A Little Education… How I Homeschooled My Niece From Asia

baby elephant laos
Ana met a mother elephant and her tiny two month old baby elephant in Laos.

One of the tenets I live by is that life-long learning is something worthy of not only practicing, but of instilling a love of in others. And a love of learning was a core element I wanted my niece Ana to walk away with when she left my company after I homeschooled her throughout Southeast Asia.

And though I no longer homeschool my niece from the road, that adventure into a slightly non-mainstream choice made A Little Adrift (and me by default) a spokesperson of sorts for schooling on the road. One long-term traveler read my story and wanted to know how she could homeschool her little brother; a mom from Colorado was stressed by the dearth of information and wondered how I tackled the feat of figuring out curriculum. Dozens of others tell me they’re inspired to create their own niece/nephew project, if only they knew where to start. The sheer volume of email I get from others intrigued by the possibility of taking their kids out of school to travel surprised me, and it motivated me to share the nitty-gritties of that side of my travels.

And since my way was to essentially just school on the road (we followed the same type of teaching style mirrored in US public schools), I created a master traveling while schooling resource page with tons of links and alternative options—from homeschooling to unschooling and everything in between. This post lays out why and how we did, with the resources page providing alternatives for your research.

If this topic doesn’t interest you, why not read this post instead, it’s an oldie but a goodie and filled with pretty travel photos. Otherwise, onward!

Traveling with my niece Ana for six and a half months is one of those travel experiences I look back on as life-changing for us both. Though I had traveled solo for three years, life presented me with this amazing opportunity to take a then 11-year-old child and show her my version of the world. To share with her my style of local-level travel, to expose her to new languages, religions and cultures, and to learn from her as well—to learn over those months how to keep child-like joy and wonder.

It wasn’t always easy. Okay, it was very difficult for us both in the early days. Our travels meant re-prioritize my previously solo travels, and my life, so that I could take my niece on a journey while maintaining a learning atmosphere. And for her it meant leaving behind her friends and missing out on the 6th grade and her transition year into middle school. And through it all, it meant us both taking a step into a style of education that neither of us had ever experienced. I attended public school and it was always assumed Ana was on that same path. But circumstances changed, and my family and I jumped at the chance for Ana to travel with me, even if that meant leaping headfirst into uncharted territory: homeschooling.

jumping angkor wat
In the months leading up to our trip, when I pulled her out of traditional school and took on the responsibility for her education, I read heaps of books, watched documentaries, and emailed homeschool bloggers. I read about homeschooling, unschooling, and the methodologies behind each. I read books from former teachers and books about how people learn, all with the fear that one wrong move would ruin her chances college, life and a future. It was melodramatic stuff in the O’Donnell household for a while.

That being said, this wasn’t exactly a chore for me either! If you follow me on Twitter you know I often talk about our US education system. And last year I shared a huge resource of free ways to learn almost anything. I geek out on the topic. Add to that a close friend who braved the transition before me—while in college, I nannied for a family (who I now consider my family), and they pulled their children out of school in favor of homeschooling. With Joanne’s help and the research, I gained (rough) confidence that I could take my niece’s education on my shoulders.

Is it Affordable?

Laptop and smoothie time in Siem Reap, Cambodia as she had a treat while she did her schoolwork on our day off from exploring Angkor Wat.

Without fail, when I casually mention those months with Ana overseas I get a question about the costs, because other aunts, siblings, and parents always wonder if they’ll go broke considering traveling long-term with their kids. Budget is the number one question all travelers face, so I’ll start with that. Our situation is unique in that I have online consulting work I do from the road, which I have always used to afford my previous years of travel. With Ana, homeschooling actually only added some minor additional expenses—less than you’d think! The biggest expense isn’t education at all, it’s the travel itself. At this stage, the question you have to answer is if you can afford to travel, the education side does not have to cost much above that. Keep in mind too that after paying for the plane flights, traveling in less developed countries is truly not the equivalent to traveling the US for any length of time.

On the homeschooling front, we chose to take advantage of our state’s free online program (I get into that in the next section), and our core cost then became buying a small laptop for her to use on the road. Because she was just 11-years-old, we opted for one that did all the basics, but it wasn’t sophisticated, it just needed to work! We ended up with a Samsung that was about $400.

So, on the education front, we had just her laptop expense upfront, then the rest came down to what it costs to travel long-term, which is less than most people assume and there are heaps of families who have pulled their kids out of school for a year or two (or more!). Check out some of these posts for a quick look what a family travel budget means on the road:

If you’re looking at long-term travel, the homeschooling aspect does not have to add a huge expense. It’s doable, I promise.

How We Homeschooled

On our way to Bangkok, and Ana’s first train ride!

My ultimate education style with Ana can best be summarized as travel-led learning within a framework of the core traditional courses prescribed by international schooling standards. We focused on her education, but not solely in the “here memorize these facts” type of way. Instead, my goal was to teach my niece that curiosity is the root of education, that self-motivated curiosity will take her far beyond my “classroom” as she matures, that her life story is a series of choices, and that choice is a freedom and privilege that is not given equally to everyone in this world.

To make that theory more tangible, I’ll break down our education schedule over the six plus months we spent in Southeast Asia. Ana took five online classes through Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a free, state-run program for Florida residents that gives students access to virtual classrooms administered by registered state public school teachers. Many states have similar programs, you can check your state programs and options here at K12.com. Her five FLVS classes covered the most basic knowledge we wanted her to have at the end of her sixth grade year of school:

  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • English
  • Spanish (her choice)

These five classes are considered a full load by the state of Florida, but they took Ana about half the amount of time traditional students spend in school. This was my first experience with FLVS and we both generally liked that Ana could work at her own pace, and I was grateful to have her core curriculum planned out and taught—it was a bonus that we had no books or curriculum to carry, and the novels required for English were available on the Kindle.

In addition to FLVS, I integrated learning into the places we visited by adding country relevant books to her reading list. She wrote me essays about things we learned on the road, and she collected her experiences on her own travel site, A Little Adrift Jr, where she didn’t know it, but she practiced creative writing, storytelling, and she learned how to illustrate stories with her own photography. Each time she expressed an interest in something specific, I would then research ways to incorporate that aspect into our trip.

thai school kids
We visited a 7th grade class in Chiang Mai, Thailand to see what it was like!

I am a fan of formal learning, I think it rounds out interest-led learning and that’s partly why we went this route. With that in mind, FLVS was really perfect for us. Ana’s teachers accommodated our schedule (we were on a 12 hour time difference) and were understanding when we had flukes that prevented internet access. That was really one of the few obstacles to online classes, they are completely internet based and work was due on a weekly basis—we had to have a fast internet connection for at least two days every week. That was easy enough in Thailand, a lot harder in Laos, and impossible in Myanmar (which we knew ahead of time so we front-loaded her school work, warned her teachers, and took a full month off from the internet while we enjoyed Myanmar).

Also, she had her own laptop and a Kindle. The Kindle was invaluable at keeping her occupied on buses, trains, planes and when I had meetings or some such. And yes, I could have given her real books to read, but because she cruised through eight books in two months alone—the Percy Jackson series and the Hunger Games trilogy—it was so worth it not to carry those books in our bags.

Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We handmade our krathongs, little rafts to set free on the river in Chiang Mai during the Loy Krathong lantern festival.

And that was really it. The resource page goes into picking curriculum if you go that route, or going more world-led learning, but for us I needed a way to ensure she had a full year equivalent so that she could easily transition back into public school, and the online program did that perfectly. But it was only one part of our learning, because in making the travel experience engaging, I had to learn how to shift our activities to better include a child in the experience, that touches more on interest-led learning, which we spent the bulk of our time doing.

Other Lessons in Learning on the Road

My biggest lessons about teaching Ana beyond the classroom came from a friend, Naomi Duguid, who had traveled extensively through Asia with her children when they were young. When we first landed in Chiang Mai, I was overwhelmed by the realities of making the entire thing interesting beyond the first few weeks—we had nearly seven months of culture and history to fill and I feared she’d get bored and wish she could go home. Naomi talked me down from those fears and offered feedback that really grounded our travels. She suggested that I do two main things to keep Ana fascinated and interested in our travel experiences:

  • Keep her fingers busy doing things.
  • Find a common thread in our travels and task her with investigating it.

stencil class in Luang Prabang

Keep ‘Em Busy

weaving loom laos
Ana learned to use a huge loom in Laos.

To the first suggestion, she was so, so spot on. We visited many, many temples all over Southeast Asia, and while Ana found them visually appealing in the beginning, her interest waned somewhere around Buddhist temple visit number 126. So, there we are in Laos, and I can see I’ve lost her. She’s a good kid, so she went to these temples with me, but temple fatigue had set in, and the learning-fascination-wonder that I had dreamed would take root in her was flickering like a candle in the rain.

My first thought was, “Oh man, it’s going to be a long trip if she’s already burnt out on temples.” Which was patently unfair of me, since I remember my own temple fatigue set in around the eight week mark on my first trip to Southeast Asia. Taking Naomi’s advice, I hunted down a stencil making class in Luang Prabang. Ana had a personal lesson and a former monk handed Ana a full set of chisels and taught her the traditional techniques Monks use to make the stencils used to paint patterns on the temple walls.

Our next temple visit became a chance to look for these patterns and themes the monk had discussed.

In the subsequent weeks and months we learned how to die and weave silk, took a Thai cooking class, ran a 10K on Christmas, and learned how to make Burmese sugar candies. Each experience gave us a lens through which to view that culture or experience; it gave us a framework to discuss the new things we were learning but without the dry guide-book feel. She loved it all and the various classes gave us some neat souvenirs for her to mail home as well.

Find a Common Thread to Investigate

Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
Ana applies gold leaf to a Buddha in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Our temple visits in Myanmar had their own theme, we jointly tasked ourselves with finding as many Buddha positions as possible, and then researched what they all mean by asking locals. Buddha is pictured in various poses throughout his life, and each pose and hand position (called mudras) means something different. Our goal was to find and photograph a Buddha in every position. It took us months to find each one, and Ana was better than I at spotting the slight variances. It was a neat mission and it created a common thread; it gave her an activity and task for each temple visit and a focus beyond, “hey kid, look at that and be awed.”

Other threads we used to connect each place included beads; Ana was crafty and made bracelets for all the passing travelers we met, so each time we passed small markets we looked for interesting coins, beads, and other things to use in jewelry. That task got her talking with the locals, too! I gave her an allowance in local currency each week with the only rule being that she had to spend it on her own, with no help from me in communicating and bargaining. By the end of our months in Asia, she was a pro. :)

Appeal to Current Interests

When the Hunger Games craze seized us both in early January, I used some of the book’s core dystopian themes (government control, oppression, and a revolutionary society) to teach my niece about Myanmar’s modern history. Though a bit of a stretch at times, the conversations and questions had us both spending weeks digging into research about other revolutionaries in history, and about different governments and the core ideas behind communism, democracy, and theocracy.

Ana learned and understood the significance of us traveling freely throughout Myanmar. She pointed out the images of Aung San Suu Kyi that openly hung on vendor’s stalls in the country, and she understood that this signified a turning point in the country’s history. And the best part was, she willingly learned all of this history because she was keenly interested in Katniss’ trials and tribulations throughout the Hunger Games trilogy, and I found a way to relate interest to our upcoming travels in Burma.

Consider Volunteering

Service is a fundamental theme within my own travels and something Ana and I integrated into our time in Southeast Asia as well. Beyond curriculum, I wanted her to have access to other opportunities to grow as a person. Over our months in Asia, Ana and I supported social enterprises, volunteered teaching English in Laos and Thailand, and talked a lot about how we could be more responsible travelers. Traveling can grow your capacity for compassion; we integrated service and little projects over the months into each new place to foster this experience.

Allow Time for Play and Downtime Too

tiny dog
Teacup dogs are all the rage in Thailand.

There is a time and place for questioning and actively seeking learning experiences, but learning takes place in every moment and in ways I could never control. Ana and I often spent the last hours of the day at a local park kicking a ball around, reading in the grass, or playing with the many tiny dogs rocketing through the park. We integrated with the locals and took time to just enjoy the day. I’m sure if I pressed her I could make her actively realize the commonalities between parks near our home in Florida and the one in Chiang Mai. We could talk about the family interactions, the kissing couples under a tree. Instead, we played, she saw whatever she saw, and I allowed her downtime to assimilate and observe whatever she wanted and to play to her heart’s content.

Life on the road these past five years has challenged me, humbled me, and taught me more than I could ever have predicted when I first planned to travel long term back in 2008.

Travel itself is an education.

Learning never ends.

These are the lessons I wanted to inspire in Ana. Yes, we covered the basic maths and sciences, but beyond that I wanted to teach her how to take an interest and find out more. How to use a personal interest as a gateway to learning more.

I challenged her to look up anything and everything online. I gave her permission to ask any question that ever occurred to her.

I hope I ignited her curiosity and wonder for the world. My philosophy for that year became: anything tangible I might have missed teaching her can be taught at some point in the future as long as she has a lifelong interest in learning about the world.



That’s about the whole of our approach to learning that year! I homeschooled Ana through sixth grade and half of seventh grade, and she was 11 and 12 years old during our time together. Our second year included a lot more free-form learning in some subjects until I eventually re-enrolled her in public school for personal reasons. This is the approach we took for many reasons, including: our goals as a family, her need to re-enter public school, and the availability of a free online curriculum.

If you’re thinking about going this route yourself with your own niece, brother, sister, or child, please check out my Traveling Homeschool Resource page so you can learn more about other traveling parents and different approaches!

Cheers and thanks, this was a long one! :)


A Little Escape … Staying Present in the Power of Story

Old town Havana, Cuba
The streets of Old Town Havana in Cuba.

“Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you… Escape!

Cue dramatic music as a deep voice continues.

Escape! Designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure!”

I haven’t lost my mind, this is the opening sequence of an adventure radio drama from the 1940s that aired for seven years and captivated the attention of the nation. Each show opened with a seemingly inescapable situation, and listeners tuned in to follow 30 minutes of high-stakes, story-led drama. I stumbled on this show through a recent Radiolab podcast (I am not a happy runner and through Radiolab I escape that reality each week). In an instant, the announcer’s crackling voice in Escape‘s opening lines triggered images of wooden radios surrounded by eager, post-war families sitting on a cozy sofa and preparing for a happy-go-lucky journey into the imagination. The show hooked me. My imaginary family is a bit idyllic, and looks suspiciously like the Cleavers, but the premise of the show, escaping ordinary life, is as relevant now as then.

We escape into stories throughout each day, week, and year.

Over lunches and Facebook chats we follow the through-line of life in our co-workers and friends.

Television shows allow a weekly escape into the antics and dramas unfolding in the characters we follow.

My nightstand holds a pile books offering alternate realities, journeys into different lives and cultures.

In these small acts each day, we escape.

Pharping, a small village in the Kathmandu Valley.
Monasteries dot the hillside of Pharping, a small village in the Kathmandu Valley where I volunteered in 2009.

Yesterday, I read this lecture Neil Gaiman gave about the importance of reading and libraries. His eloquence on the subject of imagination speaks so clearly to what compelled me to download that radio drama, it’s the same reason I read a book a week, why I write: the escape into another world. He says,

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

I have asked myself a time or two why people follow my story, this blog, and blogs in general. As my feet beat a steady pace on the trail last week, I knew: it’s the escape. The opening lines of that old-time radio show made me think, “I want in on that world, that story, and that journey.” The very distance from familiar is what creates a compelling story. The high drama in Escape is a bit out of my purview—though dangling from a sheer cliff-face would take the stories up a notch if it did happen!—but my four walls are different from many, the choices I have made incomprehensible to some, the lives and cultures I meet on the road a fascinating departure from the water-cooler chatter.

wadi feynan
Abu Abdullah was quite the character as he taught us how to make traditional cardamom coffee in his tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

It’s these very elements that draw us into the stories surrounding us each day. This post is a bit of a meandering thought for me; it’s less about a particular instance on the road and more a reminder to look at the stories around us and how we consume them. I have filled my iPhone with episodes of this show, I am escaping each night into the life of Cheryl Strayed in her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (almost done!), and I am biding my time until I next leave for the new cultures and new stories on the road. We choose the stories we consume each day, and there are many options. From those opening notes of  Escape, it inspired me to share that presence of mind. To remind you, and me, to seek out the experiences, books, and stories that keep us growing and activate our imaginations.

If you’re keen to listen to Escape, it’s free and in the public domain on Archive.org. You can stream single episodes, or download in a bundle and add to your music player. It’s fun and makes a good soundtrack for a work commute or long flight!

And now, what are you reading or listening to that piques your interest and imagination?

Hpa-an, Burma

A Little Anecdote … Oh, For the Love of Roosters

My fan whirred across the room, a low noise blocking the erratic hum of passing cars—my neighbors on their way to work. I shed the last moments of sleep and I could have been in any room, anywhere in the world.

And yet, I was home.

My bed here in Florida is more comfortable than many I have slept in over the past nearly five years on the road, but as I woke, the quietude overtook my thoughts.

Sunrise on a farm in rural Thailand; Ana and I woke up early to for a 5K run and watched the landscape tinge pink in the morning light.

The sounds at home differ from the frenzy of life in other cities I have laid my head. Though I rise early and with great enthusiasm—I am one of those warily regarded by many as a “morning person”—yesterday morning I laid in bed and allowed my mind to transport me to the moments I have woken elsewhere in the world.

The image of a rooster flashed into my mind. Oh, the roosters. Five years on the road, five years I have shared spaces with these creatures and I haven’t yet come to terms with why no one ever told me roosters don’t crow at dawn. Or rather, they don’t only crow at dawn. They crow when it’s high noon on the other side of the world. Or at sunset. Or precisely when you decide to roll over and try to get a bit more sleep. If I had grown up on a farm I would have known this tidbit, but it wasn’t until I slept in the guesthouses of Southeast Asia that I first learned that much of the world lives alongside this noise.

Lots of kid and pet action
I happened upon this family (and their animals) on a day I got lost walking through the towns and rice paddies near Ubud, Bali.

I have been back in the states for the last three months and the longer I am home, the more my brain romanticizes this aspect of life on the road. You see, when there are roosters I know I am waking to a day that brings a culture apart from that of my youth, a language to challenge my mind, and the fun of the unknown. When I live in a new place, the mundane becomes the challenge for the day even in tasks as ordinary as hunting down a post office.

I am often asked what day-to-day life is like in developing countries. There are the fun things, like food and culture, that are easy to peg down, but travel goes deeper and the oddest memories surface at times, transporting me into past moments. Yesterday morning my mind wandered; in waking to near silence I realized how different minor moments in life are when you live somewhere else.

Traveling and the sound of roosters are forever linked in my head.

And this association stands even though the rooster is my nemesis. I’m a light sleeper and the moment the first rooster crows, my busy brain urges me to start my day. But a day rising to the sounds of roosters often means more. It means stepping outside the familiar at every step; even when I’ve been living somewhere for months (as I did in Thailand and Mexico), I wake with possibilities.

Baby chicks and their mom scattered around the village at Silico Creek, Panama.

One of my favorite memories of Thailand is the national anthem. Each day the Thai National Anthem is played at 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on the radio, television, and on loudspeakers in many public spaces (you can listen to it here). When I lived in Thailand, the National Anthem became a quiet anthem of my mornings. I would wake at 6:30 a.m. to write, my hot coffee and breakfast cooling as I lost myself in the solitude of rooster crows and the waking noises of my Thai neighbors. Then at the very moment the clock struck 8.00, the first chords of the morning national anthem jolted my subconscious to the present. An elementary school behind my apartment blared the anthem through their speakers and the tinny music floated into my apartment.

Hearing it made me happy. I felt a part of the community each morning and I counted on the ritual as a part of my day.

Finding a ritual is a core reason I travel slowly, the reason I love renting an apartment for weeks or months. Though I have not become that true “expat” in the sense that I live permanently in a new place, the slow travel gives me a chance to allow daily rituals to seep into my routines.

The sun had just risen and yet the vendors were nearly done with their daily ritual of buying/selling vegetables from the countryside at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.

In my Mexican apartment, instead of a national anthem I woke to the garbled voice of passing pickup trucks hawking their wares. Loudspeakers affixed to the roof of these trucks blared out their cyclical mantras:

“Gasolina,” sung the gas truck

Camarones frios,” promised another, offering me good deals on cold shrimp, shrimp without their heads, jumbo shrimp … each time the truck passed I imagined the voice as a Spanish-speaking Bubba from Forest Gump.

The trucks circled town every hour, and the army of roosters prancing around the family compound I called home raised their voices in agreement throughout the day. It was a constant noise and the background to my day.

Yesterday though, I woke in my room and rose from my bed—and my memories— just as the street calmed from the workday evacuation from the neighborhood. I brewed my coffee, turned on my laptop, and prepared to write.

In silence.

And I thought to my self: today, today I miss the roosters.

Later this week I’ll share a post with upcoming speaking dates, travel plans and general announcements as I am getting antsy over here to hit the road once again. 

A Little Discussion… Health and Travel Sickness in Long-term Travel

One of the scariest obstacles to international travel is often the health question. In my planning stages for my own round the world trip, I fretted over the health side of the equation because it was the big unknown. Staying healthy while traveling is a priority, but beyond vaccinating myself, stocking my medical kit, and buying really good travel insurance, the rest was out of my control. And I really like maintaining control. So how could I avoid getting sick on the road?

Alongside the common questions I’ve covered these past few months in my ongoing series about facing fears and obstacles to travel, the health and travel is a big fear for many world travelers. It crops up in many reader emails as pre-planning questions, but I have also wrestled with guilt from time to time because there is no promise of health when you travel. Over the years, several long-time readers emailed me about their health battles after setting out on their big trip overseas. And after 12+ years of travel, I have naturally faced down my own travel sickness.

Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
Though I was sick every day of our Myanmar trip, I wouldn’t trade those memories of traveling with my niece for all the world. :)

10 Practical Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling

1. Get Your Travel Vaccines

Vaccinations are an important part of staying healthy for all types of travel, but particularly for off-the-beaten path travel. All new travelers should visit their local health clinic. Your travel clinic will recommend vaccines specific needed for the regions you plan to visit. Even established travelers should remember that vaccines like typhoid and tetanus do eventually run out and you will need to revisit a clinic for additional vaccines. This is one of the number one ways that you can avoid getting sick—vaccines prevent you from falling sick to diseases that may be nearly entirely eradicated in the U.S., but that are still in full circulation in countries with less developed health and sanitation infrastructures. Over my more than decade of world travel, I have been vaccinated many times. I also oversaw my nieces vaccinations when she traveled with me through Southeast Asia for seven months.

Read Next: Travel Vaccines 101: Vaccinating for World Travel

2. Carry a Travel Medical Kit

While you can easily buy a travel medical kit to get you started, I recommend customizing it to meet your needs and adding a few things that are often lacking. Oral rehydration salts are a life-saver and you should start your trip with at least a few packets—you can restock while you travel. When you’re at the travel clinic for your travel vaccines, they should generally offer a prescription for a general antibiotic like Ciprofloxacin. Then be sure you have antihistamines and cough/zinc drops if you’re starting your trip in cold and flu season. Your travel clinic may also prescribe enough malaria medicine for the entire time you plan to travel within a region at high risk for contracting malaria.

Beyond these additions, your any baseline travel medical kit should include: Advil/Tylenol/Aleve, band-aids,  gauze, triple antibiotic ointment, small travel scissors, moleskin, alcohol wipes, burn cream, and more.

3. Buy Travel Insurance

I have only used my travel insurance a couple of times over the years, but I was very happy to have it when I got strep throat, and then another time when I had a respiratory infection. I highly recommend all travelers carry a solid insurance plan. Things included in the plan that are needed in long-term and international travel: medical care, medical evacuation (Medevac), theft on some belongings and electronics, trip cancellation coverage, and repatriation of remains. I use World Nomads or IMG Patriot and generally think one of these two are the best options I have found.

Read Next: How to Pick Travel Insurance for Long-Term Travel

4. Read and Research

Read up on the places you’re traveling, ask other travelers what precautions they took for the region, and learn what you need about your own health to keep you safe. Read How to Shit Around the World, which wins for the best title ever. It also unapologetically discusses everything you might need to know when sick on the road—the book never shies away from “eww” topics, and instead dispenses advice and life-saving information for staying healthy while traveling.

Download How to Shit Around the World on Kindle.

5. Take Physical Precautions

Your research should tell you the reasonable precautions to take; in many tropical regions mosquito bite prevention is important; consider Deet, malaria medicines, and/or a mosquito net as needed for your specific trip. Wash your hands a lot—more than you ever would back home.

6. Learn About Food Safety

Carry your own utensils (I carry this spork), and research the ways to spot good street food stalls and restaurants. My friend Jodi wrote the Food Traveler’s Handbook and it’s a great guide that not only helps you delve deeper into a place’s food culture, but she offers heaps of practical tips for food and eating safety.

7. Learn About Water Safety

Drinking water in developing countries is not always safe. But there are very effective precautions you can take. I used a SteriPen on the road (my full review here), and something like a LifeStraw could also be effective in ensuring that you’re never stuck without clean drinking water.

8. Stay Hydrated

Anything related to diarrhea and vomiting have severe dehydration side effects. International flights are also often very dehydrating if you allow dehydration to set it right at the start of a trip it can make you much more susceptible to getting sick while traveling.

Carry oral rehydration salts and drink electrolytes and minerals when you’re suffering from any bout of diarrhea or vomiting. Proper hydration may be the single thing that stops an illness from turning fatal before you can find medical help. Most outdoors stores (like REI, my favorite) sell oral rehydration salts to stock your medical kit before you leave. It’s also cheap to refill your supplies on the road in the more developed countries on your route (Thailand had them in every pharmacy; Laos did not).

9. Take Preventive Measures

Antibiotics wreak havoc on your system and kill all the good bacteria in your body alongside the bad. Take probiotic pills and eat yogurt, kefir, or other foods with live cultures not only during your course of antibiotics, but throughout any region where you’re battling intestinal issues—they really help keep you healthy while traveling. Also get enough sleep and eat healthy, which is tricky on the road but helps your recovery time when you do get sick!

10. Ask for Help When You Need It

This includes seeking medical help, asking locals to help when your condition is serious, and generally communicating. People are kind all over the world, and if you’re in a tough spot you need to let others know about your illness and let them help you find help. I’m not a doctor and so if I feel like things are out of control I have learned to immediately ask for help—between the humidity in tropical regions, risk of infection, and poor sanitation and healthcare, situations can deteriorate quickly. If  you think you’re seriously ill, don’t just self-diagnose on WebMD, go get help.

Bonus: Keep a Positive Attitude

I noted in the loneliness post that being sick on the road was the loneliest I have ever felt on the road, and maintaining a positive attitude after hugging a toilet for days is tough, but essential to helping you stay healthy and recover faster. You’re not alone and the rest of the traveler’s posting happy photos on Facebook don’t have  a secret recipe for health; all long-term travelers have battled sickness on the road.

Real Talk: Is Staying Healthy Even Possible?

While my travel planning resource page tackles many basic travel planning questions, it doesn’t factor in the emotional toll that health can take on you while traveling. I discussed fears of physical dangers earlier this summer, but the health topic is one I have thought about how to approach for many months.

At the most basic level, it’s more dangerous on your health to travel than stay home. And in the other fears I discussed, that was either not the case, or the risks were relatively equal. But with the type of travel I undertake—often to remote areas without medical access and with serious diseases still in circulation—I willingly put myself at more of a health risk than staying put in a place with quick and easy hospital access.

I state this so clearly out of respect for the adventurous travelers who have ventured out on trips and faced their own obstacles and stumbles. For the woman who emailed me for advice after she took off on her first trip to India, only to fly home weeks later with a persistent and lasting battle with giardia for more than ten months (she ended each email with the assertion she would resume her trip once better though!). And for others who emailed me saying they felt like they did something wrong because they got sick right away, or robbed on the first day of travel, or lonely on day two. You can do everything right to stay healthy while traveling, and still face travel sickness.

Travel is not always glamorous and though I believe it’s worth the trade-off, it’s best to have a healthy respect for the issues so you take the right precautions. First let’s look at a rundown of what I’ve faced since I left in 2008, perspectives on the long-term effect of travel on my health, and then a long list of tips and resources on how you can stay healthy while traveling and avoid getting sick.

My Travel Sickness Rundown

Shiva on the Ganges River
Shiva watching over the Ganges River–my first sight of  Rishikesh after battling food poisoning on the night train.

Leaving to travel, I had general health on my side—I ate a healthy vegetarian diet, hiked often, and had rarely faced serious illness. My only Achilles heel is a bizarre and varied list of allergies to things that bite/sting. Let’s look at the serious and not-so-serious things my immune system was up to over since 2008.

Serious Travel Illnesses

  • Dysentery: My most severe illness in my life; I likely acquired it from the fresh fruit smoothies rampant in Luang Prabang, Laos or from the fresh veggies I ate there as well. I described it in more depth here, but suffice to say it worsened so rapidly because of the nonexistent healthcare infrastructure in the country, and the fact that I was in a remote region when I realized it wasn’t just a casual bout of traveler’s diarrhea. Hydration was the key to overcoming this serious travel illness, and it’s the only reason I lived through it (hydration and charcoal tablets to be precise).
  • Food poisoning: My run-in with food poisoning was complements of a lukewarm plate of vegetables from a street stall in McLeod Ganj, India in 2009. The illness struck hours later and lasted throughout my overnight train; I spent the dark dawn hours balanced over the open hole in the train bathroom depositing my dinner onto the whooshing train tracks as we sped toward Rishikesh. It was awesome.
  • Travel Sickness: The day before my flight home from Rwanda to Los Angeles, I got very sick. I was traveling with a friend and we had eaten all of the same food, so I am not sure what prompted my three days of diarrhea and vomiting. I started a course of cipro the third day and it went away. Suffice to say though, it was a rough two days of flights home.
  • Allergic reaction: I don’t know what caused my severe allergic reaction in Belize in 2010, but I found myself covered in hives and my throat started closing. The local doctor then poked my arms/hands so many times trying to find a vein for the shot that I passed out; when I woke up he had managed it with a jab to the buttocks. 12+ hours later, with my symptoms still serious and since I didn’t know what was causing the allergic reaction, I left Belize and all returned to normal.
  • Giardia: My second most severe travel sickness was also contracted in Laos; it took effect on my birthday in 2011. I thought I had food poisoning at my birthday dinner with friends in Thailand, but weeks later, as Ana and I traveled through Myanmar, I realized I had some hallmark symptoms of giardia, which include really lovely sulfur burps. I could not find the medicine for giardia, metronidazole, while in Myanmar so I waited it out for three more weeks until I returned to Thailand. At that point the Thai doctors had a conniption fit over my severe weight loss and ran heaps of tests and offered heaps of medicine before they would call me “fixed.”
  • Motorbike accident: I crashed my motorbike on a bridge in Laos and sustained a good deal of road-rash as well as a serious muffler burn on my ankle that sent me into shock. Luang Prabang has a very basic hospital now that bandaged me up and sent me on my way. I wrote a bit here more about the danger of traffic accidents and travel.
  • Worms: There is every chance that I carried worms for a year before I figured out why I couldn’t gain the weight back from my bout with giardia. It was my friends Bessie and Kyle, who had lived in Myanmar, who pointed out that I sounded like I was still carrying worms/parasites. Good call; I was.

Not-So-Serious Travel Sicknesses

  • Allergic reaction:  After hiking around Croatia’s beautiful national parks and sustaining a tick bite, I found myself with hives and bumps that would not respond to Benadryl—after pantomiming with a pharmacist in Bosnia who spoke no English, she gave me an amazing wonder-cream I still use to this day.
  • Laryngitis: It was November 2008, mere weeks into my round the world trip, and my Florida-girl sensibilities couldn’t handle the biting cold of Australia’s south coast. I completely lost my voice for five days after losing my week-long battle with a hellacious cold.
  • Head lice: Not a travel sickness per se, but not ideal thanks to a suspect hostel in Melbourne, Australia.
  • Scabies: A delightful gift from what I thought was a nice guesthouse in Guatemala. Words cannot express how awful and itchy scabies is. On the funny side, I baffled the pharmacist when I asked, in Spanish, for scabicide. Our animated argument lasted at least five minutes, it included all locals passing by, and all insisted that there was no way I had scabies. I did. She finally handed over the bottle, at which point I spent two days dealing with the fun process of washing every single thing I own and coating myself in poison from neck-to-toe.

And now, after that last bout with de-worming and antibiotics, which I took while I was in Mexico earlier this year, I am finally feeling really good. I am healthy in a way I haven’t been for years. I am fairly positive that I am parasite-free, and I am so good, in fact, that my best friend convinced me to train for a marathon in January. :)

The Toll of Travel Sickness on My Health

My cat, Sylar, also called Baby Kitty despite being huge now.
My dad’s cat Sylar. Despite my allergies, I deal with it because he’s too cute for us to send away. :)

I haven’t come out of these past five years unscathed, but this varied list of ailments doesn’t make me fear travel. Quite the opposite, most of these I listed I forgot about until I made this list because once the illness passes I am back to enjoying being on the road, hearing new stories, and meeting new people. I am pretty big on being prepared, and then accepting that you can’t do much in life beyond that.

I am a planner and a preparer, I carry a well-stocked medical kit—double stocked when my niece Ana traveled with me—and my kit has helped me and dozens of other travelers I met along the way who needed help. And that’s a biggie, I ask for help and have played the pantomime game with pharmacists all over the world to find the medicine I needed.

Before traveling, my only known allergies were mild reactions to stinging/biting things (as I child I was very allergic to fleas), and a mild cat allergy. Over the years all my allergies worsened, with the most notable change after dysentery, when I took a huge course of strong antibiotics and I was underweight and undernourished for months after it. On the other side of that illness I have much more severe allergies to the mundane things like seasonal allergies and hay-fever—and I’ll know within seconds if you have a cat in your house.

Ana is all smiles with her soup in Hpa-An, Burma.
My niece Ana never got sick on our trip despite her adventurous appetite. Here she gives me a thumbs up for our yummy breakfast in Hpa-An, Myanmar.

And as much as past health helps, it’s as much about luck, experience, and preparedness to stay healthy on the road. And I’ll note time and again that I come out smiling and grateful for the travels and life I’ve led these past five years. Though there is little chance I would have contracted some of these illnesses if I wasn’t on the road, there surely would have been something else cropping up instead.

Next month I have a whole post coming about tackling toilet time on the road, mostly because it’s seems so infrequently discussed, but I suspect it’s one of those things readers Google while their browser is in incognito mode. It’s important to maintain honesty about travel, and health is one of those things. I’ll be the first to encourage someone to take the leap and travel asap, but with that leap comes the responsibility to stay informed.

With that in mind, is there anything I missed, tips you’ve found for staying healthy on the road or any resources that add to the topic of health and travel sickness for new or worried travelers? 

Resources to Stay Healthy While You Travel

  • How to Shit Around the World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Traveling:What happens when you travel in developing countries, for long periods of time, without a SteriPen? This book offers a frank and unapologetic discussion of everything from diarrhea to parasites, and other gastrointestinal nastiness. It doesn’t shy away from any topic that may impact your health—it should be a mandatory primer guide for all travelers.
  • The Healthy Conscious Traveler: 8 Pathways to Smart and Effortless Travel: Written by a holistic healer and alternative medicine practitioner, this book offers a range of advice for staying healthy on the road, including self-assessment tests to discover travel sensitivities, as well as techniques for relieving stress, jetlag, and more. It’s great because it offers ideas that aren’t simply “find a doctor and get medicine.”
  • SteriPen Adventurer Opti: Long-term travelers, or those spending a lot of time outdoor (camping, trekking, etc) should look into the SteriPen as an investment in their health, particularly for those traveling in developing countries.
  • LifeStraw Personal Water Filter: Portable and effective, this straw can be used from a RTW trip to a camping trip—and everything in between. It’s an easy addition to any packing list because it’s both small and it’s fairly inexpensive.

A Little Confession… Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely

Alone is a beautiful thing; it’s when I process my thoughts, absorb new travel experiences, find unexpected friendships, and detox from being “on” with other people. Lonely is not so beautiful a thing, though if I’m honest, the lonely, soul-searching lessons I learned over the past four and a half years were as instructive as any. For all that I love time alone, and I do, I have felt  sharp moments of pain staring at myself in a mirror in a random foreign country, questioning my decision to travel solo so long and so often. In tackling this subject, a subject readers email me about on a weekly basis, I aim for honest and not an upbeat “you should totally go travel solo!” I hope I always hit honesty in my writing, but sometimes I shy from the weighty subjects because there is a delicate balance between validating that I too share a fear and noting how and why I overcame the need to let that fear lull me back into conformity.

traveling alone at loch ness scottland
Solo in solitude as the only person taking in the bright sunshine on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland.

Many parts of solo travel have made me a stronger person, but I respect that there are nuances to each of us — what makes solo travel so right for one person can become a negative for someone else. And so in framing this discussion, as we look at the nuances of being alone and tips at the end for fighting lonely, let’s to look to the English language first.

We have two words in English to describe the feeling of being alone: loneliness and solitude.

Each word centers on the principle concept of having no company, yet they exists on opposing sides of a single spectrum of the human experience. One day the very circumstances that trigger solitude turn into an inward bout of its darker counterpoint, loneliness.

Counselors and therapists, or even advice from a trusted best friend, gift us with a chance to reframe a situation. They help us take an overwhelming moment in life and reframe how we perceive it. Though it’s harder to do alone, it’s a muscle I still work at; every day of my life I try to train myself to find a new perspective on an old pattern, feeling, or negative situation. Most negative feelings and behaviors in the human experience have a counter-positive like this, a word we use to express the other side to that very same situation.

When does assertive cross into argumentative?

Or vivacious into loud?

When does the welcome respite of solitude shift into loneliness?

In recognizing that one day I revel in solitude while the next wallow in loneliness, I give my brain a perspective it can latch onto for this yo-yo of emotions cropping up every so often. And in looking at the many times I have rejoiced in my ability as a solo traveler to read a book for hours at a park, or to pace myself through a museum, I recognize that loneliness is an impermanent state and one I just have to ride out until it slides back down the scale into solitude.

On Sharing Travel with Others

into the wild
The iconic image of McCandless, at his Alaskan campsite.

In a divergent train of thought, let’s move back into my personal experiences with loneliness on the road.  The book (and film) Into the Wild is a wonderful, heartbreaking, and lovely read. The book bears into this discussion because I often think about a sentiment Christopher McCandless wrote before he died. McCandless marked this passage in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:

“And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness … and this was most vexing of all.” 

In the margins of this book, he scrawled, “Happiness only real when shared.”

There’s no way of knowing how close he was to death at that point, but he was isolated and alone in the Alaskan wilderness for months when he read this book. I can only speculate from my own experiences about what he was feeling to prompt writing such a statement, but it feels like loneliness from where I sit.

Sometimes when I hit the road I think about that conclusion McCandless came to before his death and I assess if I feel any of that creeping into me. Will I regret not seeing my family for the next six months? Invariably the answer is no, and that is partly because I am rarely actually alone on the road. I meet travelers, I pass time with them, and I meet locals in each new place and pass time with them too. In leaving solo, I am not truly alone, and I think that’s the key under it all. With communication at hand and hostels filled with other backpackers I have experiences to pull me from any bouts of homesickness.

I’ve been nostalgic for home, but less often than I feared before leaving. And less often than I think most readers who email also fear. The fear of having no one to talk to never manifested for me on the road, or at least not for very long. I’ve had clashes with culture shock that left me overwhelmed for a couple of hours, perhaps a day or two of generally feeling down, but that’s contrasted with more than four years of most days being new, fresh, exciting, or at least interesting (because I won’t claim laundry days are either fresh or exciting, but hunting down the laundry, negotiating for a rate, etc — it’s interesting!).

On Personality Types

Any conceptions you hold about an ideal personality type for travel is wrong. There is no ideal, there is merely how you take your approach to the world and mesh it with travel. Extroverts may not worry so much about the lonely aspect of travel because they’re confident in their ability to make friends. But introverts who have emailed me see some travel bloggers sharing photos of raucous groups celebrating on beach bars in Thai islands and wonder if they’re destined to sit alone, holed up in a hostel crying in their tea. Neither type is better suited for travel, nor is either type excluded from loneliness because loneliness is not about just being alone, it’s about the emotional place you’re in at that moment.

Tophu nway, Shan soup.
Some people fear eating solo; when your food looks this good you get over that fear pretty fast. And with the market culture in Asia, mealtimes buzz and hum with interesting activity.

I am, at my core, a bit of a loner. I am super sociable too, that’s for sure. And I smile a lot, which gets mistaken for being an extrovert (I end nearly every tweet with a smiley face, I know it’s obnoxious but I can’t help it).  But in reality, large groups overwhelm me and I can ramp up into manic.

If you want to talk Myers & Briggs types, I’m an INTJ, and the analysis is pretty solid. I will note too (being prone to meticulous logic) that it doesn’t say anywhere in there that I make the “perfect” solo traveler. It’s just me, and I bring all that with me as I navigate new countries and find new friendships. For there are many new friendships even for introverts.

Rather than personality types, I really think it comes down to curiosity. Leave to travel with curiosity and you’ll find the new people and experiences that light you up inside and battle away any notions of loneliness.

On Sickness and Loneliness

I move back to the quote from Into the Wild. McCandless looked at the end of his life fast approaching and he was sick, isolated, and sad; I felt so deeply for him as I read that part of the book. Those three feelings form the darkest combination of loneliness I know. And if that trio met often in my life I would seriously consider traveling less.

I have classified myself as “seriously sick” only a few times since traveling (and once in high school). The worst occurred in 2009 while I backpacked in a remote area of Laos. In that moment, I faced a loneliness I had never known because I honestly questioned if I would live through the night. It’s still one of my darkest moments in all of my travels.

How close I was to dying that night is something I’ll never know for certain, but I was weak, exhausted down to my soul, and sick enough to scribble some last thoughts for my family. Thinking back on that night spent alone on the cold-tile of the bathroom floor, after six days of self-medicating my worsening sickness in a remote area of Laos, makes me tear up. I was at a low point in my life, and if that doesn’t make someone contemplate the choices that put them in the middle of Laos without access to a phone capable of calling for a medevac, then I don’t know what else would (and I would have accepted medevac without hesitation).

Laos Countryside
A beautiful but remote area of Laos far from the Thai border and thus far from medical care.

There is no happy conclusion to this section on loneliness, it’s the only one I can’t explain away and tell you gets better. I can only say the moments are rare, and the circumstances of being in such a remote area while getting such a serious illness are not common. I recognize that it’s not common even though it happened to me.

Last month I looked at the fear of rape as the most salient point in the solo female travel argument, and I noted that I had no antidote for it — I strive to lessen the chance of that happening, but other than that I continue on with my life. I feel that way with sickness and dark loneliness. I don’t take my life lightly, and the Laos experience gave me a deep appreciation for the technology allowing me to touch base with friends and family. Which I do, often. And then I release the rest to chance.

On Missing Family and Friends

Beautiful Tuscan Landscape
My only friend to join me on my RTW, Jenn and I backpacked through Italy and Croatia for a month!

A reader once emailed me intimating that perhaps I don’t have people back home who I miss, going so far as to ask if I love my family (I chose not take offence, it’s a fair question). I miss people and moments every single day I am on the road. I missed several “big moments”  in the lives of my friends and family as a trade-off to this journey; my four closest friends each had a baby in 2011. I missed each birth. I Skyped them from the road, my voice cracking from my spotty wi-fi cutting in and out; I shouted my congrats and sent all my love propelling across the oceans toward them.

And I continued traveling. Despite “missing” these people and moments, I am certain this is still the right time and right choice for my life.

8 Tips for Travelers Fighting Lonely

If your time on the road is tending toward the darker end of the spectrum, to fight the lonely I offer up these ideas:

  • Call home. Call your parents or best friends using either Skype or Google Voice; if they’re savvy you can even video-chat or FaceTime with them. Those friendly voices are often the best cure when I’m feeling blue, and I’ll even indulge and spend several hours just catching up with people so I erase the feeling that I’m missing out on the lives of people I love and care about.
  • Volunteer. Selfless-service is a great way to recalibrate your sense of gratitude and happiness. As an added bonus, it often allows you to interact with other great people who will also help pull you from your funk. (::cough, cough:: I wrote a book on international volunteering should you be so inclined).
  • Find other travelers. Though I have always found showing up in a new place provided enough new people for me, my level of interaction would be downright anti-social for others. If you love the experience of meeting new people, organizing trekking partners, and finding travel buddies, there are numerous forums to get you there. I have used Couchsurfing in the past with success, I got great advice from the indie travelers in BootsnAll’s forums before my RTW trip, and the Thorntree from Lonely Planet is a good starting place if only for the sheer size of their user base. And for a ton of other options, this site shares the a list of travel forums.
  • Stick with travelers you like. In the early days, it was hard for me to honor my inner lemming and take others up on their offers to tag along. Sure a day trip is fair game, but to up and join a formed group of other travelers … surely they’re jesting and don’t want me to say yes?” Yes, they do or they wouldn’t offer. I have met amazing people by pairing up and agreeing to take off my solo-travel mantle for days and weeks a time; trips that beat away any fingers loneliness that were creeping in and formed lifelong friendships.
  • Indulge in the mindless. Partake in your couch-worthy activity of choice and refuse to feel guilty. That may mean spending a few hours catching up on Nashville (I’m guilty of streaming this show), or with a good book, or surfing the internet. As long as you enjoy it, it’s fair-game.
  • Splurge. Give yourself a break in whatever way you like to splurge. Book a nicer guesthouse for a few nights (this can combine nicely with TV time if you choose well), get a massage, treat yourself to a tasty food that makes you feel good. Sometimes lonely creeps up when other things about travel combine and compound over time.
  • Remember, this too shall pass. Loneliness is impermanent, and riding out an evening or two of feeling low happens to me on the road, but also at home. Part of being human is recognizing that  to have our highs, we must accept there will be days comparatively lower. But if it’s more than loneliness and has moved into lingering depression, seek help.
  • Check in with yourself. Listen to your intuition and know that maybe you should go home. While some solo travelers are comfortable with a year away, others with three months. Honor who you are and what you need. In that moment in Laos, I thought with ever fiber of my being that I would never see my family again. When I came out on the other side of my illness, I looked closely at my travels and realized I needed to stay aware of at what point I may reach a similar moment and stare at regret instead of intense sadness. The dynamics of my current travel style — half a year on the road, then a few months at home — were born from that moment in Laos. During that first year of travel, I realized that after being away from home for more than six months I entered a time when I would regret not seeing family and friends if something serious happened to either them or to me.
sunset mexico
A young Mexican boy fishes on a quiet beach in the last light of day.

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

A Little Honesty… On Safe Solo Travel for Single women

Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Long-term travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States (compared to Europe and Australia) so perhaps the chief issue I dealt with was the fact that most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round the world trip. Top that with media portrayals of other countries and you might think every country outside the United States is fraught with peril at every corner.

Top of the Monument
Traveling totally solo and feeling very safe in Scotland, safe enough for this selfie on top of Stirling Monument.

I have not found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my  early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused, to-date, the only anxiety attacks I have ever had. It was the solo aspect more than the safety when I first left (in the throes of the naïveté of my mid-twenties), but both fears were present during that first year. Before I left, my solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that gets thrown in my face most often, then as well as now, when I announce new places I will visit.

I am a young solo female and thus pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travelers have an easier go of it in terms of world-wide gender inequality issues, a fact not up for debate—it’s just different for a solo man. So, I’d like to take a look at the different elements of safety on the road—it’s broad topic in regards to travel, and most travelers I know have, at one time or another, dealt with safety fears related to: health, physical safety, and risky activities. Health is a topic for another day; today I’m focusing on physical safety fears that I could have let overcome my desire to travel the world. These are fears that I still consciously choose to overcome each time I leave because it’s not a one-shot deal . . . the nature of some fears is that they are solved for a time and place, but not in general. I travel, but it does not mean that I don’t harbor fear; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers fears on the evolutionary scale are no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so let’s understand and address the main fears, one by one.

What Does Travel Safety Really Mean?

I have only increased my safety by traveling rather than simply staying home. I now have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge to draw upon when assessing uncertain situations.

On Traveling as a Solo Woman

If we boil down the core fear for solo women it’s rape. And I can’t downplay that, it’s a fear I share and it’s the main differentiating part of traveling as a solo woman—it’s my fear and the fear of every person who raises their eyebrow when I share that I travel solo. My best friend’s mother heartily disapproves of my travels. And though it often concerns the places I choose to visit (U.S. media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and she genuinely fears for my safety; she fears that something truly devastating will happen.

And for my family, my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route—so I know he’s concerned—but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that’s the main advice I usually email to other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances I am in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. There are more practical actions too, and I share more at the end of this post. Beyond that, I can’t stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home—and the rape/homicide rates in many U.S. cities prove that home is dangerous, too.

Safety as a solo female traveler also involves discussing sexual harassment. Female readers have asked over the years if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I’m always tempted to write back that I’m lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just pisses me off because it shouldn’t come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn’t have to hope and pray that a man doesn’t decide to harm me, but it’s the state of the world.

Let’s look at that idea more closely: Safety for female travelers comes down to luck and not preparation alone.

Anyone who says that they avoided issues on the road “because they were prepared,” or because they did “all the right things,” imply a false sense of security. Plus it’s an insult to any woman who has been harmed while traveling—citing preparation as the sole reason for safety does a grave disservice to the facts. Violence against women is an epidemic. It’s a problem in the U.S., and a problem in many countries I visit. I can take steps to minimize my exposure to risk when traveling, but I can’t change the nature of the world—this ready violence against women. No one can plan against the sheer ill-luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Me and Jordi around Town
Since guards are down with locals during India’s Holi celebrations you have to be alert, but I will always remember the fun times with my friends Jordi and Neil wandering around town during the Festival of Colors.

For the sake of transparency on this issue, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad, and (luckily) none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Each incident reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. In 10 years as a solo female traveler, I have experienced only two incidences of clear violence against me. One was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third incident happened before I left to travel, at a bar in Los Angeles, and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

I didn’t write about these incidences at the time not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they defined my travel experiences in neither Jordan and India, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience . . . more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel, specifically.

I can’t say that nothing will befall female travelers, but I can say that it is not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it’s hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me—and there is that chance—that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen during my time in the U.S. as in the places I travel.

I can’t live from a place of fear. I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen my exposure to risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world. It may fail me, but that is a risk I have consciously chosen.

how to make a krathong
A friend in Thailand shows my niece Ana and Em how to fold traditional patterns into the palm frond krathongs for a local festival.

On Taking Risks

There is no one-size rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But it is an absolute fact that traveling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life—all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes—I have created a book of knowledge that I add to whenever I encounter something new.

If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling—I have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge that I can draw from when assessing uncertain situations.

Surf Camp
Not so risky, but tricky enough for me. Learning to surf in Byron Bay, Australia.

A reader emailed me about taking risks. He heard my story about hiking an active volcano in Guatemala on a podcast and asked: “Something that called my attention was your positive attitude towards risk, so different from mine. [Please share] a few sentences about how you approach risk in your travels, and especially inside your mind.”

My response to him:

I am not an adventurous traveler by any stretch—there are those who do all the big, risky, sporty things. For me though, I try to nudge the boundaries of my comfort zone, but there are many things I won’t do that others will. Travel is highly personal, so if you don’t want to hike a volcano then I say don’t do it and stand firm in that decision.

When I was in Belize, just before I traveled through Guatemala, I had a big decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travelers easily think is okay. I was at the blue hole, a popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamed, and anticipated diving there for several years. Once I arrived though, I didn’t like the attitudes of the dive companiesmany take very novice divers down even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I decided that seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was not worth the risk—I assessed the situation and realized I didn’t care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive is a risky dive. So I didn’t. Instead I snorkeled nearby, did a couple of shore dives on the reef, and had a perfectly enjoyable time. Other divers may think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me. I trusted that feeling, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traveling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won’t—and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort zone. That’s how we grow and change—not by necessarily doing outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.

My fear of that dive made it unsafe for me. It pushed me too far outside my comfort zone, and it’s likely I would have done something dangerous from that fear. I knew it wasn’t a good choice because I wouldn’t have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal while diving that deep, when there’s no margin for error. For me, the balance of facing a fear versus the risks and safety of travel becomes learning what are informed fears—which are based on a truth—and which are instead masking fears of change or fears of challenging the status quo. It can be hard to tell the difference, at first, but there is a big difference in the actions that should result.

Holding a tarantula in Guatemala
Saying hello to a tarantula my guide pulled from the ground while exploring Tikal, Guatemala.

On the Actual Dangers

The very basic fact of it all is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury—just like at home. Traffic accidents and drowning are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the U.S. State Department. Fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease according to the CDC.

Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole strewn roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, and . . .) means that no matter your traffic infraction, you can buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).

Chicken bus guatemala

And a “Thai tattoo” in Thailand doesn’t refer to getting some ink while tipsy and high on life—it’s the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travelers who have crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has nicknames in every places travelers take this risk (it’s also so common in Bali that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with my niece Ana because I made a riskier decision than I probably should have, and I have several gnarly “Laos tattoos” that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Ana came out of the accident unscathed (thank god) but I had a serious muffler burn, went into shock, and limped away with a lot of road rash on my hip, elbow, and knees.

Did you know that fatal traffic accidents in Thailand are the second leading cause of death for U.S. travelers abroad? The first being traffic accidents in Mexico. No joke.

Three to a motorbike
Three to a motorbike with Jodi and Ana in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Transportation laws are sparse in many developing countries, and those they have rarely enforced in full.

Now compare this to the dialogue from people each time I leave for Mexico or Thailand. I hear about the drug cartels in Mexico, getting seriously sick, and the “scary people” who may harm me. The reality is that while precautions for the other areas are needed, our perceptions are skewed by the media. Outside perspectives often simply reinforcing political doctrine or maintain societal norms.

The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravelable, that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That’s not true. More than 95% of the world may not like the politics of the west. They may not like my religion. But they are not seeking ways to harm me. Or you. In fact, that 95% doesn’t really think about me at all. They raise their kids and work each day to put food on the table . . . just like in the U.S. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think, so I point you to this post for more on accurately assessing location-based fears.

On Overcoming Fears

Have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from traveling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn’t discuss this issue. Bad things can happen. But travel changed my life; it made me a better person, it opened opportunities in my life and facets of understanding I never knew I lacked. It bred compassion into the fiber of who I am as a citizen of this world.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears. I take steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance, which is all any of us can do because risk is a part of life. Just as there are little risks, there are big risks, too. The biggest one for me being looking back on my 20s and 30s and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”

A Little Adrift

There are many things I may look back and regret, but this will not be one of them. To close this out, and before mentioning the specific female travel tips, I will say, as I have many times, that I have found true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people, and in countries other Americans assume are only filled with foes. People have gone out of their way to extend help when I needed it, times when I was at my most vulnerable—sick, lost, alone—and that common thread of generosity follows me around the world. Fears have a place in keeping us safe, but without frankly talking about the true facets of traveling in diverse places it’s easy to believe the world is the sum of its dangers. By and large it’s the opposite: traveling becomes the sum of human kindness. It only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.

How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?

Sarah Hepola

Practical Tips for Solo Females Traveling

Safety and Solo Female Travel: An honest discussion and practical advice for female travelers.

These handful of tips should be paired with common sense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:

Do Your Research & Bookmark Important Resources

Read the national travel advisories and research what the government says are the key dangers—many local embassies around the world will update country and city listings with nuanced safety information surfaced by no amount of Google searching. The U.S. government has one, though I find the Canadian one more thorough in some regards. The Canadian one also includes an extensive section on risks for women—have a read and then bookmark because it has a section for “If the worst happens.” While your embassy is one potential point of contact for Americans abroad, Pathway’s to Safety International provides care for American victim’s abroad.

Understand Local Cultural Norms

The first thing I recommend to any traveler—male or female—is to understand the cultural norms. Read about your upcoming destination; read memoirs and histories and the accounts of travelers and locals in that destination. Email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geo-politics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviors. I have a whole section of this site dedicated to the best travel books broken down by region/country for this very reason—so you can learn and understand before you leave and have a baseline for your actions. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it’s best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is acceptable (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Although Western women are afforded “male” status in some countries, you cannot accept that as a given. That means things like direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

Involve Others in Your Safety

Look around you and find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety—usually just telling them you are alone is enough. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and any place you might be waiting around. Tell your hotel you’re traveling alone and they will make certain you know any risky areas in the city; many also go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Bartenders only need to know that you’re concerned to take you under their wing. The same goes with waiting: At bus stations, when I have hours of sitting around, I will ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I’ll just do it). Recognize that you being alone is often a choice, and telling the right person gives you a network of people also aware and concerned for your safety.

Choose When You’re Solo

Finding ways to get comfortable once you land, and know that you don’t have to be solo even if you are traveling solo. I often take a free walking tour on my first day or two in a capital city. These tours offer a lot of history and all of that, which is fun, but there’s often cultural information included too, which helps me understand where I should put my attention. And what’s more, walking tours are filled with other travelers visiting for the next few days or weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I meet someone I want to do something else with, but sometimes I will at least meet with tour people for food/drinks/daytrip another day. Even more, I have paid for one- or multi-day tours when I just wasn’t in a state of mind to handle things myself. If you arrive abroad and don’t love how things are going, book a tour, buy your peace of mind. If you mentally set aside a bit of budget to cover it, just in case, then it’s there if you need it.

Stay Aware

One reason I sleep for a week straight when I go home is because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I’m walking down the street, there’s only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I’m solo then I’m likely not asleep. To date, the only times I have had issues is when I pair up with another traveler and both of us relax in ways we never would otherwise. We lose awareness and we forget things, get lost, allow ourselves to be surrounded by touts, etc. As a solo traveler, you need to assess and make decisions constantly. This post on how to build situational awareness is brilliant. Read it. Borrow a couple of those books from the library before you leave. And though it’s written from a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.

Stay Sober

This is a personal choice and it dovetails with stay aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive bars around the world is a backpacker rite of passage, I don’t ever get sloshed when I’m solo. My stance on drinking when I’m with others varies depending on the time, place, and situation, just as it did when I lived in Los Angeles.

Know Basic Self Defense

Before I left in 2008, I spent four months learning Krav Maga, an Israeli form of self-defense training. The gym was near my home in L.A. and I booked an unlimited package so I could rapidly build my self defense skills before I set off solo. Self-defense training for women is important, not only do you learn reflexive defense skills, but it’s a huge confidence booster. I have never used my Krav Maga training, thankfully, but every day I am the road I carry that knowledge. I know how to properly punch, and I know how to push through the exhaustion-barrier in a fight. Again, while I’ve never needed it, and there is every reason to believe that you won’t either if you are aware and cautious, there is no reason you shouldn’t research local classes and learn the basics. Many local YMCAs, libraries, or women’s group offer affordable classes. I highly recommend it. Will it save me if someone truly means me harm? I don’t know, probably not—but I like my chances better for knowing it.

Stop Being Too Nice

Say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. I read once that men who want to do harm prey on the societal expectation that women are polite and accommodating—many of us were taught to give indirect and polite noes. Reading that changed how I approach interactions that make me uncomfortable. Because I did that, all the time. There were times in my early travels politely listened, or tried to gently ditch to an over-eager tout, cautious of being perceived as too aggressive or mean. Now I just don’t care if I’m rude, and you shouldn’t either. I would never be rude in the general course of life, but if it’s something unsolicited and I feel uncomfortable, I go for blunt and immediate. You don’t owe them your kindness, you owe your instincts and gut your attention.

Carry Travel Insurance

Since we’ve honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the U.S. I didn’t use it for many years on the road—I paid for my Laos hospital visit out of pocket since it was only $80—but I always felt safer knowing I can call on medevac or a hospital visit if I am in a serious accident or very sick. Since then, I had a chest infection in Spain (twice) and those hospital expenses, which were covered, easily covered the cost of my many years of buying coverage. This post thoroughly reviews options and gives a detailed breakdown of how to pick a good company; or just head to World Nomads if you’re a backpacker and looking for the best policy my research has found, with decent rates to boot.

Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle

My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so although I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

Pay for Your Safety

Take a cab. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan enough of your day that you’re not left risky areas after dark and you’re not riding on an overnight bus. Traveling on a budget often puts us in a mind-frame of penny-pinching and it’s easy to get caught up in the notion of saving every dime possible. Before I left, I vowed to myself that if I caught myself in a moment when I was about to make a decision that valued my money over my safety that I would reconsider the choice. I take the cab when I’m lost, unsure, or have far to go, even though a cab is surely not very “backpackery” of me. I schedule my flights to arrive in a new city during the day, if possible, and I book easy transport to the hotel if not. Uber is now in most major cities around the world—download it, set it up, and be ready to use it in a pinch (and of course, buy a local SIM card when you land so you can summon said Uber).

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips and resources for solo women?

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.

A Little Letter… To All the Young Dreamers: Travel Young, Travel Far

Dear Young Dreamer,

beach cartwheel

The end of the school year is here and freedom whispers on the air. Your attention wanders in these final days of lectures, homework, and classroom chatter. Trust me—I understand why. Although the world thrust upon me “adult status” many years ago, I remember the keen yearning of adolescence. A yearning to my spend days hunting through the yard, chasing my brothers, and feeling the sugary slide of Gatorade washing away the summer heat. Or in truth, in my high school years I yearned to sleep until noon and have my parents just leave me to myself. And though you no doubt appreciate summer’s freedom, your emails tell me that you’re looking ahead to what comes next.

Your thoughts are jumbled right now with the woes and stresses of your these difficult years. The world expects a lot of you: school, homework, jobs, college planning, extracurriculars … the list goes on and on. Although you’re on the cusp of adulthood, you’re not there yet. Which means you war with the twin duties assigned to you: honor your childhood yet plan your future. You dream of being a writer or an engineer, of being a nurse, lawyer, architect, social media maven. You haven’t told me what you want to be “when you grow up,” but know this: for most people, our jobs are not a single thing, but an evolving process. Asking you to name it now is unfair—instead pursue something you’re good at that also lights you up inside. That’s where the magic happens. Happiness lies at that intersection. Instead of an unmitigated: Follow Your Dreams. I say dream big put stay practical, for that’s how to achieve the biggest dreams.

Ana with some Thai students excited to meet her in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It’s the practical part that most people miss. You wrote that you wanted to “just get through this.” Even the most idyllic childhood has its obstacles, and yours was far from idyllic. But a setback—or even 20—won’t prevent you from reaching your dreams if you stay rooted in the practical, in the actions you can take to bring yourself closer to your dreams. Study hard. Save aggressively. Chart a course ahead and then actually stick to it. As rough as life can be, hold onto dreams that light you up inside. Your dream of world travel—hold tight to it and set it as the benchmark for your decisions. You wrote that travel is your way out, it’s your way forward. It was for me, too. It was a goal I believed would finally signal that I had made it through to the other side of my troubled background. I made it there. You can, too.

At no other point in your life will society give you permission to dream like you can now. You don’t need that permission, of course. The very notion of someone else codifying your life based on their life is false. I urge you, fight against those who ask you to conform. But temper it with grace and acceptance, for you are still young, still subject to the will and best interests of those who love you. There is good and rightness in that.

Young Dreamer, you wrote to me with the conundrum of your travel dreams. You hear the siren call of travel, and you wonder how you, a teen, can make your dream a reality. You take classes and learn information that holds no interest most days—facts and figures you can’t fathom that you’ll ever need. It’s true and you’re right—you don’t need most of it. But you do need the ability to process those facts, to analyze the world around you, synthesize information, and above all, to think for yourself. These exact skills you’ve learned in school will help you overcome obstacles that stand between you and your dreams.

When other adults ask for travel advice, I tell them just to do it: decide you can travel and find the way to make it happen. I tell them, “traveling now will change the direction of your life.” Because longterm travel does just that. Travel changes the course of your life and can jumpstart your quest to discover the life you were meant live. The questions answered by life on the road can be found elsewhere, but not as quickly, not as deeply. Travel is a boot camp for life that is hard to replicate with other life experiences.

Fun at the Leaning tower of Pisa

But you present me with a conundrum of my own because I cannot orchestrate your future, and neither can you, in many ways. Your parents’ decisions and economic status dictate if you holiday in Europe, join student exchange program, or work full-time.

Given that your parents and fate’s capricious whims have shaped your life until now, I understand your struggle. How do we make your travel dreams stay alive, how do we get you closer to making this dream a reality? Because, more than anything, I want you to maintain the flaming beauty of your dream of travel the world. I want you to hold tight to this belief that you can travel young. It’s a dream some tout as wishful thinking, deeply unpractical, or some may even level the ultimate insult: they tell you you’re naïve, that you’ll grow out of it.

It is my deepest wish that you never do.

You will grow and change so quickly in these coming years. You will fall in love with people, with new ideas, and—if you’re lucky—with a line of work that brings you joy. Travel is a beautiful dream but not an exclusive one. It’s a dream that can last a lifetime for there are ever more corners of the world to see, foods to taste, and people to meet. So although I could have prefaced this letter with the acknowledgement that dreams shift and change—for that is the absolute truth—it is my hope that together we can light a spark for travel that carries you through the coming years. A plan for travel that acts like a silent ship running alongside your life as you take your first solo steps into the world. It will be there waiting for you, always inviting you to step on board when you have the time. It’s there waiting for you, asking you to make life, career, and financial decisions that keep your travel ship on course, running parallel to whatever life you build.

And now you’re wondering if I’m crazy and carried away. I slip into “ramble mode” according to my niece; she’s been subjected to these whims of thought often enough.

Overcoming my fears and jumping from the top of the boat into the water in Australia

No matter. The truest lesson I can share with you is that traveling young will change you. The desire to travel goes deeper than a flippant answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Travel is not an answer to any question, but rather a path you take to arrive at an answer that is more honest and true to who you are and what you are meant to do.

You’re in an in-between land caught between a child and adult; it’s a lovely and strange place. It’s a time when you have freedom to figure out who you are. But can I be frank? On the verge of turning 30 this year, I remain answerless. Actually, every time I’m sure I have the answer, it changes … which is, perhaps, the lesson. I wish someone had told me that who you are evolves with each new experience and each tragedy you face, with every obstacles you overcome and every moment of pure joy.

Let’s shift back to right now Young Dreamer, because your quandary has you discouraged. You believe travel is unattainable.

I once thought that, too. I once thought long-term travel was reserved for the rich, for the clever, for the people who had something I lacked. I lived in a place of seeking permission. I looked at my peers—my best friends and those in my classes—and assumed that their biggest dreams were my ceiling. If none of them dreamed of traveling then it was surely out of reach.

Pushing through the naysayers is the hardest task ahead of you. Look beyond the society’s rules and permissions based on your color, class, gender, or age. Realize that if you dream it—if you hold something in your heart and want it enough to move mountains, then there is validity and goodness in your dream.

The limitations and many the reasons you can’t travel right this instant frustrates you. I get it. But one day soon your circumstances will change and it will be up to you alone to assess your life. You alone must believe that long-term travel is possible for someone like you. Grasp tightly to the belief that you will take a gap year abroad, or leave on a mission trip for a year. Defend fiercely your goal to study abroad during college or find an international job.

travel quote emerson

Now may not be your time to travel. Accept that without losing hope. So many factors play into this part of your life—parents, money, family politics, national politics, education—the list is long. By maintaining hope and faith that you will travel, options you never dreamed possible will appear. When you believe, that’s when we can explore the world from the perspective that someone in exactly your situation—be you poor or rich, troubled or not—can travel someday. All you need to know is that it is possible, and from there we’ll find the opportunities to make it happen.

When you accept a decision as fact, you begin to see opportunities that you never noticed. Joseph Campbell says,

Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.

And in that spirit Young Dreamer, with a summer of freedom ahead of you, I leave you with practical ideas that may take you closer to your dreams. Some won’t be right for you. You might hate a couple of them. And you definitely need to discuss a couple with your parents. But look for one that sparks an idea of how to keep that travel ship floating alongside your life. Which idea nudges you closer to bringing travel into your life.

  • Find an international pen pal: When I was growing up this involved actually mailing letters via the post, but now with email and Facebook (and still old-fashioned letters too) you can develop a friendship that spans borders. This sounds antiquated in a way, but a German friend of mine exchanged letters for years with an American girl and they became such good friends that by their high school and college years they spent the summers at each others houses. There are tons of sites that help connect pen-pals but Students of the World is good, safe place to start (and be a safe internet user when chatting with others, always check first with your parent).
  • Arrange a student exchange: The premise here is that you spend a few weeks up to an entire school year living abroad with a family that has agreed to house and feed you and send you to school. A French student attended our high school for a semester and it was very cool to meet her and get to know her (and she got to really practice her English!). AFS USA and Youth for Understanding are both very credible and both offer scholarships of some sort too.
  • Start a business: This one seems like the odd man out, but really if you can’t travel now you could take the initiative to start your own business—the people who come into your life as you delve into that world of becoming an entrepreneur could very well be the people who help you create the opportunities to travel later on. Plus, it can be good fun, a good use of your time, and at the very least you’ll learn tons. :)
  • Fundraise for a good cause: If you know of something happening overseas that you care about, why not find a creative way to fundraise for the cause and then donate that money to an organization helping to solve that issue? This not only brings you right into contact with the places you want to visit, but you are helping your friends learn and care too.
  • Read a lot of good books: The best stories will take you out of your situation and right into the lives of other people from all over the world. Reading will give you some of the nuances of a culture and will make you even more ready to meet and interact with the locals once you arrive in your dream destination. This page lists out tons of book suggestions for each country, or ask your English teacher for a recommendation for a country you’d like to visit, I bet she’d be thrilled to help you find a good book.
  • Take a mission trip with your church: If you’re part of a church or religious group it’s very common for these groups to place an emphasis on service, and in many cases when you join a program you spend some really fun weeks and months raising the money for your trip.
  • Join a travel writing program: Consider honing other skills that bring you into the world of travel, a good course takes you through some of the skills and ideas you’ll need on the road if you hope to share your trip with others.
  • Learn: More than anything, if the rest of these aren’t a good fit, keep finding things that make you light up inside and learn more about those, even if it’s not your assigned homework. Earlier this year I shared a big list of free courses you could use to learn the languages of the places you want to visit, or even take classes about astronomy, photography, programming, or really anything you love. Listen to international music, practice cooking recipes you hunt down online … take the initiative to creatively bring elements of travel into your life.

Young Dreamer, I so appreciate hearing from you. I love knowing that you can’t imagine your future without travel. More than college and work, my one-year round the world trip changed the course of my life. I am humbled that you reached out, that you cared enough to email a kindred soul—never lose that pluck for it’s more valuable a trait than you yet know.

Travel young, travel far. Never stop dreaming.


A Little Honesty… On Why I Decided to Travel the World

welcome to the united states
Some people go their entire lives without wanting to leave the confines of our borders. That was never me.

Every so often, readers email me asking what compelled me to travel solo back in 2008. Then they wonder why I never stopped traveling. They ask: “Why were you willing to pack up your life and leave my friends and family behind?”

Their curiosity leaps from the page. I hear the gentle upspeak at the end of the question as they wonder about this strange creature who doesn’t have the trappings of many other women in their late twenties: house, toddler, and a 9-5 job.

Some readers presume I use travel as a way to run away from my problems and issues. They hurl the accusation as if they are catching me in a lie. The short answer is: I was probably running, but it wasn’t away from my problems, but rather into the one thing I thought could help me manifest the personal changes I wanted for my life.

There is the shiny side of traveling, which I have talked about before. There is that shining, beacon of hope for travelers that comes from the pure desire to see new places. This is a dream that pushes many to travel. They yearn to see the bright colors and faces of new city, to hear the slide of new languages lilt over the ear, and to capture those moments in time. We capture these moments through story, photos, or simply being witness to the travels. It’s the dream of many, but yet in the U.S. so few of us take the steps to realize that dream; culturally round the world trips are just not very common.

Crafting My Motivations to Travel

I had those shiny travel dreams too, but in the days leading up to purchasing my one-way ticket I realized more than the distant notion of seeing a place, I had perhaps found a way to help me transition into a new and shinier Shannon too. I wanted to quickly shed everything I had built up until then. I wanted to run. I wanted to change the me I saw myself becoming. I wanted to run from obligations I felt looming over me. And I wanted to run from a cookie-cutter pattern for life that felt molded for someone else. I know using personal issues as a catalyst to travel seems naïve — because you can’t solve anything by running—but it’s only naïve if you think you’re escaping by running.

I am impulsive rather than brave. I often let (present tense, it’s still something I do) frustration be my guide as much as anything. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, just months graduating college, I gave everyone a four-week notice. Why four weeks? I could tell you it was because I had a burning desire to jump into acting, but equally alongside that desire was a simple truth: I needed immediate space from my family.

When I was 21-years-old, one of my four older brothers died of a drug overdose. His death was a turning point for my family. His death created a crack from which we have never come back. It created rifts and pains that remain unhealed because his death was too much for the fragile balance of our familial dysfunction.

So I moved to Los Angeles. And it followed me, as all things we run from do. I shared a bit more on that here. But suffice to say, I spent two long years living in LA and working in the entertainment industry. I felt the city breaking my spirit. I fielded more family dysfunction from my hometown across the country. I found myself frustrated and primed for a change.

A conversation with my dad planted the seed for traveling overseas. Since I work online (and I had this work even before I read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek), I had more choices than many in my circumstance. Traveling and working was a novel idea, it wasn’t one that had ever occurred to be mfore. And it came to me at a time when I felt like I was drowning — I hated LA by that point. I don’t hate it now. My hatred was more about me than the city. Now think of that period of time in the City of Angels with a tingling nostalgia. At the time, however, I struggled with the superficial nature of the acting industry. I wasn’t doing a great job navigating my first grown-up relationship. And I had handled my family situation horribly.

We each make decisions we think are healthier for us, decisions that will give us a hand in navigating our life. Choices related to our life’s work or our health, decisions to cut out family members or friends, or perhaps to move out of our home state to gain distance from poisonous relationships.

I decided that I would travel and hope that time, distance, and growing up would give me clarity on each of those other choices facing me in my life. The personal side of me craved the distance from issues I had not yet learned to cope with, just as the intellectual dreamer in me craved the new cultures, people, languages, and interactions.

Accepting Someone Like Me Could Travel

My vision board for 2008.
I unearthed this photo last week, it’s a vision board I created in December 2007 with all the ideas and things I wanted in my life in 2008. The entire lower right corner represents travel; I bought my one-way ticket seven months later.

I have dreamed of travel since I was young and paged through National Geographic magazines. I feel a pull, a need to make distant places feel like my own. To feel like I have laid witness to the range of experience and place this world has to offer. I also love languages and have studied many over the years — Spanish, Italian, Thai, and American Sign Language. Linguistic nuances fascinate me. The way we express ourselves shapes how we think and act. During college, I loved it enough to declare myself a linguistics major for one brief semester in college.

In deciding to travel long-term, I married my internal struggles with my dreams. I don’t regret the dysfunctions or issues that brought me to the decision either. It’s likely these very aspects of myself that motivated me to leave and allowed me to overcome the fear of setting off solo. And I am fortunate that I came to this place in my life in my mid-twenties, when I had the lack of responsibilities, the time, the willingness to “rough it,” and just enough narcissism to justify leaving behind my friends and family.

Accepting that travel was possible for me — a moderately poor, still in student loan debt, no real savings kinda girl — owning that decision, changed my life. From that moment of acceptance to buying my plane ticket spanned about a week. That’s the impulsive side of me. I knew I wanted to travel, I was a little lost in my life (some might even say adrift), and a week later, June 16, 2008, I bought a one-way ticket so I that couldn’t back out of the plan.

Waiting for the tide
Before I left, I felt like a stranded boat at high tide. Stuck.

Using Travel as an Incubator for Personal Growth

My decision wasn’t just about seeing the world and traveling; I needed the time, space, and perspective to become a better person, to feel like more of a whole person. Travel did not fix me, but it instead it was an incubator for personal growth—something I craved five years ago and something I often hear as the main rationale behind why teens and young adults should travel more. Before I left to travel, a close friend told me: “No one out there knows who you are, they hold no expectations. Become the person you want to be.” And the road is a good place for that sentiment.

The travel experience holds a mirror to your face and forces you to come to terms if you’re the person you want to be. Once you see yourself, traveling gives you ample time to dissect the nuances of those discoveries on marathon 36 hour bus rides, endless trains, solo dinners, and dark moments hugging a toilet hours later.

I consciously choose both reasons for traveling, and I know this is not true for everyone. For many I speculate there is more purity in the decision, but heck, I only speculate. Because perhaps, deep inside, many of us know that life on the road will give us the chance to re-write our story. I re-wrote the story I told myself about who I was. And although there are many paths in life, I couldn’t have rewritten my story without this new path in my life.

Travel is an accelerator allowing your own issues to bubble to the surface — healing those issues is an option, you can choose to travel and remain unaffected, or you can seek out the person you want to be and allow the lessons on the road teach you the path. All of this occurring alongside the breathtaking moments of joy as you see whales breaching a foot off the bow of your boat, a spectacular sunrise in a jungle forest hanging from a zip-line, and the laughter of new friendships.

Curbside Balinese offering
New spiritualities and religions waited for me — new ways to reframe the story of the world I had long held as truth.

That being said, if I had known just how forcefully travel would make me face my own demons, I would have lacked the courage to even back my backpack.

It was in my Vipassana meditation course that I came to terms with my brother’s death. Surely some of the peace I now feel would have come through another experience in my life had I not spent those ten days in solitary contemplation. But travel was my gateway. Travel provided me with a path for healing. I am nicer than I was, and that was partly from reconnecting with volunteering and service as I traveled. Traveling butted me up against the worst aspects of myself: the girl who was (is?) quick to anger, the girl with strong opinions, the girl who runs from her problems. Travel is and was my boot-camp for life.

Though, I assimilated life lessons more quickly in the first two years of travel than any other time in my life (which I talked a lot about in my four years of travel piece), I still have a long ways left.

There are pieces of me that will remain no matter what I do. These pieces are a part of my story. But there are issues, patterns, habits, and behaviors that travel mirrors back to me, it allows me to see those that no longer serve me.  Traveling solo built the strength in me to face the issues that propelled me into leaving. It didn’t solve them, but it taught me where and how to find the strength to address them. There are no doubt many other choices in life that can bring similar results, but those were not my path.

And so, that single decision to buy my one-way ticket was the start of the personal journey to fulfill my dream to travel, and to become a better person. It was the day I decided not allow circumstances to dictate who I am.

sunset in mexixco

I needed time to heal through some personal struggles — and I have healed through many, though far from all — and to follow what I now believe was my path. I was meant to be a traveler, and in coming well into my fourth year on the road I realized that the time and experiences with my nieces and nephews have given me a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life in one way or another (and once I overcome the fears related to this new venture): I want to share travel with youth, to get to them when they’re young and inspire them to find the new ideas, perspectives, and personal growth that long-term travel and service provides.

More than anything I want the next generation to learn their place in the world, because I know that only in making myself whole, only in taking that personal journey over the past four years have I come to a place where I can begin to truly be of service.

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • On Safety and Solo Female Travel: What’s it like to travel as a solo female, and what are the real fears versus perceived fears for travelers.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.