Posted October 12, 2012 by in Backpackology 101

Travel Tip #1: Culture Shock, Travel Challenges, and the Order of Countries

Backpackology is a bit of a misnomer—it implies that there is something scientific, perhaps educational; that there’s something to learn.  While this was my original intent, I instead mostly just talk about my bowel movements, pose like an idiot in front of third world landmarks, and subject you to my filthy potty mouth. There are two reasons for this:

1) I have a vampiric thirst for the spotlight because I’m a lonely fat kid with braces inside. I could be teaching you secrets of booking airfare but HEY GUYS LOOK AT ME.

2) Because I have too much to say and overwrite everything (like right now). I’ll write a subject at the top of my notebook and then just sit there for eleven hours straight, scribbling away under the spell of Adderall, until I’m left with an article the length of ‘Ulysses’ discussing the pros and cons of window vs. aisle seat, as visions of hell flash before my eyes.

Then I realize: Nobody wants to read a nine-page dissertation about window vs. aisle seat, and just as important, I don’t want to write a nine-pages about that either. So, in an effort to bring the ‘ology’ back to this site…

Introducing: Travel Tips!

They’re short! They’re fun! They’re informative! They’re easy to write!

Running with last week’s theme of travel itineraries, let’s say you’re planning an extended trip that involves flying between several disparate countries.

When deciding the exact order of which countries you’ll be visiting, you need to be conscious of how culture shock, the language barrier, and overall challenge will affect your experience in each place.

Let’s pretend that you’re planning a trip to India, Mongolia, Thailand, and Australia.

You arrive in India first. Stepping off the plane, you feel the full sensory assault of the subcontinent—everything looks different, sounds different, smells different; nothing makes any sense whatsoever. After battling a hoard of bloodthirsty cab drivers and only being marginally ripped off, you make your way to your hotel—honking and weaving between oncoming traffic and cows. When the cab drops you off in Connaught Place, you discover that the sewage pipes have ruptured out of the ground (again), and a gushing, fifteen-foot fountain of human waste stands between you and your hotel. The smell is soul-crushing. A Japanese tourist is crying. (This is a true arrival story, if you were wondering). You’re overwhelmed and underprepared.

It would have been much easier, emotionally and physically, to kick off the trip with a more familiar, developed country, like Australia, and then gradually increase travel challenge as you hone your backpacking skills. Start with the little hurdles. Start with trying to navigate the Sydney Metro system and then work your way up to trying to hitchhike your way out of the Gobi desert with a Mongolian phrasebook. But, for the sake of this illustration, you start with India…

You survive the fecal whirlwind, get used to cows wandering into convenience stores, and learn to fall back asleep when elephants scream outside your hut. Then you head to Mongolia and the skills you’ve developed are put to the test battling the utter lack of tourist infrastructure. While traveling, you learn that its polite to first flick your fermented horse milk into the air before drinking to honor the sky god, that there probably wont be another bus until next Wednesday, and that any mundane task is rendered hilarious when you’re wearing an oversized Mongolian del.

Then you get to Thailand… and standing amongst crowds of other Westerners in climate-controlled, English-menu bars doesn’t seem as exotic or exhilarating as you’d hoped. You get in line to try some weird street food, but the thrill of adventure has diminished.

By the time you get to Sydney, another American girl at your hostel excitedly points out how everyone talks kinda funny and drives on the wrong side of the road. And vegemite? Oh brave new world!

To which you yawn and reply, “Yesterday, I ate a duck fetus in Bangkok.”

My point is that perspective is relative. As travelers, we seek that which is different, but it’s important to remember that as we travel, our perspective of what is different shifts. If you had done the trip in reverse and started in Sydney, Australia’s cultural gaps would have seemed like chasms. But instead, after the madness of Asia, they feel underwhelmingly familiar. It’s more exciting to climb deeper down the rabbit hole than back out again. That’s why you left home in the first place.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more tips and tricks to budget travel, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of this page.

For more advice on trip preparation, read “The Art of Trip Planning

To see an example of this reverse-culture shock, check out the travel story, “The Shaman’s Seeds of Wisdom

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