I hear it all the time: “I know there’s places I want to go, but what do I do when I get there? How do you plan it all!?” I get it. It’s totally daunting to look at all the the hundreds of things and compare them to one another, weighing the pros and cons of each attraction in a city against each other, and then picking the best things to do to maximize your trip, because, hell, who knows when you’ll be back, right?
The answer to this hit me like a brick to the face. I’m currently re-reading The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz, which provides a fascinating look into our decision making process when offered seemingly countless choices. The author claims the sheer increase in the amount of choices we encounter on any given day has led to the increase of depression, feelings of despair, and loneliness plaguing our society right now. Yeah, yikes. In fact, studies are showing that the less decisions we burden ourselves with and the less we need to compare the pros and cons and opportunity costs of one decision over another, the happier we are. Everything from cancer treatments to buying blue jeans, the data shows that, if we let someone we trust make the decision for us, the we become happier with the choice that was made. So,why can’t we use this thinking to help make us more satisfied with our travel?
Then, I remembered: I already did it once. And yeah… it was incredible.
Let’s rewind to Hong Kong, 2014. I had only just started traveling by myself around the world. I was new at it and scared of my own shadow. I decided that on my second solo trip out of the country, I wanted to go somewhere totally outside of my comfort zone. At the time, Hong Kong fit the bill. My only previous solo international trip was to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, which, is probably the easiest region of the world to go to……. if you’re willing to pay $15 for a beer.
Eight days in Hong Kong, at the time, took me so far out of my comfort zone that I think I subconsciously knew I needed help. I was so excited to do all the things! All of them, I tell you! And so I headed to Barnes and Noble and grab a book to find out even MORE things to contrast and compare to each other to make the BEST TRIP EVAAAR!!! I perused a Lonely Planet Hong Kong book, and the first few pages displays “The 16 Best things to do in Hong Kong”. It’s at the front of the book to stoke your appetite, to get you excited of what’s in store, get your mind running. It’s laid out so neatly and simply, suddenly I think I just…..saw myself doing those things. So I did them. Literally. I essentially stuck to those 16 things. And I loved it. Victoria Peak, Man Ho Temple, hiking Sharp Peak, riding the Star Line, a day trip to Macau. The 16 experiences were naturally varied and chosen with care by locals. And best of all. I didn’t have to think about a thing. Step 1: Pick a number. Step 2: Ask receptionist for directions, Step 3: go. No second guessing. No missed opportunities. A carefully curated “best of” for a magnificent city, written by a local, for about $15. Perfect. (And free if you use the library like I do now!)
I used this exact strategy and, just like Schwarz’s book suggests, it made me feel better about every choice I was making. The second guessing was gone. Is the Big Buddha better than the Happy Valley Horse Races? I don’t know. Did I miss something? Probably. But does it matter? Nah brah. Everything I did was at best, breathtaking, and at worst, pretty damn solid. Remove all doubts, stop comparing, and just enjoy the trip. Moreover, I knew the people making the decisions for me were knowledgeable locals that had my best interests in mind.
This probably isn’t something I’d love to do right now. I’m no longer paralyzed by the enormity of options when travelling and I’m pretty skilled at making a trip my own. But looking back at the effortlessness of my time in Hong Kong, I’m super grateful for how it helped me at a critical time, and I honestly might try it again someday.
As for you, if you’ve ever said “Well, I just don’t know what to do when I get there!” as an excuse to not travel, looks like you’ve got one less thing in your way.
“I WILL F**KING RUIN YOU!!!!”, I furiously shout at 3 men that attacked me today in Barcelona. It did the trick, and they scurried off into the streets, probably waiting for the next sucker to walk down that road. Then again, I screamed it pretty damn viciously, they may just take the rest of the afternoon off.
A little context: Today, I’m walking down the street in Barcelona’s Poble Sec neighborhood, and a friendly guy approaches me and asks if I’m French? I tell him no, then he says “American?” I say yeah, and he and two friends proceed to dance with me. If it sounds a bit off, it’s because it is. But it’s playful and joyous enough, kind of skipping through the streets of Barcelona together to a beat no one can hear. I can honestly say I’ve done weirder dances with strangers on various streets around the world. We’re dancing for only a short time, maybe 5-10 seconds. I'm laughing and they're laughing when, in an instant, I feel my watch clasp snap open at the same time I feel a hand reach down my back pocket. HEYYOO!! I’m getting legit mugged! The back pocket’s empty; a pickpocket on the Paris metro 15 years ago made sure my wallet would rarely be there in crowded areas anymore. As for the watch? One guy nearly gets it off my arm until I baaaarely grab it, just like Thanos in that Avengers movie where everyone dies. Oh please, if that’s a spoiler alert, you weren’t gonna see the movie anyway. Right about now is when I push wallet dude and watch dude off of me, stare them straight in the eye, point at them like TechnoViking and shout my movie script-worthy line. It’s one of the few times I’ve walked away from a stressful situation and thought, “yeah, I wouldn’t change a word”.
Wait, Brad, aren’t you working as the face of an airline right now?! Why would you tell me you almost got mugged in Europe?! I’m bringing this up because I was my friend reached out to me earlier today asking for helpful advice I could give a scared traveller. And I think that addressing the situation is a lot better than HAHAHAEVERYTHINGISGOODCOMETOEUROPE! I didn’t actually think I had any great tips to offer her, but as a professional traveler with 100,000 miles under my belt last year alone, I think most of my best tips have been internalized, and they actually are worth sharing. Case in point, if I’m travelling in any place with a lot of crowded people, like markets or concerts, my wallet reflexively heads to my backpack or at least my front pocket. Same with the phone. Don’t think for a second that pocket button is doing you any favors; they can undo those faster than a bra on prom night. Well, someone else’s prom night: I had a nice evening with friends and was home at a sensible hour.
I follow a basic rule when I’m travelling. I don’t usually bring stuff I’m not willing to lose. My phone was less than $200, my camera’s pretty cheap too. The watch they almost got away with? It cost me about $60, and I’m sure the would be newfound owners would be disappointed to find out it displays 5:23 at all times. I don’t wear nice clothes, and if it’s late I keep my head on a swivel. If a street gives you the willies, trust your gut and move on. If every street gives you the willies, it’s probably just you though. Keep your wits about you, don’t get too drunk, and keep your money separated. If you have cash, keep some in your wallet, some in the backpack, some in your suitcase, and some in the safe. And there ain’t no shame in those little money belts you tuck into your pants. I haven’t used one in a while, but I do remember when I was starting out travelling professionally, it made me feel better knowing I was making it very tough to become a victim. Finally, if all else fails, travel insurance is your friend, and probably cheaper than you’d expect.
But most importantly, don’t let the fear of something like this prevent you from getting out there. The world really is a safer place than a lot of people would have you believe. If all else fails and things get nasty, just remember, whatever you’ve got on you isn’t worth it. Insure the big stuff, and forget about the rest. But the vast majority of tourist crime is nonviolent, and most people just want an easy target. Don’t be one, and you’ll be AAAAAA OOOOKAY. Now, I must be on my way. Whoa! Would you like at the time! It’s 5:23 already!?
I got the idea of this post while being wheeled through Metropolitan Hospital’s Emergency Room in the middle of the night. I’m writing it so maybe someone can learn from my stupidity and maybe it’ll save a life, who knows?
See, a few weeks ago, one of my comedy friends called me up and said she was taking a trip to Tokyo, her first to Asia ever. For those of you that haven’t booked a flight to Asia, here’s how your first one plays out in your head. First thought: WOW, This will be incredible! I wonder if it will live up to my expectations!! What an adventure! To the other side of the world we go!
Second thought: I have to be in a plane for HOW LONG?
So when my friend calls me up and asks, “Brad, how the hell am I going to survive a 14 hour flight?” I tell her have no fear, I've done this lots of times, I know juuuust what to do:
In case you can’t tell by now, yes, I’m talking about blood clots. I have always known blood clots are a thing that can happen, and that certain people can get them on long flights, but, you know…..other people. Not a healthy 32 year old man. But here I am, sitting at the moment in the ER, after several days of leg pain and a bulging, hard vein after landing from Bali via Shanghai. Once I started getting chills, I knew something was up. An ultrasound shows I do, indeed, have a blood clot in my leg, but it’s superficial and I’m not at high risk of much more dangerous complications. But I’m one of the lucky ones. One of my best friend’s sisters had one with life threatening complications, and just a couple weeks ago, a woman died on a flight from Hawaii to Dallas from a pulmonary embolism, which is where the clot travels to your lungs. She had stopped breathing by the time the flight landed. She was a 25 year old newlywed nurse. My leg’s been been bothering me for a few weeks. God, I’m so incredibly lucky.
It’s a bit ironic because I’ve been working on a piece entitled How Travelling 100,000 Miles In a Year Showed me How Small the World Is. But that’s a bit naive. Yes, it boggles my mind to think how the past 6 decades years of commercial travel has shrunk the planet, but it would be short sighted of me to not acknowledge that travel can kick your ass sometimes, and not just the “Papa needs a grande cafe con leche today” kind of kick-your-ass. I’ve spoken to a few of my professional travel friends since this incident, and I was shocked to find out I’d been left in the dust on this. My friend is a travel and alcohol writer and says she doesn’t touch the stuff on a flight. “Heellll no, gotta stay hydrated.” Another pro traveller friend told me he takes aspirin on every long haul flight he takes. Period. I should perhaps mention his aunt died from a blood clot.
It turns out I’m not the only one that’s been in the dark on this. 100,000 to 300,000 deaths from blood clots occur each year, which is greater than the total number of deaths caused by AIDS, breast cancer, and motor vehicle crashes combined. Yet in the United States, only 57 percent of those surveyed were aware of deadly blood clots, while about 90 percent were aware of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure, according to the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis (voted world’s sexiest magazine 3 years running!) Yeah, there’s a reason they have those videos of people rotating their ankles and flexing their calves on long haul flights.
So, from here on out, I’ll be the guy getting up every couple hours to do laps in the aisles, passing up wine for water (or as I call it, the Reverse Jesus), and wearing my sweet sweet compression socks with pride. Will I ever watch Baywatch, though? Eh, that probably can’t be good for my health.
HAHAHAHAHAHHAHA I’m Such a goddamn SHAM. I AM NOTHING. NOTHING IS ME.
Sometimes, I get to thinking I'm hot shit. I went to 16 countries on 4 continents last year, successfully managed my non-digital job back home, and performed comedy weekly in New York. Aw man! I’m awesome, right?! RIGHT?! Occasionally, when people are picking my brain about travel, I'll drop a line like, "Throw me into nearly any semi-developed area of the world, and I can find a place to stay that night, something to eat, and something cool to see..." Often, their eyes open wide and their jaw drops. "Wow, I could never do that! So brave!"
Lemme hear ya say UHHHHHHH! Damn, I'm cool. Pat myself on the back, cuz I'm FUGGIN RAD, BAABBYYY.
Except I’m nothing.
Cue Tony Giles. AKA Tony the Traveller. In an interview with The Telegraph, he says his goal is to travel to every country in the world. He's already done 127 countries on all 7 continents, including the entirety of South America, and all 50 US states. He’s written two books. He stumbled into Mali's capital during a military coup. He was arrested at the Ethiopian border. Dude’s got stories. Oh yeah, one teeny tiny thing: HE'S 80 PERCENT DEAF AND COMPLETELY BLIND.
I am nothing, nothing is me.
I mean.... how?
No seriously, like....HOW?
Okay, so let's play the Travel Game here, shall we? He speaks English fluently… that’s a big one, so +2 points for him. He’s also a white male... that helps too, so add a few more points there. Hmm, let's see... oh yeah he's fucking blind so MINUS A MILLION POINTSSS
So how does he do it? Yes, of course there’s the obvious to-do’s of booking a flight and a hotel and getting from your house to both of them, but what about all the stuff that happens out there? I mean, I've been caught with my travel pants down before: I got stranded by a cabbie in India, accidentally sauntered into a knife fight in Medellin, and was forced to hitchhike in Thailand. I’m prettttty sure seeing and hearing my surroundings were integral to me getting home safe. I imagine if I were blind and deaf, I’d be doing a lot more crying in ditches on the side of the road than Tony.
I think we could all learn a thing or 12 from Tony the Traveller. He says, “getting to places is a challenge but that adds to the beauty.” Oh yeah, I buy that. I think a lot about how the process and the result in travel work together to form something neither of them could have been on their own. The juice IS worth the squeeze, Tony.
It seems limiting to travel while only relying on three senses, but think about it, these are the three senses that stick with you the most. I can see the Great Wall of China, but I won’t feel its years. I can see Oaxaca’s bustling food markets, but I’ll never forget the smell and tastes of the meats and fruits and spices, blending into something completely its own. You don’t forget that easily.
But the biggest sensation? The one we all need to be reminded about? I’ll let Tony take this one in his own words. He says, “I can also feel space, which is difficult to explain. I sense the change in space when hiking the narrow trails of a forest, as they lead out to an open field when the fresh wind hits my face.” Oooooh. That’s it. That’s the stuff. I need to allow myself to tap into that more when I’m out there. It usually involves forgetting about my camera, unplugging my headphones, and just shutting up for a minute or two, but it’s there.
It’s so funny, we always use the word see to describe travel. We say, "I saw Trevi Fountain." You would never say, “Oh you went to Paris? Did you taste the Eiffel Tower?” Or “Make sure to hear the Penis Museum in Reykjavik*!” Saying the word "see" as a catch-all sets us up for an experiential failure.
Yeah, go see the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, sure, but you’ll seriously be doing yourself a huge disservice if you forget to pack the other four senses in your bag. To put it this way, this was Tony’s experience in Antarctica: “It was nine days of magic. I touched whale bones washed up on the shore, sat on huge chunks of ice, stroked glaciers and listened to the cackles of penguins all around.”
When I’m out there, I personally like to view the whole world as a playground, and it sounds like Tony’s waaay ahead of me there. Thanks for reminding me how it’s done, sir.
* - I was tempted to say "Be sure to taste the Penis Museum in Reykjavik," but after all, this blog is really for the kids, right?
I'm on a solo trip in Hong Kong, and I'm out in the Lan Kwai Fong district with three friends from my hostel. We’re drinking pints from the 7-Eleven on the street, right outside tons of bars. It’s apparently the thing to do. It's a nice night out, and we decide to walk back to our hostel. A few minutes in, police approach us and calmly motion us to one side of the road. Welllll, not exactly all of us. They forcefully grab my friend by the arm and push him up against a building. He tells us very carefully, "Guys! I need you to focus! Make sure they don't put anything in my pockets!". Dumb. Founded. He yells, "You have to make sure they don't plant drugs on me!" Wait, what the Lan Kwai Fudge is happening? Then, OF COURSE, it dawns on us.
He's black. We're white. It's China.
After a full morning of seeing the majestic Taj Mahal in the sweltering Indian heat, I'm sweaty, I'm nasty, and I'm in a t-shirt that I probably wouldn't mop up a bathroom floor with. We leave the Taj and our driver takes us to a restaurant for lunch. It's nice. Very few tourists. Everyone is dressed well, except for me. I frankly have no business being in that restaurant, but hellllooo there's the waiter, smiling and taking my drink order.
I'm white. It's India. I got a Coke, no problem.
My friend Mehdi has said he'd like to travel together for a long time. I invite him on my next trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. He says "oh man, I'd really love to go, but I'm not sure how safe I'd feel."
"Yeah, My ex girlfriend is from Sofia. She said it might not be safe for me to go to Bulgaria. I could be mistaken for a gypsy and there's a lot of animosity towards them there."
He's Persian. I'm white. It's Bulgaria.
Listen, I can't claim to know everything about race relations in every part of the world, but I do know this: at its worst, my skin color is a neutral trait almost anywhere I go. At best, it probably lets people that look like me get away with a lot more shit than other people.
I interviewed a girl this year who, as an experiment, travelled through South and Central America for 300 days this year with one simple rule: she can't take in or spend money at all. She instead offers to work for locals around the house, cook, do odd jobs, or professionally style locals' hair in exchange for a place to crash and some of the food she'll probably be cooking. I truly give her a lot of credit, she took responsibility and put her money (or lack thereof) where her mouth is, spending a lot of hungry nights sleeping in tents if she couldn't barter for a room. But at least some of the time, she was knocking on restaurants' doors, telling them about her project, and leaving with a plate of food they were about to throw out that evening. Or meeting locals who would take her home and give her a couch or a floor to sleep on. She had a litany of legitimate and, dare I say honorable reasons for doing this: She wanted to challenge people's conceptions of money, learn more about herself, and connect with others who are different from her, which, god knows the world could use a little more of these days. But the one fact that I can't seem to overlook is that a local knocking on a restaurant door asking for food gets shooed away, and yet a pretty white girl from Belgium leaves with a doggie bag.
As the Guardian noted in their article "Why Are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?", It's clear that this double standard permeates many aspects of not just our own culture, but that it’s pretty much everywhere. It’s true that expat is a term usually reserved for western white people going to work abroad, and yet Latinos, Arabs, Asians, and Africans are colloquially referred to as immigrants, even if they’re working in highly skilled jobs. It's very unlikely that I will ever be referred to as a migrant worker except maybe on the most esoteric governmental forms, and it's equally unlikely that I will experience much difficulty getting a cab, a table, a room, nearly anywhere in the world.
I wish I had the answer here. I wish I could help figure this out, even just in my own little way when I'm out there, but I spend a lot of time in different cultures with only a loose grasp of what's going on there in the first place. I can't really say "oh I shouldn't go to this restaurant, I feel underdressed and besides there's a FAAABULOUS place around the corner, and the chef is just a GEM!". I was just happy our driver took us to a place with food. Or I can't say to the officers in Hong Kong "Excuse me gentlemen. This is clearly a misunderstanding. Pursuant to local code 4-2, article 6, you need a search warrant to detain anyone OH WAIT I'M IN JAIL NOW BECAUSE FUCKED WITH HK COPS". Half the time, I'm just lucky to know where I am and where I'm going. How can I hope to change decades or centuries of oppression if I can hardly find the metro station?
I know there's a heated and necessary debate here in the US about white privilege. This post isn't about that, plain and simple. But I do think that privilege is borne out of people being accustomed to a certain type of treatment, and changing that treatment causes a negative reaction. When I travel, I've never grown accustomed to being treated in any particular way in the first place, which helps me see things for what they are. And my unfortunate conclusion is that, in many places, light colored skin and European ancestry is placed on a pedestal. If you need me, I’ll be over here, feigning shock.
Travel hasn’t made me happy. None of it has maaaade me happy. It’s nice to get out of my comfort zone and I feel a sense of fulfillment from all that I’ve done this year, but the happiness I currently have (and I am fairly happy) is something I still need to work on all the time. The saying is true, “wherever you go, there you are.” It might be easy to think of me as this intrepid world adventurer traveling to 16 countries last year, almost like a younger Dos Equis guy or Indiana Jones without all the Nazis, but really I’m just a dude that spent $3500 on flights and had a job flexible enough they haven’t fired me yet. There’s nothing actually heroic about taking a $300 flight to Reykjavik with my friends and renting a car, exploring waterfalls and hopping from hot springs to hot tubs. It’s just a nice thing that I’m glad I did, that’s all. Which, as I grow older, I’m realizing is kinda the point of it all. To do a lot of the things we like doing as often as we can and enjoy them while we do it. Which brings me to my next point:
Travel is bullshit. There’s a whole industry built around making you feel like a sack of dogturds if you don’t travel. “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us” reads the instagram post of the hot girl in the jungle, wearing a striking red dress that perfectly compliments the waterfall behind her. She has 187K insta followers. “To Travel is to Live”, says the tattoo of the bro from So Cal that just got “sooooo drunk dude” at that Full Moon party last night. He is the one that will complain check-out is at 10:30 and that is just too early, and he will probably have sex with another girl, who also happens to be from So Cal, tonight in the bunk above you. Squeak squeak squeak. But he’ll be the first one to tell you about how he “found himself in Thailand.” Neat.
And the main reason I have an issue with this is that these people are winning the “Look At How Great My Life Is” award right now, but I question their process. See, I met with a friend for coffee recently, and he is a playwright. But, he’s never left the country before, and he feels he is less-than because of it. He feels he is doing his art and audiences a disservice by only staying in one area of the world for his life. And you know how the old saying goes: “The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read but a page”, another quote someone thought would make a great tattoo but decided it was too long.
Now, I can talk all day about the benefits of travel and how it has truly bettered my life, but that’s not what this is about. What my friend needs to understand is that a lot of travel is bullshit. Especially from the people making him feel like crap for not doing it. But he doesn’t have much of a desire to travel. He says it’s a combination of the money and the fact it doesn’t really interest him. To that, I say: 1) don’t travel if you don’t want to and 2) don’t feel bad about it. All we are talking about here is the pursuit of personal growth, and travel can be a great catalyst for that. But so can about 100,000 other things: Learning a new craft, writing more, training for a marathon, meditating, working on being vulnerable in your relationships… I don’t need to give you a list of all the uncomfortable things we can do to improve ourselves, but all I’m saying is don’t feel like you need travel for any reason. History was written by many people that never went 100 miles from their home. It’s just a shame there’s about 1,000,000 Instagram accounts for travel and none about being vulnerable. So write your next wonderful play, friend. Dive as deep as you can into the human experience and share with the world what you’ve found. But don’t for a second feel bad about not getting out there. A lot of well travelled people aren’t half as impressive as you are. Remember that.