Our columnist explains that sometimes the skills needed for travel are more about attitude than the material items you bring with you.
The Practical Traveller: pack some self-confidence
When you begin to venture beyond the lands you know well, chances are you're a little excited and a little afraid. This mixture of nervous anticipation will be your constant companion as you pack and prepare.
In the beginning, you think carefully about everything you'll need for the trip. You read guidebooks and ask friends - what should I pack? Do I need sandals or walking shoes? You make thoughtful lists, remembering to note all of the socks you'll need to bring with you, and stuffing extra toothpaste in your bag just in case.
After requesting a window seat, the big day finally arrives and you eagerly anticipate your indoctrination into new lands. You spend the time on the flight glancing through the language section in the back of the guidebook. All these strange words and phrases. How will you ever get by?
You're filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. If the apprehension overtakes the excitement, here's a hint: it gets better with time.
Most of my trips have been good, but they haven't all been easy. The partial list of mistakes and misadventures I've made thus far includes: buying an extra plane ticket after forgetting I already had one, not having a plane ticket in the first place, booking numerous plane tickets on the wrong day, showing up at the wrong airport, and not having the required visa for at least five countries I arrived in.
I took the long way from Cairo to Giza, travelling by bus instead of the city's surprisingly modern subway. In the land of the Pyramids, the first 30 people who asked me for camel rides were quite friendly. "Welcome to Egypt," they said. "How can we get your money?" was the unasked, but clearly implied follow-up. Another dozen camel hawkers later, and I found myself growing weary, missing a nice hotel room. I was a defeated pyramids tourist, and I hadn't even settled down on the back of a camel.
When I showed up at the wrong airport in St Petersburg, I began to feel stressed. I had only enough roubles to take one final bus for the transfer ... but which should I take? This was no small problem in a place like St Petersburg, where means of communication were extremely limited. It's not that I expected everyone to speak English in Russia - most people certainly don't - but the reality is I speak almost no Russian. So I had no choice but to persevere, searching for a translator, offering my relentless spasiba (Russian for "thanks") to those who directed me with sign language along the way.
In Karachi, Pakistan, I arrived with no visa, but carried 10 sheets of paper instead. I had a theory: overwhelm them with paperwork. If you don't have the proper document that authorises you to enter the country, bring as many other documents as you can. I printed out everything I could find, including the home page of a website from the Pakistani-Canadian Friendship Association. (I'm not Canadian, but I added it to the pile.)
Initial suspicion turned to confusion and finally to a welcoming smile, as they stamped my passport and said "Welcome". Later I drank tea at the hotel and looked around: I made it. Sure, it had taken two hours of discussion and the threat of deportation, but that was no matter for concern now. Success was as sweet as the black tea my host served while I awaited the clearance of my bags from security.
This victory gave me confidence. I wasn't certain of success; I was just certain that I had to try. Failure was an acceptable option - but I'd never forgive myself if I just gave up.
Somewhere between country 100 (Sri Lanka) and 120 (Cameroon), I relaxed. I stopped reading the guidebooks before I went anywhere. I enjoyed learning as I went along, not with my own preconceived notions or the suggested itineraries of Lonely Planet. It was a totally different experience as I shifted from advance planning to figuring things out along the way.
One month I had two weeks to travel, but no real itinerary. I had a one-way flight to Sarajevo and a one-way flight back out through Belgrade. I took the long way around, travelling south through the Balkans. Bottles of drinks were passed around the bus through Albania, and I simply enjoyed the ride. I was glad I hadn't charted my course before leaving.
New travellers often ask what they need to do to prepare for a big trip. Yes, you can learn languages and improve your packing skills. But the skill of learning to trust yourself, of foreseeing a potential problem but choosing to go anyway, is a far greater skill. Pack as much confidence into your bag as you can fill, traveller. You'll need it.
The next time you go, you'll check your pocket one less time for the passport that you know is there. And if you've actually left it behind by mistake this time, well, something will work out. One way or another, you know what they say: everything is going to be all right. And it will.
Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 161.