It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Chiang Mai and I’m sitting in a quirky café, snacking on a rubbery banana pancake and a monster sized iced latte. It’s a perfect spot for people-watching, my favorite spectator sport while traveling. I’ve just finished another cheap pedicure, indulging in more selfish pampering while in Thailand, and I wait for my friend to finish her beautification procedures.
I notice a small gang of backpackers walking by, going into the alley leading to a cheap and dirty hostel, the kind I used to stay at. I feel like I’m one of them. Long ago I was one of them, but this is what they see when they glance in my direction: a tall, blonde, “old lady” sitting on a leopard skin couch with a fish tank table in a quirky Thai cafe. No makeup disguising the years or the “laugh lines” and a dirty baseball hat covering the bad hair day. (“She’s one hot mess!”)
And in a true Oprah Winfrey “aha” moment I realize – “Holy Crap! I’m OLD!!” I’m suddenly horrified at that thought! How the hell did that happen? Where did the years go? How am I different from them, from the backpacker I once was – young, naive, and adventurous with my whole life ahead of me and a whole big world to explore?
What advice would this Aging Backpacker give to the Naive Backpacker I was 30 years ago?
I believe the best advice is often spewed from deep Travel Quotes, beginning with a little wisdom from the always profound Mark Twain:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” – Mark Twain
Great timeless advice from Mr. Twain – live life with no regrets. I’ve been pretty good at following this advice, with a few minor exceptions. My first time in Bali many years ago I wandered down the road past Monkey Forest Temple and found the most amazing carved mahogany mask. It was being sold by the artist, a little Indonesian man sitting in the grass along the edge of the road wearing a white robe. I didn’t buy it, wanting to do some price comparisons at the local night market. I went back the next day but he was gone. Last year I revisited Bali and looked for him, but he’s probably dead by now. A minor but memorable regret.
Advice: Live life with no regrets. This is one of the reasons I left my life in the US – practicing “regret avoidance”.
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
One of my closest friends recently commented that I was “born different”. Some people are just born with that internal wanderlust in their DNA and shouldn’t fight it and try to be “normal”. There were a few chapters in my life when I tried to fit into that mold of doing what’s “expected” and found that it just didn’t fit. Kind of a square peg – round hole situation. My version of “normal” has always been just a little bit different, but that’s OK.
Advice: Accept that you’re not normal. Embrace it and let your “freak flag” fly!
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in this world have been unexpected connections. At the beginning of a trek in Sapa, Vietnam, I noticed a tall, stunning, black “super model” in our group who was wearing tiny denim shorts and cute little leather sandals. Trekking? Obviously, she had no trekking experience and was some kind of high maintenance diva, I assumed. I was so wrong. By that evening we were hanging out in a gazebo, sipping a cold drink while watching the sunset over the rice paddies. Our conversation ranged from the value of meditation to sharing crazy Thailand travel stories. She was smart, funny, and could laugh at herself, even mocking her choice of shoes for the trek. By the end she was walking barefoot through mucky rice paddies, getting dirty and being real.
Advice: Give people a chance and they may actually surprise you – a lesson I’m continuously being reminded of!
“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Traveling solo, at least some of the time, is the greatest teacher in the world. Don’t run with the pack. As a “20-something” I traveled alone quite often but usually ended up at backpacker hostels and would wind up on the “backpacker trail” – typical routes that everyone followed. This was before the invention of the internet and backpacker gangs were the original Google for getting reliable information on places to go and things to do. In those days, most travelers relied heavily on Lonely Planet guides, which sort of resulted in the creation of the backpacker trail.
Advice: Don’t be afraid to put the guide book down, leave the gang, and discover new and amazing things on your own.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Star-gazing from the top of a jeep in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park… sunset on Gili Trawangan, a tiny island in Indonesia… sitting by a fire in the middle of a small hut in the Himalayas, sheltered by a local family during a rainstorm. These are the moments you’ll remember 30 years from now. Don’t let those moments slip by unnoticed. Take a mental photo and imprint it in your mind. Those things matter much more than checking stuff off a “must see” list. Connecting with nature, the people and the culture – that’s what will stick with you.
Advice: Appreciate the little things, they’re really the most important moments.
As horrifying as it was to suddenly realize I’m OLD, looking back from the other side is kind of enlightening. The beauty of being an “Aging Backpacker” is the profound wisdom that comes with 30 years of world travel experience – and the ability to steal profound quotes from deep guys like Mark Twain and Henry Miller!