This installment of our interview series, a Weekend Travel Inspiration, highlights the travels of one adventurous backpacker, Silvia, on Heart My Backpack. I’ve been following her travels for almost a year and am amazed how fearlessly she tromps into countries like Armenia and Iran. Follow along as we read more about Silvia’s adventures.
As a long-time traveler, it’s difficult keeping up with you. What inspired you to travel long-term? How do you choose your destinations? How long do you typically stay in one place?
I sort of grew up traveling. My parents are university professors, so my family was spoiled with long summers and sabbatical years in which to travel. Travel was always one of our top priorities, so instead of buying a television or nice car we’d save up for tickets to Italy or Nepal. My mother is also from Norway, so at the very least we’d make trips to visit her family there.
But I didn’t start traveling long-term until about a year ago. I had been living in Asia for three years, teaching English in Japan and working with Burmese refugees in Thailand, and I still had a lot of savings from Japan so I decided to ditch my job in favor of a backpack.
I usually just spend a week or two in each country, in a sort of misguided attempt at cramming in as many new places as I can. I just get so carried away when trying to plan a trip! In fact, a five-month backpacking trip that I did with a friend last year was originally just supposed to be a month in Mongolia, but then when we looked at a map and saw how close Kazakhstan was, and then Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, we had to fit them in. In the end we didn’t even make it to Mongolia.
As far as choosing a destination goes, right now I’m drawn to countries that I don’t know too much about or am even a little scared to visit. In the past I’ve found that a place suffering from harsh representations in Western media can often end up being the most welcoming and eye-opening. And then of course I look at a map and decide to go to all of the neighboring countries.
What types of things are you interested in while you are traveling? Is it adventure/adrenalin or history/culture? Do you want to relax on the beach or hike around ruins?
I guess my biggest interest while traveling is people. It’s a little strange because usually I’m super shy, but when I’m traveling (especially alone) I love to talk to random strangers and get a peek into what life is like for them. One of my favorite memories from traveling in China was when my friends left me at our hostel for the day as I was recovering from an illness, and I spent the whole afternoon outside sitting on a little stool next to a guy grilling meat. I don’t speak Chinese so we couldn’t actually talk to each other, but sitting there for so long together watching the traffic and people passing by felt like such a bonding experience!
For someone that has been to as many places as you, you must have a few that either surprised you or disappointed you. What is one country you can’t wait to go back to and one that you might consider “a once in a lifetime experience?”
I instantly fell in love with Belgrade, even though I was only there for a 16-hour layover, so now I’m super eager to go back to Serbia!
When people ask what country I’ve enjoyed the least, I usually say Bulgaria. I went there on holiday with host parents whom I had been living with in Germany for a year and it turned into a bit of a disaster, with them telling me that I had been a huge pain and they wished they had never agreed to host an American teenager. So now whenever I think of Bulgaria I always feel a little depressed. But then, maybe that means I need to go back there and make some happier memories of it? Hmm. So… maybe there isn’t anywhere I wouldn’t return to!
What is one funny, embarrassing, cute, or even frustrating anecdote from your travels?
Well this one is a little funny and frustrating, a lot embarrassing, and not at all cute.
The drive from Tehran to Armenia is pretty brutal and I’m prone to motion sickness, so when my bus arrived at the Iran-Armenia border in the middle of the night I was in a fairly fragile state. Getting through immigration was taking forever, and finally the immigration officers led me into a special room to answer some questions. First they wanted to know why my Norwegian passport had been issued in the U.S. (I wasn’t exactly being open about also being an American citizen, as Americans can only visit Iran as part of a tour), and then they informed me that my visa to Iran had technically expired three hours earlier.
I probably should have been fairly worried, but all I could think about was how I wished I hadn’t eaten those almonds the guy sitting in front of me on the bus had given to me. Finally I just had to duck under one of the officers and throw myself at a wastebasket in the corner of the room. When I was finished I stood up and we all just stared at each other in horrified silence, until finally one of the officers handed me a paper cup filled with tea and practically shoved me out of the room, no more questions asked.
It was the most uncomfortable and embarrassing border crossing experience I’ve ever had, but probably also the luckiest!
What is your next destination and what are you looking forward to doing there?
I’m starting to make tentative plans to travel from Asia back towards Europe in the spring. I’m hoping to return to Nepal and Tajikistan, and I’d really love to make stops in Pakistan and Afghanistan this time as well. I’ve also been dying to explore more of the Balkans!
Finally, if you could inspire someone to start traveling, which place would you recommend to him or her as a good starting destination and why? Are there any places that you wouldn’t travel to your first time out and why?
This may seem counterintuitive, but beginner travelers will probably have a safer and easier trip if they choose an offbeat location, instead of a big tourist destination. When I traveled through Central Asia locals always treated me as a guest, with people constantly offering help and shop owners often trying to gift me things instead of ripping me off. In touristy regions such as Southeast Asia on the other hand, people rely on tourist money, with so many systems in place for scamming tourists, and locals might even harbor resentments against travelers from bad experiences they’ve had with them in the past.
But of course choosing places to travel to really is a personal decision, so if someone has always been dreaming of visiting Vietnam they should absolutely make that their first stop!
No doubt you will want to start following Silvia’s travel tales and fabulous photos. Check out The website, Heart My Backpack.