One hundred and sixty days ago (150 to be more precise, but ‘Jules Verne Times One Point Nine’ doesn’t have the same ring to it) we parted from Lisbon headed West. Today we got back to our incredible home town, travelling from the East. Besides additional reassurance that the Earth is indeed round (would recommend the trip to these guys), what did we learn from this trip? What advice can we give someone thinking about doing the same thing? Read on for a full Q&A:
Happy to be back?
Yes! Maybe. You know that feeling you get when coming back home from holidays? It feels great to see friends and family again and not having to figure out where we’ll sleep next, but it takes time to get back into a normal routine. Before this trip, we were contented with all the work related travel we did. While it’s great to travel on someone else’s dime, travelling for fun is on a league of its own. It won’t take long before we put our trusty backpacks on again!
What were your favourite places?
Jules and I are very much into nature, so there’s two places that stood out: Galápagos, with its incredible wildlife; and New Zealand’s Lord of the Rings landscapes. I was also blown away by the vast deserts in Southwest US, but I’m not sure I could convince Jules to visit them again in the middle of the summer.
From a cultural standpoint, nothing left us more mystified than China and Japan. These were the first countries we ever visited that were not former European colonies, and the resulting cultural shock is one of those things you only experience once. That won’t stop us visiting these two incredible countries again, though!
For monuments, nothing beats the mystic of Angkor Wat, although Machu Picchu and the Great Wall come close. On cities, Buenos Aires combines old European charm with Argentinian flair; and Tokyo is completely bonkers.
Finally, for some soul-searching Mumbai is surely a reality check. But do visit Shanghai next, to see how fast things change. India and China have overcome uncountable hurdles to snatch close to 700 million people from living with less than a dollar per day. Many millions continue to do so, but the world is indeed a better place today.
What would you have done differently?
Besides continuously improving our planning and packing list (more on that below) we wouldn’t have made any big changes to our trip. I suspect that has more to do with atitude than with great planning skills though. There’s plenty that can go wrong with travelling: canceled flights, crummy hotels, bad weather, unrealistic expectations. When that happens, one can either focus on the negatives or look for positives. Linger on stuff like “remember that little bistro in Paris? Now that was good” or get over it and say “this is one lousy ratatouille, but look at that view”.
Were you ever in danger, or felt unsafe?
We were never in danger (we did have a couple of close calls driving a scooter in Goa though, and Verne’s decision to go to the Wild Wall after it rained was not terribly smart), but felt a bit unsafe in São Paulo and Lima. There’s three useful safety tips to consider: one, research beforehand which parts of the city are dodgy (e.g. ‘La Boca’ in Buenos Aires, ‘El Chorrillo’ in Panama City); two, don’t carry valuables or look like a lost tourist (map in hand, camera out); three, always be aware of your surroundings and people around you. Beyond that, just relax and enjoy your trip: the vast majority of the world is safe and meant to be walked through, not glimpsed between taxi rides.
Were there any big barriers like cultural gaps and indecipherable languages?
We found basic human behaviour to be the same pretty much everywhere i.e. a smile is always appreciated, yelling with someone is always a dumb thing to do. Hey, if we share 90%+ of our DNA with chimps, how different can our values be from country to country? Social customs can vary widely though: blowing your nose in public in Japan is a big no-no, Thais much prefer a wai to a handshake. In China it took us a while to realize this, but remember that you – the visitor – are the one that needs to adapt, not the other way around.
Knowing the local language ranges from a very big plus (in China, for instance, where almost nobody speaks English) to a nice-to-have (speaking Spanish in Latin America minimises your chances of being gringo-taxed) to completely irrelevant (everybody speaks English in Northern Europe).
A final word on food: nothing changes more from country to country as food. Unfortunately your intestinal flora doesn’t change as quickly, so eating abroad is always a balancing act between trying new things and avoiding stomach problems! Verne is a vegetarian, which added a further layer of complication, particularly in countries where vegetarianism is virtually unheard of or where you don’t know the local language well enough to explain it.
Did you have the entire trip planned from the start?
The only thing we bought beforehand were the tickets for the major flights (we got a round-the-world ticket from one of the airline alliances, but there are also travel agencies that specialise on this sort of thing), which gave us a rough itinerary to go by. Everything else (places to visit, domestic travel, accommodations) was booked a couple of days in advance.
This gave us ultimate flexibility to adapt our plan on the go and stay as long or a short as we felt to, but there are caveats. For one, there are things that can’t be done with such short notice (e.g. getting a permit for hiking up Huayna Picchu, buying train tickets for busy routes in India). Two, it creates a big daily overhead, as it takes time to properly research what you want to visit and ensure that all the separate bookings sum up to a coherent plan. Also, it’s probably not for everybody: some cringe at the idea of not knowing where they will sleep next. Personally, we find it liberating!
Any other things I should set up before I start my trip?
Yes, three things! One, get decent travel insurance: if you get hurt or sick you’ll want somebody else footing the bills. Two, get a travel credit card that charges less than a normal one for international transactions. For shorter trips though, the best option is to take cash with you and get it exchanged when you arrive (but don’t do it at the airport, as rates are much worse than in the city). Three, if you’re visiting countries where internet is censored (e.g. China), set up a VPN service beforehand, so you can access your email, Facebook and the likes.
Can you run me through your daily planning process, and the tools you used?
Before arriving to a new country we would take out our trusted notebook and scribble down an itinerary. For Peru, for instance, we settled down on a tour that took us from Lima to Arequipa to Puno to Cusco and back to Lima. The entire trip would be made by bus, since it was cheaper than flying and gave us a change to admire Peru’s incredible countryside.
We’re not big fans of travel guides (they tend to get outdated pretty fast and reflect the opinion of a single person) and prefer to base this sort of decisions on a myriad of sources: opinions from friends and locals, travel blogs, review platforms (e.g. TripAdvisor) and the good old Google search box. The fact that we decided to write this blog was also a great motivator, as it forced us to properly research each place we visited (a special thank you to Wikipedia: there’s no better source for good quality and – mostly – unbiased information on places).
After settling on the cities to visit on each country, it was time to decide what to do in each city. The tools we used for that were pretty much the same as above, and doing your homework really pays off. In Beijing, for instance, you can save a lot of money and avoid crowds by going to the Great Wall on your own, instead of on a tour. Doing that requires navigating through a sea of scammers and bus signs in Chinese, but fortunately there are awesome folks that have painstakingly documented the entire thing.
The final step was to find a place to sleep. Booking platforms (we mostly used Booking.com) are great for this, and you can usually find some reasonable last minute deals. If you are stingy like us, ditch hotels and go for guesthouses and bed & breakfasts instead. These can be cheaper than hostels and a lot more interesting, since you get to hang out with locals. Renting an airbnb apartment is a good idea if you’re staying at the same place for more than a couple of days, but not all cities have a decent enough offering yet.
Were there times when your plans went terribly wrong?
No, nothing major! The biggest issue was probably the ear infection Verne got in Goa, which forced us to skip the stop in Istambul and made for some pretty uncomfortable flights. There were a few other smaller setbacks, like Cambodian visas vanishing from the system, a cancelled credit card on our way from Sydney to Cairns, and a nasty cold in New Zealand’s frosty winter.
Transport wise, by some statistical fluke, not one of our 30+ flights was delayed! Train, boat and bus trips were also fine, apart from a terrible 27 hour bus ride in Peru.
Did your packing list work?
Yes! We seemed to get this mostly right on the first try: taking just cabin luggage was definitely the best option, and our backpacks worked wonders. Regarding the stuff we took, here’s a rundown of what we’ll keep and what we’ll scrap for the next trip:
- These waterproof jackets worked great, but for colder places like New Zealand the detachable liner could have been thicker
- Merino wool is definitely the way to go, as it has great temperature control, it’s sturdy and incredibly odor resistant. We did however have to buy thicker sweatshirts in New Zealand, after catching a cold;
- The jeans worked great, but the thick hiking pants had to be replaced for something cooler and faster drying
- I added an extra pair of shorts to the mix, as these are handy in warm climates and take up little space. My trusty old board shorts got torn in a surf session in Costa Rica, and had to be replaced.
- These merino scarfs are great for the cold and double up as headbands/sweatbands for hiking
- Merino underwear is incredibly comfortable and dries very fast, so you can wash it every night and make do with only a couple of pairs
- The same goes for merino socks
- We’ll probably replace this running gear with merino versions for the next trip, in order to enjoy smell-free early morning jogs
- These light hiking shoes worked great both for hikes and for walking around colder cities
- Our running shoes also did double duty for running and just walking around. Make sure to go for a pair of light ones
- Flip-flops worked great for the beach and warmer climates, but some people find them uncomfortable. Sandals might be an alternative
- Packing cubes are a must, as they make packing and unpacking much faster (an important thing, since you’ll be doing it on a daily basis)
- We never used this water bottle, we just reused disposable water bottles
- We didn’t have to resort to our mummy liners more than a couple of times, but we were glad we had them in some of the more grimy places we stayed
- These compact travel towels are almost as good as regular towels but take up much less space. Make sure to get a good one, as the cheaper options are not that great
- We didn’t use our travel belts once: these things are uncomfortable and it just made more sense to spread out our valuables in multiple places (also, make sure you have copies of your documents, both printed and stored in your phone)
- Instead of travel cutlery, we’ll take a spork next time
- Most electronics these days use USB chargers, so you can just take one charger plus the cables (but go for a charger with multiple sockets, so you can charge multiple devices at once). Worldwide socket adapters are also a must: make sure you don’t leave yours behind like we did!
- Our lucky charm kept us safe during the entire trip, but suffered a bit with the altitude
- Avoid sunglasses with surface treatments (e.g. mirrored lenses), as these generally don’t play nice with salt water. We ruined ours on a speed boat in Galápagos
- Smartphones these days can be used for pretty much everything from booking a hotel to taking pictures (more on pictures below)
- You can probably forego the notebook for the smartphone, but there’s something magical about old style writing
- Scrap the smartphone armband and just take it in your hand while running: it’s not heavy and makes taking pictures much easier
- This tablet with extra keyboard worked great for writing our posts and researching places. It’s not as powerful as a laptop, but much much smaller and lighter
- If you like reading but are not a fan of eBook readers you’re in trouble. There’s no place in a backpack for 5 months worth of books!
- Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere, so we wouldn’t take this mobile hotspot again unless we were planning on staying on the same country for a longer period. For short stays it’s not worth buying a local data SIM card
- We used this battery pack daily: smartphones are great but have terrible battery life, specially when you’re taking pictures all day long
- Most smartphones these days come with GPS, so a GPS smartwatch is not essential (unless you’re hooked on Strava like Verne)
- You can make do with a pair of regular earphones, but noise-cancelling earphones are incredible for the plane
We also had a chance to discuss this packing list with our friend Rossana, lightweight packer extraordinaire. Here’s what she had to say:
“I have the same jacket, it’s awesome! Mine is beige but doesn’t get too dirty. I usually don’t travel with jeans, as they’re heavy and take a long time to dry up. Instead I take some slacks and water-repellent hiking pants. The latter are very comfortable and can be made into shorts, so they are super flexible. I also take a pair of board shorts that are cool enough for walking around the city. If I’m travelling to places where there’s a beach or a swimming pool, I’ll take a pareo that also serves as a towel.
My favourite pice of footwear are hiking sandals: I think I would wear them all year long if they weren’t so cold! I don’t like flip-flips so I use a pair of strappy sandals instead. They are trendy enough for parties and robust enough to use at the beach and to shower at dodgier places!
I replaced my mummy liner with a sleeping bag with similar weight and volume. I always carry a spork, even when staying at 5-star hotels. I used to have the same packing cubes that you guys have, but replaced them with full-mesh versions that weight less and last longer (they are much more expensive though).
I use a Nalgene 1-liter water bottle that doubles as a liquid container (it can be used for coffee and tea too, as it remains taste-free) and a waterproof container for electronics. Plus, it has the right volume for the water purification tablets I use and comes with a nifty little Camelbak-type straw for hiking.
What about hygiene products? Personally I scrapped liquid products because of the airline restrictions (I never check in luggage). I buy solid versions of most hygiene products, even toothpaste: they’re much lighter and take up less space. The only exceptions are deodorant and skin lotion (the solid versions wear up too quickly)”
If you did this trip again would you still use only a smartphone for pictures, or would you take a proper camera?
We don’t know. Before this trip we didn’t even own a decent camera, so the decision to just take a smartphone was straightforward. During our trip we got more and more into photography, so we bought a nice camera when we got back.
Current smartphone cameras are incredible, but image quality is still well below DSLR and mirrorless cameras, particularly for low light or high contrast shots (both of which happen a lot while travelling). You’re also stuck with a wide-angle lens (no close-up shots of that cute koala) and the flexibility to tweak settings and to post-process photos is also much more limited.
While taking a camera on a shorter trip is relatively straightforward, doing so in a multi-month trip poses considerable challenges. First of all, they take up much more space: DSLR cameras are unwieldy things but even mirrorless ones are much larger than a smartphone and require extra accessories (e.g. lenses, batteries, memory cards, dedicated charger). Two, files are much larger (particularly if you’re shooting in RAW) and harder to edit on a tablet (remember that a laptop is a lot of extra weight and volume on long trips). Three, backing up photos will be much more complicated: on a smartphone you can just set up a cloud service that automatically backs up photos (e.g. Google Photos, Dropbox, OneDrive), but with a camera you’ll have to first transfer the photos from the memory card to your tablet/smartphone and then upload them. Since the files are much larger, uploading them can take ages, particularly in places with terrible internet (e.g. New Zealand, China).
Irrespective of taking a smartphone or camera with you, also consider grabbing an action camera (e.g. GoPro). These things make fantastic videos and reasonable photos and, best of all, are waterproof and shockproof. Just keep in mind that without post-processing your underwater photos will look terrible:
What are your big takeaways from this trip?
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “it is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”. Either way, we came out of this trip with an overwhelmingly positive view of the world: the majority of the people we’ve met were both good AND charming (or at least interesting in their own unique way). Is that naive? Maybe, but that’s much better than being a cynic, at least in this context: trusting people is a fundamental part of travelling (although we might have taken that mantra a step too far with the tea scammers in Shanghai).
Another thing we learned was that the world is indeed big: from a total of 190+ countries we only managed to visit twenty or so in the five months we travelled. Within the countries we visited we rarely had the chance to see more than two or three cities. Within those cities, we only managed to visit a handful of places. Our journey was a very spotty affair that surely needs to be complemented!
Jules & Verne*