Whether it’s a gap year after finishing school, a well-earned sabbatical from work or an overseas adventure in celebration of your retirement, a big trip is a rite of passage for every traveller, with myriad life lessons to be learnt along the way.
From planning to packing, take-off to touchdown, pre-trip worries and what to do when you get home, our brand new Big Trip book will help you navigate the nuances of long-term travel, uniting your globetrotting dreams with distinct destinations to get you firmly on the path towards your life-changing trip. To celebrate the launch of the newest edition, our Lonely Planet writers reflect on what their time on the road has taught them.
On staying safe on the road…
My first Roman holiday
As if I wasn’t worried enough by my first trip overseas, I had to read the section of my Rome guidebook called ‘Dangers and Annoyances’, which told me that the moment I got off the train I’d discover ‘thieves are very active in the area around Stazione Termini’. In the days leading up to my first international flight, people elaborated on the devious means by which I’d be robbed blind, including Romani women who threw babies at you and the second you caught them would cut every bag off you while dipping into your pocket for your wallet, passport and every last stick of gum.
I arrived anticipating robbery. Catching the train in from the airport, I eyed the couple opposite me, convinced they were hardened thieves working the train for chumps who hadn’t read the Dangers and Annoyances section. When they pulled out a package I braced myself in case they tried to throw it at me. It was cheese. They ate for a while and saw me staring so they offered me some. It could be poison or, at the very least, a tranquilliser. But I risked it. And the soft milky taste was worth it. ‘Mozzarella di bufala’, the man explained. He told me it was from his home town, where he and his wife had just been, so they had plenty. He wasn’t a thief, just a man proud of his home-town produce.
The expression ‘taken with a grain of salt’ is a Roman one. It was used to describe a king who wanted to become immune to poison, so he took small amounts of toxins with just a grain of salt to make it more palatable. Paranoia should be served with a sack of salt, while kind offerings from strangers generally taste good enough already.
On travelling with friends…
My first friends episode
I was idly chatting with my old buddy Linda about how cool it would be to go to New York together and before I knew it, we were stowing our carry-on luggage in the overhead and splitting iPod headphones pumping what we decided would be the signature tune of our trip: Poison’s Nothing But a Good Time. Travelling with Linda was a blast. She was always there to laugh with, share a meal or room with, and lean on when I’d overdone it on the local brew.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. We were spending more time together than you would normally, often 24/7, so patience inevitably wore thin sometimes.
Much to Linda’s chagrin and frustration, I snored – she filmed the digital alarm clock showing some ungodly hour then panned to me snoring away like a trucker. And much to my disappointment, she got sick while we were away so I was left to explore the city solo while she shivered and hallucinated for three days, which was pretty rotten for both of us, and stopped me going to areas where I would’ve felt safer if I wasn’t on my own.
But we still had great fun and crucially had been friends for so long that I had the freedom to say I wanted to check out the art galleries and the minutiae of department store cosmetics – something that would’ve bored her senseless – while she headed off to East Village in search of rare Duran Duran on vinyl.
I felt like travelling with Linda was the best of both worlds – time together yutzing it up, and time apart communing with the city on our own terms.
On working abroad…
My first English patients
It started abruptly. While working at a crappy job in Adelaide, I occasionally surfed teacher websites, more out of curiosity than actual intent. Then there was an interesting job ad for a small school in central Japan, so I shot off an application. Eighteen days later I landed in Nagoya International Airport, pondering the question, ‘Do I even like kids?’
No, it turned out to be more like a passion and I spent a year there teaching kindergarten and primary-school kids. Teaching, I quickly discovered, was a great skill to combine with travel; it allowed me to keep my expenses way down while getting a really rich experience of the culture. And no classroom was the same. In Japan the well-built classrooms were warm enough for me to teach wearing shorts and a T-shirt, unusual in such a formal country. In China, my classroom was only a few degrees above freezing level and my teaching attire was more like snow gear. In Russia I taught summer school and had no classroom at all, instead teaching the kids in the open air.
There was no shortage of challenges. For China, the oddity came in the first lesson, where my school wanted me to randomly assign ‘English names’ to each of my new students. It’s remarkable how quickly you run out of names when required to produce them on the spot – my classes had far too many Johns, Bobs and Maggies that year. In Japan I somehow always seemed to find myself at the local karaoke bar at 3am with locals pleading me to butcher yet another Billy Joel classic.
My first passage to India
I was expecting to come out of the airport doors in Mumbai and disappear in a locust crowd of beggars and taxi drivers. Everyone I knew had told me that my first few minutes would be terrifying. They made it sound as if I’d have to fight to keep hold of my luggage, possibly losing an eye in the process. Instead, arriving in Mumbai after midnight, I found the airport all but deserted. I prepaid for a taxi at a booth and easily found my driver, and we set out for the city. Again, I was surprised – where were all the people? Mumbai at night was a city of men and dogs. Men lying in the street, pissing, riding motorbikes, smoking cigarettes – but nothing like the jumbled hordes I’d been led to expect.
All night outside my window there was the soft music of bicycle bells. In the morning, I was woken by female voices and rushed to the window to see three women in bright saris – fuchsia, turquoise, daffodil – crossing the road.
I’d arrived in the city with a gruesome cold (ironically, the only illness I would suffer in a year of Indian travel) so I spent my first day dazed in bed, watching Bollywood clips on MTV Asia and reading Pico Iyer. When I finally ventured out on the streets, the first person to approach me was a street vendor who tried to sell me a giant dropsical balloon, almost bigger than I was. This made me laugh. ‘A smaller balloon?’ he countered swiftly. Ah, the real India at last.
On travelling solo…
Learning to love solitude
‘You emerge from this marvellous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire…’ the back cover review by New York Times journalist John Leonard could not have been more apt.
I was sitting outside a café in Mendoza, Argentina, sipping an early-evening glass of deep, rich, fruity Malbec. Sycamore leaves flitted across a wide pavement still warm from the gentle late summer sun. A plate of empanadas sat on the table, each a little warm, flaky pastry parcel of beef, chicken or cheese. And next to them lay a yellowed, second-hand copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
I’d bought it from a bookseller under Waterloo Bridge years before, but had never even opened the cover. But now I had time: ill health and bereavement had forced an abrupt, six-month sabbatical from work. Yet through a fog of grief and despair I’d found the courage to book a ticket around the world, beginning in Argentina but with little idea of where to go or what to do.
For no other reason than Malbec being my favourite wine, I grabbed an overnight bus to Mendoza when I landed in Buenos Aires. As I lay in my seat watching a spectacular electrical storm light up the 2am sky over the Pampas, tears rolled down my tired cheeks. In London I’d been too scared to do anything alone – did I now have the courage to travel solo for six months?
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, on that warm pavement, I was alone and at peace.
Looking back conjures a feeling of utter contentment. I felt awake, alive and empowered for the first time in years – it gave me the courage to go forward.