Travel tips from modern-day cave-dwelling nomads
Learn how to get around, meet locals and NOT get your head beat in with a baseball bat.
A lot of travel articles seem to be written for moneyed gentry. Even the ones along the lines of "How to be a traveler, not a tourist" really just tell you how to not be an obvious tourist – avoid fanny packs, eat where the locals eat, take local transportation, etc.
Something about that advice rings hollow. Instead of waking up in your hotel bed, you wake up in an Airbnb. Instead of going to the Eiffel Tower, you go to a nearby winery. You're not taking selfies floating in the Dead Sea, but you're not exactly changing up the general tourist routine either.
It's tough to break out of being a tourist. Unless, of course, you never stop traveling. I recently met some nomads living in a cave on a beach in southern Portugal. I'd traveled as a digital nomad throughout South America, Europe and Israel, but I was a newbie compared to them. Most had been traveling for years, generally with little or no cash. They gave me loads of useful travel tips for everything from saving money to making friends with locals to not getting your head beat in with a bat. Stuff like:
One American traveler, Russel Cain, is currently trying to walk all the ancient trade routes and has spent the last nine years backpacking across the world. He doesn't want me to use his real name.
Cain always travels with exotic spices. He fills a dozen containers with the best paprika and black cumin seeds he can get. That way, he can cook for people along the road. "You wouldn't believe how many people invite me in when I tell them that," he told me.
Even if you don't feel quite up to becoming a traveling chef, it's always a good idea to bring something to share. It makes people want to be around you.
Pretend maps don't exist
Yes, we live in an age where we can hear Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice on a GPS. And yes, that makes it easy to get from point A to point B. Too easy. If you want more to happen along your travels, you have to deal with some obstacles, like finding your way in a foreign country.
“If you need to find the nearest supermarket, ask someone," Robert Young, a Hungarian currently traveling around Europe in his van, told me. "That’s how you meet people."
Pretend money doesn't exist
If you're feeling adventurous, Cain suggested trying to get from point A to point B without spending any money. If that sounds impossible, that's kind of the point: "People are told they can't do it, but they can," Cain said. "You learn that all you need is patience."
You'll end up having a very different set of experiences than you will taking a bus. You'll also learn to trust yourself and other people.
"Tell people. Tell people you’re traveling without money," Cain said. "It’s a good way to break the stranger barrier. "
Talk to strangers
You may have noticed a theme here: a lot hinges on striking up relationships with strangers. If this makes you nervous, you're not alone; people are often uncomfortable around people they don't know. Sometimes, you're not even sure if striking up a conversation with a random person is polite.
But strangers are often pretty happy to talk to you and help you out.
“You learn you can talk to anyone," Young said. Hanging out with locals is the only real way to experience a new culture, and that's not something you can buy. Luckily, it's free. Just go where the locals go and chat with someone.
In Ireland, “have a pint, even if you don’t want it,” Young said. “That’s their wireless.”
Open your mind to alternative housing and transportation
In some places, flights are cheaper than bus rides. In others, people ride horses or hitchhike. Cain once hitchhiked a train. He was in the Netherlands, and a train just stopped for him. Basically, you don't know what's out there unless you explore. So do your research. Better yet, ask people around you.
You'll meet different people when you hitchhike across the desert than when you take an Amtrak. (Probably. Though you never know.) You'll meet different people staying in someone's apartment than you will in a hotel. A big part of travel is the actual travel. A big part of living somewhere new is the actual home you're living in.
Don't talk to people back home
Take a walk. Explore. Go to a courtyard/beach/plaza/park/bar. Strike up a conversation with someone. Read a book. Write something. Play a harmonica. Play cards. But whatever you do, be where you are. Don't spend all your time virtually back home, texting friends and watching TV. “Break the umbilical cord completely,” Young said.
“But call your mom," he added. Time passes differently while you're traveling. It moves slower. So it's easy to get caught up in your new surroundings and forget that people at home are used to talking to you more.
Smiling isn't just polite. It tells people that you like them, and it throws them off if they don't like you.
“If someone’s about to beat your head in with a baseball bat, smile,” Young told me. “And if that fails, bring whiskey.”
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