After travelling for four months there are a lot of things I've wished I knew right at the beginning, some of them I had seen on blogs and things before I came but I didn't really pay attention. I searched for all the "Top Ten" lists I could, so here's my own.
1. Buy solid shampoo & conditioner, or suck it up and buy travel size.
This is the tip that sticks out so much in my memory. I remember reading it and thinking "HA! As if I'm buying travel size for four months!" I got to Toronto and bought myself a regular size shampoo and conditioner and was happy. Then I moved onto Niagara, and realised my error. In the travelling scheme of things, those bottle are enormous. My bag is full to the brim anyway, I had to carry them around separately, wrapped up in a second plastic bag because those bottles carry water like a camel, secreted away so you only discover it when it's soaked through everything else. The tops of both broke swiftly too, meaning I had to tape them closed. I eventually gave in and bought solid from Lush. Yes, it's more expensive...I got the tins to hold them in too, but it's so worth it. The tins can be stashed in my bag with not too much more effort and they last ages. I also managed to lose both original bottles by leaving them in the shower, I'm much more precious about my tins.
2. If you're in the west, don't bother bringing a sleeping sack.
This was a tip I actually paid attention to, and I wish I hadn't. The idea is that you have your sleeping sack to avoid the possibility of bed bugs, but every hostel I've been to (or researched) don't let you use them as there is just as much of a possibility of you bringing the blighters in with it. Mine took up space in my bag the whole time...I couldn't quite bring myself to throw it away in case I came across a grotty bed.
3. A torch is a must.
Some beds I slept in had a lamp, some didn't. I bought myself a little torch that could hang above my bed and it was invaluable. I often got up very early to check out and catch an early (cheap) bus, and you don't just turn on the lights in a dorm of 10. Well, some people do, and I hated them with a violent burning passion. I packed everything I could the night before I left so that in the morning my tasks were to get dressed and get my bags out of the room. I'd pack up the last bits outside the room to spare the others. You often have huge backpack sized lockers and searching through those in the dark isn't easy. Sometimes the rooms are very dark as a result of all the bunk beds. Bring a torch. Go to a Poundland equivalent. You're welcome.
4. Buy some sandwich bags.
When I bought these I never imagined they would be as helpful as they have been. Yes, sandwiches, standard. But I've used them for all sorts, tea bags so I don't have to carry the box, washing powder, crisps (because apparently a bag for one is impossible to find here) makeshift bins on the go...all sorts. I've found myself digging them out much more often than you'd expect, you will too.
5. Trust instincts.
It will never cease to amaze me how often my instincts are spot on. It would serve me well to remember this in the rest of my life, there have been numerous occasions where I was convinced something was about to happen and I chastised myself for being stupid before finding out I was on the money. We're not psychic, we're just so much better at reading people than we will ever give ourselves credit for. If someone walks into the dorm and you get a bad feeling from them, then just stay away. It doesn't even necessarily have to be a bad feeling, maybe you just think "I don't think they're my kinda person..." and you decide to stay in rather than go out with them. That's fine. Because I was away and alone I paid much more attention to these feelings than I usually do and I know it's done me good.
6. Remember you're allowed to do nothing.
It took me a long time to realise that I didn't have to go out and do something every day, that I could stay in bed and watch films or read if I wanted to. I always felt obligated to go outside and have a walk, if nothing else. Each time it was "come ON, you're in Montréal!" or "Look at that view! Go outside and look at the view from somewhere else!" I felt like I would hate myself in a couple of months time, when I'm back at work and wishing I was out exploring in Banff or watching the water in Vancouver. But I won't. If I was at home I wouldn't go out each and every day. I'd relax and watch tv and drink tea. I started doing this a bit more occasionally here and then realised how much I missed it once I got to Kelowna. The hostel was a fantastic place to relax, with comfy sofas, friendly staff, and plenty of films available. I spent most of my time there sitting with my ipad and some tea, relaxing exactly how I would if I were home with my friends. It was so good for me, and made me all the more excited about exploring Vancouver afterwards having had a break from being a hectic tourist, walking miles every day and aching all evening.
7. Embrace the selfie
I took a hell of a lot of photos whilst away, some places taking numerous shots of the same view because I was so desperate to capture that wonderful sight. This is all well and good, and you shouldn't not take thse photos, but people want to see you. You want to see you. Now that I'm back I feel a bit like...well I might have taken this photo but I could certainly find the same image, better, somewhere else. I prefer the photos that prove to myself that it actually did it! It feels unreal that it ever happened now, but seeing myself at Niagara cements it as fact. In the future, when I'm looking at these photos with my children/cats/minions the views won't be interesting, it will be seeing how I looked then. Whenever we look back at old family photos we're most interested in the people in them. I'm not a fan of the arm length photo, I feel like a fool, not to mention it's not particularly easy when you're using your DSLR rather than a phone. I really wished I had a remote for my camera, but settled for taking a few consecutive photos on timer to increase chances of a better shot.
8. Don't bother with a phone...at least in the west.
I left my phone at home, reasoning I'd be able to buy a cheap phone to use over there. I was expecting it to be like it is in the UK, it's not. Rather than being able to buy a bog standard phone for a tenner and putting a tenner of credit on it, I got to Toronto and found I would have to buy a $80 phone and have a $20 a month plan at least. No thanks. I won't deny there were a couple of points where I longed for the ability to text, but certainly not $160 worth of moments. Unless you have a magnificent deal from your provider at home and a phone you truly don't care about losing, don't bother. Wifi is everywhere and it might be an annoying walk back to find it if plans aren't running as smoothly as you thought, but you'll save a lot of money.
9. Consider online back up
The likelihood of me not having something break whilst I was away was ridiculously small. I love technology, but it hates me. I've had multiple phones stolen, a fair few broken (some my fault, some not), things get lost or just decide to shuffle orf. This was a big reason I left my phone at home when I went, my luck would dictate that it would be stolen like the last two. I was victim to a failing memory card at university...it had on it two pieces of coursework, one due in a week and the other in a fortnight. No words can describe the moment I discovered it had corrupted *cry* . Anyway, knowing my luck as I do, I wanted to make sure that the photos I took would be safe from me. I signed up to Flickr Pro with unlimited storage, and I'm so glad I did. I now tend to keep all my photos there, partly to take them out of my tech killing hands, and partly to free up space. Uploading with the Flickr Stackr app is nice and easy, and the editing options are passable...good enough on the move!
10. For goodness' sake, write stuff down.
Sometime you don't feel like writing, sometimes you forget, sometimes it only pours out when you're not actually feeling that great...but you'll kick yourself if you don't. I wrote a bit here and there, mainly for the blog, and I wish I'd written so much more that was just for me. I'm so happy I have the posts here for me to look back on, there will always be things that get forgotten and your writing jogs your memory. It all feels immensely unreal to me that I was ever there...as IF I managed that! But the writing is proof...and looking at the books will take you back to the places you were when you were writing. I started writing this post in Vancouver. I was in Starbucks with a cup of tea I had bought to spite a rude old woman who was shouting at everyone who wasn't leaving the second their drinks were finished, I conspired with the man with a pram next to me to keep our tables safe from her, and shared grimaces with the baristas she had been lambasting for not doing her bidding. I finished writing it in Chatham, contemplating a further cup of tea and half watching Doctors.