For years, you've been boring the balls off of whoever was unlucky enough to share your table in the office cafeteria, talking about your "penchant for early Indian civilization" (is that even a thing?). Now that you've finally finagled six months away from the real world and bought your brick-thick Lonely Planet India (fo' serious, who needs to carry around 1,200 pages on ANYTHING?), we're here to tell you that there's more awaiting you than curry and Delhi belly—there's a whole unexpected upside to backpacking (in India and elsewhere) that goes beyond palaces and beaches, and, in the end, will probably be what you remember most about your trip.
1. You can live like a king and be happy on $15 a day.
Remember yesterday morning when you paid for your Starbucks latte by credit card, because you're fucking BROKE? Well, newsflash: the $5 you shelled out for that latte is enough for any one of the following: a night in a room with a private kitchen AND bathroom in northern India; a jungle hut (with outdoor, shared toilet) on various Thai islands; a room in a beachfront guesthouse in the Philippines.
In Portland, you're just another hipster dude with a red beard and tight jeans, but to an Israeli chick in India, you're a hipster dude with a red beard and tight jeans! And what about the $300 you shelled out for your new boots/smart phone/watch/useless crap you just had to have? That's A MONTH in most Asian and South American countries. If you're scrappy, you can do it for cheaper; if you're lavish, you can double it, but no matter your budget (unless you're rich, in which case, go back to reading The New York Times Travel Section), one thing is for sure: you're going to be living a hell of a lot cheaper overseas than you were back at home, and you're going to be a hell of a lot happier doing it, too.
Like motorcycles? Mountains? Life? For $5-$10 a day, you can rent a scooter in Northern Thailand and drive from Chiang Mai to Pai, considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world. For a few hundred dollars, you can become a certified scuba diving instructor. For $4, you can take an Indian cooking class, or a singing lesson, or learn to play the djembe! Seriously, what the hell have you been doing with your life?
A room in a guesthouse in India will only cost you $3.50 a night for your own private room, though you'll be squat shitting over a shared toilet with no seat. But after the 20-hour bus ride from Manali to Leh, during which time you'll be wiping the drool off your chin from all of that gaping you do at the most incredible scenery you've witnessed in your tiny little human life, you won't give a damn where you point your ass when you finally find a toilet, especially because now you're dealing with 11,000 feet of altitude sickness-inducing diarrhea! The fact is that you're on a goddamn mountain in the middle of the Himalayas, and that you just sharted a little in your pants, making you equally excited for the view and for the aforementioned hole in the ground. No one said travel was easy, or even glamorous, but, hey, at least it's cheap!
2. It's never been easier to make friends, so long as you don't fuck it up with your shitty personality.
Ah, yes, social interaction. A most necessary life skill, and yet also one of the most lacking in modern society. Maybe it's because most people never have to make friends again after their first job out of college, but a great number of our species are—oh, how do you say it?—socially retarded. Traveling with a friend is a great way to ensure that you're never stranded on the side of the road totally alone with a backpack and half a bottle of water, but it's also a surefire way to preclude yourself from the rigorous boot camp that is solo-travel-friend-making.
It turns out that squatting is the best method for doing your daily business, as your intestines lengthen. Making friends when you're traveling is wayyy easier than at home. At home, when you want to "make friends," you have to shower, put on clean clothes, clean the spinach out of your teeth, and compete with all the people around you who are JUST LIKE YOU: twenty- or thirty-something, employed at boring shit (don't get defensive, you know your job is boring), struggling to earn a living at whatever soulless thing they do, and moderately engaged in a disengaging society. And you're all in the same bar or on the same Ultimate Frisbee team or, god forbid, at the same baby shower.
But in another country, so long as you're not traveling with a pack of your "best friends" from college or high school (and, if you are, just stop it), you're…interesting. You're…from another country. You're…traveling on your own, or with a friend. You have a past unknown. Your "job" is just the method by which you paid for this trip, not the thing that defines you. You can change your political ideology to suit the conversation, or, even better, you can abstain from political conversation altogether! You can try out your latest standup material over dinner on people who think you're just fucking hilarious! You can organize a trip to a nearby island or a trekking excursion through the mountains. You can be THAT GUY—that guy you've always wanted to be, or THAT GIRL—that girl you never thought you were. You can be anyone!
Unless you're an asshole.
Yes, it's all gravy, unless you fuck it up. Like that guy who tags along with a group of younger people, only to rest his hand on the thigh of the first girl who shows signs of drunkenness. Or that American who insists that "everyone in the world should just speak English and get over it!" Or that Frenchman who declares that "Americans are idiots, and should be forced to learn a second language." Yawn. No one wants to hear about George W. Bush anymore, or about how all of the "locals" are idiots, and how everyone is so much smarter in your country. Remember that most people who take to "the road," whether old or young, are there to be inspired, either by the place or the people they meet. All you have to do is leave your ego back at home, and you're set. So learn some social cues, be a human being, and enjoy the ride.
3. Eventually, you're gonna get laid.
In Portland, you're just another hipster dude with a red beard and tight jeans, but to an Israeli chick in India, you're a hipster dude with a red beard and tight jeans! Your pale ass may have earned you the name "Casper" in high school, but to an Asian, there is nothing so beautiful as skin that blinds with whiteness. Despite what Louis CK says, there really is someone for everybody, so long as "someone" means "someone to do." (Disclaimer: You must be reasonably well washed in order to cash in on this promise, but then again, there are always exceptions.)
Ordering an overpriced vegan chocolate brownie doesn't seem as bourgeois when you're wearing Tevas and "overpriced" means $1.
The world is a big place with countless cultures and standards of beauty, and is full of all of us people, all searching for our own unique little snowflake brand of fulfillment. Somebody out there likes dimpled butt cheeks, socks with sandals, and that mole on your tooth that you never got around to removing. Even if you're not into the locals, you're going to meet other travelers, some of whom are like-minded and, maybe, just maybe, attracted to you…and your mole-tooth.
"ME?" you gasp. "With YOU? But you're a hot, blonde-haired, pony-tailed Dutch boy of Portuguese origin! And I'm just an American Jewish girl with a big ass!"
To which he replies, "Me? I'm just a boring, blonde-haired Dutch boy of Portuguese origin, and you're a hot American Jewish girl with a big ass!"
At which point you offer up a bit of hash to the God of Cultural Differences.
"Dating" abroad is kind of like dating at home, except that you're automatically more interesting and exotic for being from a foreign country, and for traveling in an even more foreign country. So, just relax, be nice, and meet all the peoples. You're guaranteed to score…unless you're a total asshole (see above).
4. All of your friends and relatives will think you're amazing, but you know you're just eating chocolate cake while watching Louis CK DVDs in exotic locations.
"You're so brave! I wish I could do that, but I'm really good at making up excuses and then living by them, so I'll just envy you and waste my life away bitterly."
Yeah, traveling is kind of amazing and requires some serious ovaries of steel at times, but then there are those other times, those glorious moments, where you're just doing the same shit you'd be doing at home, but for cheaper, and in far more beautiful places.
Hangovers don't look nearly as bad in photos when you're floating on crystal clear water.
Ordering an overpriced vegan chocolate brownie doesn't seem as bourgeois when you're wearing Tevas and "overpriced" means $1.
And eating that brownie while lying on your back watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones (which you got off of a dude you sat next to on the 20-hour bus ride to Jakarta who had it on his hard drive) feels at once amazingly disgusting and also marvelous. "Here I am, in Indonesia, watching Game of Thrones and relishing in my own chocolatey filth—my life is fucking glorious!"
If only the "You're so brave!" folks knew, they'd either A) lose respect for you entirely, or B) get on a fucking plane and eat their own brownies while watching their own favorite TV shows on their own laptops in their own motel rooms.
But, until then, yeah, you're SOOOO brave!
5. You learn to shit anywhere…and enjoy it!
One jolting fact learned while traveling the world is that, in stark contrast to Western countries, many of the world's people shit in holes in the ground, and have very little inclination to change that.
Actually, it turns out that squatting is the best method for doing your daily business, as your intestines lengthen, or something gross that you don't really want to read about here. The point is that, for people who aren't so prissy as to need to sit down and read the New York Times while they fulfill nature's most basic requirement, there's not much motivation to add an expensive (and water-wasting) toilet to the "mix." So, when you go to Rome (not really Rome, because they have toilets), do as the Romans (not Romans) do, and shit in a hole in the ground.
Depending upon your country of travel, you may end up squatting over a keyhole toilet, a hole in the floor above a lake, a deep rut in the ground, or a toilet bowl-y thingy with no rim. And in many places, you're in for an extra special treat…no toilet paper!
Yes, you read that right. A great many people in this world do their dirtiest business without even a scrap of processed tree to wipe their nether bits. Because human sewage often ends up as fertilizer in the poorest countries, and because toilet paper is a luxury for people who can barely afford food, water, or shelter, they've just learned to go without it, or, rather, they never used it in the first place.
"So they just walk around covered in shit?!" you ask. "What savages!" No, you idiot, that's just you after the company Christmas party. Depending upon the country, they either use a hose or a measuring cup-looking thing in combination with their left hand to clean themselves, and then they wash their hands very, VERY well. Still, in many countries, it is considered rude to shake with the left hand for just this reason, as it's kind of like giving someone your reusable ass-handkerchief to hold for a second.
While this method can be a culture shock for many travelers, it also opens up a world of possibilities. For one thing, you learn to poop with less ritual. Do you really need to wipe down the seat and then hover above it, using yet another piece of paper to flush the toilet and open the door? On long car trips, the world becomes your toilet, and you a master at dropping trou any time you feel the urge. And when you find yourself crouching down, looking out at a beautiful mountain next to a rushing river, or up at the burning stars in a moonless sky, you'll forget all about the pile of poo in the hole beneath you, and you'll remember that you, too, are an animal—an animal meant to shit outdoors!
6. The people you meet will inspire the shit out of you.
Probably one of the coolest parts of traveling the globe is that you meet people you never knew existed. Buskers from Ireland who live half of the year in South Korea teaching English, and the other half in Europe; hippie couples from Australia who have been traveling the world with their babies since the kids were three months old; 40-something-year-old former flight attendants living in Asia off of their meager savings accounts; European students getting their masters' degrees in overseas programs—people do amazing things and find the most creative ways to travel.
And then there are the locals! The flower man who gives you free flowers and a bracelet bought with his tiny savings when he discovers it's your birthday; a guesthouse owner who calls his own personal doctor to assist you when you end up with traveler's diarrhea; the Japanese man who insists on walking you to the door of the tiny restaurant you're looking for, as he knows you'll never find it on your own; the Indian woman who grabs ahold of you and pulls you onto the crowded bus you were too scared to board, who pays for your ticket and the rickshaw to drop you at your destination, for no other reason than to make sure that you're safe, that you're happy, that you enjoy her country.
And there are those other people, the ones you meet late at night at the bus station or on your way to the bathroom in the hostel, the ones you noticed around, but you never spoke to. And you chat with them for a minute, and then twenty minutes, and, suddenly, it's been three hours, and you realize that, though you are from different parts of the world, different cultures and backgrounds and upbringings, you are the same, you are somehow sisters or brothers in the greater world, with views on life so similar that it feels like they must have been reading your journal or stalking you on Facebook. And that's when you realize that, had you never left home, you never would have met this person.
* * *
So, to you, the guy or gal who loves to study ancient Hindu philosophy, Turkish architecture, or Confucian doorknobs, if you've already booked your ticket, great! If you haven't, shut up and do it already! All that separates you from the traveler puking her guts out at 15,000 feet is that she bought the ticket, and also made the poor choice of eating "fresh" fish in the desert. Yikes! And once you book that ticket, remember: Pack light, use hand sanitizer every three seconds, and remember to pause between food stalls and souvenir vendors and look at the sky and shout, "I'm alive, I'm fucking ALIVE!" Because you are.