It sounds so high-five fabulous doesn’t it? Far-flung foreign travel with girlfriends, a global excursion with besties. It only takes the faintest whisper of the idea before a full-color slideshow of my friends and I against an array of international backdrops starts scrolling through my imagination. Wherever these musings take me—Trekking in Nepal! Cycling in Norway! Lounging on the beach in Thailand!—it’s all glittering sunsets and heart-shaped sunglasses. It is the best of all possibilities.
The choice to travel with friends seems easy on the surface. It’s tempting to assume that whatever positive dynamics I have with a friend will translate into smooth sailing overseas. But the reality of foreign travel is that it is, well, foreign. Because of this my preparations for foreign travel with girlfriends includes time for us to discuss five questions.
Foreign Travel Requires Preparation
The minute my passport is stamped and I march through customs in a different country, all my senses—and my nervous system—will be exposed to something new. It’s a pretty sure bet that whatever best laid plans I’ve mapped out and organized will go haywire somewhere along the way. (The good news is that those unforeseen events usually provide the best stories.)
While trying to acclimate to unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in a place that is thousands of miles away from home, something as simple as finding a restroom or figuring out where to go for lunch can be fraught with drama. The indecipherability of alphabets, street signs, and traffic patterns can easily create confusion and overwhelm emotions.
Foreign Travel Demands Attention
Foreign travel with girlfriends requires—no, demands—that I keep my attention attuned to whatever intentions I set for my journeys. These are usually about managing expectations, being patient, observing rather than reacting and above all, being kind and respectful. These practices are relatively easy to maintain when I’m home and in my own bubble of familiarity. But when I’m outside of those comfort zones they are put to the test in deeply meaningful ways.
I approach international trips with my girlfriends differently than if we were, say, pondering a road trip to Big Sur. Aware of all the ways senses can be awakened, and even assaulted, it is important to go into it with a strong understanding of each other’s needs, longings, expectations, quirks, and fears. I’ve come to rely on the conversations we have ahead of time about our plans. They provide the compassionate foundation we’ll need when we’re across oceans and time zones. These are my 5 things to discuss before foreign travel with girlfriends.
5 Questions To Discuss
You may be planning to visit art museums in Paris, scuba dive in Australia or commune with penguins in Antarctica. Regardless of your plans, a meaningful way to contemplate your travel is to explore these 5 questions together. Remember to explore them honestly, openly and with a sense of humor. This is what my friend Barb and I did when we planned a two-week trip to India for January 2014.
1. When I think about traveling to _____, my fears are:
The decision to travel to India together came to Barb and I by chance. I happened to mention landing on the website of an adventure travel company that organized cycling trips through Bangalore, India. Without hesitation she said, “I’m sorry to say I don’t like cycling, but I will go to India with you!” At that moment, a plan was hatched.
Before then, India, for me had been a huge reach in terms of mental and psychological comfort. I’d contemplated taking a solo trip there in my twenties – a lark if there ever was one-but it felt too far away, too tumultuous and too uncertain. But in 2006, my confidence as a global traveler got a boost when I went to Cuba, another destination that felt out of my reach for many years. After going there my travel ambitions settled on India. When Barb offered to journey there with me those seven years later, I didn’t hesitate to accept her offer.
Barb once described our friendship as an experience of slow, steady growth and connection. It kind of happened without our really noticing. It started through a series of serendipitous moments of the-stars-aligning-in-just-the-right-way variety. And from one experience to the next, our lives became more intertwined.
By the time we decided to go to India together, it felt less like a random event and more like another instance of the universe conspiring to deepen our connection.
Turns out Barb felt the same way I did about India—it felt daunting. After discussing our concerns, we agreed that India was not the kind of place to wing it. If we were going, we needed talk about things that made us feel eager and fearful, excited and intimidated, curious and anxious.
We shared concerns about the poverty and pollution. The idea of being knocked down by gastrointestinal issues was distressing to us both. We were anxious about our bladders—a conversation that had us in hysterics as we swapped our favorite personal metaphors. (“Mine is the size of a bumble bee!” “Mine can’t hold more than a thimble!”)
What if we lose each other in a crowd? What if one of us gets sick? How easy will it be to find a restroom? One after another, we read our lists out loud, and laughed our heads off. We walked away from that conversation feeling secure in the knowledge that we weren’t alone with our anxieties. Even if our biggest fears came to fruition, we knew we’d offer each other compassion, understanding, and the right kind of encouragement.
2. When we travel to_____, I don’t want to have to worry about_____:
There is something freeing and magical about foreign travel without a plan. Playing it by ear is its own kind of reward. It also requires a tremendous level of comfort with uncertainty. For me, that comfort level contracts in proportion to the number of layers of unfamiliarity another country might present. When I was twenty I wandered all over Rome by myself. I had nothing more than a backpack and my tattered copy of “Let’s Go Europe”. I’ve traveled up the east coast of Australia without a single hotel reservation. I’ve figured out the subway system in Tokyo and once got lost in Buenos Aires. All without the aid of the internet, GPS, and smartphones.
After talking about our imaginings of all the ways India might discombobulate us, Barb and I got practical. We weren’t interested in shielding ourselves from every potential mishap. But we did know that by having basic details handled ahead of time, our mental and emotional reserves would be better fortified.
What we really wanted was to be able to enjoy India, and whatever India decided to throw our way. In order to do that we agreed to work with an experienced travel agency that would coordinate all transportation, hotels, and excursions. This meant we wouldn’t have to figure out train schedules, haggle over auto rickshaw rides, or find places to eat and stay. Knowing this, we were able to board our flight to Delhi with excitement, happy anticipation, and confidence.
3. When I feel_____ (insert any unhappy adjective), what I need most of all is:
About halfway through our time in India, Barb and I arrived in Jaipur. We had spent the previous few days staying in a platform tent on a nature preserve where we sipped masala chai watching the sunrise in silence every morning. Going from that, immediately into the chaos of Jaipur—a major city in Rajasthan—with its constant traffic, stray dogs, and noise, was unexpectedly jarring to me.
After getting settled at a small restaurant for lunch, I looked at Barb with tears in my eyes and quietly said, “I’m having a hard time.” She responded with a simple, “OK,” and there wasn’t much more to it than that. I cried a little, we ate lunch, and by the time we walked out the door we were laughing.
Foreign Travel Can Be Uncomfortable
This was the same trip that had us both sideswiped by coughing fits from whatever respiratory virus invaded both of our bodies, a situation that had us carefully rationing all the cold meds we’d each brought. We also spent hours in the backseat of a small car and had to figure out currency conversions and tips for our tour guides everyday. We haggled with a vendor over the purchase of two pashmina scarves and rode bicycles through Delhi traffic. To top if off we had a forty-hour journey home (yes, forty!) And when Barb needed to spend time at the airport in Delhi griping about the airline’s handling of her baggage, I just nodded and let her vent. It was what she needed, rather than me trying to talk her out of what she was feeling.
We had already discussed how to best support one another in those moments long before we set foot in India so we weren’t thrown off or annoyed or frustrated by each other’s moods or emotional expressions. More importantly, the mere act of having such a conversation gave us the opportunity to acknowledge and cherish each other’s messy, vulnerable humanity.
4. When we are in_____, I definitely do and do not want to:
I take what might be considered a ‘backward approach’ to foreign travel with girlfriends. I don’t do a lot of research ahead of time. Instead, I prefer to experience things without a lot of preconceived notions and expectations getting in the way of whatever I am given. The idea of going abroad in order to mark things off a checklist—to simply come home and say, “I saw this and I saw that and both were very nice,” is the antithesis of my passion for travel.
Which is not to say there aren’t any specific points on the globe I feel called to visit—after Petra grabbed hold of my imagination in my twenties, I cried when I actually saw it two decades later – most of the time I visit a new place with a little bit of loose research under my belt and then educate myself more when I get home. This was especially true when it came to India. It felt like a wide open frontier of experience that I didn’t want to water down with too much travel guide advice or information.
The lists Barb and I came up with were similar in their openness and guided by a variety of circumstances, desires, and beliefs: Once we landed in India, we wanted to stay on the ground; I wanted to meet up with two friends in Jaipur; we wanted to see live music—music the locals want to see, not the tourists.
We said “yes” to wandering around open-air markets and shopping for textiles and “no” to riding any elephants or camels. “Yes” to sleeping in a tent on a nature preserve. “No” to chain hotels. We contemplated skipping the Taj Mahal, but after our travel agent and other friends implored us to include it in our plans, we kept it in. Miraculously we managed to be the very first visitors the morning we went, thereby having the Taj Mahal entirely to ourselves for a blissful few minutes at sunrise. As we watched it seemed to emerge out of the mist, we understood why everyone said we had to see it.
Barb and I carved out an itinerary that honored each of our visions for the trip and rewarded us with a profound adventure on every level—as world travelers, as curious, creative women, and as friends.
5. The reason I want to go to_____ is because:
“Why India?” is the question many people asked Barb and I before and after we went. Like it was for me for a long time, India is a place that inspires a particular kind of trepidation for many people. And yet everyone I knew who had been there fell in love with it. After harrowing descriptions of traffic, pollution, poverty, and noise, the conversations about India then shifted to all of its color and beauty. The friendliness of the people and the unique kind of alive-ness that can be experienced if one is willing to be with all of it. Barb and I were both drawn to India by the opportunity to travel far beyond our zones of comfort and familiarity.
This allowed us, for a brief time, to exist in that kaleidoscopic mélange of human experience and expression. The itinerary we created with our travel agent enabled both of us to appreciate all the unexpected, couldn’t-possibly-have-been-planned moments we shared on every part of our journey. Had either one of us professed different fundamental motivations our plans might have, by necessity, petered out.
What if Barb longed for a trekking adventure in northern India but I wanted the majority of our time to be spent at a yoga retreat? What if Barb felt pulled toward India because of its history and I was primarily interested in learning about its food? Could both aspirations have been accommodated in a way that let us both return home feeling fulfilled? The answer is, “Of course!”, and this is where an experienced travel agent can be worth their weight in gold. Know what you need and ask for what you want and together you’ll find your way.
Foreign Travel = Pushed Out of Comfort Zone
The experience of being pushed outside of my comfort zone is what I love most about global travel. While I’m not the type to go bungee jumping over Victoria Falls in Tanzania like a friend of mine did, I do strive to immerse myself as much as I can as a tourist. I’ve been blessed by all the opportunities I’ve had to do just that, all over the world, with my girlfriends. The trips I’ve taken with them have provided me with some of the best memories of my life, even when they’ve been bumpy.
When we traveled together, I loved getting to know Barb just as much as I loved getting to know a little bit of India. I relished the experience I had to see parts of her I wouldn’t have likely ever known otherwise. I thank Barb for India and I thank India for Barb.
I’m especially grateful for all the long, lingering conversations we had before we’d even booked our flights—the ones where we let each other into our weird little worlds and talked about some of the ways we’re a little bit nuts.
Our fate as traveling soulmates was sealed so beautifully on that journey we went back to India four years later with two other girlfriends. Something tells me there’s more to come. As there always is when I experience foreign travel with girlfriends.
More Foreign Girlfriend Travel
Interested in more itineraries for foreign travel with girlfriends in India? Check out the Global Women Travel itinerary for Rajasthan. It is possible to plan your own travel with tips from this itinerary by train. You can get inspiration with this road trip through Karnataka. Be sure to read about how to prepare for your first trip to India here.