There was no way I could have spent 9 Months in Tibet without building up what I call independent travel skills. These are the practices that enabled me to thrive in foreign cultures.
In this article I will explain these skills for future travellers, and people who feel trapped by their circumstances, to be able to prepare psychologically for independent travel. It's also the first article I've posted on my new Independent Travel Blog.
This is perhaps the key travel skill as you simply can't travel for an extended period if you're mentally and emotionally tied to possessions and people back home. My advice: explain your plan to your friends and family and they may well support you in ways that you would never have expected. The best way to "let go" is to read some Buddhist texts, especially those by the Dalai Lama, as letting go is at the core of their faith. And learn how to meditate.
I used to think that lack of money was the main barrier to independent travel but actually it's the least important on these skills. What I found was that when you have a plan -- well, in my case, a destination -- and some determination, the money comes together surprisingly easy. Saving up is about not spending money on the usual things (like "going out") and there are numerous way of raising money from friends, family, local businesses or sources like Kickstarter.
Mastering Fear & Complacency
This deadly duo almost stopped me from going on my two year journey and I wrote about my fear of travelling alone in the first chapter of 9 Months in Tibet. I found complacency to be a bigger problem as it sneaked up on me when I least expected it; I was earning good money, had a nice girlfriend and the reasons for not going were building up fast. What got me up and away was a friend who reminded me that we'd agreed to meet in Berlin on a particular date. I guess the essential ingredient here is a deadline -- a date when you absolutely have to be somewhere (not just a date when you "should" go) and the best way to do this is set something up at the destination (like buying tickets to an expensive rock concert) that will make you tear yourself away from the comforts of your comfortable, and seemingly independent, life.
Living Cheaply & Travelling Light
Living as cheaply as possible is essential for the independent traveller but this isn't easy for someone who's used to staying in hotels and doing the tourist circuit. You can practise this skill on holidays and weekends by camping, hitchhiking, staying in hostels, trying couch surfing and staying with friends of friends. Eventually you'll reach the point when you realise that comfort and privacy aren't actually as important as many people believe (and if you don't come to this conclusion then independent travel isn't for you). On the baggage front the key is to take the smallest bag possible.
Being Open to Other Cultures
Independent travel would be no fun if you weren't open to other cultures. For me the turning point came in a Thai jungle where I realised that life in a primitive village is a lot more interesting than I had suspected. From then on I observed different ways of life and learned to listen to peoples' perspectives of politics and history without contradicting them. I've been doing it ever since and it keeps me curious, fresh and optimistic.
A lot of people, and their parents, worry about being robbed or cheated and it does happen. But if you have the right attitude you'll be fine. I think the essential ingredient here is confidence as that helps you evaluate each situation calmly, to avoid panic and to take the right decision. My approach is to to trust people, however dodgy they may look, but not get too familiar with them. The key word is respect: if people can see that you respect them they will serve you and protect you; if they suspect that you're looking down on them they may feel humiliated and anything is possible. But you have to strike the right balance so that you don't come across as gushing, over-friendly or gullible.
Developing Your Own Moral Code
This is something that I didn't plan for but I developed over many years and it was a bonus. The main point here is that we are surrounded by rules and regulations but the most important ones are those you have developed personally. For me the turning point was when I was about 9 and I decided not to steal again (I was into shoplifting). I realised that to even steal a penny would be a betrayal of my code. When I was in Asia I ran out of money and was offered the chance of smuggling drugs; my moral code told me to steer well clear of corrupt opportunities and I've been doing so ever since. It also helped me to avoid cannabis as it induces paranoia and laziness -- exactly what you don't need when travelling the world.
Don't Plan to See Everything
My friend Manuela was travelling through the USA and she wrote an article called The Most Difficult Thing About Travelling in which she says: "there are things I wish I could see but I'm not going to. Foods I'm not going to try, routes I'll never walk. Experiences I might never get. And that can be really frustrating and spoil the good experiences."
My planning consists of getting somewhere and then working out what to do when I get there. I avoid visiting the galleries, museums and tourist attractions unless it happens randomly, or someone takes me, and I also avoid guidebooks and overly researching the destination. I think that making lists of places to see only results in disappointment. The result is that everything is a surprise and a discovery and I don't get frustrated by not seeing stuff as I'd never planned to in the first place.
Last but not least. I think travelling alone may be the key to independent travel. It took me a few years to overcome my fear of travelling alone but when I did the rewards were immense. In Asia I kept meeting couples who were sick of each other, which isn't surprising considering they'd been living cheek by jowl for months. When you're alone you meet so many more people as you're so much more approachable than a couple or a group. And you're so much more flexible in that you can change your mind about anything, stop for a rest whenever you want and without having to agree everything. Relationships can be wonderful but long term journeys together can place them under tremendous strain.