53 pm
Hi Rich and Karen, Looking forward to reading your posts of this next exciting adventure into the unknown. Both Tom and Maya are going inter-railing this summer so will be getting them to read all your packing tips. Lots of love, Katy and David.
4/13/2016 05:18:33 pm
Delighted to hear Tom and Maya are hitting the rails this summer; I'm sure they'll have many adventures, including some they may even tell you about. Wish them well for me!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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