Backpacker spotting

So let’s play a game called backpacker spotting! They’re very easy to spot in major cities and hippie havens in most travel countries.  Easy clues are that they’re carrying a backpack but there’s also a subculture associated with it and with every culture, there’s a certain way that people talk and dress to show that they are “hardcore” backpackers.  I’m in no way bashing backpackers in any way, as I too rather carry a backpack than a suitcase any day but rather, this is based on observations and meeting some of the nicest people backpacking.

There are also some more subtle clues of a backpacker that I’m sure we’ve all encountered here and there:

  1. fisherman/parachute/linen pants
  2. dreads
  3. scruffy beard and scraggly hair
  4. leather or string bracelets/necklaces/anklets
  5. tanned
  6. either neutral or colourfully-patterned clothing (either ends of the extreme)
  7. Birkenstocks or Merrell shoes
  8. bandanas around their neck or on their head for guys and handkerchiefs/scarves for girls
  9. constantly dirty feet (not smelly but black bottomed)
  10. hanging around train/bus stations or hostels
  11. travel book in hand or readily available
  12. have either a DSLR camera or a lomography camera (again another extreme)
  13. and finally, a thin layer of grime/dirt that covers their skin all the time (even after showering)

If you have any more clues, please feel free to add in the comments section.  So go out there and find your own backpackers and chat them up because they can be the nicest people you’ll ever meet!

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Tips for women travelling alone

Simon's Town, South Africa

Simon’s Town, South Africa

Hey ladies, thinking about travelling solo? First things first, just smile and pretend to agree with all the naysayers who say it’s way too dangerous to travel alone. Next, check out some tips below for women thinking about travelling alone. Trust me, after 3 trips in 1st and 3rd world countries, the boogeyman hiding under your bed is scarier than travelling alone.

  • Be smart! Can’t stress this enough people! Yes, we all want to have fun and enjoy everything that independent travel has to offer. But does that mean walking down a dark alley all by yourself in the middle of the night in a sketchy part of town? If you answered yes, please find the nearest adult and ask them to be your travel buddy.
  • Ask locals where the sketchy parts of town are and try to avoid those at night time if you’re alone.
  • Make friends with other travellers! Especially other solo women. On every one of my trips, I’ve made instant friendships with other females travelling alone (yes, there are more than one of us out there!) and ended up travelling for a bit with them. We understand each other and can even swap hilarious pick-up stories. Did you hear the one about the guy who mooned me on the back of a truck in South Africa and then promptly asked for my hand in marriage?
  • Go out in groups. Chat up your bunk mates and fellow travellers and see where they’re headed. Yes, it’s awkward at first to invite yourself but unless they’re part of a secret organization or undercover narcs, most travellers have the same motto, the more the merrier!
  • Be polite even if someone is nagging or bothering you. You will encounter a lot of touts trying to sell you things, would-be admirers, and expert cat callers (being Asian, I often get “konichiwa!” or “ni hao!”. I even got a “Fukushima!” once, mind you this was around the time of the Japanese earthquake in 2011). Instead of escalating the situation and telling them to f-off, just ignore them or smile and move along. I usually just get a laugh out of the crazy English sayings that people come up with!
  • Avoid telling complete strangers that you’re travelling alone, you’re single, or where you’re staying. We all want to make instant friendships and have the local experience, but if you just met this shady-looking guy on the street, volunteering to him a rundown of your relationship status and where he can find you naked in the shower later may not be the best idea.
  • Stay in accommodation that’s safe. Whether you’re staying at a grungy hostel or a quaint guest house, make sure that it’s safe and secure. This means that the doors lock and no one can climb into your room if you’re near the ground floor. It may not be as cheap as the $5 per night shack that’s a little easier on your budget, but your belongings and your safety are worth much, much more. If you are stuck at a seedy place for the night, make your own safety. Whether that’s pushing furniture against the door to keep it shut (which I had to do in Bali) or keeping your important belongings under your pillow (sleep sacs and money belts are great for this!), do whatever makes you feel safe and allows you to have a good night’s rest.
  • Avoid getting into sketchy transportation. We’ve all done it, gotten into the unmarked taxi/songthaew/matatu to save some $$$, but if you’re the only one in it and it’s midnight, maybe it’s a good idea to walk into the nearest classy-looking hotel and ask them to call you a taxi. A really good way is to arrange transportation through your hostel since they’re used to dealing with tourists. It may be a bit more expensive and they might rip you off, but at least you won’t get robbed. See, silver lining.

So that’s it, nothing mind-blowing, just common sense.  You may agree/disagree with this since I usually err on the side of caution but that doesn’t mean that I’m scared of everything or suspicious of everyone while travelling alone. I’m also not saying that following these tips will 100% guarantee you or your money back that you won’t get robbed: shit happens right? However, travelling is one the best ways to let your hair down and relax so don’t let the horror stories from home stop you from being that fierce, independent woman that you are (cue Destiny’s Child) and truly enjoy your adventure!

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Macgyver backpacking

You’ll find that there’s always a competition between backpackers on who can live the most scarcely while traveling.  And with this comes a fine art called “Macgyvering“.   Those people who find themselves jamming an Allen key into a piece of IKEA press-board out of frustration at home will all of a sudden be able to rig up intricate clothes lines, fix iPods and patch up backbacks while traveling.  All they usually need, and you should bring, is duct tape and rope.

  • Duct tape – this is the universal fixer of everything! Your camera’s battery cover is lose? Duct tape.  Your shoe is ripping? Duct tape.  Need to water proof your wallet? Duct tape.  This is also very handy in conjunction with the next item when taping up a clothes line.
  • Rope – used to hold up clothes, mosquito nets, pants if necessary.  I find that yellow plastic rope is the best since it is waterproof and very durable.  You won’t need much rope (enough to hang across a room so around 3 metres).
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How to spot Canadian backpackers

HABF02_2Let’s face it, we all need to entertain ourselves during 4 hour layovers, delayed buses, and chilling time on the beach/hostel/restaurant/anywhere you can sit for awhile! To kill some time, let’s see if you can spot a Canadian backpacker! And no, we don’t all say “eh?!” at the end of every other sentence.

Tell-tale signs of a travelling Canadian:

  1. Canadian flag sewn on the backpack. But watch out for those Americans who pretend by having the maple leaf on their bag. A good way to find out whether they’re from north or south of the border is to ask them what flavour poutine they like the best. If it’s anything else other than pure cheese curds and gravy, then they’re lying. Canadians are poutine purists.
  2. Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack and gear
  3. Roots, lululemon or Arc’teryx clothing
  4. Sports team clothing with any of the following teams: Canucks, Leafs, Habs/Canadiens, Sens/Senators, Oilers, Flames, Jets, Jays, Raptors, Lions, Argos/Argonauts, Stampeders, Eskimos, Ti-Cats/Tiger-Cats, Als/Alouettes, Roughriders, Blue Bombers, TFC, Whitecaps, Impact
  5. Saying “sorry” even if you bumped into them
  6. Zed, not zee
  7. The nicest people in the entire world!

What have you noticed about Canadian backpackers? Or what’s unique about backpackers from your home country? Post your comments below and let’s get a global backpacker spotting game started!

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Thinking about a solo backpacking mission?

Whenever I tell people that I’ve backpacked alone, the normal reaction is either “Good for you!” or “Are you crazy?!”. Travelling alone is not for everyone and it doesn’t mean that you’re more or less adventurous or selfish. It’s a matter of preference – similar to whether you like boxers or briefs, salad or fries as a side, or rom coms or blowup action movies (all the latter for me!). My first backpacking trip was with a travel buddy to Europe but after I felt comfortable with being new environments and gained some travel savvy-ness, I decided that my next trip would be a solo mission to South East Asia and this continued on my trip to Africa.

So here are some pros and cons with travelling alone. Some of my pros may be your cons so I suggest you make your own list and regardless or which way you go, you’ll end up having a great time as long as you open yourself up to experiencing new cultures and commit to having a memorable trip!

Pros

  1. You can be selfish. Feel like sleeping in all day? Go ahead! Rather go hiking instead of checking out a museum? Who’s stopping you? Travelling alone lets you decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You don’t have to compromise and whatever you want to accomplish on your trip is up to you. You don’t have to play with your friend the awkward mind game of “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions, whether good or bad.
  2. You’ll be more open to meeting new people. You don’t have a social crutch anymore. If you don’t want to eat alone, you’ll have to chat up that nice-looking Brit staying in your hostel. This is one of the main reasons why I travel alone. I get to meet other people like me and discover those instant best friends forever connections. Sure, there are times where you may just want to be alone, but you’ll find while travelling alone that if you make the first move and chat up your bunk mate or bus seat partner, almost everyone will be more than open to tell you all about their trip experience so far and where they’re headed next. After you get through the small talk chit chat, you may find that these people will become your trusted travel buddy or maybe just an interesting story to tell your friends back home. 
  3. Curious locals will want to talk to you. Once you pick pass the touts who are trying to sell you things or for the ladies, creepy guys that are picking you up, talking to locals is a great way to gain insights into the places you are visiting outside of the “tourist bubble”. This is especially true for solo female travellers. Locals will see you taking selfies and ask questions, maybe even have no shame asking very personal questions (“Are you married? Why aren’t you married?”). Just be nice, smile, answer whatever you feel comfortable with and ask them questions in return. This is the way I found out that certain Thai islands have a strong Rastafarian culture or that there’s a witch doctor in Tanzania who’s a pastor and can apparently cure heart diseases and diabetes.
  4. You will get preferential treatment. It may be a demoralizing situation but when you’re travelling alone, you will get special treatment from people who feel sorry for you. Hey, they can feel sorry for me all they want, I don’t mind as long as I get something out of it! In South Africa, it was the spacious front seat of a smelly, packed minibus, beside a friendly local driver, Rob, who told me all about his 7 kids and taught me phrases in Xhosa.

Cons

  1. Everything is divided by…1. The costs of your trip will be higher if you’re travelling alone simply because you can’t share the costs of  accommodation or taxi trips with anyone else. However, if you are good at #2 above (making friends), this will help bring down your costs. If you’re in an anti-social mood, look for shared accommodation in hostels or just take local transportation like everyone else to lower the drain on your wallet. 
  2. You’ll have to keep funny things to yourself until you can tell someone. Every time I meet someone new after being alone for awhile, I get a major case of verbal diarrhea. It’s just that I literally haven’t talked to anyone for awhile (talking to yourself doesn’t count, although you’ll start doing that after about 3 weeks of travelling alone. Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Right?) and have seen/experienced so much that I just need to tell someone. Travelling alone means you won’t have someone to confirm with that yes, those are blatant abortion ads plastered on lamp posts in Durban or laugh with you over the random child that was tossed in your lap for an 11 hour minibus ride to Tofo. Keeping a journal helps remember and get some of those funny moments out on paper. I still laugh reading through my journals because it brings me back to those exact moments.
  3. You have to be more aware. Travelling solo means that you don’t have someone else looking out for you, this doesn’t mean that you should be yelling “back off!” to anyone who comes within 2 feet of you but you will need to be more cautious (especially women). I’ve experienced some shady situations (getting dropped off the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or sleeping with my tiny Swiss Army knife under my pillow) but in the end, I’ve never been robbed or harmed while backpacking. This is because of a simple rule I made: I vowed never to put myself in any dangerous situation. This meant not going out by myself at night in a shady neighbourhood or getting so drunk at the bar that I couldn’t put myself to bed. Use your common sense, street smarts, buddy system, peripheral vision, instincts, whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
  4. It gets lonely. Even after all my trips, I still get home sick around the 4 week mark. It’s just human nature to miss creature comforts – your family, friends, your bed, etc. This coupled with being alone will give even the most optimistic people the case of the Mondays. How to prepare for this is to tell yourself that it’s totally fine to feel lonely, and instead of having a pity party for one where you’re the guest of honour, it’s your trip and you can do whatever you want. So eat your feelings with that tub of ice cream on the beach but remember to look around and take in your beautiful surroundings because when you’re back home in your tiny cubicle at work, the place where you rather be is on that beach eating a tub of salty tear-infused ice cream.

Obviously, there are many other reasons that I haven’t included so feel free to post them below. For those who rather travel with a buddy, you can check out TravBuddy, FindMeetGo or search the Thorn Tree travel forums for travel companions. Whether you decide to take the “table for one” route or make it an extended group hang with your closest friends, your trip is what you make out of it so go out there, chat up your neighbour and try to learn as many swear words in different languages as possible (we all know those are the first words we learn so don’t even try to deny it)!

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