The Essential Skills You Need to Be a World Traveler
So, you've quit that job you were really good at to go travel for a few months or years -- or you're dreaming about it. First of all, congrats. Realizing the world is amazing and that you should go see it is a big first step, one that a surprising number of people never take.
Before you buy your plane ticket, though, consider the possibility that you are not ready. Maybe you've been working for the past 10 years as, say, an event planner. Or an optometrist. Or a mortician. While you were throwing parties or testing eyesight or preserving the dead, you were neglecting a lot of skills you're going to want to rely on as you head into the unknown. For instance: you gotta be able to take a dump anywhere. And you probably haven't been switching things up much in that department. After all, why would you? It's not your fault the funeral home had a perfectly functional bathroom.
As we specialize in our careers, the skills we need for world travel tend to lie dormant. The good news is, you can resurrect and sharpen them -- a great way, also, to get to know some forgotten parts of your character. So before you quit that job you do so well, consider polishing the following superpowers.
20. Dealing with unwanted attentionIn China and India -- and a bunch of other places, but for sure in China and India -- outsiders are stared at relentlessly by local men, women, children, everyone. Some people may try to take pictures with or of you, simply because they've never seen anybody with a different skin color. This can feel like a curious, friendly kind of attention; other times it's less pleasant. In Papua New Guinea, locals may even approach visitors to touch their hair and skin. Rolling with this can prove difficult for travelers who aren't used to it, and for sensitive types, it can be overwhelming. To prepare for this gentle scrutiny from strangers, consider taking an acting class or attending a cuddle party. And perfect your smile and peace sign for the photos.
19. Doing math and negotiatingIf you go to Morocco, for example, without a basic background in math or business, you will accidentally purchase many, many rugs. How will this happen? Firstly, you will not be able to calculate how many Moroccan dirhams are in a dollar. Then you won't be a good haggler. Then you'll drink so much of the free tea that you'll feel obligated to buy at least a few rugs. Even one rug is too many! Do not buy a rug in Morocco. Instead, study for the math part of the GRE and read up on how to negotiate in business and in life.
18. Crying on commandWhen you travel, it's a given that at some point you will do something idiotic. Once I accidentally booked Inca Rail tickets from Cusco to Aguas Calientes for the wrong day. My friend and I didn't figure it out until we tried to board the train and were denied. Basically our entire schedule depended on us being on the train I hadn't booked. In that moment, I tapped a long-lost ability that I acquired growing up with brothers so that I could get them in trouble -- crying on command. It worked. The train attendant took pity on us and our trip wasn't ruined. Men will likely feel less comfortable with this skill, so for them I recommend an alternate tactic for overcoming idiocy: sneaking into places.
17. Sneaking into placesOn the same trip that I bought train tickets for the wrong day, I also arrived at Machu Picchu thinking I could buy tickets for the park at the entrance. Nope. (Sometimes a lot of idiocy can take place all on one trip.) My friend and I were faced with returning to the bottom of the mountain on a long bus ride, getting back in absurdly long lines, and sacrificing our entire day. Instead, we just walked right into Machu Picchu with no tickets. Nobody cared.
For the record: I'm not saying you should purposefully avoid paying for national parks and such. But when you are faced with missing out or sneaking in, be ready. You can practice at home -- for example, try getting on the plane when the flight attendant only calls group one but you're group two. Or hopping the fence to a sold-out concert. Confidence is everything.
16. Reading a mapI've heard this helps people get around, but honestly, I've never been good at it and I've found that failing to read maps correctly is an even better skill. Getting lost while traveling means you talk to strangers and stumble upon unexpected things. Ultimately, though, you should consider ways to un-lose yourself, especially when GPS isn't an option.
15. Talking to strangersThis suggestion comes via Thomas Swick, a travel writer extraordinaire who just put out a new book, The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. Tom has noticed that at home we tend to communicate with people who are like us (which social media only reinforces). "Traveling, we meet people whose lives are very different from our own -- culturally, spiritually, often economically," Tom says. In addition to curiosity, travelers need knowledge of the place to have intelligent conversations, which comes from pre-trip research. You also need empathy: "an ability to transcend your limited experience and gain some understanding of the lives of others." Tom remembers visiting Vietnam in 1994 and being "adopted" by a professor and his wife there, based on an ability to communicate. "They told me stories about the war and fed me -- the former enemy -- royally," he says.
14. Hiding contrabandIf you have a terrible job that leads you to partake regularly in mind-altering substances, you might already be good at this. But when you travel abroad, the stakes are often higher (remember the guy who committed suicide in Taiwan rather than go to prison for growing pot?). The sad fact is that in many otherwise worthwhile countries, drugs and alcohol are outlawed entirely. A former Pan Am flight attendant I know shared a fantastic way around this -- her co-workers used to inject oranges with vodka when traveling in Arab countries.
13. Knowing how (and when) to offer a bribeRecently my boyfriend and I were driving in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and I climbed into the back of the car to find something to eat. A cop saw and immediately pulled us over, claiming I had broken the law (no seat belt) and I would need to go to court and pay a fine. Sensing that the cop really just wanted a bribe, my boyfriend asked if we could pay now, and how much it would cost. Then he took $3 worth of Tanzanian shillings out of his wallet. "Is this good enough?" he asked. It was. Every situation is different -- in some places a bribe may be futile, or considered disrespectful (to say nothing of criminality). So the best way to prepare is to read up on the country you're visiting, talk to other travelers, and practice on friends.
12. Riding a scooter, motorbike, or bicycleIn a lot of the world, these are the most common forms of transportation, and in a total coincidence, they are also the best for taking in a new city and experiencing all the sounds, smells, and tastes you'd miss behind windows. As a bonus, riding fast may allow you to catch up to people on the move. A traveling friend recently took off on a bike after a bunch of Cirque du Soleil athletes in rainy London and later ended up dancing with them to soul music after one of their performances. Be nimble, be quick, ride cheap.
11. Driving a stickThis fading art form is vital when traveling around countries where cars have manual transmissions -- which are most of 'em. Even in places where automatic is common, you can save yourself a few bucks if you rent a stick shift instead. I heard a story of a woman who arrived in Sweden and picked up her rental only to learn that manual transmissions were the only cars available. She taught herself to drive stick on YouTube because there was no other option. Avoid this fate. Take lessons ahead of time.
10. Eating whatever is put in front of youOne of the great joys of travel is eating weird stuff and surviving, be it guinea pigs in Peru, tarantulas in Cambodia, or a grasshopper taco in Mexico. I once drank the still-beating heart of a snake in Vietnam, which supposedly was good for my health. Friends, I haven't gotten seriously ill since. Some people have weaker stomachs than others, and that's a challenge. But in my experience, the more adventurous things I put in my mouth, the more my stomach gets used to surprises. Train early and often.
9. MacGyveringA few months ago, someone stepped on the back of my flip-flop in Montreal and broke the strap. I didn't feel like derailing my trip to look for new shoes; instead I walked barefoot for a while. Eventually I wandered into an engineering building on the McGill University campus and found a stapler. Fixed. Two months later I was still wearing those shoes in the Virgin Islands, definitely a win for DIY gear surgery. Repair your own stuff, and you'll have more time and money for your trip. Same goes for electronics, backpacks, fingers, etc. Look around on the internet for fast fixes when this stuff breaks, or invent new ones -- a knack you can hone in your everyday life.
8. Photography/journaling/sketchingIn addition to, you know, documenting your trip, shooting photos or writing or drawing makes you all the more interesting and approachable. Try sitting in a café and drawing the most recognized landmark from whatever country you're in. See how long it takes someone to saunter up and say, "Hey, would you mind drawing me wearing this -- and only this?" Just like Titanic, except you'll probably survive.
7. First-aiding yourselfNothing's sadder than a sick or injured traveler with no supplies and no knowledge. Do yourself a favor for travel (and life, really) and take some first-aid lessons or even a survival course. So much of it comes in handy when you or a friend tumbles backwards off a rope swing in Guatemala and the nearest (crappy) hospital is 10 hours away. You'll even learn cool tricks, e.g., blister threading, which involves running string through a blister to drain it overnight.
6. Learning languagesYou don't need to have taken nine years of Portuguese to thrive in Brazil. These days, apps like Duolingo give you a fun and easy way to learn the basics of a new language, and you can even practice whatever language you're learning for free on Skype with people from anywhere in the world. When all else fails, default to the universal language of charades, which you can easily develop with friends while drinking on the weekends.
5. Making music (or dancing)Travelers have a thing for musical interludes, and you need to be ready for that. It might happen on a road trip when there's nothing good on the radio, or some night after dinner when karaoke shows up. What most people don't realize is that you don't actually have to sound good to impress people with music. Put in some hours doing karaoke, build your confidence, even add some dancing and absurd facial expressions -- get good at a couple of songs and sell 'em in the moment. Bonus points if you can play harmonica, strum a guitar, or blow the didgeridoo.
4. Sleeping anywhereLong rides on planes, trains, and buses become infinitely more desirable when you can use them to catch a few winks. How does one practice to be a better sleeper? Entire websites are dedicated to this; here's one from Harvard. Basically, just try to get some exercise every day and don't go overboard with caffeine or other stimulants while on the move. A well-rested traveler is a sexy traveler.
3. Ubiquitous poopingAre you a nervous sort, who needs a locked door or the comfort of home to drop the kids off? Please work on this. In many countries around the world, the idea of a bathroom is vastly different than what you are used to. Toilet paper may not exist. Stalls may not exist. Traveling around much of Asia or Africa can resemble back-country camping, where you'll find yourself sans toilet, with only holes in the ground to squat over it. Buy yourself a Squatty Potty and train in advance. Bonus: your quads (and your colon) will be healthier.
2. Playing soccerClose your eyes and put your finger on a globe. Unless you hit ocean, chances are you've landed on a place where people love soccer. There's no faster way to win friends than to join a game, so having some foot coordination is basically an international currency. Do what you can to develop skills -- adult-league teams are accustomed to newbies -- but realize that it takes years to get fluent in this sport. Your plan B on this count: just be able discuss the World Cup.
1. PatienceWhen you travel widely, things go wrong. Stuff takes longer than it should. People aren't necessarily in a rush to help meet your needs. You got this far down the list, so you might already possess this most vital travel skill: patience, without which you can go insane. For those many, many slow moments, bringing a book helps. A sketchpad, same. Start a conversation with someone who's also waiting, or observe your surroundings and learn something. Training for this one is a lifelong pursuit. At least you can practice on family members, significant others, or the next time you have to get your driver's license renewed.
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