Five travel rules that apply to life
After being in India for a few days shy of a month, I am reminded again how travel is a metaphor for life. This trip was every bit as challenging and rewarding as I thought it would be. I came to India with an open mind. I expected nothing and was richly rewarded. I saw Bengal tigers and elephants on safari in the south of India, I witnessed the altruistic efficiency of a huge communal kitchen in the north, and I rubbed shoulders with locals on trains and tuk-tuks in both the north and south. I saw equal proportions of both opulence and squalor beyond belief all across this vast country.
I am a firm believer that each time I go somewhere new and see people living such different, yet not dissimilar, lives to me—lives of struggle and joy and courage and dignity—something irrevocably changes way down deep inside of me. I have a wider frame of reference, an expanded sense of empathy, a greater appreciation of how lucky I am to be born in a country like Australia, and a deeper sense of gratitude for the opportunities that living in Australia has afforded me.
Human beings—for some stupid, idiotic, nonsensical reason—always like to think they are control over things. News flash: control is an illusion. I have no control over anything: how long I’ll live, when I die, if I’ll get that new job, who will fall in love with me, who I’ll fall in love with, what my friends say and do, what my family thinks about me, whether my car will start, whether the plane I’m on will crash, whether the bus will be on time, whether my books will be successful.
I also think that if travel doesn’t somehow make you a better person, you’re doing it wrong. I’m also of the view that travel is a reflection of life, and the rules (for want of a better word) that apply to travel also apply to life. And if you can somehow ensure there is little demarcation between your “travel” life and your “life” life when you return, and that you can somehow incorporate what you’ve learned, your “life” life will better lived. It will be richer, more authentic and grounded. My travel rules that apply to life are simply these:
1. You get out of something exactly what you put in to it
Of the two people on my tour who had unfortunate personalities, one can best be described as being socially bi-polar. He oscillated between being incredibly kind and considerate and generous, and being belligerent and abrupt and rude. He grudgingly came on the organised sightseeing—sometimes—and never participated in dinner and drinks. We never knew which personality would appear at a given time. In gorgeous Goa, I asked him how he’d liked his stay there and he responded with: Bearable.
Bearable? What the? You are in one of the most beautiful spots in India, dude, and it’s just bearable?
This same man complained that—at our hotel in Jaipur—he didn’t have a window. I think he was looking for people to hop on is negative bandwagon, but I responded with: Excellent! I won’t need my sleep mask tonight! Our guide looked at me with gratitude, because she knew that once people start nit-picking and hopping on bandwagons, it’s very hard to stop the momentum. So what if there isn’t a window? Dude! You’re in INDIA for fuck’s sake! Lighten up… or (and this is a revolutionary thought!) just stay the fuck home.
Personally, I loved all the quirks and idiosyncracies and challenges that was my trip to India. I immersed myself in the sights and sounds and smells because it is so different to home. I was like water and just went with the flow. I had no expectations other than it would be different, and I know if I went there with preconceived ideas about how things should be, I would have set myself up for a miserable, disappointing, barely bearable experience.
2. It is impossible to control everything
Yes, you may have an e-ticket with your name on it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll actually get on the plane in Delhi to fly to Amritsar. Yes, the hotel you stay in at Amritsar may have been quiet during the day, but who knew the large, shabby marquee that was right outside your window would be home to a wedding of the loud, rock concert variety? Yes, you might have taken your running gear with the express intention of running, but that doesn’t mean you have footpaths or roads or treadmills to actually run on. Yes, you might have a keycard swipey thing for your hotel room in Kochi, but that doesn’t mean it will work. And yes, you might be going on safari in a tiger reserve, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see a real life tiger. (Actually, I saw not one, but two, Bengal tigers.)
You get the picture. Human beings—for some stupid, idiotic, nonsensical reason—always like to think they are control over things. News flash: control is an illusion. I have no control over anything: how long I’ll live, when I die, if I’ll get that new job, who will fall in love with me, who I’ll fall in love with, what my friends say and do, what my family thinks about me, whether my car will start, whether the plane I’m on will crash, whether the bus will be on time, whether my books will be successful. None of it. The only thing I can control is me–and my attitude to whatever life throws at me.
3. You can get used to almost anything, except people
One thing I was hoping to learn in India was tolerance. Unfortunately, I was not exactly successful. While I had tolerance for the ‘interesting’ and ‘challenging’ conditions of travelling in India, for example, trains that were grimy, toilets that were unsanitary, traffic that was chaotic, and even the constant harassment by street vendors, I had almost no tolerance for people. And when I say people, I don’t mean the wider Indian population, I mean the people in my immediate vicinity.
For example, there were two aforementioned people on my with very unfortunate personalities, and there was the child continually kicking the back of my seat on my flight home from Singapore to Adelaide. Why is it that I would rather sit in a grimy train for 15 hours than put up with a child kicking the back of my seat for even 10 minutes? Why is it that I would rather pee in grotty, smelly toilets than put up with the irritating people on my tour? Is it about control? Maybe. Is it because grimy trains and grotty toilets can’t help their circumstances, but people always have a choice in how they—and others—behave? Probably. And that I am always, always intolerant of people who choose to be neither considerate nor self-aware? I think that’s it.
4. Most people are honest, but some will want to take advantage for their own agenda
Having travelled overseas for a number of years now, and I take pride in the fact that I have never been pick-pocketed, stolen from or scammed (touch wood). Granted, I take care with my personal belongings: if there is no in-room safe, I keep my valuables (and by valuables I mean cash, cards and passport—everything else can be replaced) on my person in my PacSafe travel bag or my Happy Cow belt bag. The first week in India, I used my SPIbelt as a money belt because I was on high alert, but I went back to my PacSafe when it became clear that I was worrying unnecessarily.
I have found that while I’m travelling, people are usually and generally and basically honest. You can trust someone to give you correct directions to the right train platform. You can trust the taxi driver to get you to where you want to go, without a) taking you on a wild goose chase and b) overcharging you. You can trust that your airport transfer will be there at ungodly hour o’clock to drive you to your hotel from the airport, and vice versa. You trust that the ATM machine won’t eat your card even though you can’t figure out quite how to work it. You trust the arrangements you’ve made online for your hotel accommodation half a world away are honoured when you rock up. That they do know of you, and they are expecting you.
But there are times, not often, when people will take advantage of you simply because they can. It might be when you are buying alcohol in a busy wine shop and your 500 rupee note is swapped for a 100 rupee note, and you are told you haven’t paid enough. It might be that you are taken (by your guide) to the only clean toilet stop within miles that happens to be located, coincidentally, in the midst of an expensive “government approved” tourist shop. It might be that you are bumped from a flight that is supposedly over-booked simply because you are a foreigner and a woman and travelling alone.
None of these things, I should point out, are regular occurrences; however, they are reminders that not everyone you encounter is honest, and almost everyone is motivated by their own agenda, which is sometimes difficult to fathom and work out and understand. And sometimes, in unfamiliar environments, it is difficult to predict how and when you’ll be taken for a ride. All you can do is learn from these experiences and remain alert, but not alarmed, to future possible infractions. And know—that whatever happens—it’s not personal. It’s not about you. It’s NEVER about you. Even in your “life” life, it’s hardly ever about you.
5. Sometimes, you just need to take a time out
You are absolutely justified in letting FOMO dictate the terms of your travels because who knows when you’ll next be in India, or Italy, or Turkey, or China—or if you’ll even return—so it makes sense not to miss out on anything. After all, you haven’t spent all this money and survived a long haul flight akin to a trip to the Moon just to laze around a hotel pool when there is so much to see and do and eat and try right on your doorstep? Right?
If you have been constantly on the move for three weeks or more, with early starts and longs days on the road and whistle-stop visits to every single tourist site in every single city, it’s likely you’ll suffer from travel burn out. The symptoms of travel burn out may manifest in any number of ways: boredom, listlessness, apathy, grumpiness, loss of appetite, impatience, intolerance—to name a few. And in my experience, the only way to reinvigorate one’s travel mojo is to do nothing for a couple of days. Sleep late, stay in your PJs, get room service, read, watch trashy TV, sleep some more. Venture out to the pool if you feel like it. But for the love of God, hold the travel guilt and let go of your pursuit of the should and the ought.
All that stuff to see, do, eat and try—the stuff outside your hotel—will still be there when you get your travel mojo back. You’ll appreciate your renewed sense of vigour and energy, and you’ll experience your destination with greater gratitude and wonder and insight. You’ll take better photos and you’ll be a much nicer person to be around. Because no one wants to be around a travel grump, least of all you.
And that’s the same in your “life” life. Sometimes, you just have to take a time-out when things aren’t going so well. A period of introspection and navel gazing and self-care makes you a stronger, more vital, in-tune person. This approach demands that you pay attention to the rhythms of your life, and be honest when things aren’t working so well and commit to correcting your course. This requires effort and guts and reinvention…. and it’s always and invariably easier to stay in your comfort zone, irrespective of how unpleasant it is.