In reality, it’s no wonder that the word “travel” is derived from the French word travail meaning “to work hard, to toil.” While we may occasionally indulge in beachside cocktails here and there, our days are typically filled with on-the-fly problem solving in ever-changing contexts: finding decent places to sleep, negotiating safe transport, and keeping ourselves well and well-fed so that we may focus on understanding the places we visit and the people we meet.
But this makes independent travel sound like something of an exercise in endurance. Much more than that, it facilitates the development and sharpening of a rather specific set of life skills that not only come in handy on the road but also translate in the real world (you know, the place where tiki torches are replaced by fluorescent track lights).
In no particular order:
1. Seek First to Adapt, Then to Complain (a.k.a., Adaptability) – Living outside your comfort zone becomes the norm on the road. New environments provide different challenges; what worked in the last country may not work in the next. All that stuff you became accustomed to just last week? Forget about it. Independent travel forces you to continually size up each situation and adapt accordingly. Your resulting experience depends on it. Sometimes your life may, too.
We’re reminded of: When we (two American non-Muslims) were presented with a steaming bowl of goat bits at a feast to break the Ramadan fast in Kyrgyzstan, we joined in by reluctantly chewing on a jaw bone.
2. Plan With Multiple Outcomes in Mind (a.k.a, Planning) – Determine which variables are most important to you (e.g., comfort, cost, risk, time), do your planning, and optimize accordingly. In doing so, you create not only Plans A and B, but also Plans C and D, too. In the end, circumstances force you to a hastily crafted Plan E, which you later realize may have been the best plan all along.
We’re reminded of: When a Chinese train station attendant informs us that the train no longer runs to our next destination, we don’t force it. We find another one…and stumble upon a Tibetan opera festival.
3. Work a way in. Leave a way out. (a.k.a., Problem Solving) – Independent travel presents myriad problems to solve, from the mundane (how to find your way to the bus station) to the critical (whether taking that bus will present personal danger). Strikes close transport routes, hotels fill up, and conflicting information confounds. The constant challenge: work your way into the circumstances you want, while continuously leaving room for an exit strategy should the ground shift under your feet.
We’re reminded of: When the land border crossing from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan engulfed us in a sea of humanity. We used not only our physical strength but also our wit to find a way out, barely.
4. Find the Common Ground (a.k.a., Negotiation and Compromise) – As in life, fruitful travel experiences depend often on seeking an outcome where all involved are reasonably satisfied and feel that they have been respected in the process. And we are not just talking about agreeing on the right price for your hotel room or compromising with your travel buddies about which bar to go to. Win-win relates to the larger issues of negotiating common space where prevailing cultural norms and standards may be at odds with your own.
We’re reminded of: In the hills of Svaneti, Georgia, our host family shares their emotions, we share their sorrow. Then we find a graceful exit.
5. Tune In, Filter Often (a.k.a., Observation and Perception) – Seek out the signal while filtering out the noise, particularly in order to fully appreciate what it is that you’ve come to see: the culture, the people, the country. And while you keep your eyes wide open to all that is new around you, also keep in mind that wide-eyed perception is well-served when paired with a finely-tuned bullshit detector.
We’re reminded of: In the middle of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, two Tajik soldiers train their Kalashnikov rifles on us and ask for our documents. We formulate an excuse to return to the view of our driver and jeep.
6. Have Less, Do More (a.k.a., Resourcefulness) – Develop an ability to very quickly uncover relevant sources, glean meaningful data and assimilate it. Information can be found everywhere – from local people on the street to other travelers to quick searches on the internet. But the trick to finding the golden nuggets: remain open to the right people while sifting out the shills and the under-informed.
We’re reminded of: Our goal: hiking in Nepal’s Himalayas without breaking the bank. We were astounded by the prices we were quoted initially (in the $1000s of dollars) for this trip-of-a-lifetime trek for which we eventually paid about $500. How? We performed some online and on-the-ground research, talked to everyone we met who completed the trek, and triangulated our data. The result: we took the same trek as supermodel Gemma Ward.
7. Find a Common Language, Create One if You Must (a.k.a., Communication) – Interacting with people is arguably the most rewarding part of travel. It can also be the most exhausting. Having to frequently adjust to different cultures and languages takes both skill and energy. Leverage your non-verbal and verbal communication skills in order to build bridges of trust and worthwhile relationships.
We’re reminded of: Breaking down language barriers in China’s poorest province through non-verbal communication and enjoying lunch with locals.
Should a prospective client or employer ever ask “What good have all your travels done for you?” you’ll be able to connect the dots between your travel experiences and your personal and professional growth.
And think: this list is simply the beginning. After all, we couldn’t really have called it “Top Ten Habits,” could we? It just wouldn’t have had the same ring.
Thanks to Stephen Covey for his original 7 Habits, and for helping us to keep our lists short.