20 Things I've Learned From Traveling Around the World for Three Years

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Gary Arndt is the man behind Everything Everywhere, one of the most popular travel blogs in the world, and one of Time Magazine’s “Top 25 Best Blogs of 2010.” Since March 2007, Gary has been traveling around the globe, having visited more than 70 countries and territories, and gaining worldly wisdom in the process.

Today, I’ve asked him to share some of that wisdom.

Enter Gary

On March 13, 2007, I handed over the keys to my house, put my possessions in storage and headed out to travel around the world with nothing but a backpack, my laptop and a camera.

Three and a half years and 70 countries later, I’ve gotten the equivalent of a Ph.D in general knowledge about the people and places of Planet Earth.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned…

1) People are generally good.



Many people are afraid of the world beyond their door, yet the vast majority of humans are not thieves, murderers or rapists. They are people just like you and me who are trying to get by, to help their families and go about living their lives. There is no race, religion or nationality that is exempt from this rule. How they go about living their lives might be different, but their general goals are the same.

2) The media lies.



If you only learned about other countries from the news, you’d think the world was a horrible place. The media will always sensationalize and simplify a story. I was in East Timor when the assassination attempts on President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão occurred in 2008. The stories in the news the next day were filed from Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, not Dili. It was all secondhand news. I was in Bangkok during the political protests this year, but you’d never have any idea they were happening if you were not in the immediate area where the protests were taking place. The media makes us scared of the rest of the world, and we shouldn’t be.

3) The world is boring.



If there isn’t a natural disaster or an armed conflict, most places will never even be mentioned in the news. When is the last time you’ve heard Laos or Oman mentioned in a news story? What makes for good news are exceptional events, not ordinary events. Most of the world, just like your neighborhood, is pretty boring. It can be amazingly interesting, but to the locals, they just go about living their lives.

4) People don’t hate Americans.



I haven’t encountered a single case of anti-Americanism in the last three-and-a-half years. Not one. (And no, I don’t tell people I am Canadian.) If anything, people are fascinated by Americans and want to know more about the US. This isn’t to say they love our government or our policies, but they do not have an issue with Americans as people. Even in places you’d think would be very anti-American, such as the Middle East, I was welcomed by friendly people.

5) Americans aren’t as ignorant as you might think.



There is a stereotype that Americans don’t know much about the rest of the world. There is some truth to that, but it isn’t as bad as you might believe. The reason this stereotype exists is because most other countries on Earth pay very close attention to American news and politics. Most people view our ignorance in terms of reciprocity: i.e. “I know about your country, why don’t you know about mine?” The truth is, if you quizzed people about third-party countries other than the US, they are equally as ignorant. I confronted one German man about this, asking him who the Prime Minister of Japan was. He had no clue. The problem with America is that we suffer from the same problem as the rest of the world: an obsession with American news. The quality of news I read in other parts of the world is on par with what you will hear on NPR.

6) Americans don’t travel.



This stereotype is true. Americans don’t travel overseas as much as Brits, Dutch, Germans, Canadians or Scandinavians. There are some good reasons for this (big country, short vacation time) and bad ones (fear and ignorance). We don’t have a gap year culture like they have in the UK and we don’t tend to take vacations longer than a week. I can’t think of a single place I visited where I met Americans in numbers anywhere close to our relative population.

7) The rest of the world isn’t full of germs.



Many people travel with their own supply of water and an industrial vat of hand sanitizer. I can say in full honestly that I have never used hand sanitizer or gone out of my way to avoid contact with germs during my travels. It is true that in many places you can get nasty illnesses from drinking untreated water, but I don’t think this means you have be a traveling Howard Hughes. Unless you have a particularly weak immune system or other illness, I wouldn’t worry too much about local bugs.

8) You don’t need a lot stuff.



Condensing my life down from a 3,000 sq/ft house to a backpack was a lesson in knowing what really matters. I found I could get by just fine without 97% of the things I had sitting around my home. Now, if I purchase something, I think long and hard about it because anything I buy I will have to physically carry around. Because I have fewer possessions, I am more likely to buy things of higher quality and durability.

9) Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive.



Yes, if you insist on staying in five-star hotels and luxury resorts, travel can be very expensive. However, it is possible to visit many parts of the world and only spend $10-30 per day. In addition to traveling cheap, you can also earn money on the road teaching English or working on an organic farm. I’ve met many people who have been able to travel on a little more than $1,000/month. I met one man from the Ukraine who spent a month in Egypt on $300.

10) Culture matters.



Many of our ideas for rescuing other countries all depend on them having similar incentives, values and attitudes as people in the West. This is not always true. I am reminded of when I walked past a Burger King in Hong Kong that was full of flowers. It looked like someone was having a funeral at the restaurant. It turned out to be people sending flowers in celebration of their grand opening. Opening a business was a reason to celebrate. In Samoa, I had a discussion with a taxi driver about why there were so few businesses of any type on the island of Savai’i. He told me that 90% of what he made had to go to his village. He had no problem helping his village, but they took so much that there was little incentive to work. Today, the majority of the GDP of Samoa consists of remittances sent back from the US or New Zealand. It is hard to make aid policies work when the culture isn’t in harmony with the aid donors’ expectations.

11) Culture changes.



Many people go overseas expecting to have an “authentic” experience, which really means they want to confirm some stereotype they have in their mind of happy people living in huts and villages. They are often disappointed to find urban people with technology. Visiting a different place doesn’t mean visiting a different time. It’s the 21st Century, and most people live in it. They are as likely to wear traditional clothes as Americans are to wear stove top hats like Abraham Lincoln. Cultures have always changed as new ideas, religions, technologies sprang up and different cultures mingled and traded with each other. Today is no different.

12) Everyone is proud of where they are from.



When you meet someone local in another country, most people will be quick to tell you something about their city/province/country that they are proud of. Pride and patriotism seem to be universal values. I remember trying to cross the street once in Palau, one of the smallest countries in the world, and a high school kid came up to me and said, “This is how we cross the street in PALAU!” Even crossing the street became an act to tell me about his pride for his country. People involved in making foreign policy should be very aware of this.

13) America and Canada share a common culture.



This may irk Canadians, but we really do share a common North American culture. If you meet someone overseas, it is almost impossible to tell if they are American or Canadian unless they have a particularly strong accent, or they pronounce the letter “z.” It is easier to tell where in England someone is from than it is to tell if someone is from Denver or Toronto. We would probably be better off referring to a “North American” culture than an “American” culture. What differences do exist (Quebec being the exception) are more like differences between states and regions of a similar country.

14) Most people have a deep desire to travel around the world.



Not shocking, but every day I meet people who are fascinated by what I do and how I live. The desire to travel is there, but fears and excuses usually prevent people from doing it. I understand that few people can drop what they are doing and travel around the world for three years, but traveling overseas for even a few months is within the realm of possibility for many people at some point in their lives. Even on an island in the middle of the Pacific, people who would probably never leave their home island talked to me of wishing they could see New York or London for themselves one day. I think the desire to explore and see new things is fundamental to the human experience.

15) You can find the internet almost everywhere.



I have been surprised at where I’ve found internet access. I’ve seen remote villages in the Solomon Islands with a packet radio link to another island for their internet access. I’ve been at an internet cafe in the Marshall Islands that accessed the web via a geosynchronous satellite. I’ve seen lodges in the rainforest of Borneo hooked up to the web. I once counted 27 open wifi signals in Taipei on a rooftop. We truly live in a wired world.

16) In developing countries, government is usually the problem.



I have been shocked at the level of corruption that exists in most developing countries. Even if it is technically a democracy, most nations are run by and for the benefit of the elites that control the institutions of power. Political killings, bribery, extortion and kickbacks are the norm in many places. There is little difference between the Mafia and the governments in some countries I’ve visited. The corruption in the Philippines was especially surprising. It isn’t just the people at the top who are corrupt. I’ve seen cops shake people down on the street for money, cigarettes or booze.

17) English is becoming universal.



I estimated that there were at least 35 native languages I would have had to have learned if I wanted to speak with locals in their own tongue. That does not include all the languages found in Papua New Guinea or Vanuatu or regional dialects. It is not possible for humans to learn that many languages. English has become the de facto second language for the world. We are almost to a point where there are only two languages you need to know: whatever your parents speak… and English. English has become so popular it has achieved an escape velocity outside of the control of the US and UK. Countries like Nigeria and India use it as a unifying language in their polyglot nations. Other countries in the Pacific do all their schooling in English because the market just isn’t there to translate textbooks into Samoan or Tongan.

18) Modernization is not Westernization.



Just because people use electricity and have running water doesn’t mean they are abandoning their culture to embrace western values. Technology and culture are totally different. Japan and South Korea are thoroughly modern countries, but are also thoroughly Asian. Modernization will certainly change a culture (see #11 above), but that doesn’t mean they are trying to mimic the West.

19) We view other nations by a different set of criteria than we view ourselves.



On the left, people who struggle the hardest for social change would decry changes in other countries that they view as a result of globalization. On the right, people who want to bring democracy to other countries would be up in arms at the suggestion that another country try to institute change in the US. In both cases, other nations are viewed by a different set of rules than we view ourselves. I don’t think most people around the world want the help or pity of the West. At best, they would like us to do no harm.

20) Everyone should travel.



At some point in your life, whether it is after college or when you retire, everyone should take an extended trip outside of their own country. The only way to really have a sense of how the world works is to see it yourself.

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You can subscribe to Gary’s blog, or follow him on Facebook.

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If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I would highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”

I recently partnered with Rolf to release the exclusive audiobook for Vagabonding. For more on this incredible book, click here.

Odds and Ends:

Vegetarians vs. Meat-Eaters:

My recent guest post from Robb Wolf created something of a religious war between meat-eaters and vegetarians. The comments — 816 and counting — got ugly fast.

Whether you’re a die-hard meat-eater or plant-eater, I highly recommend watching the below video of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals. He is a brilliant writer, and we were actually in the same class at Princeton. Take some time or let it run in the background as audio — the following discussion is worth it:

Posted on: October 30, 2010.

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435 comments on “20 Things I've Learned From Traveling Around the World for Three Years

  1. Dude…don`t where the Earth should I get that amount of money????
    I live in Romania, ude, and I want to travel around the World…but here…the average wage is about 300$/month….
    How should I get enough money, so that I can spend aroun 500$/month let say, and travelling about 5 years…
    It`s IMPOSSIBRU!
    You`re an American…you got money dude, but you can`t just pretend that everyone else in the world have the possibilities that you have.
    It`s a rough world you know…not everyone can afford to travel by spending money…there must be other ways to travel….cause` this one…is only for ritch countries and people…even 300$ per month is wayyyyyy to much for me, who I`m living in Romania…..what to say about those who live in Somalia, Cambodgia, and others…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have plenty of outsourcers in Romania that make lots of money by contracting working from their to work for US based companies that pay good wages and they make a large cut.

      Like

    • You are right, Tim describes travelling from a westerner point of view where money is not the big issue (ie: for most westerner 50$ is peanuts).
      That being said, I have met people travelling with almost no money. Hitch Hiking (or biking), camping and playing flute for food (although, if you are nice, you would be surprised by how many people will give you food for free) …. it works. Personally, I would just planned ahead how to escape dense populated area (big cities and turistic area means you need money).
      From Romania you could go explore Greece or turkey back country for example.

      It is a million time better to travel with no money and lot of time than the opposite :)

      Like

  2. I loved your Blog, very ressuring and interesting. I plan to go travelling for at least a year from next February. It would be interesting to know about your pre planning, I don’t know where to start really and not just in terms of where to go but how to go and how much money to take etc. I’ll be going from London to S.E Asia and eventually ending up in S.America or vice versa. Any additional insights would be appreciated.

    Like

  3. Chris,
    This guy travels with 300usd/month for 6 month already and he is planning to continue this for 2,5 year more. Use couchsurfing! It can help you to save a lot!!!

    best wishes,
    egle from lithuania

    Like

  4. Tim,

    Your stories are always amazing and seeing someone live their life on their own terms is quite inspirational and I truly wish everyone could and would try to do so. I have started a Travel Website to help people do just that, by contributing their stories and photos they get a chance at wining cash to help them do what they truly love. The site is http://barrelhopping.com/ Keep doing what your doing, it truly makes a difference in peoples lives, including my own!

    Like

  5. Thank you for this aricle that can teach people so much. Only well traveled people can write such a factual article. I hope people had the opportunity to travel the world at some point in their lives, instead of seeing it through the governments fear-based news/media. You summarize everything I try to teach my college students.

    Like

  6. I agree with most of Gary’s observation, but like a couple of the others here, I have to object to the Canada thing. It’s like saying Australia and New Zealand share a similar culture.

    Like

  7. I agree with you! Travelling outside the country broadens one’s mindset. Though I am not in the middle class, as much as possible I should have gone abroad at least once in two years. I don’t care about the money I spent. Its the memories of the travel experiences that lasts.

    I am from the Philippines.

    Like

  8. What a fantastic post. Was pleased to see Tim on TV recently talking about his new Chef book. Thoroughly enjoyed his previous two – life changing and affirming – looking forward to 3rd.

    Great idea to get Gary’s insight and some fantastic ones too. Good to hear that People don’t hate Americans, I’m often asked if they’ll experience any hostility when travelling in various countries and I’ve never come across any whatsoever. Also an excellent reminder that people are generally good and that you don’t need a lot of stuff to travel.

    Super post.

    Like

  9. agree with most of your opinion, I think English is becoming universal language as there are so many places in the world where it is hard to find someone who speaks some English. But it is true that if you find someone who speak foreign language, it is English. It is really true that the problem with developing countries is their government, corrupted officials who took advantage of honest citizens. Keep up the good work mate.
    Cheers!

    Like

  10. Hi, I’m a Canadian citizen and i am in the beginning of planning out (to a certain extent) a trip around the world. I plan to save 10k and see how many countries provinces, territory’s, states, etc i can squeeze out with that. That being said with all your wealth of experience I was wondering if you had any general tips to stay safe, and any places of recommendation to visit? Thanks

    Like

  11. Tim, I have so many questions;
    1. How do you find the money to travel for 3 years?
    2. Wouldn’t you need a visa to work in most countries or is it a case of being paid in-hand/off the books?
    3. What do you carry with you?
    4. How much money did you start your travels with?
    5. I’m diabetic, I don’t suppose you’d know how I could get medicine regularly?
    I’d like to travel for a year but I don’t think I’d get to see everything I want to in a year but obviously money is a big issue. I’m planning on saving for the next 2 years but I’m itching to go now
    Thanks.

    Like

  12. Wonderful read! Life is so beautiful and I am eager to embark on a one year adventure around the work with my husband and our daughter. I agree we all have a desire to travel!

    Like

  13. Yeah :) All superb. But you totally nailed it here. “I think the desire to explore and see new things is fundamental to the human experience” Keep on strolling :o)

    Like

  14. Hows it going mate. I am about to travel around the world on little money but i really want to know what gear i should be bring to survive. In my head I think backpack,camera,laptop maybe a tent. and a sleeping bag Could you help me out on what thing you consider a Must!
    Nice One :D

    Like

  15. I have been looking the World Wide Web for this information and I want to thank you for this post. It’s not easy to find such perfectly written information on this topic.
    Fastest moving service is always helping us to move quickly to our required place.

    Like

  16. My biggest dream is to travel around the world, this things u listed here are really great and it must b from a well experienced traveller. It inspired me very well. Can you please tell me that how did u find the time for these travels?i mean how did u managed it with your job?

    Like

  17. Loved your comments. Unfortunately I am probably one of the Americans who doesn’t travel abroad … teacher’s don’t make that much :0 And you are soooo right in saying that everywhere is boring (at least to those who live there). In traveling this summer I realized this when a friend’s husband had never been to the really great places his wife was taking us to in his own hometown. Fantastic blog! Definitely going to share with friends.

    Like

  18. there is a point to be said about American ignorance.It’s encouraging in a way, whether or not people are being genuine. I had the trust that I would meet the right people that guide me to my next step during my travels

    Like

  19. This is just impressive. Traveling is like knowing who you are in a very practical way. its a human need and desire. Those lessons and the whole experience you had made you a very special individual. I wish i can do the same someday as i hold the Palestinian passport thus i can’t enter any country without Visa and this Visa should be for a reason and “exploring the world” is definitely not one of them.

    Like

  20. I am really appreciated your help full things and so nice of you.
    I invite’s to you in Pakistan, Pakistani’s peoples are not terrorist.
    Regards,
    Tariq Farid City => Lahore (Pakistan)

    Like

  21. So, so, so true. Especially agree about the Changing Culture. This is the most common thing that I find a bit annoying when people go off their ways to find “the real culture”. Everything what happens in country is part of their culture. And as it is mentioned in the post, the “real” thing is just normal stuff, how people live, just like your neighborhood, mostly its just boring :)

    Like

  22. Hi I’m 15 years old and I’m traveling the world. A few years ago my parents bought all of your books and listened to them over and over again in the kitchen. And a last year my dad quit his job and we bought a camper in Europe and started traveling. The world has been opened up to us. I’m teaching myself french, guitar, art, geometry, and cooking. I have been to Africa and Europe! And now I’m even writing my own book! And my mom has already self published two children’s books! This all started because of the inspiration from our books. Thank you.

    Like

  23. Thank you for the over view. I was looking for some links to your favorite places to put together a flight. This was something that put a lot of reservations aside and I’m lucky to have found it. Thank you.

    Like

  24. I have never had young people have an issue with Americans, old people are more stuck in there ways. I live in South Korea and some of the old generation wish it was run by North Korea. In today’s worlds every country I go to is welcoming and wants to learn everything and show off even the most basic English skills.
    Thou I disagree 80% of my friends are American. Once again the younger generation is getting out more, either via doing a gap year or using there college to work overseas. Everywhere I have been I always meet many Americans.
    Oh well maybe country’s where we are at war with them would be against us.

    Like

  25. Hi Gary,

    First of all I would say that this is a quite impressive post! I want to travel around the world, this things you listed here are really great and it must be from a well experienced traveller. It inspired me very well.

    Thank you.

    Like

  26. Your concise blog post is very inspirational and much appreciated! Getting the chance to travel to far away places with cultures and practices different from one’s own is an invaluable learning experience for any individual. There are no guaranteed solutions for reconciliation, understanding, and open attitudes between nations and their peoples, but traveling with a sense of reverence, respect and open mindedness certainly helps.

    Like

  27. It’s funny how you mentioned the anti-American. I have not really experienced it myself either but I have experienced something not quite anti-American.

    I was in Costa Rica talking with two girls who asked, Why do you say you are from America? And they proceeded to say there’s North America and South America, not to mention Central America and Latin America. They took pride in saying they were from Costa Rica instead of from America too. In a way they are right, we could be more specific, saying we are from USA, Canada, Costa Rica, etc…It’s like in the USA we ask each other, where are you from? New York, California, Las Vegas, L. A. and not America.

    Do you ever meet people in other countries that say they are from Ottawa instead of Canada or Bulgaria instead of Europe?

    Like

  28. Reading the 4HWW little more than a year ago was a trigger !
    I sold everything, quit my job and purchased a good old firemen truck.
    8 months of travel so far with my family and we love it. Such an incredible experience to be 24/24 with your wife and kids. The plan is to travel 2 to 3 years in South America and Africa.
    THANKS for being such an inspiration for many people !

    The unanswered question as of today: What will we do after this long-term travel ? We have no idea but guess what, it’s not scary ! Every day of travel brings its lot of surprises and unexpected meetings, it looks that the world is full of opportunities …

    I read this article before our trip and reading it again now, I agree with most of the points but Item#20 : Everyone should travel, YES but at any time, don’t wait for retirement.
    I often have questions about the budget and about Item #9 (Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive) : SO TRUE !!!! We spent less than staying in our home country (France)

    Well, THANKS again !

    David & the Dacaluf family

    Like

  29. Great points and I agree with all of them except for one.
    “In developing countries, government is usually the problem.” government is usually the problem in all countries. You need to take a step back and take a look at your own government if you think it is not a problem or doesn’t take part in corruption.

    Like

  30. Great article….but what’s with this image (swastika)….the writer didn’t even explain it’s significance. Despite what it may mean in their culture it has genocidal global interpretation.

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  31. Tim, your post is so informative but I will disagree with you in regards to corruption. Developing countries have a level of corruption that is “developing” in standards. Cops don’t shake down pedestrians in the USA or Canada because your level of corruption is more sophisticated like the F35 fighter jet or the Russian rockets used by NASA. Still, I wish you well in your journeys.

    Like

  32. I have to disagree with the suggestion that Canadians and Americans share a common culture. We share a similar accent because of our geographic proximity but that is a far cry from the same culture. We have similar cultural reference points because we have watched a lot of the same TV and consumed a lot of the same products and media. In my experience traveling I find that when the discussion really goes deep it is revealed that the Canadians and the Americans around the table relate to a surprising number of issues in fundamentally different ways. It might be difficult for an American to tell however as for many Canadians it is considered rude and uncomfortable to voice dissenting opinions that make the other party get defensive or aggressive. We are peace keepers. I do like much of what you have shared in this article otherwise.

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  33. The only comment I have (as someone who has done a fair bit of travel) is that the picture accompanying #19 doesn’t really have anything to do with political systems at all. It is the symbol for Buddhism as you can see it all over Korea. The writing is also in Korean.

    I realize the NAZIs coopted the swastika for their own political purposes, but that symbol has had meaning for Buddhists in Korea since long before the NAZis ever thought of using it. It marks every temple in Korea. Buddhist graves are distinguished from Christian graves in Korea by the presence of this symbol. In short, it is entirely orthogonal to any political system – has nothing to do with it whatsoever.

    Other than that, enjoyable read. My wife and I have lived in 20 addresses across 4 countries. I love people pretty much everywhere I go and that includes people from the most central parts of the US to San Francisco to Canada to Latin America and East Asia.

    Like