For the past 15 months, my wife Jane and I have been cycling the world, pedalling our bikes more than 15,000 km through 22 countries. Travelling this way has given us a new perspective on moving through the world as a tourist.
Here are a few tips for backpackers we’ve figured out that would never have occurred to us in our own backpacking days, but would have been extremely useful all the same. Here are the best ones.
I Want To Ride My Bicycle
The best way to get to know a city is to go for a ride. On a bike, it only takes a few minutes to get out of the tourist centre and be amongst people who are extremely excited to see foreigners in their neighborhood. As cycle tourists, we do this every time we leave a town, but backpackers rarely get to see real life on the outskirts.
You don’t need to go on a long ride, just rent a bike in any city you happen to be visiting and head towards the outskirts. Don’t ride the tourist trail, just pick a road and follow it, and don’t be afraid of mysterious side streets.
(Obviously, don’t do this in a dangerous country or city!)
The first time we experienced the freedom of cycling was in Luxor, Egypt, where we had been hounded into misery by touts. It was so refreshing to get away from the tourist traps and into a place where children were running up to the edge of the road waving, yelling hellos, and smiling the biggest smiles we’d seen. It was such a nice change from being treated like a walking wallet outside the tourist hotspots.
The Whole World In Your Pocket
GPS is amazing. One thing most people don’t realise is that the GPS in their smartphone or tablet will work even when they haven’t bought a local SIM card and aren’t online. (Tablets that are WiFi-only, such as the WiFi-only iPad/iPad mini, usually don’t have GPS built in.)
We have used GPS combined with a simple but powerful app, called Pocket Earth, to navigate our entire trip. It is especially helpful in cities when we’re looking for our guesthouse, sights, or recommended restaurants.
With Pocket Earth you can access OpenStreetMaps, make them offline, and navigate your way around cities, look at Wikivoyage and Wikipedia entries, search for the nearest post office/bank machine/restaurant/guesthouse, all while wandering the streets offline.
You can add locations to the map, so you can put your hostel on it, wander or cycle the streets at random, and always be able to find your way back home.
And best of all, when you’re on a bus, train, or longboat down the Mekong, your GPS will tell you exactly where you are, where your destination is, and how far you have to go. You never have to rely on the driver to alert you when it’s your stop.
Also, it only costs $3 and the maps are free. Total bargain, considering the number of times it’s saved us from the complete misery of being hopelessly lost.
If you are using an Apple device, get Pocket Earth, learn how to use it, and thank me later.
When we rode through China, where the language barrier was as big as The Great Wall, we kept talking about how useful a picture dictionary for food would be. We are both vegetarian, and we had flash cards printed that said “we don’t eat meat” in Chinese. But they didn’t say what we do eat, so people looked at us blankly, not knowing what to serve us.
Then one day I realised how simple it was to take some pictures with the iPad, put them into a folder, and use it to help us order.
If you’re going to a country where language is a problem, take pictures of your favourite food in each place (or just find them online) and make a picture food dictionary you can show at restaurants. This is especially helpful if you have special dietary requirements, and it is so simple I can’t believe it took us three months to get around to it.
People Are People
Tuk tuk drivers and touts are people too. It might sound obvious, but we have seen so many backpackers behaving angrily towards tuk tuk drivers or wearing t-shirts that say things like, “No Tuk Tuk, No Massage, No Watch.” Wearing a shirt like this is just plain rude.
It might as well say, “I don’t care about you or your culture. I am just here for beer, drugs, and sex.”
We have met a few locals during our travels who once drove tuk tuks. They all have the same story. They came from a small village to the tourist town to improve their lives and to better themselves. They taught themselves a little English, talked to tourists to learn more, and worked long hours every day.
For most men, driving a tuk tuk is a stepping stone.
The same goes for the people selling souvenirs, tours, and guide services.
It helps them earn a bit of money so that they can go to school, learn English, get a better job, and one day have enough money to get married, raise a family, and maybe own a house.
If you don’t want to take a tuk tuk, that’s cool. But when a driver asks you if you want a ride, respond to him like you’re speaking to an actual human being – someone with feelings, problems, and dreams. Make eye contact, be polite, say thank you, and smile. Maybe crack a joke or just say “we like to walk.”
Above all, remember, these guys are not on the street to be a pain in your ass. That $2 ride they are offering would actually go a long way to helping them take a step up the ladder of life.
We found that when we started treating tuk tuk drivers like people, they started treating us the same way, and instead of hounding us to use their service, they smiled and joked and laughed along with us.
There’s a great scene in Arrested Development that we think of almost every morning.
Michael Bluth: “What have we always said is the most important thing?”
George Michael: “Breakfast.”
Michael Bluth: “Family.”
George Michael: “Family, right. I thought you meant of the things you eat.”
Actually, I think George Michael had it right the first time.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and maybe the most important thing all day. We try not to rely on hostels or random restaurants for our most important meal.
Instead, we carry a tupperware container of muesli with us. Sometimes we buy it pre-made, sometimes we buy oats, dried fruit, and nuts, and mix it up ourselves. We used to carry soy milk to go with it. But we soon found that peanut butter and water mixed into the cereal made a tasty alternative, and meant we didn’t have to worry about carrying around boxes of milk. We always carry peanut butter as well.
Often it is difficult to find breakfast in the town you are visiting, and hostels usually just give you some slices of white bread with cheap jam. Having your own meal ready to go is a simple way to make sure you start your day well fed without having to wander the streets searching for food. Carrying a small bowl (we have MSR plate/bowls and cutlery (we have bamboo cutlery sets) means you can eat in the hostel, on the train, at the bus station, whenever, wherever.
A few times, when lunch hasn’t been available, we’ve eaten muesli for that meal too. It’s better than going hungry, that’s for sure.
For cycle tourists, being hungry is like a car running out of gas, you just can’t go on. For backpackers, it can lead to a miserable, wasted day.
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