Self reliance, the ability and inclination to take care of oneself, is often cited as a traveler’s virtue. But after talking with Bonnie Kassel (a life-long traveler, writer, and artist) I am convinced that self-reliance is not nearly as important as self-assuredness. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as self-assured as Bonnie, a free-spirit with a perpetual sense of playful adventure.
“You’ve got to trust yourself,” she says, “things may not go as expected but you’ll figure it out. In their everyday lives, like driving to work, things go wrong all the time and people manage it. Maybe they have a fender-bender or encounter construction delays. They deal with it. But when traveling, too many people decide it’s not the same and they let these things ruin their trip.”
That is the difference between self reliance (taking care of the details, and planning for every contingency) and self assuredness (setting out on a trip trusting that you will be able to work things out abroad as successfully as you do at home.) Bonnie mentions her friend to illustrate her point.
“A young friend of mine just got back from Singapore. She had a terrible time. She had over-planned so every time someone didn’t show up, or tickets to a specific attraction were not available, her day was ruined. Tourists show up with their itineraries of sites and experiences. They are too busy checking them off to enjoy the place or even see the unexpected opportunities right in front of them.”
So what’s the alternative?
“Just show up. Enjoy being a little lost. Talk to strangers and figure it out. You can waste time planning for 10 things but the one thing that happens is the one you overlooked anyway.”
Talking to strangers is Bonnie’s best travel tip. She has been invited to weddings, attended the ceremonial burial of a Buddhist family’s elephant, been out-on-the-town with locals. But what does she suggest if you don’t know the language? A nice game a charades.
“You’d be surprised what you can accomplish with smiles and gestures!”
Bonnie doesn’t always travel alone but she considers travel companions carefully.
“You can go to the same region, stay at the same place, but your experience will be dramatically different depending on who you are and who you are with.”
A romantic couple tends to be left alone. A pair of women tends to be approached and invited to homes and parties. A woman traveling on her own is the least threatening person in the world. As such, she is likely to be curiously engaged in conversation even in the most conservative cultures. The solo woman traveler is rarely at a loss for friendly conversations, kind assistance when needed, and generous local invitations.
“You will see things and do things traveling alone (or with another woman) that you would never get get a glimpse of if”(you are) “part of a tour group or in a couple.
What is Bonnie’s secret to becoming part of the local culture? Staying put!
“What you gotta do is, pick a state. Pick a region. Don’t make a grand list of all-things-you-ever-wanted-to-do out of fear you may never be in this part of the world again. No! Instead, pick a nice town in an interesting region and stay there.”
When you’re not just another tourist passing through, shopkeepers start saying “hello” when you come in. Neighbors invite you over for diner.
“Don’t spend all your money eating at fancy restaurants with famous chefs,” says Bonnie. “Go to the local market. Ask a few vendors who has a reputation for being a great cook. Then ask to meet her. Chances are, you can pay her ten dollars a day to shop with you and cook with you. You will be eating the best, most authentic local cuisine. You’ll learn how to cook it yourself. You’ll make a friend.”
I was just starting to get the picture of how an ordinary person could afford a life of travel when Bonnie let me in on her biggest budget traveling tip yet, house-sitting around the world.
“There are websites you can go to to find a house in a country you want to visit. Most have pets they want you to care for. You stay in a nice home. (The owners can afford lengthy vacations, after all.) You have the use of a full kitchen. Neighbors are naturally curious and eager to know you. You become a temporary member of the community instead of a tourist.”
Want to know more? Bonnie recommends the website Globetrotter Girls.
If you are curious about what it looks like to travel with fearless self-asureance, Bonnie shares some of her travel experiences in her book Without a Spare available on Amazon or from Bonnie’s own website here.
(All my thanks to Bonnie Kassel for her passport photo, her book cover art, and most of all for being so generous with her time and travel advice.)
Read ~ Write ~ Wander