Browsed by
Category: Travel Advice

Traveling with Anxiety and OCD: A Heartfelt Guide

Traveling with Anxiety and OCD: A Heartfelt Guide

Having an anxiety-related disorder can feel extremely limiting. If you have dreams of traveling, maybe you feel as though your anxiety is holding you back. In fact, fear is often the main thing that stops people from achieving their goals. It can be a very real barrier, and overcoming it is not always easy. I am here to tell you that there are things you can do to help make those dreams a reality.

So, how do you reconcile having anxiety while traveling the world?

traveling with anxiety

My Story

My fourth day traveling alone in Southeast Asia I had a full blown panic attack. I had just returned to my dorm bed after a long day of exploring the Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples… a 9 hour day. I had hardly gotten more than 3 hours of sleep each of the nights before and was running on coca cola and chicken fried rice.

 

I was not in my best state.

 

So my anxiety took hold. The anxious thoughts just kept coming. Oh my god, what was I doing here traveling alone? I missed home. Who are these people I’m sharing a tiny room with? Can I trust them? Can I trust myself? I want to go home.

 

I have grown accustomed to panic attacks, for I have a conditioned called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This means that although there are situations that are more anxiety-inducing for me, my anxiety often has no rhyme or reason to it. It can happen at any place and at any time.

 

Including while I travel.

 

If you have GAD or an anxiety related condition, you may be wondering how it is possible to travel to another country on your own. Maybe the thought alone is anxiety-inducing, yet you have dreams of seeing the world. I was once in your shoes.

 

So how does one cope with anxiety while traveling in a new environment?

traveling with anxiety

In this post I hope to combat some of the stigma around anxiety, and offer some helpful suggestions on how to deal with anxiety while traveling.

 

I will also talk about my own experience on having Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although these conditions are a large part of who I am, they are not everything. With some patience and determination I have not let these conditions interrupt my dream of traveling the world.

 

Whether you have social anxiety, OCD, or anything else in between, you will still experience it as you travel. That is just the reality. A change of scenery can help relieve some of these things, but it won’t be a fix-all solution. Many people try to “run away” from their problems. This avoidant behavior is often more detrimental in the long run. When issues build up over time, they become much harder to face. Having this come crashing down on you while traveling abroad is not fun. Be honest with yourself. Anxiety can be very scary, but hiding from it does not make it go away. My suggestions here are baby steps toward reducing your anxiety while traveling over time.

 

Why is the idea of traveling solo with anxiety so daunting?

traveling with anxiety

Traveling by definition means that you are visiting a destination that is not your home, often for the first time. And usually, the farther you go, the more likely you are to encounter unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, foods, and people. This alone can be intimidating to anyone, as we are used to the comforts of home. Being in a new place can be challenging and exhausting. These two elements often increase anxiety.

 

While traveling solo in particular, you encounter these stressors on your own. You don’t have friends and family to run to, a counselor to seek advice from, and are often void of many other coping mechanisms. Back home, you can avoid triggers and experiencing new things, if you want to. When you travel alone, you have to face them head-on. The realization of this can be scary. Fear is one of the top reasons why people decide not to travel alone. I understand that this can be a significant mental barrier. The key here is to remember that is is a mental barrier. That doesn’t mean that it does not exist, but that it does mean there are things you can do to change your state of mind.

 

I have discovered that in some ways my anxiety while traveling has been better than it is back home. At first this was perplexing to me, but now it makes sense.

traveling with anxiety

Traveling alone grants you a significant amount of control. You have complete control in deciding where you want to go, when, how, and how much money you are going to spend. You get to decide if you want to interact with people… or stay in your room reading a book.

 

It also means you have more time to stop and listen to what your body is telling you. Back home you may feel bogged down by work and obligations, unable to take a break when you really need one. When you make your own schedule, you can decide to opt out of that all day tour or jungle trek. You are more in tune to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

 

1. Give yourself freedom.

traveling with anxiety

After my panic attack in Siem Reap, I knew I needed some time to myself. I got a relaxing aroma therapy oil massage, went on a walk through town, and worked on one of my blog posts. Pretty soon I felt much more prepared for the long trip ahead of me.

 

Sometimes the desire to see it all and do it all can be counter intuitive. Fixing yourself to a strict schedule can be tiring, stressful, and sometimes just plain boring. It is okay to allow yourself some freedom. I usually make a list of the main things I want to see and plan my trip two days in advance. That means that if I get to a city or hostel I don’t like I am not obligated to stay. I can change hostels, buy a bus ticket out, or change what I want to do altogether. In contrast, setting an itinerary in advance may mean you get stuck in a city you don’t like, or not have enough time in a place that you do like. It may mean scrambling to catch your flight, or not losing your deposit at a shitty hotel. These constraints can be stressful and thus increase your anxiety level.

 

2. Choose your own adventure

traveling with anxiety

Don’t feel like you need to prove yourself to anyone else. This is your adventure. You may feel obligated to show other people that you had a great time, saw all the major sights, and bring home stories they will all be envious of. You don’t need to have the picture-perfect Instagram-worthy vacation that you feel like you are *expected* to have. Do what you really want to do. i promise you, you will be much happier, and it will decrease your anxiety immensely. Perhaps you need to take a break of social media to truly experience it on your own, free of judgement. Remind yourself that you paid the money to get there, you made the plan, and you are the one experiencing all these great things. Those facts alone are enough to be extremely proud of. Do what makes you happy and you will definitely experience things to write home about.

 

Everyone I had met who had ever been to Thailand just raved about Pai. They said I had to go there. That is was green, gorgeous, and great for backpackers. Before arriving in Thailand, I had every intention of going there. But after spending almost 2 weeks inland, I really just wanted to go to the beach. Everyone thought it was such a shame and that I missed out. Instead, I booked a flight out of Chiang Mai and made a beeline to the islands. Eventually I ended up on Koh Tao and stayed there for 12 days! And I could not have been happier.

 

3. Your body will tell you what it needs.

sketch241202636

Listen to what your body is telling you.  Sleep when you need to sleep. Stay hydrated. Eat wholesome, energizing foods. Skip out on that night of drinking so you will feel well-rested the next day.

 

This is so important, because if your body is not happy and healthy, your mind won’t be either. Your brain, like every other organ in your body requires energy, sleep, oxygen, and hydration to function. Exercise, a healthy diet, and getting the recommended hours of sleep per night will do wonders for your overall physical and mental health.

 

Some psychological conditions require medication for treatment. Before your trip, make sure you have everything you need in order to follow the plan you have set up with your doctor. The advice I offer in this post are suggestions on how to reduce anxiety while traveling. I would never encourage anyone to stop their medication if they need it for their mental health. Obviously this is an important decision one has to make for themselves. Just be aware that in another country, these resources may not be available. Be prepared, and know what resources are available at your destination.

 

4. Make a plan.

traveling with anxiety

Try to keep track of when you are most anxious. Does it usually happen at a certain time of the day? Is it triggered by certain events, like plane travel or awkward social situations? Make a note of these things. When a bout of anxiety does occur, take a breath, and pause. Your anxiety is likely from one of these triggers, rather than an actual threat to your well-being. That means that rather than “reacting” you can try reflecting. Those things have already passed. What can you do to reduce your anxiety level in this moment? Do what you need to do to get yourself back to your ideal state. This can mean removing yourself from the situation, writing in a journal, going for a walk, calling a friend, etc. It can be helpful to write down the things that trigger your anxiety, how you responded, and how you felt afterward. Recognizing a pattern can help you gain more control over what you can do when anxiety does occur.

 

5. You have all the skills you need, and then some.

traveling with anxiety

I promise you, you will amaze yourself. Anxiety can often feel like something that is acting against you. This idea gives “anxiety” a lot of power. That is not to say that anxiety disorders are not psychological illnesses. Much of it may in fact feel out of your control. However, you have other psychological strengths that will help you cope and even flourish in new situations. When you only have your intuition and judgement to rely on, you feel greatly accomplished when you succeed. Traveling with anxiety may pose as a significant challenge, but it also an opportunity to learn more about yourself. You will discover strengths you never knew you had. This again will make you feel more in control. When you feel more in control, you become less afraid of things outside of your control.

 

Take time to recognize these strengths. Build upon them. Practice gratitude for the things you are doing well. Maybe you have found out you are great at navigating new surroundings, in spite of your social anxiety. See in what ways you have overcome triggering situations. By focusing on the positives you will feel better about yourself and see minor successes as major victories.

 

For example, I am terrified of heights. As a challenge to myself, I chose to take a rock climbing course while on Koh Tao. In the process I found a new hobby that I love and am extremely proud of myself for trying something new. You can read more about my rock climbing experience here.

 

6. Some days are harder than others.

traveling with anxiety

f you are someone who has an anxiety disorder, you know that some days are just simply harder than others. Maybe you have followed all my tips above and are still having a hard time. It happens. Don’t get too down on yourself. You have not failed. There may be some underlying stressor that is finally rearing its head. Maybe is just from the exhaustion from traveling. Everyone is different in how they cope in these situations. I cannot offer a simple fix, but it comes down to knowing yourself. It is okay to use coping mechanisms, avoidance, or other behaviors to make yourself feel safe. Knowing what you can do to reduce anxiety and take care of yourself is key to having a great solo trip abroad!

 

I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD involves obsessions (fixated thoughts and fears), and compulsions (responses to the obsessions in order to reduce anxiety). My obsession is oriented around the contamination for my food and drinks. My OCD often limits a lot of what I can eat and drink. While I travel, finding things I can eat is even more difficult.

One day I may muster up the courage to try some pad thai from a street vendor, the next I may only eat packaged foods. After a month of traveling alone in Asia, I resolved that some days I would have to give into my compulsion or avoidant behaviors in order to feel safe. Never jeopardize your own mental well-being or safety for the sake of “trying new things”. If today just isn’t your day, try again another time. Be patient with yourself, my friend!

 

A Final Note On Traveling With Anxiety

traveling with anxiety

Always, in the case of a mental health emergency, contact someone you can trust. This may be a friend or family member back home, the receptionist at the hotel, a new travel-mate, or a mental health resource in your area. It may help to research a list of contacts for your destination ahead of time. Let loved ones know what you are up to and check in with them when you need to. Know when to take a break, and do what you need to do to feel safe. Happy travels!

 

I hope you all have enjoyed my post on traveling with anxiety, including my own experience and advice on how to manage anxiety abroad. Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments below.
Stay healthy, be happy, and keep traveling!

traveling with anxiety

Traveling with anxiety
Traveling With Anxiety and OCD

 

 

Share
A Hippy’s Guide to Being an Earth-Friendly Traveler

A Hippy’s Guide to Being an Earth-Friendly Traveler

I’m a hippy at heart.

Having lived in tempeh-eating-Prius-driving-grow-your-own-vegetables Seattle for the past 6 years, being environmentally conscious has simply become a way of life.

 

earth-friendly traveler

Nearly everyone here owns a compost bin, buys their granola in bulk, and owns a bicycle that they aren’t afraid to ride in the rain.

It is part of the culture here to care about the environment and the animals and people living in it.

This is a mentality I carry with me no matter where I go.

However, I know that it can be difficult to keep these things in mind when you are on vacation.

But have no fear! You don’t need to let all that go out the window even while you are in another country (that may or may not have the same standards of your home culture).

Side note: maybe you aren’t a hippy at all, and are just looking for some easy tips on how to live a more conscious life. If so, congratulations! The Earth thanks you.

So, do you want to be an Earth-friendly traveler?

earth-friendly traveler

 

If so, then this guide is for you! 

Here are some of my best sustainable tips for being an Earth-friendly traveler!

__________________________________________________________________________

Less Plastic, Please

earth-friendly traveler
“Plastic makes me crabby!”

Plastic is bad, mmmkay? We use way too much of it, it ends up in our oceans, and then cute little turtles end up eating it. No one wants that. In reality, it is pretty easy to avoid using plastic once you make a habit of it, and these simple tips will help you use less plastic as your travel

  1. Before you leave, find out whether the local water supply at your destination is safe to drink. If it is not, invest in a water filter and reusable, lightweight (BPA-free) water bottle. This will significantly decrease the number of plastic bottles you use. And it probably saves you money in the long run (Don’t quote me on that…I haven’t done the math).
  2. Don’t order your meals to go. As much as possible, dine-in at restaurants or prepare your food at your hotel or hostel. Taking your food to go often involves plastic ware, bags, and Styrofoam containers that are not compostable. If need be, ask for cardboard containers. Or if you’re really hardcore, carry your soup in your hands.
  3. Ditch the straw. I know it makes you look fancy, but it’s just not worth it. Straws are a very small convenience for something that takes years to breakdown and often ends up in our oceans (and the critters that live there). Many places will automatically give you one, so feel free to refuse rather than tossing it in the garbage.

Bring Gear That Can Go the Distance

earth-friendly traveler
Packing for the long haul
  1. Invest in travel gear that will last. That cheap, fold-up travel backpack may seem like a good idea, but the thin material will wear down much faster than if you were to buy that $50 daypack. It may also be tempting to buy drawstring bags and purses at gift shops, but these, are often poor quality as well. Unless you are willing to fix it if it were to break, this is likely to be another thing that ends up in a landfill.
  2. Buy travel gear that is second-hand. If the idea of buying previously owned items makes you go “Ew”, sorry, there is no hope for you. Just kidding. But it will save you money! I have joined several hiking/travel groups on Facebook that have gear exchanges and for sale pages, and this has been a great place to find sweet deals. I was in need of a new backpack and found one for $80 and in great condition. That saved me over $100 and kept that pack from ending up in the garbage. Good for the wallet and for the earth.
  3. Go for sturdy shoes. A cheap pair of flip flops may seem like a good way to save money, but if they break you are back at square one (I have seen this happen many times in my travels). Not only can it be hard to find shoes and clothing in your size in another country, but flip flops are just not practical outside of the beach. I recommend buying some sturdy sandals like these $17 ones. They are comfortable, are perfect for trekking, and are likely to last me a long time.
  4. Don’t bring ALL your crap. It is very unfortunate, but I have met several travelers who have simply brought too much stuff with them, just to have to toss it when they get to their destination. Maybe they realize their pack is too heavy or that they don’t actually need a rain jacket in the desert. It can be hard to find places to donate such items, so they often end up in the garbage. Try to pack things that you absolutely need, and leave the rest at home. You will always surprise yourself by what you can live without. Do bring enough underwear, though.

Use Green Products

earth-friendly traveler

  1. Bring sustainable toiletries. This one can be hard, as we all have our favorite products we don’t want to live without. However, bringing biodegradable soap can be a great, small thing you can do to be more environmentally conscious. In many places, you may be showering outside or somewhere that doesn’t have a proper sewage system. Whatever products you use on your body will thus be flushed out to the environment and can be detrimental to plants and animals. I use Dr. Bronner’s soap in the travel size, and wash my hair with baking soda (I told you I was a hippy). You can learn more about the “No Poo” Movement here.
  2. Use environmentally friendly sprays. Whether it be bug spray, sunscreen, perfume, or hairspray, make sure the sprays you are using are also safe for the environment. For bug sprays, this means DEET-free (there are many great options online, like this one). For other sprays, they should be aerosol free and devoid of other harmful chemicals. It is also beneficial to your own health. (PS research shows that you don’t actually need SPF 100 sunscreen. Look it up).

Buy Better Knick-knacks

earth-friendly traveler

  1. Don’t buy “tourist clothes”. Many items like flowy harem pants and a T-shirt that says “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” are things you are unlikely to wear again and are probably not sustainably made. They are often mass produced at a cheap price by people who do not receive fair wages and in poor environments. Unless you are certain you will wear it often, save your money and invest in something that is truly meaningful and made to last. After all, you would probably rather bring back something that is special rather than something every other tourist has.
  2. Buy from local artisans. These items can be a bit more expensive, but at least you know the history behind the item and that it is likely one-of-a-kind. That makes the item even more unique and you can rest easy knowing it wasn’t made by a child in a factory somewhere.
  3. Don’t buy items that exploit animals. Things like shark teeth and elephant tusks may look cool, but if there is a market for it, you know that someone out there is killing these animals just to make money. This is not ALWAYS the case, but it is better to play it on the safe side. You can usually buy figurines and postcards that look like the animals, but with none of the guilt.

Ew, Garbage

earth-friendly traveler
Who would waste a piece of pizza like that?!
  1. You know this one already: don’t be a litter bug. Leave no trace. Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t throw your shit on the ground… I WILL FIND YOU, and then throw YOU on the ground. If you bring food wrappers, bottles, clothing, etc. with you on a day trip, bring it back with you and dispose of it in the right way. Preferably, wait until you find a recycling bin to dispose of plastic bottles, cans, and clean paper. Many places may not have a place to compost, so try to avoid bringing things that will go to waste (like a bag of chips that you aren’t going to finish).

Think of the Animals!

earth friendly traveler

  1. Don’t feed the animals. Not only does feeding the animals interrupt their natural eating patterns and diet, but it encourages dependency and aggressive behavior. Animals that become used to receiving food from tourists often lash out when they are denied food from people in the future. Also, you probably don’t know what’s an appropriate thing to feed a monkey, and may actually be doing more harm than good. Side tip: keep food out of site from wild animals, even if you weren’t planning on feeding them. Animals like monkeys and dogs have been known to bite humans just to get at their food.
  2. Don’t touch wild animals. By wild animals I also mean any animal that is unfamiliar to you. That doggy might look super sweet, but he may not be, and getting bitten is both dangerous for you and the animal. Not only can wild animals carry disease, but certain insects and reptiles can be poisonous. You often can’t predict how an animal is going to behave, so it is better to stay on the safe side. (I met 2 people who got bitten by moneys in Thailand. They had to get shots and it was not a good time.)
  3. Do not ride the elephants. Or pet the tigers. Or wrangle the gazelle (I made that one up). Do research into any activities you plan on doing that involve animals. In order to make wild animals like elephants and tigers docile enough to be safe for humans, they must be captured, often sedated, and trained. These trainings often involve beatings, limit on their food supply, and punishments for misbehavior. I spoke to a man who ran an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai who said that the elephant trainers must ride along with the tourists and poke the elephant in the neck with a sharp metal prod, otherwise the elephant can take off running. First, that sounds super dangerous to me! Second, it is not kind to the animal. There are often plenty of sanctuaries where you can view and interact with rescued animals, just be sure to do some research ahead of time.

People are People, Too!

earth-friendly traveler
“Get out ma face!”

You are a visitor in another culture, and it is important to respect the customs, practices, and beliefs of the local people even if you do not agree with them. Some things may be highly valued and revered, and showing disrespect is a good way to draw unwanted attention to yourself, and even get in trouble with the authorities. Always research your destination beforehand to avoid offenses, faux pas, and breaking local laws.

  1. Ask before you take a picture of someone. I know it can be oh-so-tempting to snap that picture of the woman in beautiful traditional garb, or of the little kid playing by the road. But, if you have a traveler mentality, you will begin to see that the people are not there for your entertainment (unless it is a show or performance), and thus you should ask permission before taking a picture of them. Even if you don’t know the language, you can often mimic taking a photo and most people will understand. I always like to imagine how I would feel if a stranger took a picture of me just eating my lunch on a bench in the park… kind of creeped out. Asking permission is just a polite thing to do.
  2. Don’t give money or candy to children. As difficult as it may be to see children in poverty and feeling that burning need to help, don’t do it. Giving money to children often perpetuates poverty because it creates a cycle of dependence, as children will skip school to get handouts from tourists. It the long run, the child and their family probably won’t be better off. Also, if tourists are seen as easy targets, they can be exploited and victims of scams and theft. In such cases, families may rely on their “cute” children to steal from visitors. Consider looking into other ways to give back, like a donation to an ethical charity, helping a small business, or buying products from local artisans.
  3. (Pet peeve alert!) Don’t haggle like an asshole. Some friendly bargaining can be fun, and is even expected in some cultures, but learn when to recognize when enough is enough. Some cultures have a need to “save face” and aggressive haggling can be an offensive embarrassment. I definitely recommend having your wits about you to avoid scams, but sometimes you really are being offered a fair price. Sometimes walking away from a potential argument (or worse) is worth it compared to the ten cents you may have saved. And, you can almost always find someone else who is more open to negotiating.

Getting from A to B

earth-friendly traveler

  1. Avoid private tours and transportation. Not only will this save you a ton of money, but carpooling is much better for the environment. Side tip: many guides and drivers will try to persuade you to take a private tour and this is often a rip off. For example, in Bangkok I was offered a private long boat ride along the Mekong River for 1500 TBT, and they said this was the only often. I walked a few blocks to the north and found that I could buy a full day pass for the local ferry boat for 100 TBT. Not only did I get the best deal, but I shared a boat with many other people and cut back on the amount of fuel used to transport just myself.
  2. Find a buddy. Much like my last point, try to carpool with others when you can. For one, it is usually cheaper than riding by yourself, two, you are saving on the fuel and energy to get there, and three, it can be a great way to meet people. Several times in my travels I have asked other backpackers if they were going to the same area and have been able to share rides that way. And, if you get lost, then at least you aren’t alone!

I’m Gettin’ (less) Paper

earth-friendly traveler

  1. Keep it digital. As much as possible, keep your photos, travel notes, and information on a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. You can download your hotel reservations, maps, and flight itineraries, and take pictures of travel brochures, all to be stored on one device. Doing this takes up less space, saves paper, and keeps things organized. It is also less likely that your important documents will get ruined by the elements. Of course, you can keep hard copies of things like your passport, ID, and credit cards for emergency purposes. Downloading your favorite books to a tablet or Kindle also saves on paper, space, and weight in your pack.
  2. Recycle leftovers. If you can’t reuse any paper that may otherwise go to waste, dispose of it in a recycling bin if one is available.

Water is the Essence of Life

earth-friendly traveler
Save the Fishes

In Western cultures we often take advantage of the fact that we usually have clean, drinkable water at our fingertips whenever we want. We also have the luxury of hot showers, large bathtubs, and flushable toilets. In some countries you will encounter, these things are scarce or unavailable. No matter where you are, it is good to limit your use of water, as it is a valuable resource.

    20. Choosing a shower over a bath saves a ton of water.

    21. Turn off the sink when you aren’t using it.

    22. Avoid flushing sanitary products and other things down the toilet. In some countries, you shouldn’t even flush toilet paper down the toilet, as it is hard on the sewer system and is often sent back out into the ocean and rivers

     23. Save on laundry. If you need to wash your dirty laundry, wait until you have a full load to do so, rather than several small loads. In some areas it may be possible to air dry you clothing, which saves on energy, and you have the option of washing your clothes by hand (which can be kind of fun). I loved having my quick dry Paktowel because it air dried quickly and I could reuse it several times without it starting to smell bad (as usual bath towels do). You may also want to consider using environmentally-friendly soap if it is available, otherwise baking soda also works.

Food Is Good

earth-friendly traveler
Om Nom Nom

24. Whenever possible, compost any unfinished food in an available compost bin. Also consider how much food you order or buy in order to avoid waste.

25. Eat vegetarian*. I am including this one because a vegetarian diet really is a great way to avoid consuming animal products, and to save on water. Many animal products are not ethically sourced (often involving poor living conditions for the animals), and meat production relies on a a huge amount of water (for feeding and production methods). I must say that I myself am not a vegetarian, but if you are committed to living an eco-friendly life, you may want to consider this option.

26. Go local. Local food products are often the most ethically-sourced and sustainably produced. They travel a shorter distance from farm to table, thus using less energy in transport. Local products often have better living conditions for their animals since the focus is not on mass production. Further, the financial limits of a small farm often means that they cannot afford things like genetically modified crops and strong pesticides. Feel free to learn more about local products in your area- information is power!

OMG, Energy

earth-friendly traveler
Save some for Robo-Dog!

  27.Unplug electronics when they are done charging. To save on energy, be sure to unplug things like cell-phones, laptops, and tablets once they are done charging.

  28. Turn off lights, fans, and AC when you leave your hotel room. Don’t leave the hair dryer on. You will wake the neighbors.

  29. Leave the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door for the duration of your stay. This limits the use of energy, chemicals, and water needed to clean your room and laundry.

  30. If you choose to rent a car, you can often opt for an electric or eco-friendly vehicle. Ask what your options are. Priuses are pretty comfy.

 

With technology changing every day, what it means to be environmentally friendly is constantly evolving. Hopefully this guide gave you some ideas on how to keep the Earth a happy and healthy place for everyone!

Feel free to leave a comment below if there is something awesome YOU do to be an Earth-Friendly Traveler!

 

earth-friendly travelerearth friendly traveler
Share
How to Be a Respectful Traveler

How to Be a Respectful Traveler

One of the best parts of traveling is encountering different cultures, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world. It can be amazing to see new things, eat unfamiliar foods, and try things you have never done before.

But what happens when you come face to face with something that makes you uncomfortable, scared, or even angry?

When I went to Thailand, I asked myself this question. For many, the population of “lady boys” and other gender expressions in Thailand has been a topic of intrigue and awe. But for me, witnessing different views was a valuable lesson on how to me a respectful traveler.

When I told people that I was traveling to Thailand, I got many of the same reactions and questions over and over.

“You’re going alone?”

“Be careful!”

“I’m so jealous!”

“Say hi to the monkeys for me!”

lady-boys-moneys-siem-reap-angkor-wat
Hi, Monkeys!

Almost everyone had showed their support for me, despite their fears that I would kidnapped, killed, or worse (after spending a month with mostly European backpackers I’m starting to think these fears are an American thing, but that’s beside the point}.

They wanted me to have a good time, see cool things, and live to tell the tale.

But one question that came up that seemed to rub me the wrong way was…

“Are you gonna see some lady boys?”

To which I simply said, “Yeah, probably”.

And I left it at that.

lady-boys-krabi-thailand
Performers in Krabi, Thailand

Because the unspoken concern behind that question wasn’t actually whether I would GET to see a lady boy or not, but whether I would feel uncomfortable if I did. The answer to that is simply, no.

Unfortunately, many people see the idea of gender expression outside of the male or female binary as something bizarre, deviant, and even wrong.

In the United States. we are still struggling to support laws that protect people of all orientations and genders from harassment and secure for them the basic human rights everyone is entitled to. The fact that this is still up for debate shows that many people have negative views of people who express themselves outside of typical female (feminine) and male (masculine) roles.

In reality, many cultures are much more accepting of those who may be transgender or identify with another gender altogether.

To clarify, transgender refers to someone who has transitioned from one gender to another.

A third gender, beyond male and female, is a non-binary identity. This is a concept outside of most Western understanding, as a lot of people assume individuals who are outside of the male or female boxes to be “transgender”.

Third gender categories are often referred to another name in the native language. The lack of Western vocabulary for a third gender often causes outsiders to equate it those who are “trans”, but that is not necessarily the case.

For example, one of my caring and patient readers told me that in Thailand there are actually two genders beyond male and female: the Kathoey and Phuyin. The “Kathoey are sometimes referred to as Ladyboys but are seen in Thailand as a third gender. Phuying women are binary transgender women.” Those outside of Thai culture may not be aware of this distinction.

You can see how projecting one culture’s beliefs onto another could get confusing.

Unfortunately, many people go beyond that and assert that their beliefs are the correct ones. This can often lead to arguments and even violence.

If someone comes to another culture with preconceived notions of how things are “supposed” to be, they are bringing with them an mentality that is detrimental to both their own enriching experience, and the sanctity of another culture’s beliefs.

This idea is doesn’t only pertain to seeing “ladyboys” in Thailand, though.

It applies to travel in any part of the world, for the key to being a respectful traveler is simply respect.

Here is how I chose to be a respectful traveler.

chiang-mai-thailand-traditional-clothing
Traditional garb being sold at a market in Chiang Mai

 

When I chose to travel across the world to immerse myself in another culture, I knew with that came a certain level of responsibility.

 Though one point of travel may be to see the many famous sites to cross them off your bucket list, another should be to expand your view of the world and realize that there are many perspectives, customs, and beliefs beyond your own.

People often experience internal conflict with this because may see something that they have been raised their whole lives to think of as wrong. It can be tempting to speak out against it and even try to argue with the local people on why they should see it from your point of view.

Tham Pra Nang Nok railay beach krabi thailand caves
Tham Pra Nang Nok (“Princess Cave”). Also referred to as “The Penis Caves” by tourists.

When experiencing these feelings, it is really important to pause and reflect.

To be a respectful traveler, first think about whether the belief or behavior exploits are harms other people. If it doesn’t, you have no basis to speak out about it as a violation of fundamental human rights… you just simply don’t like it because of cultural or personal difference.

A good rule of thumb is to ask local people why the believe what they do, what the history is behind their belief, and what meaning it holds for them. It may be something of importance to them, and they may even have practical reasons for believing this way. Having these conversations can be a valuable learning experience and may open your eyes to a different perspective.

Remember, it is never the responsibility of a minority individual to “educate” you on their experience.

For example, in some parts of the world, people can be killed for expressing a gender identity outside of the male/female binary.  No one one is ever required to “out” themselves to teach you about gender, race, orientation, etc. Some aspects of a person’s identity may be an object of discrimination for others, and it is simply too risky for them to express themselves in that way to a complete stranger.  If you want to learn more, feel free to find more resources about the topic on your own, or those who volunteer to tell you about their own experience.

To ultimately answer the question, I did see lady boys in Thailand. I saw them walking along the street in Bangkok as any regular person would, working at massage parlors and hair salons, passing out flyers at clubs, and buying produce at the markets.

I didn’t have any negative interactions with them.

And I never heard a single word of disrespect from a Thai person regarding lady boys.

The only negative comments I heard were from tourists and backpackers. And that taught me something.

That despite none of them actually having a negative interaction with a lady boy, they still held stereotypes, fears, and disgust in their minds…

Stereotypes that ran in stark opposition to how the Thai people actually saw these forms of gender expression in their own culture.

That was not a mentality that I wanted to have plague my trip.

Having a general respect for other people has allowed me to learn more, make more friends on the road, avoid conflict, and ultimately have a great time traveling.

So even as I saw foods that buy Western standards would be considered bizarre (like fried scorpions, fish-sauce-flavored everything, and that lovely fruit, durian)

cambodia
Stopping for a snack

and saw customs and experiences that I couldn’t relate to (like whitening creams, interacting with monks, and living in one room with my entire family),

I wasn’t “freaked out” by any of it.

I chose to be a respectful traveler to other people and beliefs, and I received that respect in return.

No one forced me to eat a fried scorpion (even though I considered it).

I could work on my tan all I wanted.

And I got used to the smell of durian after a while.

 

cambodia food
I don’t know what this is but it’s tasty!

In my eyes, to travel abroad and learn nothing is a waste.

But to travel abroad and disrespect the local culture is a violation.

Sure, everyone has their fears, insecurities, and beliefs. You are allowed to be “freaked out”.

But perhaps you may want to rethink why you feel that way.

Difference doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be a beautiful thing.

The best way to live, learn, and have a great time abroad is to be a respectful traveler.

Otherwise, why step foot out your front door?

cambodia southeast asia travel blog

Lady Boys: A Lesson on Being a Respectful Traveler

Share
Anywhere-But-Here Girl: Accepting Life in the Present

Anywhere-But-Here Girl: Accepting Life in the Present

I felt like my life was a movie.

I was on a boat, hair blowing in the wind, as I watched my favorite island slowly fade into the distance.

I stood against the railing, refusing to look forward. Only looking back.

anywhere-but-here

I was drunk on the romance of it all. I envisioned my life on a sleepy island, laying out on the beach, drinking tea every morning, working on art.

I saw myself riding around on a moto. Learning to scuba. Rock climbing.

Somehow, I felt that my heart belonged on Koh Tao. In Thailand. In Asia. In this hemisphere.

anywhere-but-here

 

Then the cold ocean spray hit my face and four words crept into my mind… “This is my life”.

 

For some reason this snapped me back to reality.

 

I was not living in the present moment.

anywhere-but-here

In the United States at least, I believe many of us are guilty of this.

We are either worrying about the future, or longing for the past.

Sometimes there are things we wish we could have changed, or done differently.

And we want to have control over what happens next.

We very rarely appreciate the here-and-now.

anywhere-but-here

As I left Koh Tao, my heart broke with the thought of what I was leaving behind.

I dreaded returning to Seattle.

Mostly, I was afraid I would never return to the place I fell in love with.

 

What else was I afraid of? What was it, really?

anywhere-but-here

I was afraid I that I wouldn’t be able to make happiness for myself.

 

In coming back to Seattle, I felt out of control.

In my mind, running away would solve all of my problems.

“Running away”.

That WAS the problem.

 

I can’t run away from my life.

anywhere-but-here

Being the Anywhere-But-Here Girl means constantly looking for escape.

For an easy solution.

For a change of scene.

 

I kept forgetting one crucial thing though. I am the same person no matter where I am.

 

That’s not to say that I am going to stay in Seattle. Or that anyone should *settle* even when they are truly unhappy.

 

But I came to the realization that even if I moved to Koh Tao, I may still be looking for the next best thing.

anywhere-but-here

Because I struggle with being able to appreciate what I already have.

 

In my process of longing and worrying, the memories I had made while in Thailand slowly became tainted.

By sadness.

 

When really, I should have felt joy for having had those experiences.

Excitement about going home to see my friends and family.

Anticipation for future travel.

anywhere-but-here

When I could no longer see the island, I looked forward.

I felt at peace.

Now, I am back home.

anywhere-but-here

I am nostalgic, but I feel appreciation.

I feel happy.

 

I’m okay being here.

My life has brought me to this moment.

 

And in this moment, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Share
Traveling Solo: What It’s Really Like and Why I Loved It

Traveling Solo: What It’s Really Like and Why I Loved It

I am writing this from my dorm bed at a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sheets are white and pressed, there’s a small cafe down the hall that serves pad thai and green tea, and I can hear tuk tuks buzzing by. This is the dream, and it’s a dream I made come true when I finally built up the courage to backpack around Southeast Asia by myself.

I have seen beautiful and amazing things, have challenged myself, and have learned so much about the people and culture here. However, not everything has been easy, exciting, or inspiring. Traveling solo carries with it obstacles that those who travel with others do not have to face. And though it is easy to romanticize the idea of trekking across the globe with just yourself and your backpack, the reality is that sometimes things can be much more complicated. And exhausting. And frustrating. And real.

Here are some things I have learned regarding what traveling solo is really like.

1.You are alone

traveling solo
Traveling solo means taking a lot of selfies

This one sounds like a give-in. You decided to travel by yourself- something that sounds like an exciting adventure of growth and exploration. And it is. Traveling alone means you alone get to decide what to do, where to go, and how you want to do things. This can feel amazingly freeing, especially if you have felt bogged down by social expectations and responsibilities. You alone decide how to fix your own problems, how to respond to emergencies, and how to handle conflict. It can be challenging and rewarding.

traveling solo
… and eating alone

At the same time… you are alone. Sometimes handling conflict proves more difficult than  expected. For example, I was lost in Bangkok for two hours because I had no internet, couldn’t find anyone that spoke English, and I was exhausted from traveling the day before. It took a lot of walking around until I figured out where I was and how to get where I needed to go. I wasted a lot of time and money taking the wrong busses and trains, and by the end of the day I was beat.

 

If I had had a travel buddy, they may have had insight into where to go and how to talk to people. I would have had someone to talk to when I got scared and confused. Sometimes two heads are better than one, and in a new environment, some added brain power can be a lifesaver. Ultimately I made it back to my hostel safe and sound, but at that time I really would have appreciated a travel buddy.

2… except you’re not

traveling solo

Unless you are traveling in some remote country in the middle of nowhere, chances are you will come in contact with other travelers. Sometimes, more than you hoped for. The reality is that you can nearly always meet people if you simply have the guts to start a conversation. Meeting other backpackers can be a great way to combat loneliness, save money on tours, and feel more safe while traveling.

traveling solo
Oh look, new friends!

You may also meet people that make you question your beliefs and see things from a different perspective. They may even piss you off a little bit. Or a lot. Just like back home, you may not get along with everyone that you meet. You might find yourself getting sick of being around SO many people more often than you feel lonely. The point is that finding travel companions isn’t impossible, but it can bring with it its own challenges. Don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself, even if you feel like you *have* to be social. It’s okay to take a break.

3. Miscommunication sucks

traveling solo

Being away from friends and family is difficult. Try as you might to keep them informed on where you are and how you are doing, sometimes things can seem so fast paced and exciting that it skips your mind. Your mom back home may be wringing her hands wondering if you are safe, and even a simple Facebook message can set her mind at ease. But sometimes you can’t find wifi, or plans change, or you get in a fight with your partner from back home. Relying solely on text messages and video chat can be difficult. Sometimes it doesn’t heal the homesickness, and sometimes your thoughtful love letters are lost in translation. Try as you might, it’s just not the same as face to face communication, and this takes some getting used to. I recommend setting up times that work for both you and your friend/family member to chat, especially if there is a large time difference. It adds a level of consistency and lets them know you are thinking about them.

traveling solo

Getting in a fight with your partner can be painful and confusing. It may feel like there is nothing you can do to console them, and chances are they are having a hard time with you being gone. They worry about your safety, loyalty, and your promises that you will return. Realize that it is hard to be the one “back home”, so stay patient, understanding, and loving. Don’t do anything too rash because you are tired, jet lagged, or emotional. If you were doing well when you were together, chances are things will turn out okay. If they simply have a problem with you traveling, and this is something you are passionate about, that is a conversation to have in person. Ultimately you know what you need in a partner and must decide if this person is supportive of you. Traveling solo can be a difficult thing to manage for both parties, so stay positive, be smart, and don’t make any decisions when you are at your lowest low of the day.

4. You will get tired

traveling solo

You may be physically exhausted at the end of the day. You may get tired of dealing with pushy street vendors. Maybe you will get tired of eating Thai food everyday. Doesn’t matter what it is, you will get tired during your travels. You may even get tired of traveling.

traveling solo
Take care of yourself

All of that is completely okay. You are human. When you need sleep, sleep. When you need solitude, don’t go to that party everyone is going to. If you haven’t peed for 3 days, for crying out loud drink some water. Your body will tell you what you need… listen to it! Do not become too obsessed with the idea that you have to go white water rafting, eat a scorpion, take shots with your new travel buds, and get a tattoo all in one day. You decided to take this trip on your own, so it shouldn’t be about satisfying anyone else’s expectations or pushing yourself to absolute mania. Sometimes taking a day just to walk around the city, drink tea, and read a book can be the best thing you can do for yourself. Listening to yourself will keep you from getting burnt out too early and will ensure that you have a better time overall. I promise.

For some great suggested books to read on your travels, check out this post by my friend at Young and Undecided!

5. You’re probably not as smart as you think you are and vice versa

It takes a special kind of person to take the leap to travel on their own. It is something a lot of people are afraid to do, for a variety of reasons. You can pat yourself on the back for making it this far. Maybe you are a total bad-ass. Maybe you are a genius. But I guarantee you will feel like an idiot at least once on your trip. Why? Because the universe has a sense of humor and will humble you real quick.

traveling solo
Stuck without a rain cover during a monsoon

As much as you feel prepared, you will still fuck up. You will forget to pack underwear. Or you will pay  $12 for a taxi when you should have paid $6 (like me). Or you will get lost (like me). Or break your sandal in the middle of the rain forest (like my friend). Shit happens. Of course, #1 reminds you that most likely you will have to sort these mistakes out on your own. However, people can sometimes surprise you and come through when you are in a bind. Learning that you don’t have it all figured out can be a hilarious, valuable lesson. Embrace it and learn from it.

traveling solo

At the same time, you may surprise yourself and succeed in something you didn’t think you would be able to do. Maybe you find out you are great at reading maps, bargaining at the markets, or riding an ATV. Making these discoveries can be a huge confidence boost! Traveling solo has a way of pushing you to and beyond your limits and making you discover exciting new things about yourself. As someone that struggles with anxiety no matter where I am, it can be hard to try new things. But the best way to learn is to simply DO, and I can say that every experience has been fulfilling thus far. Be prepared, but also be surprised. Stay open to new things, and know that sometimes you don’t have all the answers.

6. You’re pretty awesome

traveling solo

You’ve made it this far and that is such an accomplishment. Even while combating loneliness, fatigue, and confusion you will have a great time. In this crazy world, sometimes things can go awry, but the human ability to adapt and overcome is truly amazing. Trust your instincts, follow your heart, and stay positive! You are capable and you are amazing. And whether you are currently traveling solo or simply planning to, have confidence in yourself. That applies to every part of life, and with that you will do things that you were afraid to do before. Every person has their unique talents and abilities. Traveling solo can be a great way to discover what those are. So take that leap and GO.

Share
Close