Today is the first time since I left for my trip that I have officially unpacked my bag. I just calculated and if my math is correct that is 296 days. Now granted, I have gone through some times where I have sort of unpacked my bag in the past. Staying with friends in Melbourne for a month and then also staying at the same backpackers in Queenstown for about 5 weeks allowed me some freedom in storage of my things. But today was the first day I actually took my clothes out of my packing cubes, my underwear and socks out of my two plastic storage bags, my electrical chargers out of my side pockets, and put them on shelves in a closet. I have come to realize the uniqueness of this experience and could not help but feel some emotions.
First off I couldn’t get over just how few clothes and possessions I really own. My things seemed like a lot as they filled up my entire bag and felt heavy on my back, but as I look at them now taking up only two shelves I can’t get over the lack of what I have. Especially compared to all that I used to have back in New Jersey. Certainly my wardrobe has changed quite a bit since I left home. Half the clothes I have now are things that I have bought along the way and it’s so funny how I can tell you exactly what country they are from. Those are the tights I bought in Helsinki, the leggins I purchased in Estonia, the cardigan and jeans I bought in Australia and so on. I think sadly about how many of my clothes have been put to rest out of constant wear and tear. You wear the same 10 Tshirts over and over again and holes start to develop, colours start to fade, and you can’t help but feel a loss as you toss them in the bin. It’s almost like saying goodbye to a friend. I am still mourning the loss of my brown hoodie that I left behind in a café in Melbourne. I practically lived in that thing for months on end and as I look at old travel pictures I can only hope that it is being put to good use somewhere else. Am I getting tired of wearing the same things over and over again? Let’s just say that I am very excited for when my package of winter clothes comes in the mail from home.
I’ve unpacked my bag but I am not home - or am I? I’m living in a flat in Queenstown now, sharing with 5 other guys from Canada, England and New Zealand. In 4 days I will have been in New Zealand for 3 months, 2 of those months being in Queenstown. Am I really no longer backpacking? The thought still seems so foreign to me.
It may seem like I don’t own a lot. But then I turn on my laptop and open the files that contain all the photos I have taken in the last 9 months. With over 5,000 pictures, I realize that I actually own quite a lot. I sit and watch these on a slide show and just can’t get over where I have been. First off, I look like a completely different person now. I look at photos of me from Ireland, the beginning of my trip and am so surprised by the differences. It’s almost like I am looking at a ghost. This was old me, the girl that lived in New Jersey, and had that old life that I am starting to forget about more and more. She certainly did look happy, like she was having the time of her life. I start to notice the change in appearance as I get to China, a few months into the trip. Certainly by Australia a transition has been made. The question is, will I ever look like that old girl again? Part of me craves her beauty, her ignorance. Backpacking has been hard on the body, I can tell you that. But then I go back to those photos I have taken and just can’t get over all that I have seen and done with my life.
And I have started to go back and read my journals, and reflect on all the crazy thoughts that I had throughout traveling.
1. Clothes can be worn again….and again….and again….without washing. But you really need to stay on top of washing your towel because that can start smelling really badly really quickly.
2. You don’t have to go out every night.
3. It’s amazing what you can do with instant noodles.
4. The world is small - you will run into travelers you’ve met again.
5. McDonalds is great for internet.
6. Traveling will slow you down. You will eat slower, walk slower, learn to appreciate good conversations with people. There are so many amazing things in this world you can miss if you don’t take the time to look.
7. A good traveling companion is rare and should be cherished.
8. (For ladies) If you go out to a club on your own make sure you have got another female companion from the hostel with you. Going out with just guys you have met is alright but chances are you might end up doing something you could regret later.
9. Your heart is going to get broken - but you will break some yourself.
10. Follow the advice of other backpackers but in the end follow your instincts and your gut. After all, you are the one that will have to live with your decisions in the end.
11. Earplugs are a life saver.
12. You will spend more than you budgeted - get over it.
13. Don’t cheap out on a warm sleeping bag if you are planning on camping in cold places. It’s really hard to get a good night sleep when you are shivering.
14. Splurge every now and then on things that make you feel good about yourself (hair cuts, nice shampoo, pedicures).
15. Always double check the hostel/hotel showers for your stuff before you leave or it will be gone forever. Oh and always double check that all caps are secure on your toiletries to prevent serious leakage in your bag.
16. Make sure you’ve got your towel before you leave.
17. Markets are often the cheapest and best places to buy souvenirs. Never, ever go in those tacky shops in every city. You will pay too much.
18. Utilize free walking tours and the people that work at your hostels. Make them your best friend.
19. Food at the supermarket is a great way to spend remaining money you have before you go on to the next country.
20. Buying a laptop was the best purchase I made for this trip. Free wifi and watching movies in bed are the best ways to relax from all the sightseeing.
21. Don’t worry about standing out and looking like a tourist. The friendliest experiences I have had have been from locals who knew I didn’t belong.
22. Offering booze to people is a great way to make friends at a hostel, or anywhere for that matter.
23. Teaching myself the Cyrillic alphabet before I went to Russia was a lifesaver.
24. Always make sure you know how to say hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, and thank you as a bare minimum in each country you visit, regardless of how much English is spoken there.
25. Try your best to have a map with you to get to your next hostel if you are in a non-English speaking country. The Hostel World instructions can often be a bit shit.
26. Hostel World has better reviews of hostels but Hostel Bookers is often cheaper. Use both simultaneously when backpacking through Europe.
27. If you know you are going out at night leave your toiletries, and pajamas on top of your bed and carry your torch with you. It will make your life easier when you come back late and are trying to maneuver in the dark…plus it makes you a courteous hostel guest.
Of course these certainly aren’t all the lessons. I could write a novel on everything I have learned and all the advice I could give. I have obtained more knowledge in these last 9 months than I have in all my time in college and high school. I have come to understand just how isolated us Americans are from the rest of the world. I forgot to mention the other set of possessions that I have on my laptop. This would be the 60 posts I have written during my traveling. I will read an old one every now and then and almost feel like I am reading a stranger’s work. I have completely forgotten some of the thoughts that I have recorded and am surprised at some of the deep revelations that I have made on my trip.
I have unpacked my bag - but there is this feeling inside of me that knows that this is not unpacking for good. There is still so much in this world that I want to see and experience. Everyone has their addictions to something. Mine is with traveling. I guess it beats cigarettes. You can bet that Southeast Asia, Japan, and Fiji are most definitely in the cards for me in some not too distant future. At the moment my bag, my partner in crime, sits silently in the corner of the closet. But I know it will be there for me when I am ready.
Behind the Backpack
Lauren Watson put her teaching career on hold in the U.S., sold her possessions, and is backpacking solo around the world. Her next stop is Australia where she is planning a working holiday - before hitting the road for more traveling.