Day Tripper: Hitchhiker’s guide to the summer

April 9, 2014

I’ll never cease to be amazed by Georgetown students’ globetrotting habits. I love hearing friends describe the details of their summer travel plans—itineraries range from cross-country road trips to exploring cotton farms in Xinjiang.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to hear a sophomore friend describe her summer plans that remind me of my own adventures. She, too, has the opportunity to travel and conduct research on her own. There’s the whole nostalgia for my own adventures from 2012 and excitement for her future—the usual mix of emotions of a second-semester senior.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to travel for ten weeks to conduct research. Although I had been able to craft a research proposal, I found it difficult to conceptualize what exactly I needed to do to bring my plans to fruition. In the days leading up to my departure, I packed and repacked my bag multiple times and scoured the Internet for stories about traveling in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Then again, no amount of refined Google searches could have prepared me for traveling by myself for eight weeks.

The shock of being alone in a strange place was overwhelming at first. It took time to push myself out of my comfort zone, but after a few weeks, I found my stride. How to reserve rooms in hostels, budgeting for food and museum tickets, securing transportation, in a foreign language—all skills a solo traveler needs to survive abroad.

At a party last week, a girl asked me for advice about traveling alone for several months. While some may be travel purists and reason that people should learn these skills for themselves, I really wish someone had given me a bit of advice before boarding a plane.

I’ve got two big takeaways from my adventures (and misadventures) abroad. One, always have a back-up plan, and two, take the time to figure out your travel style.

No matter how solid you think your itinerary is, sketch out a few alternative plans. You are not invincible, and your plans are not infallible. The backup plan serves multiple purposes, but primarily, it’s a practicality. You never know when an outbreak of the bubonic plague will hit Kyrgyzstan, messing up your travel plans (true story). You might end up realizing that the bus you planned on using for travel only operates during the other half the year.

In a moment of crisis, you don’t want to have to plan out an alternate route. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress if you have a few options sketched out in advance. It doesn’t even have to be too detailed, just the name of a place to stay and directions from the bus station into town.

If you’re not going to take this advice, at least consider this second bit of wisdom: be honest with yourself about your travel style. From TV or movies, we get bizarre ideas about the “right” way to travel. There are competing pressure points about needing to see every landmark, every historical building, each street corner in order to prove you’ve been somewhere, while simultaneously you have to spend hours in quiet cafes or restaurants, people watching and reflecting on the world.

No travel style is necessarily better than the others.

Granted, it will probably take some time to develop your preference—take time to recover from jetlag before jumping into visiting museums, exploring the town, and meeting new people.

If you’re traveling alone, you don’t have anyone else to please, and there’s no reason to force yourself to go on daytrips or evening outings that you know you won’t enjoy. This luxury is subject to change, of course, when you travel in a group—but for the time being, find what makes you most excited to experience a different place and a different culture.

After a few weeks, if you feel a lot more comfortable spending the afternoon walking through the backstreets of a city than barhopping with new friends, don’t try to convince yourself that the only way to truly travel is to visit every bar listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

The chance to spend the summer abroad is an incredible opportunity—be careful, though, because wanderlust is a contagious bug.

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