It’s my favorite kind of travel read; a laugh-out-loud travel memoir that reveals backpacking’s awkward side. So upon picking up Sue Bedford’s new book “It’s Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker“, I naturally couldn’t put it down!
Sue is a disenchanted waitress when she embarks upon a year-long quest around the world with her exasperatingly perfect friend, Sara. Expecting a whimsical jaunt of self-discovery, Sue instead encounters an absurd series of misadventures that render her embarrassed, terrified, and queasy (and in a lot of trouble with Philippine Airline).
Whether she’s fleeing from ravenous lions, dancing amid smoking skulls, navigating the torturous Annapurnas, or (accidentally) drugging an unfortunate Englishman, Sue’s quick-witted, self-deprecating narrative might just inspire you to take your own chaotic adventure.
What do you love the most about travelling?
When travelling, you’re constantly encountering people, places, and ideas that are completely new to you—it’s like experiencing the world as a kid again.
The wonder and excitement over what the locals may consider mundane things (how often have onlookers grinned in bemusement as you fascinatedly photographed a lamp post?) keeps you present in the moment.
What inspired you to start travelling?
I’d dropped out of a highly competitive journalism program and figured I needed to do something awesome to feel like that decision was worthwhile, so I started bartending, saved up, and backpacked through Australia and New Zealand for five months.
I was so terrified before I left that I couldn’t even pick up the guidebook without hyperventilating into a paper bag so I didn’t plan anything in advance. I also told everybody I loved them because I thought I was probably going to die.
What inspired you to write a book about your year abroad?
Due to over-glamourizing travel blogs and Instagram feeds, many people have this notion that travelling is almost elegant, and backpackers are these stoic polyglots who can construct a shelter out of a thumbtack and their underpants.
I wanted to demonstrate that even a neurotic dropout with the physical constitution of a Cheese String can travel the world.
You left home with the idealistic notion of “finding yourself” – did you?
You know how at the end of Kung Fu Panda you learn that the Secret Ingredient Soup doesn’t actually have a secret ingredient? That was how I felt at the end of the trip.
I was the same person I was when I left—yet it turned out I was capable of so much more than I’d thought. I realized backpacking isn’t about finding answers, it’s about the outlandish and amazing experiences that occur while you’re looking for them. (Oh, and my apologies for spoiling the ending for anybody who hasn’t seen Kung Fu Panda)
What were some of your main discoveries on the road – lessons learnt from travel?
It sounds cheesy, but my main discovery was just how incredible and boggling the world is, and how comparatively insignificant and dumb I am. Okay, maybe it sounds disheartening when I phrase it like that, but it’s a humbling and inspiring realization.
Also, I discovered the value of not living linearly. In the West, we’re encouraged to constantly strive for quantifiable achievements (a degree, a house, etc.) whereas backpacking is about a series of vibrant and incredible moments.
Three things you can’t travel without?
Ear plugs, an eye mask, and my journal.
Biggest cultural shock you have experienced while travelling?
While trundling across the Tibetan tundra, our bus suddenly skidded to a halt next to a bizarre structure: a wooden platform on 12-foot stilts. As most of us scratched our heads in bewilderment, one elderly Chinese lady immediately scaled the ladder, squatted behind the half-wall, and emitted a few, er, tell-tale sounds.
Just then, her nugget fell through the open air to land with a splat… on the exact same dirt she could’ve crapped on had she merely squatted. To this day, I have no idea why rural Tibetans feel compelled to freewheel their faeces, but there you have it.
Most memorable adventures from your year?
Sara and I missioned to a Dayak longhouse in remote Borneo, coincidentally arriving during a funeral ceremony. Ritual dictates the skulls of the deceased’s relatives be exhumed for the event (those which haven’t adequately decomposed are substituted with coconuts with faces drawn on) and offered hardboiled eggs and smoking cigarettes.
There were also animal sacrifices and traditional dancing—which we were invited to partake in. When it was my turn, I panicked, forgot the moves, and performed The Time Warp instead. Whoops.
Most practical piece of advice for those planning a year abroad?
Eat, sleep, and travel (buses, trains, etc.) as cheaply as you can, and use your money instead on memorable experiences.
Why weren’t you particularly fond of Vietnam?
I thought Vietnam was an enthralling place, particularly the old city in Hanoi and the mountain town of Sa Pa, but I was disenchanted by the fact that everything we did felt so touristy, like we were sheep being herded along the banana pancake trail.
This highlighted the importance of getting off the beaten track and seeking out/putting effort towards unique and meaty experiences.
How do you make sure a trip stays an adventure instead of becoming a vacation?
As with nearly everything in life, you’ll only get out of travel what you’re willing to put in. If you’re craving adventure, then go beyond your comfort zone and seize weird and wild opportunities when they present themselves. If nothing else, you’ll realize how much of what holds you back is in your own head.
There’s a particular quote from the book which stuck with me: “This is real life, mate. Everything you do back home – nine-to-five – the rate race, whatever – that’s just waiting for real life to begin. And for some people, it never does.”
What is “real life” in your opinion after having travelled for a year?
Most people measure success by either a) wealth b) job title/status or c) doing what you love for money. I was never seduced by a) or b) but spent a lot of time agonizing over c) before understanding that even the lucky few who are able to transform their passion into a career have (sometimes grand) elements of their job they don’t enjoy.
Instead, I decided to measure success by the number of hours I spend per week doing what makes me happy. “Real life” is the time spent doing what you enjoy, whatever that may be.
You weren’t sure of what you wanted from life when you started travelling. What happened when you got home at the end of 12 months? What came next?
You mean, after an epic case of the post-travel blues? I decided my “real life” was travelling and writing, and so I boomeranged between working/saving and backpacking, and began It’s Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker.
It’d always been my life goal to be a published author by my thirtieth birthday, and I ended up making it by two weeks!
Why should people take a year off and travel?
It’s the most exciting, interesting, stirring, educating, challenging, humbling, terrifying, flabbergasting, chaotic, nutty, fun thing you’ll ever do, and will most likely be the greatest year of your life.
Where can people buy your book?
US: Barnes & Noble
Worldwide: Amazon, The Book Depository
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Featured photo by HoodRiverKayaker.