- Remember that nothing is impossible. Ignore the naysayers and everyone who tells you it can’t be done, because IT CAN. If I’d have listened to all the naysayers in my life (friends and family included), I would never travel anywhere. Keep your eye on the prize. Perseverance is key and it’ll get you anywhere. Don’t give up.
- Chuck the itinerary, seriously, you don’t need it. That schedule that you made where every hour and minute of the day is filled up, just toss it. If you try to cram too many things into your trip, you’ll be exhausted and won’t enjoy any of it. Sure there are lots of things to see where you are going, but that’s why you make future plans to go back. If you learn to relax and enjoy the moment, you’ll appreciate it more. I mean, you’re on vacation right? Do you really want to see another schedule?
- Patience is a virtue. Missed your train? Missed your connecting flight? Don’t freak out, there will be others. Life is way too short to be sad and angry over little things.
- Don’t eat near tourist attractions. If you eat near a tourist attraction, you’ll most likely be paying more for your food than you should and it’ll be of lesser quality. Why? Restaurants near tourist attractions know that you won’t be able to tell the difference, so the food won’t taste as good as it should and they’ll charge you more for it. How do you avoid this? If you see “tourist menu,’ it’s probably best to move on. If the people working there don’t speak any English, you’re probably in the right place.
- Meet locals. You’re in a foreign country right? What better way is there to experience the culture of a place than to meet people who actually live and work there. You’ll also get in on the local secrets like the secret bread of Florence (yes, it does exist).
- Learn to smile and say hi. The simplest things make a world of difference. If you smile, people are more likely to come up to you and talk to you. When was the last time you spoke to someone who was grouchy? And learn how to say hi in the local language. Sure you won’t be fluent in the local language but learning how to say hi goes a long way. In Spain? “Hola!” In the Philippines? “Kumusta!”
- Say yes. You should still keep your wits about you, but if you meet someone and they invite you over to meet their family and have dinner, you should go! Why wouldn’t you? This is your chance for an authentic cultural experience, and the opportunity may never come up again. It could be a wedding or a festival or a road trip to the family vineyard in the countryside to try the special reserve wine. Just go. These are the things that make traveling worthwhile. Don’t pass them up.
- Try couchsurfing. It’s beyond amazing. I’ve been couchsurfing since 2009 and I
can honestly say that my life wouldn’t be the same without it. Couchsurfing is a large community of people around the world willing to host you and get to know you. They’ll also give recommendations on where to go and where to eat, and if they have time, they’ll show you around. The best part? You’ll make life long friends and gain a better understanding of the world and its people. If you’re looking for an authentic travel experience, couchsurf.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. This applies to all aspects of life. You WILL make mistakes along the way, and that is OKAY. Just pick yourself up and move on. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Eat the local food. A big part of experiencing another country’s culture is the food. Whether it’s chinicuiles in Mexico, balut in the Philippines, pasta nero in Italy or that extra smelly cheese in France, try it all. Just because it looks funny or smells weird doesn’t mean that it doesn’t taste good. Don’t knock it ’til you try it I say.
- Don’t be afraid. The world is full of scary things sure, but that doesn’t make it a scary place. Don’t believe everything you see in the media, it’s only ever one-sided. The world is a beautiful place and its people and cultures nothing short of awe-inspiring. More often than not, you’ll find that people around the world want to get to know you just as much as you want to get to know them. In the words of my favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
- Be open-minded. Leave your prejudices, inhibitions, and misconceptions about the world where they belong…at home! It is absolutely paramount in my opinion. Don’t judge people just because they do things differently from you or speak in a language you don’t understand. You’re there for the experience, take it all in.
- Take photos, and take lots of them. It can be tempting to buy souvenirs everywhere you go, but keep in mind that they take up space and eventually start to get heavy. If you’re on a multi-week trip, your pack will be chock full of them. Do you really want to be hauling it around? Instead, take photos, and take lots of them. Photos are the best souvenirs because they weigh nothing and you can take as many as you want (at least as many as your memory card will hold). With photos, you can relive the experience, try doing that with a shot glass.
- People watch. Go to a cafe, grab a coffee and just sit outside. See how the locals live. It’s a good way to take in the culture and relax at the same time.
- Be respectful. This doesn’t mean that you can’t fun but just be mindful of where you are. If you’re going to visit a church or temple, dress appropriately. Guys, that means pants and a shirt, no shorts and a tank top. Ladies, don’t wear anything revealing.
- Be frugal. Your trip won’t be as fun if you’re always on a budget. Know when to save and know when to splurge a little. Don’t miss out on something just because you decided to walk ten miles instead of taking the bus for $2.
- Travel insurance. Don’t leave home without it. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of being robbed while abroad, you’ll know what I mean. It kinda sucks when you’re stuff is stolen, especially when it’s stuff like your camera, computer or even your passport. World Nomads is a good place to start.
- Wake up early (or stay up really late). Ever go to take a picture of a tourist attraction only to find that everyone is getting in the way? If so, wake up early. You can get a picture of an empty Piazza San Pietro or an almost empty Fontana di Trevi. The other alternative is to stay up really late and get some awesome night shots.
- Cash is king. You won’t always be able to debit and credit cards when you travel, so remember to always have some cash on you. This is especially important if you are traveling to less developed countries where ATMs are far and few between.
- Most importantly, DON’T WAIT. The only way to become a better traveler is to actually travel. Sadly most people that say they will travel, actually never do. It’s always one excuse or another. I don’t have enough money or life got in the way. The world is constantly changing and what might be there today may not be there tomorrow. Don’t miss out on it. Don’t wait.
So I finally made it to South Africa! It feels so good to finally be off that plane! It took almost two days to get here, but it was totally worth it. How many people get to say that they’ve had the chance to set foot on the African continent? In my group of friends, I can only think of two.
I started my journey on 8 Nov from Los Angeles and landed in Dulles some time early the next morning. I had expected to be able to check-in my backpack at the South African Airways counter so I could easily explore our nation’s capital for a little bit, but to my surprise, they only opened at 13:30 and it was barely 07:00! The baggage claim for American Airlines also took FOREVER! I think most of us were there waiting for our bags for almost an hour and a half, not cool. I ended up having to lug my backpack with me to Washington, D.C. (Dulles is actually in Fairfax, VA) on the shuttle and paying for a locker at Union Station; it was a pricey $25 (doh!). I got to walk around the National Mall for a few hours, and surprisingly there were still a lot of tourists even with the frigid temperatures and all the restoration going on. It was nice getting to see the Capitol Rotunda, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and part of the GWU campus. Unfortunately they weren’t selling anymore tickets to go to the top of the Washington Monument.
My flight to Johannesburg via Dakar, Senegal took off later that evening; a short 8 hours to Dakar and then another 8 hours from there to Johannesburg. Not gonna lie, it was a LONG ass flight, but at least South African Airways had a good selection of movies and pretty decent food. The curry was pretty good.
We ended up landing in Dakar some time around 07:00, just in time to catch the last few minutes of the sun rising. My first African sunrise, that was something special, even if it was from the confines of the airplane. Being in the Sahel (the transition zone from the Sahara Desert to the rainforests), you could tell that it was already pretty hot, but for some reason they had the AC on full blast and it felt like we were in Greenland. From my window Dakar International Airport didn’t look like much, just a bunch of non-uniform airplane hangars and airplanes with no proper gate. I assume there was a proper terminal somewhere, but I couldn’t see it. A new wave of passengers started boarding the plane about halfway into our fuel stop. There were lots of Senegalese boarding the plane but also some Mauritanians. You knew you were in Africa because a lot the Senegalese passengers were dressed in caftans (I think that’s what they’re called) with intricate patterns. As soon as they were settled, the cabin crew came through the main cabin spraying bug spray up and down the aisles. There were maybe five or six crew each holding two fairly large canisters of bug spray. It was still pretty cold on the plane, so you could see a cloud of bug spray span the entire length of the plane for a few seconds. They said it was for sanitary purposes or something, but I thought it was kind of rude that they did that after the African passengers came aboard. Oh well, that’s their policy I guess. Only another 8 hours to Johannesburg…time for more movies and curry.
We finally touched down in Johannesburg around 18:00 local time. A total distance of 10,445 miles and about 32 hours of travel time! Disembarking the plane wasn’t a long process and as we entered the terminal, we were shuffled into a separate line from everybody else. Those of us who were aboard the SAA flight had to sign an ebola waiver form of sorts; Senegal shares a border with Guinea which is part of the Ebola Zone. The form wasn’t difficult to fill out, just your standard questions: What is your name? Where do you live? What is your nationality? and the all important: Have you traveled to Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia in the past three weeks? Have you come into contact with anyone that may have been to Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia? The answers obviously being no and no. As I finished filling out my form, a couple of Mauritanians came up to me and asked me to help them. They didn’t really speak or understand English. I didn’t speak any Arabic but I helped anyways. I figured Spanish might work because the Moors did rule southern Spain for a good amount of time, and it surprisingly did. Meanwhile, all of the Mauritanians from the flight were lining up behind them waiting for me to assist them. When did I become a translator??
After all that, I FINALLY made it to the immigration desk. The girl at the desk didn’t look like she was having a very good day.
“Why did you come to South Africa?”
Stamp and done. Well that was easy. Woohoo! Another stamp in my passport, and another traveler’s badge of honor. I waited for my friend Justin in the terminal with whom I’d been communicating on Couchsurfing. He’s originally from Texas but lives in Salt Lake City (Sal Tlay Ka Siti). I had posted in the South Africa forum asking if there was anyone willing to meet up while I was there. He responded and we decided to travel together as we’d be arriving on the same day and staying for about the same amount of time. O.R. Tambo International Airport would be where we meet for the first time. Crazy right? But that’s what I enjoy about couchsurfing and solo travel in general; you never know who you’ll end up meeting, but it more often than not ends up being really awesome.
We finally met and took the Gautrain (that’s pronounced ‘hau-tran’, it’s Afrikaans so you really need to hock that ‘h’ haha) to Sandton where our couchsurfing host, Ben, would pick us up. First impression of Ben is that he is a very tall Afrikaaner with a thick Afrikaans accent. To be honest, even though we all spoke English, Justin and I had a hard time understanding him because of his thick accent. After a stop at Nando’s for dinner, we made it to Ben’s house. It was storming and there were lightning strikes as we passed by the University of the Witwatersrand; Johannesburg is located in an area of Gauteng province known as the Witwatersrand. Ben let us know that he might not have power at his home because the grid has a hard time handling power surges. We met his housemate and talked about life in America and South Africa, and how even though life in South Africa isn’t completely up to Western standards, it’s on the up and up.
After almost two days of traveling, I’m glad to have a safe place to sleep and somewhat of a bed to sleep on. Greetings from South Africa!
*By the way, did anyone catch my reference to the Book of Mormon?