In fairly recent years, the travelling-gap-year, in which one travels and manages to find oneself, has taken off. And I am by no means entirely scornful. Having conquered India, Australia, America, Canada, Malawi, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and most of Europe, I’m one of those pretentious idiots who thinks being in a far-away place is idyllic, romantic and will, ultimately, ‘change me’. Four years on from my textbook ‘gap yah’ (3 months in Australia, 5 months teaching in an Indian orphanage and 2 months working on farms in Canada) I am very glad I did it, but equally I don’t think it’s a necessary component of full-life. At 19, I thought I would get off the plane and become a different person. And I think herein lies the problem with the travelling bug: we all want escapology. Travelling provides the perfect opportunity to reinvent oneself and to escape the boredom of being ordinary, whatever your destination-of-choice may be.
It’s difficult, with such a range of holidaying experiences, to give any valuable advice about travel. If you’re going on holiday to lie on a bed or next to a pool for two weeks, learn to read, make sure you take your iPod charger and don’t let anyone you don’t absolutely trust put sun-cream on your back or you could end up with a glowing white penis etched into your burn. If you’re going away for a month or more and planning to stay in more than one bed, dear God don’t take a 23 kilo backpack. To be honest, if you only want to go Australia to get drunk and surf, you might as well take a suitcase with wheels; they actually have tarmac over there.
I took what was essentially a rucksack, containing a pair of white linen trousers I wore once or twice, two strappy tops and a pair of shorts that I wore till they were threadbare, a pair of heels I NEVER wore, Primark flip flops and a bag of toiletries. You absolutely need insect repellent containing deet (I know it’s bad for the environment but I don’t know how and I don’t care to find out; the environment is great but mosquitoes are not). The amount of Europeans I saw with backpacks bigger than them, stuffed with straighteners, hair dryers and numerous pairs of high heeled shoes, was laughable. You don’t need your straighteners, you’ll look windswept and epic. And if you’re only staying in each place one or two nights, you only need one or two dresses and one pair of sexy shoes. It seems like a good idea now – but when you’re carrying it all on your back for an hour while you walk to the nearest train station or bus stop, you’ll be cursing your beautiful poker-straight locks and wishing you’d believed me when I said curly is the new sexy.
Don’t be afraid to go it alone. You meet people – lots of people. Some amazing, some hugely irritating. What if that irritating person is the one you decided to go travelling with? Game over, my friend. You think you know them now, but wait till you’ve spent 3 months touring a beautiful continent listening to their constant whinges and moans about how hot they are, or how much they miss their other half, or how frizzy their hair has become since they last straightened it. You know yourself and you know when you’re hungry, tired, or just generally grumpy. Bite the bullet and be brave – because the hardest bit is walking away from your family at the airport, and after that it’s a doddle.
Films like ‘Taken’ have made young women panic about the idea of doing something alone – but people make stupid decisions every day in Britain and sex trafficking takes place under our noses. Don’t take stupid risks, don’t accept drinks or ‘special cake’ from strangers and get a cab number from every hostel you stay in before you head out. Saying that, I didn’t go out clubbing that much, even in Australia. Why spend all that money to travel across the globe if you’re going to do exactly what you’d do in England, blow most of your money on booze and waste your time feeling horrifically hung-over and wondering if you used a condom? Go on trips, make friends and then go out for a nice boogie with them – obviously those people could be sex traffickers but trust your instincts. Most people aren’t sex traffickers.
In hindsight, I wish I’d used the internet less. I probably checked Facebook every couple of days, one way or another, and it just made me miss home more. Live and be where you are, because soon enough you’ll be back and dreaming of the skies again. Think seriously about whether it’s worth staying with your boyfriend or girlfriend while you are away. I’m not an absolute cynic but the likelihood of you marrying them is slim and I know from experience that your heart can never be in the place where you are if you’ve left it with someone else. But equally if you do stay with them, don’t be embarrassed to mention your partner early on when talking to someone of the opposite sex in a bar, or you may end up in an awkward situation where you’ve been enjoying a harmless flirt and then too much time has passed to slip your boyfriend into conversation and you feel obliged to accompany some bloke for a nightcap at his house and look at his new ribcage tattoo listing the seven deadly sins opposite the seven virtues, which haven’t yet been written and which he doesn’t actually know, before being driven home at 4am, near-missing lampposts, by the completely wasted rejectee…
But that’s a very unlikely situation which, of course, I have never been in.
So travelling. Do it, or don’t do it. No-one will really care either way.