I always know when it’s time for me to pack up the rucksack and hit the road again. It’s not when the tan lines fade, nor when the 9-5 grind starts to get me down, nor even when I start spending my lunch hour in travel agencies just looking at photos in their brochures. These are early signs, but the real indicator is when I start to miss really weird aspects of travel.
I don’t just miss the thrill of not knowing where you’ll be in the morning or the unbridled bliss of not having to be anywhere at any specific time. No, when my feet truly start to itch I even begin yearning for the things that drive me to despair when I am on the road. Here are nine weird things you might start missing about travel. If any of them apply to you, then it’s time to think about polishing your hiking boots and jumping back on a plane.
You know you’ve got the travel bug badly when you actually start to miss, well, the travel bug. Travellers’ diarrhea is never fun. It drains your energy and sends you (or your travel buddy) on endless searches for bland food and passable toilets. But it is a necessary evil of travel if you’re going to be adventurous with your menu choices and once you’re back where the grass is a different shade of green you can even see the plus points.
Eventually, when my passport hasn’t see the light of day for a while, I even start to miss the obligatory day in bed and that gradual rise to actually enjoying street meat again. And it sure does leave you feeling cleansed and skinny!
The Language barrier
As frustrating as it can be at times, you have to admit that a language barrier can be fun. Trying to exchange pleasantries when the only words you know in the local language are the essential ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ is always an enjoyable challenge and there are few things more entertaining than watching a friend resort to a humiliating game of charades to score the anti-diarrhoea meds they need.
Of course, being back at home does make everything easier, but life’s just so boring when you understand what’s going on. I crave the excitement of ordering a dish with no clue about its contents, or even the extreme annoyance of taking a train for 12 hours to arrive in a town that just sounds a little like the one I was actually heading for.
Markets in the developing world can be the first time traveller’s foe. Your first bartering experience is always uncomfortable. You feel rude and start wondering what’s wrong with putting price tags on things, but if you don’t quickly master the art, you’ll soon be relieved of the contents of your wallet. Some people never get past that initial feeling of embarrassment, others thrive on driving a price down, but one thing’s for sure – you’ll miss it when you get home.
Haggling can lead to some hilarious anecdotes or some fun conversations, especially in countries when it’s an engrained part of the culture (I’ll never forget the 20 minute exchange in Egypt where I ended up buying a stone penis from an affable trader: ‘Why don’t you want my penis?’, ‘What’s wrong with my penis?’). Sure, you can head to your local market when you’re home, but traders in the western world are not the haggling masters that you’d find in Egypt or India, where absolutely everything is negotiable, price tag or not.
See the photo on the right if you are curious what this stone penis looked like.
The first time the opportunity presents itself, riding on the roof is fun – one of those classic travel moments you’ve always fancied experiencing. Less so is the first time you squeeze into a minibus with 40 other passengers or find a family of eight sharing your three-seater train bench. But overcrowded transport that stops for unexplained hours at a time soon loses its novelty value and if there’s anything that will drain even the most hardcore backpacker’s energy, it’s a train so packed that people are hanging out of the windows.
You’ll rejoice the first time you board an air conditioned coach back home, but where’s the challenge when you know you have a numbered seat and an empty aisle to stretch out in? If you find yourself taking rush hour tubes and buses just to get that ‘face in a fellow passenger’s armpit’ feeling, then you know it’s time to ditch the office job, buy a guidebook and disappear.
Living out of a bag
Unless you’re particularly organised, living out of a bag for months at a time can be trying. My morning usually starts with a frustrated routine that sees me hurling the contents of my backpack across the room in a bid to find the t-shirt I packed so carefully the day before. But there is something soothing about the minimalistic backpacker wardrobe; something stress-free about the sheer lack of options –blue shorts or beige shorts; only clean underwear left or no underwear at all.
And as much as I like being able to find my clothes in the morning, sometimes I can’t help missing the creased clothing that rarely sees more than a rinse in the shower and the seemingly acceptable excuse for being utterly scruffy all of the time.
OK, stay with me on this one. I’m sure you’re thinking that this is one aspect of travel that you would never miss. The overwhelming stench, the damp floors of a train squatter, the overflowing, unflushable lavatory of your nightmares – not your preferred part of life away from home. Yet if every toilet was functioning, clean and relatively aroma free, then where would you get your stories from?
As much as people deny it, everyone loves a toilet tale and the more revolting, the better. There’s nothing more engrossing than other people’s misfortune, so as vile as it may be, you need to keep visiting those outhouses from hell. It’s only tales of losing your footing in a long drop or leaving a train toilet with damp trouser cuffs that make you a party hit (though not necessarily a dinner party).
24-hour train rides
They have their ups and downs: for every insightful conversation with a local traveller, there’s a snoring bunkmate; for every breathtaking vista, there are a few hours of monotonous rolling hills or pollution-producing factories. Though you might tire of the all-day and all-night journeys with nothing to do but read, eat and stare out of a window, you’ll crave it when you’re sitting in your office cubicle surrounded by mountains of paperwork.
Sure, once you’re on the train you’re itching to get off, but really - what can be more relaxing that having your bedroom and bathroom within a few metres of a dedicated restaurant and no options to exert yourself even if you wanted to?
Being a celebrity
We’ve all experienced celebrity moments on our travels - being followed by throngs of curious passersby or the star of someone’s photo album - someone who would prefer a photo of you than a photo of the world landmark you came to visit. At first it’s fun - everyone likes to be the centre of attention at times and having a following is good for the ego. But sooner or later you start to realise why real celebs detest the Paparazzi.
You can’t get a good shot of you and your chosen attraction without a crowd of fans surrounding you, you tire of people shouting ‘gringo’, ‘lao wai’, ‘guiri’, ‘wei guk’ or ‘mzungu’ every time you leave your hostel and you can’t even pee in peace. But revel in it while it lasts. Soon enough you’ll be at home, where however weird you look, you’re just a slightly tall/fat/hairy/rosy/blond person in a sea of similarly indistinguishable faces. As much as you might start to resent the attention that comes with the only faranji in town while you’re travelling, you’ll yearn for it once you’re back to the life of an average Joe.
Most travellers adore the challenge of arriving in a new town with nothing but a guidebook sketch map and a couple of hostel recommendations to guide them. The essence of an independent traveller is not knowing where you’ll be sleeping that night or what might be on the next day’s agenda. Still, if you’re on the road for months on end, starting afresh every three or four days starts to get tiring.
Sometimes it’s nice to stick around for a couple of weeks or return to an earlier haunt so you know your way around – where to get a cold beer, a meal that won’t send you running to the bathroom or a peaceful night’s sleep. Once you’re back at home though, the thought of being dumped somewhere unknown is so enticing. Not knowing the language, the food, the way from the bus station to your bed for the night. At the end of the day, being home is easy and the problem with easy is that after the two-week novelty wears off it’s just so dull.
Additional photo credits:
Language barrier by jmayzurk on Flickr, backpack by Erik De Leon on Flickr, toilet by hern42 on Flickr, celebrity by sixintheworld on Flickr, starting over by heatheronhertravels on Flickr