For me, travelling to a strange country is like trysting with a new lover. You prepare for the encounter with utmost care, savour each stolen moment with your beloved and suffer the time of parting like death itself.
But as every seasoned globe-trotter knows, journeys abroad are not purely glam and fun, especially if you have little cash to burn.
All my dollar earnings – and what little I can spare – go into my travel kitty. I save to travel. On top of that, I compute everything to the last centavo before I go and stick to my budget when I reach my destination.
I book my planes and buses, as well as my hostels and campgrounds, well in advance to get the most discounts. I get city passes which save me a lot on attractions and allow unlimited rides on public transport for several days. I even haggle with outfitters and service providers and sometimes get away with it.
I get tips, not just from tourist help desks, chambers of commerce, travel books, blogs and online communities, but also from guides, fellow backpackers on the road and on hostel or campground bulletin boards.
Many thought I was a cheapskate for coughing out P403,000 for my first 3-month European adventure, all-in (including visa fees, taxes, plane tickets, transport by bus and ferry in 12 countries and 50 destinations, hostel and camp accommodations, food, admission fees for museums , zoos and all attractions, incidentals and souvenirs).
Come to think of it, imagination is the limit when it comes to scrimping. A Guinness record holder for globe-trotting, a British named Graham Hughes, spent about P5,000 per week or less than P1 Million visiting all 201 countries on earth. He used buses, taxis, trains and his own foot power (no planes) to cover 160,000 miles in four years.
Aside from laying aside substantial cash, it takes certain survival skills, a specific mindset to find a sense of fun in all the hassles – the visa red tapes, the documents you have to prepare, the waiting and the embassy interviews (praying the consul is not having a bad hair day), crossing time zones, dealing with jet lags, sub-zero temperatures, unfamiliar terrain and culture.
You must have the patience of a saint. You spend lots of time queuing, from the embassies to the airports and the hostels, from the museums and the attractions to the buses and metros. Sometimes it seems you spend most days packing and unpacking, or just finding out how to get from one place to another. It could be extremely stressful.
I plan meticulously, up to a year ahead, for difficult destinations like Mongolia, studying the Trans-Siberian train schedules, alternative transport routes, comparing accommodation rates, knowing what tourist traps and scams to avoid.
Also, if you go for remote places like me, you learn to live without little comforts, like running water and electricity, among other things.
In the mountains of Bayaan Ulgii, I walked for hours down the mountain in minus 30 degrees weather in winter, to hack ice from a frozen spring for water to drink. I melted the ice chunks on a stove fuelled by yak and camel dung. At night, I slept in a “ger” tent, with jet stream winds screaming nonstop outside.
In the tropical rainforests, I had to deal with flash floods, falling trees, mudslides, leeches, poisonous snakes and wild predators.
And no matter what you do, you’ll get lost. Soon enough, you’ll find that maps are not always accurate. The little streets are not there. Even Global Positioning Systems can give you false readings, like when you’re in the bottom of a canyon. Street signs and metro signs will be in a foreign language. You’ll be lucky to find people who speak English.
(Me at the Tower of Pisa, Italy.)
I’ve been lost all over the planet. But I found more interesting things and met so many kind strangers in that manner. Mind you, I don’t pick up foreign languages easily. But I see to it that I can say “hello” and “thank you” in the local tongue. Somehow, it makes folks more favourably disposed.
(Me at Sacre Coeur, Montemarte, Paris.)
In Cappadocia, Turkey, when I missed my bus, a local guy phoned the owner of the bus line himself. In Russia, a kind babushka took the trouble to call her Filipina maid to give me the right directions to the nearest Catholic church in Moscow.
(Me in Moscow.)
In the Cyclades, Greece, a rambunctious troupe of local dancers drove me to the very doorstep of my Santorini hostel after I took a wrong turn at midnight. In Athens, an elderly Greek lady steered me to the right train platform in the middle of the mass transport strike. A gentleman gave me fruits in the quayside when my ship for Ancona, Italy docked late.
(Me with Nike in the Louvre, Paris.)
A handsome stranger gave me a long-stemmed rose in Madrid just because he wanted to and a restaurant owner treated me to the most mouth-watering tapas on the house just because I’m a Filipina and he had wonderful memories of my country.
In Milan, a family insisted I join them for dinner before giving me directions while in Venice, the whole Italian neighborhood turned up to help me out of their labyrinthine street but not after they’ve plied me with food and drink.
Needless to say, I was touched. When cash gets tight, the first thing I cut is my food budget although I need energy to walk from dawn to midnight most days. I don’t eat in restaurants unless I really need to sample the cuisine the place has to offer.
Anyway, supermarket fare is enough for me. I lived on “onigiri” – rice balls wrapped in toasted seaweed sheets in Japan, marinated artichoke hearts and bottled pickled herring fillets (rollmops) in Europe, chub sausages in Canada and Chinese take-out in most countries I visited when I crave for “comfort food”.
It didn’t help that before I left for Moscow, a terrorist bombed the airport where I was scheduled to land. A lot of tourists were killed.
Bombs exploded in Istanbul after I left the city and rioters overran Bangkok a matter of hours after my plane took off for Manila. Two people slipped and died in the same trail I took in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. In Mongolia, one of my buddies nearly died of altitude sickness.
I had my own close calls. Despite online researches and inquiries, I was trapped by the demented couple in Fallon, Nevada. Aside from the bite of a 250-pound cougar, I had near disasters from defective borrowed equipment while scuba diving. I could have drowned. In Thailand, a tiger got loose and nearly pounced on me. If I have not kept my head, I’ll be dead.
Of course, staying at home doesn’t mean you won’t get killed. We all die. That’s a fact. But it’s good to be prepared. A travel insurance is a must (though I failed to get one for my Fallon stint because I never expected I’ll be injured by a big cat).
Very early on, I had this habit of updating my living will before flying out. It’s not being morbid. Aside from being a solo woman traveler, I’m an only child and the sole breadwinner. I live a very exciting life but travelling the way I do, you learn to expect the worst though you always hope for the best.
Add to that, I provide my best friend with my detailed itinerary each time before I leave. That’s a good precaution in case I go missing. At least, someone will know where I’m supposed to be and notify authorities where to look for me.
I was in Canyonlands, in a different part of the second largest and one of the wildest American national parks, when Aron Ralston of “127 Hours” movie fame was trapped by a fallen boulder. He had to amputate his own arm with a dull knife to free himself. I got lost near the Devil’s Kitchen but not trapped, fortunately.
After all is said and done, preparing for every journey is just as exciting as getting there. The love affair with your destination begins in your head, long before you research your itinerary, before you make your bookings and hit the road.
(Me in Salzburg, Austria.)
I still dream of faraway places every day. There’s still so much more I want to explore and experience. I feel my whole lifetime can’t ever be enough. And I intend to travel for as long as my body will permit me.
For me, each journey is a great pilgrimage, not just into the world but into myself. That’s why I love to travel. In fact, I live to travel.
(Reprinted from my regular Sunday Travel column at the Manila Bulletin, “My World in a Flashpack”.)