This first thing you notice is that the airport’s different. Maybe they’re playing a song you’ve never heard before, there are adverts for alien products, and the architecture curves in unfamiliar ways. The man who meets you at the gate can’t speak English. He points to a phone screen with your name on it and the time of your flight. You nod, and he leads you to his car.
The strange, dizzying sights and sounds of a foreign city at night assault your senses as you travel towards your destination. Maybe it’s a hostel on the side of a mountain, the stars stark and bright, and you won’t realise just how far up you are till you wake the next morning. Maybe it’s in the heart of the city, down a narrow alley and in a building that looks like it’s been frozen in time for centuries; maybe it’s just a simple, modern hotel, but like the airport just different enough to make it the most amazing place in the world at that moment.
It’s hard to put into words why I’m inspired to travel. But then, I suppose I’m also inspired to travel to see things I couldn’t put into words before I left. A couple of years ago I went up China’s Yellow Mountain. It was freezing cold and took every ounce of energy I had, but it was worth it when I got to the top and watched the sun rise through the sea of clouds. Not only would it be difficult to find a mountain to climb where I’m from, but this particular kind of mountain - with a forest of amazing pillar-like peaks, Chinese characters often carved into the rock - simply doesn’t exist in England. It was something I could simply never do back home.
It’s easy to get comfortable at home and think there are no surprises left in the world, but travel to any country and you’ll soon see that even the simplest things can be a surprise, as you have to relearn almost everything you usually take for granted. Wading through the crowded souk markets in Marrakesh, the press of the crowd exacerbating the heat of the day, I had to quickly change how I approached shopping. British politeness doesn’t help when you’re trying to bargain a tagine down to one tenth of its original price. Things like this are fascinating and frightening in equal measure, but also tons of fun.
Still, this puts many people off. There are some people who are fine with never travelling, and you can’t really blame them when it does involve so much risk and commitment. But equally, there are people who would love to travel but are simply overwhelmed by everything it entails. There are always a thousand reasons not to travel, and even the keenest travelers have to face them down every time they leave their home country. I’ve wrestled with those reservations many times before, but have found several answers to them in the process:
1. I don’t have the money
Don’t assume that travelling or volunteering has to be a major investment. Choosing cheap airlines, countries close to home, hostels instead of hotels, and even local food instead of fancy restaurants are all ways of making a trip inexpensive without losing any of the fun. If you really want to travel, you could always try cutting costs elsewhere. Deciding exactly where and when you’re going to go can give you motivation to start saving. It will be worth it.
2. I don’t have the time
Travelling doesn’t have to mean a year-long, round-the-world trip. There are many amazing places you can explore for a week or even a weekend. Most volunteer companies do short programmes, and getting really stuck into a country by working there and doing as many activities as possible can make a short trip feel like a big experience. My week in Morocco felt like a month because I travelled to several vastly different places (from humbling deserts to luscious waterfalls) and made new friends almost every day. I wouldn’t do that much in three months back home!
3. The logistics are a nightmare
They are, and the mere thought of all the preparation needed to travel can instantly put some people off. Book the plane ticket now so it becomes something you just have to do, so that you have an end to aim towards, so that you know that whatever happens you will be leaving on that date, even if you’ve only packed a toothbrush. It’s no different from a deadline at school, uni or work - the difference here is that you get something so much better out of it at the end.
4. I’m worried about how I’ll cope in another country
Not coping and blundering your way through a new country is often part of the fun! I can’t recall anyone telling me that language barriers, strange food or unusual customs ever got in the way of them having an amazing time abroad. One of my favourite memories from China is getting friendly with a shopkeeper who couldn’t speak any English because she found our confusion at how to buy beer hilarious.
But it can be daunting. Read tips from people who have been there before you, and remember that most popular destinations in the world are very equipped to help tourists. Staff in hostels and on volunteer projects help hundreds of travelers like you every month, and are particularly adept at this. (Speaking as the most socially awkward guy in the world, I’ll add that being shy isn’t as much as a hindrance as you might think when taking all this into account - plus, I’ve come out of each trip far more confident than I was beforehand).
5. I’m worried about how safe I’ll be in another county
While there are many unsafe countries and cities in the world, if you go to a country that’s popular for travelling you’re probably no more or less likely to run into trouble than you would be back home. Make sure you learn as much as possible about the country before you go, be sensible, keep your wits about you, and listen to the advice of people who live there or have been there before, and you’ll be fine. The staff on volunteer programmes are experts at keeping you safe - it’s their main job after all!
6. I don’t have anyone to go with
People travelling alone is probably far more common than you think (I’ve certainly met more solo travelers than group travelers). Being by yourself is great - you’re free from having to accommodate other people and can make your trip your own! Meeting new people is also incredibly easy - people who travel alone are open to new experiences in a way most other people aren’t, so you will immediately have a lot in common with everyone you meet. Hostels, volunteer projects and group tours are full of solo travelers and are among the best ways to immediately make friends.
I could reel off practical advice for days, and you could raise reasonable rejections to all of it, but the truth that cuts through all of this is that nothing compares to making a real difference to people’s lives on a volunteer programme; to feeling incredibly peaceful as you gaze at the stars above a desert; or to making new friends at a party on the beach that you still see three years later. If I ever need a reason to travel, I only have to think of all the amazing experience I’ve had before, and all the possibilities of what could still be in store.