Skills you learn from travel: 14 things only experienced travellers know

Travel is a learning experience. You're always told that – though people expect that the learning will be about the obvious subjects, history, culture, the world at large. And you do take on knowledge of all of that. But there's more.

Travel teaches you so many things – in particular, skills you never realised were even necessary. These are not the sort of abilities you would put on your CV. They're little things, niche skills you've never needed before but which become vital when you move through various parts of the world.

If you know how to do any of the following, chances are you're a traveller.

Haggle

I'm still a pretty terrible haggler, but better than I was. This is a basic survival skill for many travellers, a way to interact with local people in the way they expect you to, and a way to avoid paying far too much for certain things. The trick is not to take haggling too seriously, and not to find yourself going hard at it over the equivalent of about 20 cents.

Hand-wash clothes

some cloths still need handwash-turquoise woolen shirt being washed by hand iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Skills travel teaches you Ben Groundwater column tra5-online-groundwater

Photo: iStock

This is not something I'd had to do since my mum starting making be scrub my own cricket whites when I was in high school. And I'd never had to hand-wash anything in a tiny hotel sink with a shard of old soap and a piece of twine to hang it on. Travel for any decent length of time, however, and you figure out how to do this (and when it's really necessary).

Use a squat toilet

Picture of a French squatter iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Skills travel teaches you Ben Groundwater column tra5-online-groundwater

Photo: iStock

This took me a long while to master. At first squat toilets are just frightening, and then they're awkward, and then eventually they become normal. It's all about knowing what to do with your clothes, and your hands, and the hose thingy, and getting the hang of balancing in a certain position. Once you've got that down, you're all set.

A sense of direction

Travel teaches you awareness. It has to, otherwise you're going to end up lost pretty much every day of your travelling life. When you travel you become aware of landmarks, of street signs, of where the sun is and how it relates to the points of the compass. You keep a rough idea in your head of where you came from, and how you're going to get back there.

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Communicate without language

Sign language is a beautiful thing. Pointing, gesticulating, miming. You do what you have to in foreign countries to make yourself understood. You figure out, too, what others are saying via non-verbal cues. Pretty soon you realise that the language barrier is really no barrier at all.

Find a place to sleep

Here's a handy skill that you'll never need outside of the travel sphere. I can walk into any airport in the world and figure out pretty quickly where the best place will be to lie down and try to have a snooze. It's usually at an unused gate, or in some far-flung corner where people tend not to venture. Sometimes you'll find actual sleep facilities (hello Changi, Munich), but if not, there are always options.

Spot a scammer

Here's a skill that probably does translate to real life every now and then: spotting scammers. You get to know the lines. You can spot the approaches. You know the art sellers and the English practicers and the tea drinkers and you just smile at them and move on.

Order sandwiches in seven different languages

The heading is a reference to the Paul Kelly lyric, but you get the idea. Spend a few years travelling and you end up with all sorts of useless snippets of foreign tongues: how to order beer, or sandwiches, or ask which way to the bus station in Italian and Thai and Swahili. It makes a nice party trick if nothing else.

Eat or drink just about anything and smile through it

Beshbarmak, Uzbek kitchen iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Skills travel teaches you Ben Groundwater column tra5-online-groundwater

Beshbarmak: Horse meat with pasta. Photo: iStock

You have to be polite. If people are going to share their culture with you – and share their food with you – it's the very least you can do to smile and be grateful and look as if you enjoyed it. Doesn't matter if you're drinking fermented mares' milk in Mongolia, eating horse pasta in Kazakhstan, trying grasshoppers in Uganda or skolling snake wine in Vietnam, you learn to grin and bear it.

See also: Ben Groundwater: I received death threats after insulting Kazakhstan's national dish

Make better decisions

The only way to survive as a traveller is to start making better decisions. The people you hang out with, the places you go, the ways you get there: every little decision on the road can have major consequences. That has to translate to the rest of your life.

Sleep sitting up

Plenty of people will say that they can't sleep sitting up, but it's all practice. It's also a necessity. If you're going to spend long periods on a plane or travel a decent distance on a train or bus, you need to be able to sleep. Maybe it's uncomfortable and maybe it's unnatural. But you can do this.

Eat with my hands

This is the simplest, most basic way to eat, a true connection with your food that's far more significant than when using a knife and fork or chopsticks, and yet so many of us lose the ability to eat with our hands as we grow up. And then you go to sub-continent, or the Middle East, or parts of Africa, and suddenly have to dig in with your digits once again. It takes some relearning, but it's a beautiful thing.

Stick to a budget

When you travel, you stick to a budget, or you go home. Those are some dire consequences for someone who's overseas and having the time of their lives. You learn to balance the books pretty quickly.

Put things into perspective

The "starving kids in Africa" cliché that you're warned about as a child becomes very real when you begin to travel the world, when you see all of the different ways people live, when it dawns on you bit by bit that you've been unreasonably fortunate to be born into a life of relative privilege and luxury. Travel teaches you perspective. It teaches you about how lucky you've been, and how trivial some of your problems are compared to the rest of the world's. That has to be a good thing.

What has travel taught you? What are the skills – relatively useless or otherwise – that you never would have picked up if you hadn't travelled?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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