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A Reflection on Travel

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I was always a bit of a homebody growing up. I remember sleepovers at friends houses ending in tears, me waiting for mum to come and pick me up, because I’d had enough. Going home was always the best option to me. I liked my bed and my things. I didn’t expect to like travel at all, thinking I would be terribly homesick. But after my first big trip overseas, things changed. This is my reflection on travel.

I loved seeing the history I’d learnt about at school come to life. I liked trying new foods, and seeing how different people lived around the world. True, you always get a bit of a skewed perspective when you travel, but it’s better than no perspective at all. I made a promise to myself to see as much of the world as I could. Whenever an opportunity to travel has arisen, I’ve always tried to take it up. I’ve visited 30 countries so far, many of them several times.

Moving to Dubai has helped boost my opportunity to travel. New Zealand is a long way from, well, anywhere. I’d spent the last few years in New Zealand travelling around Asia when I could, since it is relatively close to home. But since the beginning of the year, and leaving New Zealand in February, I’ve travelled to the UK, Belgium, China, Russia, Mauritius and Germany. I’m hoping to head to the US in a few days, the Maldives after that, and potentially on to Sri Lanka over the next few months. I’d also love to go back to Russia. I am under no illusions that I am incredibly fortunate to have these opportunities.

Throughout my travels, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a traveller, and to experience the world around you. I thought it was time I wrote some of it down. And so, I present to you, my reflections on travel.

An adorable Shiba I found in Tokyo!

TRAVEL IS WHAT TRAVEL MEANS TO YOU

Do you like backpacking? Because I do not. I’ve never stayed at a backpackers. There have been several times when I have travelled and it was cheaper to stay in my own room at a budget motel or hotel, than a backpackers. And yet, plenty of people have poked fun at me because I haven’t experienced real travel. You know what? Real travel is whatever you want it to be. You don’t have to justify your experience to anyone else. Do what you enjoy, trying not to leave a negative impact on the people and places you experience. The whole tourist vs. traveller concept seems a bit of a joke to me. I’ve seen plenty of people who claim to be ‘real’ travellers that seem more concerned about explaining why they are real travellers, than actually going out and travelling. Ignore the labels, learn a lot, and let yourself have a good time – respecting local people, customs and culture.

BUT YOU HAVEN’T REALLY SEEN ROME IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN TO….

I use this as an example, because I went to Rome and didn’t bother going to the Spanish Steps, or the Trevi Fountain. I had been travelling for weeks. Was extremely tired. Not that interested. Instead, I had the best pizza ever, visited a pride festival and bought some books at a mall. And I had a great time. Similar to my point above, travelling is about doing the things that you want to do. Don’t worry about the big-ticket items if they don’t interest you. If you don’t like food that much, there is no point going to a Michelin starred restaurant. If you hate modern art, don’t bother visiting the Pompidou Centre. Don’t force yourself to visit cathedral after cathedral if they don’t interest you in the least. If you want to spend your whole time in Barcelona admiring modern architecture or local coffee houses, and nothing more, that is okay. Find your happy place and enjoy it.

DON’T BE THAT KIND OF TRAVELLER

Recently, I stood in line to view Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Behind me where two guys, either from Australia or New Zealand, who I’m guessing were about 25 or 26. They relentlessly made fun of all the other people in line, mainly Chinese and Russian tourists, who were waiting to pay their respects. I don’t like causing confrontation. In a quietly passive-aggressive manner, I wanted to call my husband and speak in English, so they would know I could understand all the offensive things they were saying. Eventually, when I realised the Russian couple behind me spoke English and could understand them too, I gave the two guys the dirtiest glare I could muster, whilst thumbing through my New Zealand passport. They went bright red. They got the idea. We all know an obnoxious person who has seen and done everything, knows best, and doesn’t give a damn about those around them. Don’t be that kind of traveller.

Duke statue, Waikiki Beach

LEARN THE LOCAL TONGUE (EVEN JUST A LITTLE BIT)

Continuing with my Russian trip, I really struggled with the language. Alongside Japan, it was one of the countries where I had the least comprehension of the language. I still tried my best though. My spasibas were occasionally met with a smile from the Russian women serving me. If you know anything about Russians, cracking a smile out of them is quite an effort. It doesn’t take too long to learn a few words of another language – if nothing else, hello, please and thank you. You don’t have to be a linguist, but it usually is appreciated. I imagine there are a few places where they aren’t happy to hear their native tongue butchered, but I am yet to find one. I know common phrases in about six languages. It is useful. It is up to you whether you want to try to speak a language or not, but I always think its nice to at least give it a go. For safety’s sake, learning to say ‘police’ or ‘help’ is also not a bad idea.

MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS

You know those picture postcard beaches you see in tourism campaigns, ironically void of tourists? Most of the time, they don’t actually look like that. They cleared off the beach to take the photo. If they were really particular, they might have even raked the place. Even my trip to beautiful Mauritius recently reminded me of this. The beautiful snorkelling described on the hotel website wasn’t quite as nice as depicted. Hotels will sometimes have shabby end tables and old duvets. Famous landmarks and museums will nearly always have a line. Sometimes, you will miss out on getting into certain attractions, or it will be randomly shut on the day you are visiting. There will always be hawkers bothering you outside the Eiffel Tower. You will probably find a street in a beautiful city so littered with rubbish, you will be horrified. Apart from putting a few things in the bin, there isn’t a lot you can do. Be patient and plan ahead. If there is something you really want to do, make sure you see if it can be booked in advance, so you are less likely to miss out. If things turn to custard, keep your chin up, and try to find some new adventure.

SOMETIMES, THINGS HAPPEN

Planning a big holiday, with your itinerary sussed out down to the minute, is a fine art. Unfortunately, that all gets thrown out the window when you experience a travel delay. The best way I’ve found to prepare for this is to leave a bit of a buffer day either side of flights, to make sure you aren’t too put out if it all goes haywire. On short trips, you take the risk. Sometimes you can’t have the luxury of a buffer day. Just be aware that occasionally, things go wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you go budget or full service, things happen. Crews get sick, engineering issues occur. Big swells cancel ferries, taxis don’t show up when expected. I know its frustrating when it happens, but just remember that plenty of other people have been in the same boat, and have come out the other side. I’m sure they still enjoyed their holiday. And always take travel insurance of some form. You don’t need much, but if you end up sick in a foreign destination, you’ll appreciate having forked out the money at the front end.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

SUPPORT LOCAL WHEN AND WHERE YOU CAN

It’s usually easier to opt for a major, recognised name while travelling – McDonalds, Starbucks, Marriott, Hilton. But it is nice to try to support local businesses and people when you can, and are comfortable doing so. I was delighted to find out that LUX Resorts, who we stayed with in Belle Mare, is actually a Mauritian company. The tour I did with Quasimodo in Belgium, an organisation run by a Belgian man and his Australian wife, remains one of the best I’ve ever experienced. In China, we never would have made it to the Great Wall at Mutinayu or to Zhujiajiao without the hope of local guides, who we hired through websites like GetYourGuide and ToursByLocals. Try that random little café that looks like its owned by a local mum and dad. You will probably love it, and if nothing else, it will be an experience you remember.

DISCONNECT – TRAVEL IS A TIME FOR REFLECTION

This is some advice I really should take. While I have learnt to take photos incredibly quickly, I still tend to take too many. I spend far too long fussing over a particular shot. Then I post it on Instagram. Then I send a Snapchat. I might send a text message too. It is easy to forget to actually enjoy the moment when we are travelling. We are so caught up in making sure we will remember the moment later, through our social media or photos. I’m also a sucker for checking work emails while I’m on holiday, although I’m much better at this now. Live in the moment a little, turn off the phone (or the wifi, at least) and relax. The world won’t fall apart if you don’t respond to that email immediately.

NEVER TAKE TRAVEL FOR GRANTED

You know what? Sometimes its okay to feel overwhelmed by travel. I always remember my mum telling me she felt a little ‘templed out’ visiting Japan. She had seen so many temples, that she could no longer see the beauty in each. There is nothing wrong with taking a step back, a bit of a breather, and a break from the travel experience. You don’t need to see and do everything. What you can’t do is forget how much of a privilege it is to travel. The fact that you are able to travel means you are better off than a huge number of people around the world, including those in many of the countries you visit. While you can acknowledge the sacrifices that you may have made to travel, don’t forget how lucky you are. If you have your health, and the monetary means to see the world, you are certainly rich. In more ways than one.

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The 58th Floor is the travel and lifestyle blog of Belinda Birchall, based in Dubai. It provides advice and information on travel throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as useful information for living in Dubai - and anything else of interest!

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