9 Life Struggles That Help Make You a Better Traveler

Old+Quebec+City+Canada+-+ochristine

Thanks to social media, travel inspiration seems to be everywhere. Around every digital corner, curated photos and content (of my own, included!) designed to instill wanderlust seeps from algorithms and advertisements but... sigh… when life is going rough, travel may not seem so attainable.

I’ve been there. But you must know, we are not all jet setters and wealthy spenders traversing the globe. Despite the grass seeming greener, you’ll find many of us have had our own struggles and low points along the way. Some things felt like the end. Others made us stronger.

After visiting more than 30 countries and interacting with tourists who seemed to indeed “have it all” in many aspects, I realized that living with lupus and coming from humble beginnings actually made me a waaaay better traveler than many tourists I’ve met. And it may do the same for you.

Here are 9 life struggles that can prepare you to be a better traveler than you’d ever imagine — even if you don’t have much travel experience.

1. Living in a crowded space

If you grew up in a small home with a big family, you know the struggle. Sharing every inch of an apartment, bunk beds, clothes and toys — and never having a moment of peace and quiet without someone barging in and encroaching your one-foot radius of personal space (bathroom included).

Living in a crowded space felt like the ultimate struggle growing up. So much so, that when I went to boarding school for high school, I thought our dorm set up was luxurious. While princesses with family wealth whined about having one roommate, my eyes lit up at the sight of finally having a section of a room I didn’t have to share.

Little did I know, these experiences trained me to be a flexible traveler. When budgets are tight, I fit right into a hostel dorm with ease. I’ve slept in rooms with up to 18 beds (on sleeper buses and trains too!) — and have saved lots of money because of it. Most people who grew up not having to share anything usually don’t fare well in these environments.

 
Sleeper train in Thailand
Sleeper train in Thailand

Sleeper train in Thailand

 

2. Growing Up on a Limited Food Budget

Limited food budgets are relative, and I am blessed to say that my childhood always saw food on the table, thanks to a fluctuating cycle of Puerto Rican staples and WIC checks, Food Stamps, or work paydays.

Food budget woes hit in college and my first jobs, where I didn’t have mom’s cauldron of arroz con gandules holding me down. I had to make do in a new city with little time or money and survived on a $100 monthly grocery budget for years.

While some people found it absurd, the shoestring budget helped me become a great “cabinet chef” (I always found a way to make something delicious from random pantry items).

That training has followed me along my travel journey.

Yes, nowadays I love to taste my way through a destination via seated dining and culinary splurging. But that is not always possible!

For trips in more expensive cities, I learn to accept the situation, book accommodations with a kitchen, and get cooking! A limited food budget while traveling also helps us remember to try less expensive local foods from more mom & pop establishments, and avoid overpriced tourist traps.

 
Comida Tipica Food Menu in Peru

Comida Tipica Food Menu in Peru

Bread from a Local Mill in the Netherlands

Bread from a Local Mill in the Netherlands

 

Accommodations with Kitchens:

  • Sign up for Airbnb here to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay and book accommodations with a kitchen.
  • Booking.com has hotel and hostel deals (with kitchens!) and good cancellation policies.

3. Days with no heat or hot water

Growing up in the South Bronx there were a lot of things I hated about my apartment building. One of those things was the unreliable utilities. I lived in Section 8 housing and there was always something wrong with our heat and hot water.

We were often freezing in the winter, lighting the stove for warmth and yelling at the super or landlord about our malfunctioning radiators. If not the lack of heat, then the hot water.

  • Have you ever taken a sink bath before? Grab a wash cloth and soap, tea kettle or pot, and boil water to prep a small wash basin for bathing.

That’s how you kept clean when the hot water was down.

In the summers we were braver: ice cold shower it is! It was almost refreshing… after the initial shock, of course.

Who knew that my experiences with unreliable hot water and heating would prepare me for travel!? When volunteering in Costa Rica, I had an outdoor shower that only ran cold water. In many other countries I’ve visited (usually in the jungle or by the ocean) hot water was also scarce.

While some travelers complain about cold showers, or splurge on accommodations that offer hot water, I can be flexible and save money by foregoing these “luxury” amenities.

 
Shower in Laos

Shower in Laos

Bathroom in Southeast Asia

Bathroom in Southeast Asia

 

4. Needing Financial Aid for Everything

It sucked growing up and having to always inquire about financial aid for everything. I was lucky to have a mentor who would help there, but I still envied kids whose parents could say “Yes” to anything they asked, instead of “How Much?”

Needing financial aid was annoying, but it had its benefits too. Mostly, it taught me to never let money stop me from pursuing my dreams. That somewhere, somehow there could be aid. That I just needed to do the research.

Fast forward to starting my life of travel: when I wanted to “live” abroad I knew I’d run through my savings quickly if I didn’t have a plan, so I became familiar with bartering. My first barter: volunteering at a yoga resort in Costa Rica in exchange for a room and all meals.

When I wanted to get my Yoga Teacher certification (RYT 200) later, the fee was way out of my budget too. So I applied for the only teacher assistant scholarship and got accepted, discounting the fee by 50%.

There is more aid out there than you think — even in travel! Just be prepared to work for it.

5. Not having a car

I lived in a neighborhood that was known for car vandalism and theft so having a car was one big headache — plus high insurance and gas costs. The times my family did get a used car they were broken into, hijacked, set on fire, and who knows what else!

For some people, the life struggle of not having a car can be dire if you don’t live in a metropolitan area. People without a car or transportation have to walk miles just to get to work or school.

Megabus has loads of bus routes in Europe

Megabus has loads of bus routes in Europe

Cable car transportation in La Paz, Bolivia

Cable car transportation in La Paz, Bolivia

Looking at my life now, I feel my “no car” struggle prepared me for a life of travel. When I explore, I am always confident to hop on a subway or local bus — or walk for miles. I can read maps really well, and am extremely patient when it comes to waiting for delayed transport and being stuck in vehicles on interrupted routes.

I’ve taken public buses, cable cars, colectivos, tuk tuks, and metros/subways in the Americas, Europe, and Asia with ease. I’ve also found most metro transportation to be 100x better than any train I’ve taken in the United States.

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6. Growing Up With English As a second language

Did you grow up speaking English as a second language (or being the primary translator for your family?) Then you are probably great at traveling in countries where English isn’t the national language!

English was my first language; broken Spanglish an eventual second. For many of my friends however (whose first language was Spanish), Sesame Street was their only reliable source of ESL education — not surprisingly, our public school ESL system underperformed.

Though my grandparents and elderly family pretty much only spoke Spanish, my siblings and I learned to listen in Spanish and reply in English. #NuyoricanProblems

I didn’t realize that despite thinking my Spanish speaking skills sucked (correction: they did suck. I had to work hard to improve), my grandparents’ ESL experiences were actually fine tuning my ear for language, and it helped later upgrade my linguistic skills. It would take years after their deaths to put it all together, but I’ve since been able to skip expensive English-guided tours, and travel to over 10 Latin American countries self-translating.

Speaking Spanish and learning Quechua and weaving with a local Andean family along my  hike to Machu Picchu via Lares Valley .

Speaking Spanish and learning Quechua and weaving with a local Andean family along my hike to Machu Picchu via Lares Valley.

7. going Bankrupt

I’ve experienced multiple bankruptcies close to home, and I’ll tell you this: there is nothing more humbling than being blacklisted for seven years and deemed financially untrustworthy while still trying to survive life.

The truth is though, having these experiences and struggles also taught many lessons that I’ve held on to while traveling.

  1. No matter how much fun you are having, always check your bank account balances, bills, and credit. Be on top of your finances at all times.

  2. With bankruptcies, we forfeit our chances to be approved for loans and credit lines, and have to find other ways to live life without that help. In travel the same applies: we don’t always find that perfect flight deal… plan B may be to find bus routes or alternate dates instead. We don’t always save enough money for our dream vacation… plan B might be to volunteer for free room and board instead. No matter what happens, be open to finding solutions.

  3. When you are bankrupt, you can’t spend what you don’t have (since you don’t have credit); take this lesson into your travels too. Do not travel beyond your means if you know you won’t be able to pay it off quickly. Don’t put yourself in a financial hole for the sake of a thrill.

  4. Your actions affect other people. Just like in bankruptcy, there are people who rely on you who may be affected by your plummeted credit and finances. When you travel (especially with other people) know that your financial decisions can affect the whole group. On the flip side, in financial emergencies abroad, friends can have each other’s back.

Friends traveling in Aruba

Friends traveling in Aruba

Friends backpacking in Chile

Friends backpacking in Chile

8. Having to always be on your guard

Speaking of trust, if you live in an area where you have to constantly look over your shoulder, avoid eye contact, and keep an eye out for sketchy people, you may have developed major trust issues with humans.

Having to always be on your guard creates barriers in relationships, and doesn’t allow you to live life as carefree as you deserve.

As someone who grew up in the 90’s NYC gang era, where wearing a certain color increased your chances of being harmed, going out on halloween night equated to violence and gang initiations, and every corner brought the possibility of a fight or fiend… you gain street smarts quickly.

Who would’ve thought these street smarts would come in handy while traveling? They do!

Now, I am the first to say that I feel safer traveling the world than I’ve felt in some of the US neighborhoods and schools I’ve been in — BUT… sketchy people are everywhere.

 
There is no geographical limit for safety, and anything can happen anywhere.
— O. Christine
 

I am a better traveler because of my street smarts. I can sniff out a sketchy situation from a mile away. I know when to mind my business and not make eye contact, and I know how to become intimidating and stern if I need to defend myself.

That said, travel has also taught me that humans are a lot kinder than I thought. And while my guard keeps me from being naive, it has also been nice to just breathe.

Valparaiso Chile streets - ochristine

9. Having no one to rely on

It is sad to say but many people grow up feeling alone. Feeling like we can’t depend on anyone in life, let alone someone to travel with.

This feeling of disappointment could come from family, a partner, or friends, and can really get us down. But in that loss of reliance, we gain independence. And with that independence we become great travelers.

  • Why wait for a flakey friend to book a trip with you when you could just go alone?

  • Why spend your vacation only talking to friends in an all inclusive resort when you could leave your comfort zone and meet new people?

  • Why book an over-scheduled tour with a big group when you can get a map and self-guide your way through a new place?

Our struggles may not always feel like a benefit in disguise. Most often, they feel like the world is ending and you’re either not worthy of anything better or completely at rock bottom.

But if you’re able to view life struggles with a fresh set of eyes, and use them as tools to help you in life, you’ll find that in many ways, you are more powerful and resilient than most people.

Vina del Mar, Chile

Vina del Mar, Chile

You deserve to breathe easy. You deserve to explore. And the struggles that may have plagued your life for all these years don’t need to remain dark rain clouds over your head.

They can become superpowers. Weapons for good. Unique skills to make you the ultimate traveler. And you deserve that.

What life struggles do you think make you a stronger traveler?

Thanks for reading! I hope this inspired you to believe that our struggles can also be our strengths.

xx, O.

 

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Life struggles that help you become a better traveler and person - ochristine