Ten Lessons Learned during my Ten Years of Travel and Adventure

Unfortunately, social media portrays somewhat of a glossy, rose-tinted version of what a life of adventure can be. Sitting on the couch for two straight months has definitely allowed lots of time for reflection of the last ten years – I have been thinking of some light-hearted but true lessons I have learned during this last decade. Enjoy!

1. The Golden Age of Exploration is over

I am sorry to even admit it, but the days of true world exploration and discovery are, for most normal people like me, over. The days when intrepid souls stepped foot on wooden ships and headed to a horizon where they had no idea what lay beyond it, are gone. Google has mapped the world in detail, (and many other planets too!) and while I myself can spend hours street-viewing far-off places, I cannot deny that it has taken a large proportion of the mystery out of the world. Unless you happen to be an astronaut or a deep sea explorer, for the most part, we as a species pretty much know what is on the majority of the our planet’s surface.

But! Hope is not lost! As I have shown in my next point …

2. Travel has to be personal

If your travelling will not benefit the human race as a whole, then it should fulfill your personal goals and dreams. Modern adventurers have to think outside the box when it comes to setting goals. Both poles have been visited, the highest mountain has been climbed, the deepest ocean trench has been visited and the Amazon has been explored and exploited. But, what about the first person to ride a bicycle to the South Pole? Or who walked across the brutal Rub Al Khali? (English: The Empty Corner – a vast, unforgiving desert on the Arabian Peninsula.) What about the guy who rode a unicycle around the world?

Even if something quite so dramatic as crossing the Sahara is not your cup of tea, why not try experiments such as the ‘Rule of Five’? (I learned this courtesy of Nomadic Matt and Wandering Earl) Simply walk five minutes or five blocks away from a main tourist attraction to escape the crowds and the hawkers to get a more authentic experience? Prices will be cheaper, people will be friendlier and you will get better photos than the classic ‘holding up the leaning tower of Pisa’ cliché.

For me personally, this is why I like travelling by bicycle as you get to see all the ‘in-between’ places. The places you just usually whiz by on a bus or train with your nose in a book, not paying attention to what’s around you. Some of the best stories come out of going slow and doing something different. Like the guy dressed as a cowboy hitchhiking with his cat across the Canadian Rockies. (The cat hated him too!) Or the sweet lady and her grandson (who was wearing fairy wings and rubber boots) who invited us in for coffee after we had spent a rough and wet night wild camping.

Travel and adventure can take many forms. Find something that you personally will take value from.

3. Ticking countries off a list is very unfulfilling (In my humble opinion)

I often feel like a fraud when people refer to me as ‘well-travelled’. In our modern world saturated by travel bloggers and instagrammers who boast about having visited a whole bunch of countries, my modest collection pales into insignificance in comparison. I also have committed a cardinal sin among those whose aim it is to tick off new countries – I have been to the same country numerous times! For example, I love Guatemala – it is one of my favourite countries so far. I have been there a few times and would happily go again. Same with Italy, Spain, the USA, Canada and so on. All of these places I have visited on numerous occasions and had incredible and varied experiences each time – even if I didn’t get new stamps in my passport.

You went to New York City once, so now you have ‘been’ to the USA? From the arctic tundra of northern Alaska, to the pacific islands of Hawaii, to the vast deserts of New Mexico, to the prairies of the mid-west, to the Caribbean-esk islands of the Florida Keys? Exactly.

Don’t confuse visiting ‘new’ countries with genuine travel experiences.

4. Often, it’s WHAT you do that makes good stories, not WHERE you go

This is related to my previous point and, if anything, backs it up even more. I am an avid reader of travel blogs, and many of them have inspired me to keep pushing with my own one. (They are more challenging and take more commitment than many people realise!) But, one thing I notice with many of these blogs, is that their focus is on travel for travel’s sake. Don’t get me wrong – I, of all people, truly understand the insatiable desire to move, but at what cost? Being constantly on the move is a great way to live a life, and in many ways I wonder if maybe I should have done more ‘moving’, but if it wasn’t for my slow manner of travel, and staying-put in places (such as the Cayman Islands) for so long – I would never have achieved some of the things I am most proud of. I never would have become a licenced Boat Captain if I had not committed to spending time in the Cayman Islands. Nor would I have reached a life goal of diving to over 100 metres (330 feet) deep, or would I have driven a dive boat across the Gulf of Mexico, or been chased by sharks while using an underwater scooter. And the list goes on.

Slow down. Focus on experiences as well as movement. Visiting a ton of countries is no doubt fun, but time (and money!) are short, and I will lie on my death bed being proud of the physical things I have achieved too.

5. Be prepared to sacrifice your socks! (And other clothing too)

Over the course of travel, you will lose clothing. A pair of socks gets chewed up by a washing machine in Bangkok, a t-shirt will get ripped to shreds hiking the Guatemalan jungle, a sweet waterproof jacket will get a hole in it tumbling down a volcano, or it will blow off the back of your bicycle while touring through Northern France. The travel God/s (in whatever form you see him/her/them) love taking clothing away from travellers. They do it as payment for keeping you safe on the road – accept it.

Maybe leave the expensive designer clothing to runway models and empty-headed ‘influencers’. Clothing is a constantly changing dynamic – don’t get too attached!

6. It’s a cliché, but – you WILL regret what you didn’t do MORE than what you did do

For many folks, deciding to NOT do something comes from fear. For me, it always came from money – not having enough of it. (In my mind) To illustrate this point, I would like to give you two examples of things I didn’t do because of a perceived lack of money, and that I now deeply regret not doing.

Not skydiving out of a ‘Tiger Moth’

A Tiger Moth is a bi-plane from the 1930’s and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built. While living in New Zealand, an avid pilot and vintage aircraft collector gave myself and the other skydivers I worked with the chance to jump out of his personal Tiger Moth – at a cost of about $200. I chose to decline as I was in my final few weeks in New Zealand, and I was in pure ‘money-saving mode’ in preparation for an up-coming Central America trip. I regret intensely not having taken the opportunity to not only fly in such an iconic aircraft, but also to jump out of it too.

Not diving the Poor-Knights Islands

While I was spending a week in Auckland ahead of my flight to Los Angeles, I decided to book a few days of diving in the ‘Poor-Knights’ Islands. Known as being some of the most incredible diving in New Zealand and the world in general. But, at the last minute I got cold feet. The cost was the best part of a thousand dollars and as I was preparing for the aforementioned trip to Central America, I cancelled the diving trip as I knew a thousand bucks could go a long way in Central America. Now, every time I tell anyone that I used to live in New Zealand, the response I get is – “You must have dived the Poor Knights?” and it galls me to say that I didn’t. All I did instead is spend a week in the Capital city of New Zealand getting drunk – hardly a ‘life experience’ – and I probably spent the same amount of money overall!

Money comes, money goes. Would you rather have a longer, mediocre trip without so many amazing experiences – or a shorter, more incredible journey that shapes you as a person and creates treasured memories that last a lifetime? Do the thing! Don’t regret not doing the thing!

7. Focus on the small things

It is too easy to go through life seeing people on all of the various forms of social media doing all of the amazing things that they are doing and feel a sense of FOMO. (Fear of missing out) I think it’s a shame that ordinary folks feel such a sense of inadequacy comparing themselves to others in such a way. But here is a secret – those influencers are paid to make you feel exactly that – in order that you spend your money so that you can have similar experiences.

But in my mind, the best experiences I have ever had have been distinctly ‘unremarkable’. That plate of snails in Paris, the Guatemalan woman who we stayed with in Antigua crying when we left, the lift the Denny’s waitress gave us when my bicycle had a puncture, the warm cottage we were given to use when we had no-where to sleep, that plate of olives in Marrakech, a stray cat curling up on my lap – and so on. Sometimes the most treasured experiences are the ones that won’t get you millions of ‘likes’ – but that doesn’t take anything away from their value.

The magic ‘instagram’ moments are few and far between, it’s important to enjoy all the little moments too.

8. British people are everywhere!

Maybe I am wrong, but it seems that wherever I go – however out of the way and remote I feel I am, I meet my fellow countrymen. They say the British Empire was founded on a desire to escape terrible food and worse weather, and it certainly seems to hold true today as I make my way around the world – I am never too far away from hearing “Oi! Mate! – nice bike! How far have you ridden?

For better or for worse, British people are everywhere. Whether that’s the drunk, sunburned and overweight folks cradling cheap beer in their arms on the Spanish Costa-del-Sol, or the old, bald men with questionably young Thai girls on the Khaosan Road in Bangkok, the dread-locked, bead-wearing backpackers partying on the beach in Queensland, the well-spoken, public-schooled diplomats in Shanghai, the crisp, ironed-shirt wearing super-yacht crews in Monaco, the drug-addled alcoholics laying low in Central America, or the hippy-wannabes dancing on the beaches of Southern India – there is no denying we are making our mark globally into the 21st-century. I know we have a bad reputation in places, and I try to base my conduct on trying to negate the negative stereotypes as I go.

It seems we really are a nation of travellers.

9. Learn a little bit of the local language

If you are reading this – good job! You already speak English which is the go-to language for travellers around the world. You can easily spend your whole life not speaking a single word of any other language and you still could quite happily travel the world with relative ease.

But…

You will have much more authentic and genuine experiences, not to mention elicit a much more positive response from those folk whose country you are visiting, if you speak, at the very least, a few words of the local tongue. You should have seen the faces of the shopkeepers in Indonesia light up when I gave them a cheery “Terima Kasih!” as they handed me my change, the look of surprise from the Thai taxi drivers when we greeted them with a “Sawadee-khap,” or, the firm handshake and and genuine smile from our AirBnB host in Budapest when I said “köszönöm!” Or maybe the fact that we paid local prices in cafes in Croatia because we had made the small effort to learn how to say “Hello, how are you?” (zdravo, kako si?) in their own language, and we offered it with a nice smile. It only takes a couple of hours (the length of a flight!) to learn some local phrases – do it! You will set yourself apart from the hordes of faceless sheep tourists they are used to dealing with.

Don’t just point and shout to get what you want, be proud to expand your knowledge of world languages.

10. Relax – you will fail sometimes!

If anything, this is the most important point of all. The plethora of ‘influencers’ in the over-saturated travel market would love to have you believe that a life of travel and adventure is a non-stop string of tropical beaches, hammocks, fresh powder to ski on, hot girls (or guys), bars, coral reefs, mountain peaks, margaritas at sunset, amazing food, and more.

The truth is far from this. Although all of the above things exist and will no doubt feature in your life of travel – it is a very filtered and false version of what it means to take on this life. However, this is in no way a negative thing – if anything, it helps you grow and develop as a person. I know myself well enough to realise that if everything had gone well on my every endeavour, I would probably have a massive ego, be an insufferable person to talk to, and not have any fun stories! The fact that I have suffered twice as many crippling defeats as I have resounding successes has made me a better, more-rounded person overall. (I hope!)

For example:

My first backpacking trip around Europe aged 18 resulted in me sleeping rough in various places around the French city of Dijon trying to find somewhere to escape from the heavy rain and with a nasty bout of food poisoning. I had arrived there at 11pm with no place to stay booked having spent the train ride from Switzerland crouched on the floor of the train’s bathroom ejecting the burger I had eaten before boarding. I ended up curling up the floor of an underground car-park with my backpack for a pillow. The security guard that night, unknowing of my presence, was using the car-park’s public address system to belt out 1980’s love ballads at high volume. So I eventually fell asleep listening to “I’ve been waiting, for a girl like you” by foreigner.

My first bicycle tour through France, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and I set off completely unprepared with no tent, no sleeping bag, and no way to prepare food. I am not sure what I was thinking, but knowing ‘young James‘ – I am sure I was just hoping to ‘wing it.’ Needless to say – it failed horribly, but fortunately the Travel Gods always look after me, and I was taken in by a lovely French family and their adopted Congolese children. They fed me and gave me somewhere to sleep when I turned up in their village at dusk, soaking wet and hungry. The Dad kept pointing at himself and declaring proudly, “Pompier! Je suis Pompier!” I had no idea what a ‘pompier’ was until 3 am, when a bunch of bells and alarms sounded through the house and he rushed out of the door dressed as a Fireman – “Oh! A Pompier!”

Let’s just say I was better prepared on my next bicycle tour!

And the last example is when I was still a relatively in-experienced boat captain back in 2014, I was driving my boat back through the narrow cut in the barrier reef that separates the inner lagoon of Cayman’s East End, from the open ocean on the outside. The wind was moderate and the waves were a decent size as they built-up through the shallow inlet. I was attempting to time my channel run to position my boat in between two of the waves to ensure that I passed through safely – unfortunately I was too slow, and the cresting wave behind picked up the entire boat and spun us through 90 degrees and sent us crashing down on top of the rocks that rise above the surface to either side. So now I found myself high and dry, with each successive wave smashing into the side of the boat, I could feel the grinding and screeching on the jagged rocks below. Meanwhile I had the scared and confused faces of my fourteen guests and two crew members looking at me expectantly as if to say – “Well? What are you going to do now Captain?” I had to make a decision and get my boat and my passengers to safety. It is moments like this when you realise that when things go very wrong, staying calm and logical is the most important thing to do.

Someone once told me that you start off every endeavour with two jars filled with pebbles. One jar is labeled ‘LUCK’ the other ‘EXPERIENCE’. Every time you take part in that activity, you take one pebble from the ‘luck’ jar and place it into the ‘experience’ jar. Eventually, you will run out of luck, and it’s experience that will keep you safe. If things don’t go wrong from time to time, you will not develop the experience. Although you should never ‘try’ to fail, when you inevitably do, embrace it – for it will help you to become better.

Thanks for reading. The truth is I have learned infinitely more than ten things throughout these various adventures. But, ‘ten things in ten years‘ had a nice ring to it! Maybe I will do another one called ‘ten more things!’ (I now have! Click here to read!)

Like what you have read? Please click here to go to my Homepage and read some more of my posts. Or here to learn more about me. This blog is a project of mine that I re-started during this COVID-19 pandemic and it’s been a fun, but long process. Keep checking back for updates and please comment with any suggestions or click one of the links below to get in touch via social media.

5 thoughts on “Ten Lessons Learned during my Ten Years of Travel and Adventure

  1. Great post James, probably my favourite on your blog! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and you should definitely do “ten more things”!

    Like

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