With the departure date of my 1st ever Around The World (RTW) Trip just a mere months away, I wanted to tap into the collective hive mind of some my most traveled friends to get some key insights and wisdom on life, sanity and survival on the road. For the complete series of interviews, please click here.
Everyone, meet Preeti. Preeti, meet everyone.
You meet the best people in the most random of ways and Preeti is one of those people. I showed up at a free walking tour of the city and there Preeti was, 13 months into her trip, taking this tour with me. With a huge smile on her face, she regaled me with tales from her travels to the point that I was paying attention to her more than the tour guide. She has since completed her trip and reinserted herself into the real world, but was still happy to speak to me about all things travel.
"A lot of stuff you can buy on the go, so do not stockpile anything ... unless you plan to go somewhere really remote."
When you look back at the things you packed, what things did you consider vital, and on the flip side utterly useless?
I would categorize packing in general into 3 categories: useful, non-essential and personal requirements/luxuries. As for the latter, there are some things that are not essential but you just need — i.e. for me as a woman, hair straighteners and a nail kit (file, clippers varnish etc) fit this bill. These items provided a sense of comfort despite being a luxury on the road. For example, with the nail kit I can groom on the go and feel good, especially for those moments when I was having "me time", or even as a pick me up when I was feeling a little low.
In terms of essentials, in my opinion would be:
- A camping bag/backpack (rather than wheeled suitcase)
- Small rucksack
- Flip flops for showers (very important)
- Comfortable sandals and smart shoes for occasions requiring dressing up. I took a pair of smart flat sandals that don't take much space but look dressy and won't break in transit.
- Hiking boots: these were the pair of shoes I wore when moving between destinations as it was quite heavy and bulky to pack. Many people I met had running shoes instead, or in addition to boots, but I didn't bother as I felt I had no need for them.
- Clothes: anything that can be layered is good for hot and cold climates, shorts, linen trousers, a fleece jacket or hoody.
- A travel blanket (vital) that doubles as a shawl. I picked mine up in Kathmandu on my travels.
- Basic medication such paracetamol and anti-histamines, etc.
- Small bike lock to chain your backpack and secure it. Whilst in India, I used this in sleeper trains to ensure I didn't wake up to my backpack being nicked. It was also great in hostels when I had to leave my backpack in storage because the lockers were too small.
- Money belt to be able to carry around cash discretely.
- A journal that you update regularly! You will not regret doing this, and trust me, it is a great way to gather your thoughts. You could also use it (or another notebook) to stay on top of your finances (boring, necessary evil).
A lot of stuff you can buy on the go, so do not stockpile anything on the list above unless you plan to go somewhere really remote.
On the other end of spectrum, non-essentials I brought that ended up being useless to me personally were a whole medicine cabinet full of pills, sleep sheets and a hair dryer.
How did you go about picking a backpack for such a long journey?
My backpack was a great colour - bright pink. The thought process behind this was that it would make it less susceptible to theft and also easily identifiable amongst a sea of generic, dark coloured bags. Unfortunately for me, I packed way too much and it ended up being very heavy, cumbersome and not practical as it was a top loading pack which means I had to take everything out to get to something at the bottom. The backpack did break a couple of times on the road but I was able to get it fixed for next to nothing.
If you could get a do-over with your backpack, what would you have liked to have brought with you?
For next time, I would put a good amount of thought into what backpack I bring along. I definitely will get a colourful one (for reasons mentioned already) and something that has a lot more openings so I'm not having to take everything out to pull something out from the bottom. Finally, I would probably spend a little more than 50 quid (£50) for one and get something a little lighter when it is empty, but strong.
"I deliberately didn't upgrade to a newer smartphone before I left to minimize my remorse if it ever broke, got lost or stolen."
Besides packing, what other things did you have to do before leaving? (Exercise, vaccines, finances, etc)
Mental preparation is everything! It's exciting, but daunting delving into the unknown for the first time. I've lead a pretty sheltered life to date and the only times I had travelled alone were trips for work so this was a big challenge!
Next, I did a lot of research into the vaccinations needed for potential destinations I wanted to visit. Finally, financial preparation was another major activity, not only making sure that I had enough money to go on this trip, but also being able to access it on the road. I have a credit card especially for overseas use only that didn't charge commissions or transaction fees that I took with me. Before I took off, I informed the bank where I was planning to visit so it wouldn't get blocked (it still did at times). I also took a backup credit card along with 2 debit cards of 2 different bank accounts and put them in separate places just in case one of them gets lost. Internet banking is essential and I used my old smartphone to get this done. I deliberately didn't upgrade to a newer smartphone before I left to minimize my remorse if it ever broke, got lost or stolen. Lastly, I made sure I had a large sum of cash in US dollars in my money belt. This currency is the most widely accepted and is helpful to have to exchange so I don't pay any foreign transaction fees when trying to withdraw out of the ATM.
For residents in the UK, do you have recommendations on banks and cards to use?
For a credit card, the Santander Zero Credit Card is the one I use only for overseas travel, while I use a different one in the UK, as it doesn't impose any transaction fees or commissions. If someone is only going to Europe, I recommend opening a Metro Bank account which allows free cash withdrawals in Europe only.
"It is also important to keep in account that the way you travel might not be the same as the person who's experience you are reading or hearing about."
In terms of budgeting, how did you go about that? Did you have a per day or per month budget you were rolling with?
After reading a lot into this and looking at other peoples' "per day" budget, I then calculated my "per country" budget. Do your research but common sense will also give you a general idea. For example, Australia is going to be more expensive compared to, say, South East Asia. It is also important to keep in account that the way you travel might not be the same as the person who's experience you are reading or hearing about. I met other female solo travellers who had their entire trip itinerary booked in advance which drove up the cost significantly, compared to me who winged it most of the time. Assess your risk appetite, then plan your itinerary and finances accordingly. When on the road, I didn't keep a penny for penny account. I just rolled with it, but would review what I had spent every few days.
Did you find feeding yourself as a vegetarian difficult on the road?
It was more difficult in some areas, however, I was very surprised at just how many people are vegetarian or vegan in the world! I had to learn the local language words for vegetarian, no meat, no fish and no eggs. TripAdvisor is a good resource for finding out vegetarian options in any country. I never went hungry but I did lose a lot of weight along the way (not a bad thing some may say!).
How often did you have "me" time and how important was it?
If you are travelling alone, be prepared to spend a lot of time alone. I am quite an independent person. I love meeting new people but I value my alone time also. This is why independent travel appeals to me more than group travel as I dislike the idea of being constrained when travelling.
How much time you spend alone is dependent on you. When staying in hostels or going on excursions, there will always be people around so you could essentially spend all your time just socializing. All of that is wonderful, but sometimes, if you're like me, you just need to get away every few weeks and have a moment. A moment when I want my own room with my own shower, hibernate, write my journal, read, reflect, people watch and not talk to anyone.
"I also had the most wonderful guide who just kept me going. He talked, laughed and even sang to me to motivate me to keep going... Having a good guide that you get on with is essential so choose a company very carefully as that could be the difference between having an enjoyable (Kilimanjaro) trip or not."
How was your experience climbing Kilimanjaro overall and what tips do you have for someone tackling it for the first time?
My first tip is to exercise before setting off. Kilimanjaro was my first hike ever and my preparation, which I wouldn't recommend to anyone, involved, for sheer lack of time, breaking into my hiking boots by walking up and down the hill in the park behind my house a few times over a couple of weeks. I'm well aware that this was terrible and incredibly risky as most sensible people attempt a couple of local hikes beforehand, but I simply didn't have time. I will confess that I didn't tell anyone this before attempting the climb as I would've been very embarrassed had I not summited "Kili"!
Kilimanjaro, the "Roof of Africa", coming in at 5,895m high, is not the highest on the world scale, but still pretty special. My experience overall was positive. I totally loved it and would recommend it to everybody. It is very possible to reach the top without any mountaineering experience and an average fitness level. As with many things, it's as much to do with the mind as with physical capability. There are many routes you can take and I would recommend reading up on them all so you are aware. I did the Machame route, and this is the one I would recommend to a first timer. Reasons being that it is scenic, starts in beautiful Moshi in Tanzania (where I have family), has a very good success rate, and is achievable in 6 days (routes vary from 5 to 8 days I think, perhaps longer). Machame's success rate is down to the fact that it involves climbing high and sleeping low, thus allowing you to get used to the altitude. Altitude is the one thing that will make summiting difficult/impossible for some. I suffered with constant nausea on day 4 and light headedness.
There were times when I wanted to turn back, but then I can be quite stubborn when I set my mind to something, which helped in this instance! I also had the most wonderful guide who just kept me going. He talked, laughed and even sang to me to motivate me to keep going. He was a saviour. I did tip him generously when I came back triumphant! Having a good guide that you get on with is essential so choose a company very carefully as that could be the difference between having an enjoyable trip or not. One last thing, pack some altitude sickness tabs if this is your first time at higher altitudes!