When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised ot find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
My first time in Medellin, Columbia I walked out of the airport into the clean and organized taxi waiting area, only to find out that a taxi ride to the center of the city was going to cost $25 US, an astronomical amount and way outside of my backpacking budget. I hadn’t realized that the airport is 45 minutes outside of the city, and I failed to arrive with anything other than my backpack and the name of the hostel I was planning to stay at.
I asked about options and they pointed to a medium sized bus sitting just down the street with a large printed sign next to it: “14,000 pesos, Centro” ($7, center). I figured the bus would at least get me closer to my destination and I could catch a cheaper taxi from there.
I sat silently on the bus watching the rolling green pine-studded hills roll by, amazed as a group of 5 Italian exotic sports cars zoomed by, wondering if, in fact, I had landed in Northern California rather than Central Colombia.
Slowly the countryside began to infill with development, traffic levels increased and I could tell the destination was approaching. Just then a Colombian teenager turned around and, in his best english, asked where I was going. I replied back in Spanish that I wasn’t sure, but that I had the name of the place in my pocket. He asked if I had an address or a phone number for the hostel.
Me : “No.”
Him: “You’re crazy man”
We chatted for a bit and I found out that he and his girlfriend were just getting home from a Sum 41 concert, and that he was 18 years old and had been in college studying Civil Engineering for 2 years. I told him I was impressed, that I had a similar educational background but that he was far ahead of where I was at age 18. When we got off the bus he started asking the nearby taxi drivers if they knew where the hostel was. After a few failed attempts he got out his cell phone and called a friend who had internet access. The friend looked up the hostel for us, and his girlfriend took notes, writing down the address and phone number.
The kid realized that the hostel was located just a few stops away on the nearby light rail system, in the same direction he was going. He showed me how to buy tickets for the rail and we hopped on together, chatting until my stop approached. As I said goodbye I couldn’t help but feel intimately welcomed into this new city, thankful for a brief new friendship, and excited to see what else this city had in store for me.
This story is one small example of why I love to travel with limited planning. For some people the thought of arriving in a new foreign city with only the name of a hostel in your pocket is enough to give you heartburn, but for those adventurous enough to give it a shot, you’ll find the world is much more inviting and forgiving than you had previously thought.
Limit Your Planning to Enjoy Limitless Freedom
There is no more freeing experience than arriving unannounced in a new city in a foreign land with no plans, with your life in a bag on your back. The unknown in front of you opens your mind and delivers to your soul the feeling of limitless opportunities – and this feeling is addicting. The situation heightens all of your senses as your mind is struck by the foriegness of the place. The trick to stoking this feeling of limitless freedom is to understand the balance between what you need to plan and what you don’t. For the new traveler I’ve put together a list of the things I think are worth planning. If it’s not on this list, don’t worry about it – the world will provide.
1. Your Gear
Pack light and pack consciously. No one ever comes back from a six month trip wishing they had brought more shit with them. Do you have a closet full of clothes you have not worn in 3 months? Don’t bring that habit on the road with you. Understand the environment you’re entering and what the weather conditions are going to be like. I’ve put together what I consider the perfect minimalist packing list that will get you through almost every weather condition besides a trip to the Antarctic.
2. Your Health
Know thyself. See a doctor and get a physical before you go. Go to the Center for Disease Control Website, find a clinic near you, and get the proper vaccinations. Take the proper meds with you if needed. Bring your immunization record with you and keep it with your passport. Know your food allergies and any allergies you have to medications. If you have specific dietary requirements do some local food research before hand so you’re not caught off guard by the local cuisine.
3. Your Visas
Get your Visas. Some countries require you to get a Visa before you cross their border, some will allow you to get a Visa at the border, some don’t require a visa at all. Check out the wikipedia page for up to date visa requirements.
4. Notify Your Banks
Call your credit card companies and your bank, tell them which countries you are headed to. You don’t want to end up in a foreign land with no friends, no money to pay for a call and nowhere to stay. And bring a second debit card in case you make the same mistake I did and leave your only debit card in an ATM in Bangkok during a 24 hour layover.
5. Book Your Flight
Unless you’re walking, driving or taking the bus across to Mexico, you’re probably flying. Decide where you’re going and book that flight!
Now Try It
That’s it. If I have not listed it above, I do not recommend booking it in advance. The exception to this is if you are going to an area at a certain time for a specific festival or other event where some pre-planning is absolutely required and will save you a load of grief and money upon arrival.
Otherwise, allow yourself to cultivate the mentality of freedom on the road. These rules will allow you to say yes to interesting opportunities and to not worry about having to be at a certain location at a certain time – you are free to bebop around the world with whomever you choose, as you please.
I know what you’re thinking – “Brandon, how can I just arrive in a new city with no reservation and no idea of where I’m going and I don’t speak the language and people will rob me and….” please stop. Just go do it once, see what happens. The world is much more travel friendly than you would imagine. Upon arrival, go to the info desk at the airport, ask about hostels. Stay one night at their recommended hostel. The next morning, find a bike tour of the city, and note the areas that seem intriguing to you. Later that day, find a hostel in one of those areas and stay there for a couple of nights as you continue to explore. If you dig the place, rent a furnished apartment nearby for a month and have a blast!