On the Rails

Tips from a pseudo-transient transcontinental train traveler

Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2004

A year ago this month I began planning a three-month European backpacking odyssey that required a great deal of focus and preparation to become the pseudo-transient transcontinental train traveler that I aspired to be.

Together with numerous hours of research and a previous experience as an expatriate living in Italy, I had acquired some basic tricks of the trade to aid me along my journey - but there was so much that I could never have known prior to such a quest without the often grueling process of trial and error.

I am by no means an expert in the art of international backpacking, but here are some words of wisdom garnered through experience that might help those of you considering venturing out on your very own international travels.

In my opinion, preparation is the most important aspect of putting your cozy American existence on hold to venture across vast oceans so you can immerse yourself in other cultures. You'll have to worry about not only preparing your financial situation and storing your material possessions until your return, but you'll also find it crucial to prepare for the fact that you'll be essentially carrying your home upon your back for an extended period.

For some people backpacking is an art. For others it's a lifestyle. Knowing yourself is possibly the best way to prepare for a successful backpacking adventure.

People have different levels of tolerance for the important areas of such an undertaking, whether it be standards of accommodations or the need for culinary familiarity, but by preparing yourself to be open to the diversity and unfamiliarity of life overseas, you will automatically alleviate a majority of the stress that comes along with traveling.

It's basically guaranteed that problems will arise when traveling, so it is important to be aware of whether you will be fueling the fire or extinguishing the flames of stress, as to not hamper the overall enjoyment of your experience. Don't stress over the small things. Whether the ticket lady at the train station has an attitude or if your hostel reservation is for the wrong day, your actions and reactions will inevitably be accountable for your own levels of pleasure.

Being aware of your surroundings and your belongings can also further diminish your chances of an unexpected problem. Watch out for the scams and scammers while backpacking, whether it's the counterfeit money scam of Prague, the tram ticket scam of Krakow, the pickpockets of Rome, or any of the other regionally specific fleecing that can catch you by surprise. Knowledge is your greatest security while traveling.

Acquiring knowledge as you travel is a priceless educational experience that will pay off in bulk at future cocktail parties, will enrich your own tales, and is even known to help the avid Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy players every once in a while. Learn as much as possible about the people, the cultures, the histories and lifestyles of the countries that you visit for a fuller and richer backpacking experience. My personal travel philosophy is to visit at least one major attraction or participate in one activity a day and to then immerse myself in the culture of the particular city or country.

While living on the fringe of a culture, it is often necessary to adjust your budget in different regions to fully experience the different lifestyles of that particular foreign country. I'm of the opinion that it is necessary to be both frugal and lavish at the same time to extract the greatest amount of pleasure from your travels. Spend the money when needed to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but pinch pennies when possible for the unexpected Black Uhuru concert that may happen on the final leg of your journey - as was the case for me.

It is also important to know that most places don't really look like the glossy postcard your grandmother once sent you from Budapest, so don't expect them to be. Some of my greatest travel experiences have been broken expectations, when the daydreams became reality and the unknown became the known. All the meticulous research and preconceived notions can never prepare you for what the experience will actually become.

And in the end, it's just as much about the people as it is about the places. Whether it's your fellow travelers that you create lifelong relationships with or the locals that will provide you with a glimpse of their culture, cherish all the people who will add life and color to your adventure.

And to rearrange the context of some advice my mother has always attempted to instill in me, be sure to travel in the land of others as you wish others to travel in yours.

After train traveling through 12 countries and returning from an epic European summer backpacking adventure, I have to admit that the cliché really does ring true - it's not the destination that's important, it's all about the journey.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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