In 2011, 25-year-old Washington, DC resident and Baltimore native Evan S. Rice couldn’t shake the feeling of being too comfortable in his decent job, affordable living situation, and the monotonous predictability of his life. Rather than take up a new hobby, as some of us might, he packed his bags and bought a one-way plane ticket to another continent. Rice, a financial consultant with longtime environmental interests, had consulted a calendar and was headed to Kenya to witness the great migration of wildebeests as they passed into the country from Tanzania. When that went well, he decided he might as well keep traveling.
Rice, Gilman Class of 2004, spent more than two years on the road, traveling alone through 32 countries on six continents. He traveled comfortably but modestly, sleeping on couches and picking up odd jobs between large trips, and choosing new destinations based largely on their affordability. Despite a lifetime of cautionary tales and warnings about unscrupulous locals in less touristy countries, Rice confirmed suspicions he knew had to be true: There are good people everywhere you go, and most of the world is safe and welcoming to respectful visitors.
Upon his return, Rice had enough advice on travel to fill a book, and he has done just that. He decided to share what he had learned about solo tourism, and how to be a respectful guest when visiting new countries. His new book The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for The Independent Traveler, published by Black Dog & Leventhal, is full of practical and interesting advice for the modern traveler and sprinkled with cheeky anecdotes and pieces of trivia. The book launches this Friday at Little Havana in Baltimore.
Would you give a brief history of what you were doing in the years before deciding to embark on such an extended period of travel?
I attended SMU in Dallas, TX, and was a double major in Finance and Economics. After college, I immediately started working for a large consulting company in Washington, DC. I lived in a great house with a few friends and was enjoying my time. The company I worked for was very big on work/life balance, my colleagues and bosses were wonderful people, etc.
Sometimes going off to travel is portrayed as the solution to some hugely negative life event. My situation was almost the exact opposite. It was almost like I was too comfortable. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m going to blink and 30 years are going to go by.”
[As far as affording to go,] the consulting job was a solid paycheck, so I was able to save some money during the DC years. Second, I took a few random jobs during/between trips (temp, bartender, etc). The incredible generosity of friends and family (I crashed on more than a few couches). Lastly, I pick my spots. I’ve learned to travel a bit more cheaply over the years, but wouldn’t consider myself an ultra-budget traveler. In my opinion, it’s much, much more about choosing the right places to go.
Your main advice is not to overthink a trip, and to just “go.” That said, is there any subtext to that advice, after traveling so many different places? What rudimentary research have you learned to do when traveling to less touristy destinations, to make sure you don’t offend, or put yourself in unnecessary danger?
I would say the first thing to note here is just the idea of staying realistic. I love the world, I love to travel, I believe people are fundamentally good. But that does not mean that every single area of the world is safe for every single person. It’s important to be realistic and realize that if you choose to go certain places, a large portion of your trip will be dictated by security concerns.
Mentality/attitude is the single most important thing. I cover many different cultural concerns — from basic hand gestures to attitudes to government/royalty to gender to language and much more in The Wayfarer’s Handbook. Those are interesting and important things to know. However, it’s impossible to understand and anticipate every single cultural subtlety. It’s okay to make mistakes, that’s part of the experience!
What’s important is making an effort — showing you’re trying — and maintaining a friendly attitude. If you are earnest and kind, people will treat you with hospitality and respect. If you adopt a me vs. them attitude, you will have issues.
What made you decide that 2011 was the year to drop everything and go?
Travel was always something I wanted to do and, as I mentioned earlier, I was getting too comfortable. I love wildlife, and one day [in 2011] I realized “If I quit this job and fly to Kenya, I could see the great migration of wildebeests.” So that’s what I did.
When you are drawn to new places, does it tend to be because they are familiar, or because they are challenging? Do you have a favorite place you traveled?
I’ve honestly loved everywhere I’ve ever been. In terms of what draws me to places, I’d say I like places that are just opening up, places that maybe a few years ago wouldn’t have really been doable, and thus have very little of a defined tourist trade, but are suddenly now accessible.
Do you speak any languages other than English? Does it ever feel debilitating to not speak a local language, and do you have any advice or anecdotes on finding other forms of communication?
I speak a little Spanish, very poorly. I have a few useful techniques I’ve learned about communication – all covered in [the book]. But in the grand scheme of things, from a travel perspective, we’re lucky to be native English speakers. In my opinion, English is the most useful language to know when traveling. More and more people are speaking English, especially young people. There were a few times early on, when I was totally unable to communicate with a group of people, only to have a little kid wander along who spoke English, learned from either reading the Bible or watching How I Met Your Mother on the internet.
Being on the road for so long must teach you about bare necessities. What felt necessary to carry with you? Anything you carried for two years that you regret lugging around?
I could do about a dozen pages on this! First of all, the bare necessities are different for everyone, and it takes time to really know what you need. To me, necessities are things like pocket notebooks, ear plugs, a dry bag, good shoes, black t-shirts, etc.
Things I regret carrying around: so, so many things! Here’s an example of what I mean: When I first showed up in Kenya for that first big trip, I brought a bunch of rope. Like a big heavy thing of thick rope, like I was Indiana Jones. I have no idea what I thought I’d need it for. All the other travelers were like “Why do you have all this rope?” It was absurd; I think I thought I’d be swinging across canyons or something.
I have many stories like that, and I cover a lot of packing/item stuff in The Wayfarer’s Handbook. What a lot of it boils down to though is almost anywhere you go, people have been living there for a long time. They’ve survived, quite comfortably. You need to plan ahead for things like personal medical considerations and advanced electronics. But beyond that, they almost certainly have a local substitute. You’re not going to Mars.
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