When you start out on your first, long, independent trip to somewhere like India or South East Asia, everything is new, refreshing and intense. You’re overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds, the tastes and, particularly, the smells. You’re apprehensive about getting lost, getting around, getting sick, getting lonely, getting scammed. You’re a ‘nervous traveler.’
Commonplace, everyday occurrences suddenly become novel, exotic experiences. Simple things like choosing dishes from a menu in a foreign language, getting used to the local currency, or trying to find your way in a strange city. In Mumbai, India, not only could I not decipher the destination on the front of the buses, I couldn’t even read the numbers.
At first you rush around, trying to see as much as possible, and you’re very dependent on your guidebook. You’re uncomfortable about bargaining, partly through lack of experience, but also because you can’t believe how cheap everything is. And you tend to be mistrustful of apparently helpful locals, since you’re never quite sure if they’re trying to rip you off…
Then, after a few weeks, you relax a little. You pick up useful tips from other, more experienced travellers in the backpacker hostels. You learn a few phrases and pleasantries in the local language, even managing to pronounce them correctly. Some of your minor successes include buying bus or rail tickets, finding rooms in hotels that weren’t in the guide book, choosing interesting local restaurants by looking at the menu or by seeing how busy they were. It’s still a chore trying to negotiate with Delhi taxi drivers to get a fare reasonably close to the ‘local price’, but at least you can now sit in the front seat without flinching at every near miss with other traffic. The day to day aspects of travelling are slowly becoming routine.
When you’ve been travelling for more than about six months, you begin to understand the ephemeral and uncertain nature of travel: buses and trains get delayed or cancelled, the hostel recommended by other travellers is full, you suddenly decide to take a side trip to a town that’s five hundred kilometres off your planned route…