Almost a year of blogging – Reflections and the lessons I learnt

About a year ago, while traveling in the Himalayas, the willpower to methodically document my travels through a blog came into existence.  The idea itself had been mulling around for a while and although I had started a FB page a year before that, I had not been as dedicated as I am today.  Through blogging, I have discovered so many other wonderful people who also love to document their travel experiences.  Unfortunately, a few days ago I came across a vlog where a vlogger shared a very bad travel experience with her audience. I could totally understand her dilemma and I wondered what I would have done differently (if anything at all) based on my experiences thus far.

So, now, as I get close to the one year blogging mark, I wanted to take a time-out and reflect on the lessons I have learnt during my travels with hopes that it might help someone understand the complexities of travel in addition to the joy of seeing and experiencing new places. 

Preparation

In real estate, it is location, location and location.  In travel, it is preparation, preparation, preparation.  For us, we try to ensure smooth travels taking the following into account:

  • Travel documents – Passports, visas, letters – originals and backup printouts – Yep.  Seems pretty obvious but, you will be surprised how little things can really throw-off your plans in the last minute.  Make sure the following are in order:
      • Passport – make sure you have minimum six months validity left.  While six months seems like a long time, many countries require this validity before allowing you to enter their country.
      • Visa – With so many options (visa on arrival, on-line visa, etc.), it is extremely important that you not only have the right visa but you also must make sure the travel dates and the visa validity overlap accurately.  I actually witnessed a situation where the embassy could not help its citizen get out of the foreign country when her visa expired a day before her return travel date (visa expired at midnight, travel time was 3 am the next morning and she got to the airport at 1 am).  She was asked to follow all of the host country rules for dealing with expired visas to get back home safely.  In addition, in most countries, at entry immigration, before they allow you to enter, they will ask to see when you plan to leave the country and will check the exit documents (to make sure you can legally go to your next destination) BEFORE they let you enter the country.  The first time we encountered this, we were perplexed, but once we understood the reason, we complied.  Finally, there are certain areas in the world that require multiple additional permissions to enter the area.  Be aware and be mindful of the different requirements.
      • Letters – From invitation letters (business) to the letter authorising one of the spouses to take the kids out of the country – super important to carry them with your passport.  Every time I have travelled alone with my kids, the immigration officers have asked me without fail to produce documents that I have permission from my spouse to take the kids out the country.  Depending on the travel itinerary, I often carry two copies just to be safe.
      • Health Insurance – Invest in adequate travel health insurance.  We have had to use it a couple of time with our kids.  You just never know.
      • It is also a good idea to register with your home country’s embassy regarding your travel plans (especially if you are travelling alone).
  • Connectivity (the virtual kind) – phone, e-mail, “In-case-of emergency” local contacts – Until we visited the Himalayan region in India and Beijing in China, I took connectivity for granted.  When travelling out of the country, we always splurged for the “International plan” so that we could make calls back home if needed but the reality is that they don’t always work… you must think of back-ups.  If you are staying for more than a week in a particular country, then purchasing a local SIM at the airport might make sense.  Fortunately or unfortunately, with the popularity of social media apps of like FB and WhatsApp, we tend to take access to wi-fi and data for granted.  While this works in majority of the cases, depending on where you are headed, you may encounter low connectivity either due to infrastructure issues or political issues.  This is why it is extremely important to have a local trustworthy contact you can rely on in-case of emergency.  What has worked really well for us is that we create a WhatsApp group and post our activities at the end of the day (since majority of the time we do end up with hotel wi-fi when we check-in). So, if there are no posts for a while, hopefully someone will be alert to check-in via a text message.  Also remember to turn on the location option on your phone enough times to record where you are (I tend to leave it off most of the time to save battery).  Goes without saying, make sure you pack several Universal adapters and a power bank or two.  Most important of all – set up contact with your “local in-case-of-emergency” and a code in case something does happen.  We usually decide to use something simple like “911” in-case we need them to locate/ reach us as soon as possible.  This short code can be sent as a text message as well without costing too much.  Luckily, we have not had to use this to date.
  • Connectivity (the physical kind) – Just as important as virtual connectivity, it is important to understand the physical infrastructure of the places you are going to (especially remote areas).  Understanding the roads, hospitals, transportation system, the locations for airports along with the approximate travel times will help you ensure you have the quickest ways to leave mapped out if needed.  While this may seem like an over-kill, you will be surprised how difficult finding a good hospital when you are really sick can be… having some idea ahead of time may turn out to be useful.  We have had several situations where we had to admit one of our traveling members at a local hospital after food poisoning, fatigue, etc. and prior research proved to be a blessing.
  • Places to stay – There was once a time when we would just “wing-it”…. get to the place and then figure out where to stay (especially when traveling within a country).  While it works most of the time, we have drastically reduced doing it (from 90% of the time to less than 10% of the time).  With websites like TripAdvisor, there really is no reason why prior research cannot be done.  I always check all of the reviews (within the last 2 years) of a hotel before making a call.  Be mindful of any comments made regarding staff, food and infrastructure and make decisions accordingly.  Surprisingly, in reality, many 3-star hotels have turned out to be much better than the higher rated ones. HOWEVER, I will emphasise that these hotels did not have negative comments regarding either the staff, infrastructure or food.
  • Things to pack – Regardless of where you are going, it is a good idea to pack the following just in case:  A sweater, a long sleeve t-shirt, long pants, socks, shoes, a bedsheet, a towel, a torch, a small bottle of lavender mist and minimum basic medicines (fever, stomach aches, allergies, mosquito repellent, etc.).  You might be wondering why lavender mist – spraying a little bit of lavender mist in the room where you will be staying will instantly uplift the energy of the room.  You will sleep well and will feel refreshed the next morning.  This year, one of the most important lessons I learnt is not to carry too much – the less luggage you have, the more mobile you are (easier to travel in trains, local transport, etc.).
  • Currency – While it may feel like the US dollar or the Euro will work anywhere in the world, be prepared to exchange about 100 to 200 USD at the airport FOREX counter (depending on the cost of living of where you are headed).  So, while I depend a lot on pre-loaded FOREX cards, I do carry local currency as well when we visit new countries.  For example, in places like India and even London, small change in local currency is very useful when trying to use clean restrooms in public spaces.
  • Maps – good to have just in case.  I haven’t really gotten into the habit of saving maps offline but hope to going forward.

Once you get there

No matter how prepared you feel, reality almost always seems different… that is the beauty of travel. 

  • Hotel Check-in  A lot of things have changed in the last year.  Wherever you travel, it appears “proof of identity” while checking into a hotel seems to be the new norm.  While meant to make you secure, this can make you feel vulnerable… and that is why having extra copies of your passport, visa etc. is important.  As much as possible do not allow your original passport out of your sight.  The only exception I have personally ever made was when we were traveling in a group and we had no choice due to a late night check-in and it was mandatory at check-in in China.  During the check-in process, take a look at the lobby, the corridors, restaurant (if any) to make sure you feel comfortable.  If anything feels off, leave immediately.  This is very, very important.  As I mentioned earlier, we used to “wing-it” a lot before.  We have walked out of places that looked nice from the outside but gave a weird feeling inside.  Trust your gut.  There was only one time where we chose to stay at a questionable place — it was for one night, we had two exhausted young kids and no alternative options close by.  Needless to say, after that episode our “wing-it” rate dropped from 90% to 70%!  Also connect to the hotel wi-fi while in the lobby if possible.
  • Room Check-in – when you enter a room, a thorough check should be mandatory – REGARDLESS of where you are staying.  Checklist MUST include:  all lights are working, electrical sockets are working, nothing unusual under the bed or in the closets, windows closed, phone works, everything works in the bathroom (flush, water, etc.)..  If you see a bucket in the bathroom, do fill it up just in case.  Also, check your phone signal and send out the check-in WhatsApp message.  Again, if you notice anything weird or you feel uncomfortable, consider walking away or changing rooms.  We have never hesitated to request for another room if any of the above were not in proper working order (including the higher end hotels). 
  • Groceries  Another good idea is to locate the nearest grocery and/or medical store. This is something I learnt from fellow travellers on a bus trip in the US.  Simple things like  water bottles, snacks can make life a lot easier when you are on the road all day.

During your travels

Be mindful and pay attention to everything… as reasonably as possible of course!

Perhaps the most important aspects to pay attention to during your travels is food and water.  Pay attention to how the food is prepared (we generally avoid raw food as much as possible) and where the water is coming from.  Paying attention to these two things will reduce your probability of getting sick by 80%.  And what do you do when you have no control of where you can eat and what you can drink?  Gratitude!  Show your gratitude to the Universe before consumption and you will be in safe hands 🙂

Final Thoughts

The vlog that initiated this post was disturbing on many levels. The sense of feeling trapped, helpless and friendless in a foreign country was awful to see.  While I have experienced uncomfortable situations while travelling, nothing compared to what the vlogger experienced.  The question that  kept coming up for me was why did she not contact any of her friends or acquaintances via social media and ask for help with a SOS?

There were times when we have wanted to be left alone but were glad someone checked in on us.  Many times we have wandered off into lonely places and found our way back.  Travel opens up a world of possibilities and experiences but this only solidifies my belief that taking care of personal safety is part of responsible traveling.  I realise I have addressed only a small part of what can go wrong.. but, I feel the above points take care of 80% of the issues that crop up during travel. 

My final thought is this – when done properly, traveling is absolutely thrilling and an amazing avenue for self-discovery… so go for it – with complete awareness in mind, body and soul !!

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