ALWAYS DRINK THE WATER: The Ten Most Valuable Lessons I Learned Bumming Around South America & South Asia

A woman selling ginger root in Kerala, India.

BY ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH Dear Phawker, when last we talked, I was roaming the far reaches of south Asia. I’m back now. Yes, it was fun, yes, it’s weird to be home, and yes, it’s been quite the experience. After two years in Paraguay for the Peace Corps and another four months backpacking across Nepal and India, I am struck by how much I have changed but you all stayed the same, aside from the fact that your devices look shinier and more magical. And you seem to be even angrier than when I left, but more on that later. In no particular order, and for your amusement and edification, here are a few lessons I learned while bumming it through the third world.

1. How to pack light. Two and a half years ago I left the US with an overstuffed duffel, an overstuffed trekking pack, and an (you guessed it!) overstuffed day pack. I was headed to the wilderness of rural Paraguay and I was taking everything I’d need. EVERYTHING. And then (of course) I ended up leaving half of it behind when left, because who really wants to take a five-gallon water storage container and three Frisbees across South Asia? Even then, I ended up taking too much. I carried a pair of khakis 4000km and wore them twice. As Americans, we’re addicted to stuff. First thing I did when I got home was inventory my possessions and jettison all the extraneous crap.


2. Not to worry! I’m one of those worrywarts who heads to the airport three hours early, just in case there’s a traffic jam. And a flat tire. And huge lines. And…you get the picture. When I joined Peace Corps, I couldn’t stop worrying. Was I going to be ok? Was I going to be able to trust the people in my community? Was I going to return to the states a bearded hippy who’d be homeless/jobless for the rest of his life? (No, of course, and the jury’s still out). I spent so much time agonizing over situations that inevitably were far simpler than I’d made them out to be. And what a waste of energy and time! In India, I spent a month wandering around without a plan, sleeping in guesthouses and hotels in towns and cities across the country. I never made a reservation. It worked out. So, just like learning to jettison the physical crap, try to toss the mental as well.


3. To trust people. No, maybe not people in the tourism industry who stand to make a buck off you, but the regular people – in Paraguay or on the road – love to help. Virtually everybody I talked to were kind spirited and eager to help me when I was confused or needed assistance. Whether it was trying to find the right bus to see an obscure waterfall in the backwoods of Paraguay, team up with a random traveler in Kanyakumari to split overpriced fees at a dingy hotel, or put my faith in someone I barely knew to trek with me for two weeks through the Himalayas, I relearned how generous and kind people really are.


4. Take local transport/sleeper class. I spent 26 hours on a sweaty train ride from Hyderabad to Delhi traveling in the sleeper class. A flight would have cost me around 100US, but instead I spent 9US on the train ride. I also met a 19-year-old kid from Rajasthan, a 20-year-old girl returning home after taking her exams, and a federal policeman on leave from his counter-terrorism unit fighting the Naxalites, extremists who control thousands of villages throughout eastern and southern India. Uncomfortable? Yes. Slow? Yes. But also one of the most interesting parts of my trip.


5. Eat the local food. Seriously, screw the diarrhea. If you’ve spent the scratch to go to a far-off, exotic locale, why the hell are you going to go eat at some safe and oversanitized, tourist friendly restaurant? The least you can do is try the food that ordinary people rely on day-to-day. Just look for food stalls with a lot of foot traffic and a minimum of flies. My best meals in Peace Corps, Nepal, and India were A) the meals I had at the bus terminal with the friendly lady who ran the stall and used to tool on my budding Guarani-language skills, B) a seedy little dumpling restaurant in a neighborhood outside of Katmandu, and C) a grape smoothie from a local vendor in Hyderabad. No idea if the grapes were washed. None of those were operating rooms of cleanliness, but they had lots of character. Just pack Cipro and a spare roll of tp.


6. When you get invited to do something, just say yes. This should be a general policy, unless there’s a chance that whatever’s been proposed might be felonious or put you in danger of being turned into ground beef by creepers. In Potrero Pucu (where I spent my two years in the Peace Corps), I was visiting my best friend, Teofilo on pig-killing day. Gross? Yes. But do YOU know how to make cracklins from scratch? No? I do!


7. Never take the first option. In my first weeks in India, I took a train from Delhi to Mumbai, and as I was leaving the station, a cabbie approached me. I made the mistake of accepting. Of course, he tried to charge me more than three times the standard fare, all which would have been easily avoided if I’d walked around and haggled with a couple of other cabbies. If you’re looking at hotels, catching a cab, poking your head into restaurants, GET A COUPLE OF OTHER OPTIONS before you commit.


8. Don’t let people push you around. You don’t owe anyone anything. You have no obligation to buy that crap piece of tourist art, overpriced cab ride, or a subpar meal. It’s your money, and you can spend it however-the-frick-you-want. More importantly, giving kids money on the street can encourage them not to stay in school Specifically in India, the tourist touts and beggars are stubborn and plentiful, and can spot foreign tourists from across the way. You can’t fix everything or buy everything. When I emerged from train stations a couple of times, I saw cabbies literally sprinting towards me. Settle down dudes, I like to walk!


9. Contrary to popular belief, people don’t need your help, and even if they did, you don’t have all the answers. Like many Peace Corps Volunteers, I jumped into my service expecting that I’d save the world. Reality was unpleasant. Half of the time, the people I was working with seemed to know more than me. The rest of the time, they (well, many of them) weren’t particularly interested in my ideas. But that’s ok. They had a system, and most of the time it worked. Maybe not as efficiently as in the US, maybe it wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to be, but that’s life. So I worked with the people who wanted a different perspective and settled for that.


10. On a more general note, stubborn, mule-like resilience. I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to toss a backpack over my shoulders and sprint for the airport. Whether cancelled meetings, greasy, gnarly food, inter-Peace Corps drama, a dried up well, 100+ degree heat (Paraguay, India), or watching cockroaches skittering around my lodgings, travel teaches (or taught me) how to bury the indignation, swallow the wounded pride, ignore the sticky sweat (because there was no water), and invariably, HOW TO DEAL.

St. John

Read more about St. John’s time in the Peace Corps and Asia at