Since I first snuck off as a teenager to work as a beer model (long story) in Vietnam, I’ve been lucky enough to travel widely across many different continents, often on my own, and often with nothing more than a backpack. I’ve driven across Australia, worked in Asia, and learned Spanish in South America. I’ve swum with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico and spent eight days at sea sailing from Panama to Colombia through deserted Caribbean islands, which was incredible, even if there were no life jackets and I spent most of those eight days terrified.
For me, backpacking is an amazing privilege. Yes, it does require some financial outlay, but it’s not impossible to save enough to go away for a few months. Yes, you do need to fork out for flights and spending money, but I’ve been able to work in most of the places that I’ve visited when I got there. Think of it as the most fun education you’ll ever receive. Traveling teaches you about the world, about the connections you make with strangers, about learning to be alone, and about faking it as an independent grown-up until you become the real deal. It’s a beautiful thing to fling yourself out into the world like paint flicked at a canvas, and see where you end up.
When you travel a lot, you learn to recognize the types of people you meet — the frat boys, the middle-aged hippies, the teenage girls on their gap years — and you come across the permanent travelers a lot. They’re jaded, stuck, and can’t seem to move on. One Russian girl I met in Colombia had been traveling for nine years, and no longer had a life at home to go back to. She was occupying a hostel half-life, where everyone was coming and going and nothing was really real anymore. But I could relate. It’s easy to see why people stick with this lifestyle as best they can; why go home to a 9-to-5 when the whole world’s out there for you to see?
I always knew eventually I’d have to come home and get back to the daily grind, though. I didn’t have a rich ex-boyfriend back home in Russia sending me monthly cash sums, and besides, I’d worked too hard at school to pack it all in and become a beach bum. Weirdly, I didn’t actually miss my friends and family that much when I was away, but after five months traveling alone through South America, I was ready to go home. After I got here, however, and had settled into a full-time job, I soon realized that I’d caught the travel bug, and searched for a way to incorporate my love of traveling into my regular existence.
Any less than 20 days, and you’re going to be exhausted; any more than 30 days, and your employers may forget who you are.
After you’ve booked your time off work, you can start planning your destination. 23 days (effectively 21 days, when you subtract a day each side for travel) is a good amount of time. Any less than 20 days, and you’re going to be exhausted from moving around too much, and any more than 30 days and your employers may forget who you are. When you’re backpacking with limited time, it’s a good idea to go somewhere where the time difference won’t fuck you up too much. I went to India: five-and-a-half hours ahead of the U.K., so no chronic jet lag: ditto Colombia, which is five hours behind.
Here’s how you work out your route: Pick a part of a country, and stick to it. Some mini-backpacking trips I have done that have worked well were: Kerala (hop over to the Andaman Islands as well if you’ve got cash to burn and want to pretend you’re in Jurassic Park), the Caribbean coast of Colombia (take me back), and Palawan and Bohol Islands in the Philippines (they were way more beautiful than Thailand). I backpacked through all of these places in three week periods, and it worked well – in the Philippines you need to get internal flights but they’re pretty cheap, and in Colombia and Kerala you can bus it.
Unfortunately, for the purposes of short trips, you quickly learn you’re going to have to be the dickhead with an itinerary. You know those dudes you meet in hostels with white guy dreads and baggy pantaloons, the ones who always say, “It’s all about the journey, just see where you end up.” Well, they don’t have jobs. You need to keep moving.