By: Devin Hargrove
Every day that I am backpacking is a great day, but not every day that I have been backpacking has been a good day. After finally unshackling myself from the chains of two jobs and college and booking a ticket to Bangkok early in October of 2014, I had developed the mindset that everything was about to be perfect.
As many first time backpackers are wanting to do – after reading all of the blogs and about the new age of digital nomads foregoing the regular career path and safety nets of guaranteed salaries for the chance to build something for themselves – I assumed that life was about to be strictly sunshine and the most beautiful beaches in the world. For the most part that is what I found – millions of people a year and counting aren’t choosing to take a break from their jobs to backpack the world for no reason at all – but it was a folly in thinking that there wouldn’t be a couple of bad or even nightmarish days in between all of the fun and excitement that came with learning of new cultures and experiencing places dramatically different than Texas where I grew up.
The first day you spend backpacking is one of the greatest experiences you will have. For most people the day consists of flights from your home country to your destination, a mix of nervousness at going someplace unknown, and exhilaration at the thoughts of the adventures to come. My own experience was no different, consisting of a sixteen hour flight from Dallas, Texas to Dubai, and then another nine hour flight from Dubai to Bangkok. From the moment the plane left Dallas I could only be in awe of this world and its beauty. As the rolling green hills and flat stretches of farm land of the United States gave way to the icy Atlantic Ocean and then day gave way to night and the cities of Europe dotted the landscape, I truly understood just how big the world was.
My first view of Dubai, the towering and powerful Burj Khalifa, made my mind race. I realised the potential of the human race and our dreams and imagination as I stared at the desert oasis that is the city of Dubai. At that moment, I reaffirmed in myself my decision to abandon everything I found comfortable in life in order to find change.
I arrived in Bangkok and after getting through customs and taking the railway to the middle of the city, began wandering around. If someone could create a drug which encapsulates the experience of wandering around for the first time, completely lost and at your own whims with no job and no set place to be, then it would quickly become the world’s new big addiction. The colours seem brighter, the world seems more majestic, and permeating the air is the feeling that around any corner was a new adventure to be had.
How could anything go wrong or anything bad could happen when everything was so perfect I wondered as the days began to pass and new friends and amazing parties gave way to beautiful temples and the best beaches in the world. However, on my second day on Koh Tao I quickly learned that not only can bad things happen, but that a situation can turn very fast.
I had been traveling through the streets on a moped rental and swerved to avoid a truck that was coming around a corner. Even though I missed the truck, I ran over a patch of loose gravel washed on the road from the rains the night before, and my back tire gave out on me. I wasn’t injured seriously beyond some bad scraping on my foot and elbow, and since this wasn’t my first time wrecking on a two wheeled form of transportation I was quickly able to shake it off and get up. However, the jarring realisation that even in paradise one was not invincible quickly turned my understanding of what backpacking could be. My scraped and bruised foot, which required me to use a crutch until it heeled, was a reminder that vigilance would always be necessary and to plan for the bad days.
It wouldn’t be my first bad experience with mopeds in the Thai Islands, the next not happening to me but a companion who was on a separate moped. This time in Koh Pha Ngan, I was riding with a group of five people through one of the middle roads on the island. I and two of the guys on a separate scooter were in the lead at the bottom of a hill. All of a sudden the jarring noise that comes after two vehicles collide rocketed through the surrounding environment and both mine and the scooter ahead of me came to an almost instant stop. The three of us in front turned just in time to see one of our other companions flying through the air and landing on the hood of a small SUV just up the hill, hundreds of pieces of what had once been his scooter now flying ahead.
He had swerved to miss a pothole and collided dead centre into the oncoming vehicle. I still don’t know how after seeing the scooter – which had been reduced to an accordion looking mixture of metal and plastic – but he was completely fine short of a few bruises and scrapes. Despite this, everyone who had been there was not lost on the fact that things could have very easily turned out different. We all understood just how very real the experience of backpacking could get, and just how precious and fragile all of our lives were set against the exotic backdrop of Thailand.
Not every bad day is so drastic an event however, as I found out on my first visit to Costa Rica. What was going to be a great first backpacking trip for my girlfriend quickly began to unravel with something as trivial as leaving both of the cameras in our car at the airport. After that we arrived only to find out that the money transferred to my Charles Schwab account hadn’t posted and that we would be living for the next three days on only a hundred dollars between the both of us. It seemed like one thing led to another, and even though there were many great experiences on the trip, the overall feeling had been soured.
The trip culminated in the both of us catching a minor case of food poisoning and missing our return flight because of our inability to leave the bathroom. We arrived at the airport thirty minutes late and were not allowed to check in causing us to have to stay at the airport for the next day, both still sick, as we waited to catch the next plane.
Even though I have had a few bad experiences on the road, each of them pales in comparison to the countless great memories and the friends which I have made during my travels. Even though some of these experiences would deter others from further travel or at the very least leave them cautious in their pursuits, I was instead made bolder with the experiences and lessons learned.
I learned that even though you should strive for happiness and work on building the life you want, you shouldn’t be deterred when something comes along that throws you off of the path. I took away the understanding that the only way to get through a tense and stressful situation is with a cool and level head and focus. I realised that all throughout my life bad things are going to happen and events are going to occur that challenge my resolve – I cannot control that. But what I can control is how I react to these events and the lessons that I choose to take away from them.
So even though everyday isn’t going to be perfect backpacking, and sometimes the day may be just downright miserable, there is not a person on earth that regrets the experience. If I could do it all again knowing of everything that would happen, I wouldn’t change anything. I can only encourage that you try backpacking for yourself, and to remember to take the bad with the good, because at the end of the day both are an integral part living a proper and fulfilled life.
Devin Hargrove is the editor for Backpackers HQ, and a personal friend of mine who I met on his aforementioned trip to Bangkok. Thankfully for me, I didn’t follow him to Koh Tao!