I’m back home in America safe and sound…and sick and jetlagged and covered with all kinds of weird bugbites 8)
Posts on the last couple weeks in Brazil will follow.
I’ve really learned a lot over the past month about how to plan a successful vacation. Although I’ve traveled quite extensively in my lifetime, this was first time I’ve been on a completely free-form international trip, without an itinerary or reservations. Ordinarily I plan each and every day almost to the hour, but this time I just hopped on a plane and hoped for the best. I can see plusses and minuses to both approaches. It’s nice being able to say “Let’s just stay here one more day” after finding a particularly nice location, or to hear about a cool nearby city and just pick up and go. But at the same time it makes things much more expensive, as you often get stuck missing a bus and having to take a taxi, or not being able to find a cheap hotel vacancy. It’s even more difficult in a country with undeveloped and slow transportation; sometimes you find yourself sitting around in a bus station with hours to kill, eventually missing out on something you really wanted to do on account of not being able to get there in time.
It also depends on who you’re traveling with. Without Peder, his note-filled Lonely Planet, and his Spanish language ability, this trip probably wouldn’t have been half of what it was. I really owe a lot to him. Still, it felt very strange to rely so heavily on someone else to handle everything from talking to ticket salesmen to finding hotels when I’d gotten so used to handling everything for myself on my other recent vacations. Maybe I’d gotten too used to Japanese being so easy, but in Brazil I just can’t communicate.
Looking back on the month as a whole, I realize that I made a lot of mistakes by underpreparing for this trip. Even with Peder’s help, without researching for myself and obtaining the knowledge of my surroundings I often felt unable to offer as much input and decision-making influence as I’d have liked. Peder and I get along great, but we also have different travel styles in a number of ways – I like moving quickly, hopping around and getting a brief taste of a variety of locations, whereas he prefers to settle down, unpack, and really get to know a place before leaving. I like getting lots of rest, waking up at the crack of dawn, and spending every hour of sunlight outdoors, whereas he likes staying out all night, partying with the locals, making new friends, and sleeping a few short hours before starting the day at noon. (To be fair, I love this too – just not quite as often I think 😉 ) Both approaches definitely have merits, and it was an interesting experience to travel his way – I can honestly say I’ve never had even close to as much fun with nightlife as I have with Peder, both in Japan and in Brazil. But the fact remains that I was grossly underprepared for this trip. I knew I was underprepared even before leaving, but in this case I had little choice – the dates were set, I had to be here by Carnaval.
So, what to do next time? Two simple things.
First, never rush into a trip, and spend at least a month or two studying the language beforehand. Many people say that you can go anywhere in the world with English, but this just isn’t true. Maybe if you only want to visit touristy locations and expensive restaurants, sure, but I like getting out into the wilderness, seeing the “real” country. And out there no one speaks English. Even a few months of study can really make a huge difference. I hope to never leave for an international vacation again without at least some ability with the local language.
Second is to research. Reading guidebooks along the way can work in some situations, but I really think that for any trip without a set itinerary and reservations you should read the entire Lonely Planet cover-to-cover before leaving. Take detailed notes: what’s in and around each area, how long does it take to get from A to B, how frequent are busses, what page number to reference, etc. From past experience, recent experimentation, and talking with Peder, I think I’ve got a pretty good system. Next time when I show up in a new region I want to open the book and see one page with everything that interests me in a 100-mile radius.
You live you learn. I can’t wait until next time.
One additional problem I had on this trip that I’d never quite experienced before was blogging. I like writing, both for myself and to keep my friends and family abreast on my whereabouts, but blogging with travel companions offers quite a few challenges that don’t exist while traveling alone. Keeping up has always been difficult, but with other people now moving around on the same schedule, what do they do while I’m writing? How do I concentrate in a room with four people chatting and getting ready to leave? Can I wake up earlier and write for a few hours while the others sleep? Not if we were out partying until sunrise. In the case of this trip I often found myself writing while Peder continued to research in his Lonely Planet, further exacerbating the problem of my feeling like a follower instead of a leader. I’m not sure how I’d resolve this one in the future, but fully researching in advance should at least help.
We’ll see. In any case, I owe Peder a big thanks for being the leader and enabling me to write on this trip. I guess next time we’re in Japan it’ll be my turn to take the reins once again 😉