Tips for Riding Bodaboda (Motorcycle Taxis) in East Africa

It’s the easiest, cheapest way to get around most cities in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, but it can be nerve-wracking if you’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before. Here’s a quick guide on how to use the bodaboda (people will often just say “boda”) system in East Africa, so that you can zip around town in style.

Figure out the price before you go get a boda.

If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the desk what a boda should cost for where you’re going. If they recommend a taxi, be polite but insistent, and ask what transport they use (it’ll likely be a boda). Ask how much they pay for the boda trip you want. If you’re not in a hotel, find someone on the street and ask them how much they’d pay for a boda to your destination. In some cities (especially small cities), the boda prices are effectively fixed within town, unless you’re going on an extra-long journey. In Bagamoyo, Tanzania, every boda ride (regardless of destination) was 1,000 shillings (about 50 US cents).

Confirm your price with the driver, and be clear whether it’s per-person or per-bike.

Confirm the price you researched earlier with the driver before you get on the bike. If you’re confident in what you were told, then be confident as you say it. One common confusion I’ve seen is drivers wanting to charge per passenger, while passengers thought they had agreed on the price per bike (which can double or triple the price, if you’ve got 2-3 passengers). So, be clear about that before you depart.

Get on (and consider riding sidesaddle — it’s not so difficult).

If you’re comfortable straddling a stranger, it’s no problem (this is a motorcycle taxi, after all). However, if that strikes you as a bit up close and personal, consider riding sidesaddle. It’s really not as hard as it seems, and it can help if you’re carrying a large bag (as putting the bag in your lap can be more comfortable (I find) for a long trip than having it on your back). Plus, I think it’s always a better view to be facing sideways. Give yourself a few moments to get situated sidesaddle, and don’t be embarrassed if you need to adjust during the ride. You’ll get used to it!

Ask the driver to go slowly (here’s how to do that in Swahili).

Be honest with yourself and the driver — if you’re new to bodas, and are a little bit nervous, it’s totally okay to share that, and ask for a slow ride. “Polepole, tafadhali,” means “slowly, please.” I usually like to follow it with a “naogopa” (I’m scared) to make it clear that I’m just new to this (and not that I think he’s a bad driver). 99% of drivers will be super respectful of that request, and it can turn a stressful ride into a relaxing ride, so don’t hesitate to ask!

Enjoy the ride!

Once you’ve started using bodas, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without them.

How To Pack for Long-Term Backpack Travel

We’re not talking about a weeklong trip to the beach, in which you’re restricting yourself to a single checked bag because you’re trying to go “minimalist.” We’re not talking about moving abroad, where you cram everything into a giant suitcase to be exploded exactly once (when you arrive) and packed exactly once again (when you depart).

No, we’re talking about taking a backpack (and not one so big you could fit inside it), and figuring out how to live sustainably from it: packing and unpacking each day, traveling regularly and carrying everything, and not going completely mad in the process.

I’ve just finished packing for a three-month backpack stint, and thought I’d share the cardinal rules of life with one zipper.

Trust your backpack (and don’t worry — you don’t need a fancy, new one).

My mother always said: it’s not worth splurging on gear, so long as you trust your shoes and your backpack. That being said: you don’t need to splurge on the “perfect” backpack. So long as it’s sturdy (a broken strap is a real pain), comfortable (this will usually mean some form of hip straps), and generally the right size (for most, you’re going to need a bit more space than a school/work backpack), it will probably be fine. If you have a pack you’ve been using, which hasn’t failed you so far, just keep using it.

Pack less than you think you need. 

If you’re wondering whether you need it, you don’t. If you haven’t worn it recently and you’re wondering whether to bring it, don’t. If it seems vaguely inconvenient as you’re putting it into the bag, leave it out. There’s an old adage that says as long as you’ve got your wallet and your passport, you’re fine. I’d suggest also bringing at least a minimum of clothes and toiletries to support your existence on the road. That being said, you truly don’t need much more than that, and you’ll most likely manage with whatever you bring (and you can buy everything overseas, if you are genuinely missing something).

Remember: whatever you put in the backpack, your shoulders have to carry. Your body and soul will thank you for lessening your own burden.

Capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe.

A capsule wardrobe is the idea that instead of packing individual outfits, you pack clothing items which can be mixed and interchanged, allowing you to create multiple outfits and looks from a limited number of pieces (hence, a wardrobe). In practice, this usually means solid colors, a coordinated color palette, multifunctional items, and a good bit of layering. Rule of thumb: any top should match any bottom.

Remember: laundry exists. Anticipate doing it.

Going to a more practical level: when living on the road, you will do laundry. There is no way you can pack an infinite clothing supply, so washing is inevitable. For most people, this will happen every 1-2 weeks, depending on your preferences (of both how much you like laundry, and how much you’re willing to pack). Depending on where you are in the world, options can range from full-service laundromats to a bucket for hand-washing. When packing for long-term travel, however, expect the unexpected and prepare yourself for at least some amount of handwashing (even if it’s just in hotel sinks).

So, pack things you can handwash and which can dry overnight. Thin fabrics are usually better (I’ve never been fussy enough to know the names of materials, but you can tell what will dry faster just by feeling and looking at it). If you’re headed to cold weather, layers aren’t just convenient and a good dress option: they’re easier to handwash and dry faster than thick sweaters and coats. That said, have a plan (ie. an empty plastic bag) in case some random sock or undergarment isn’t quite dry by morning, so that your whole bag isn’t soggy.

Packing cubes, bags, whatever: use them.

The key to not going insane with your luggage is avoiding the infamous “luggage explosion” every time you open your bag. The trick here is simple: pack your main bag full of little bags. Whether they’re bona-fida packing cubes, random cloth bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, whatever — organize your pack. That way, you can take everything out, pull out that shirt from the bottom, and re-pack everything again, without tearing your eyebrows out. And, you’ll be less likely to lose your socks and underwear.

If this is a new concept for you, I’d highly recommend packing the week before your trip starts, and forcing yourself to live entirely out of your suitcase for a week. Every evening, you can open it, and every morning, you have to pack everything up again and zip it before you start your day. You’ll quickly see the need for some in-pack organisation. 

Extra bonus points if a few of your “packing cubes” are smaller bags and purses, which can be great for extra flexibility on the road. Cloth tote bags are great for this.

Purposeful organization is everything.

Beyond just using packing cubes, there are some other things to consider when organising the bag you’ll be living out of. I like to keep my pajamas and toiletries right at the top of a bag, so if I get somewhere late at night, I can get cleaned up and dressed for bed without having to pull anything else out. Rainjacket and/or sweatshirt are other top picks for that easy-to-reach top space of the bag, in case the skies open up without warning. If you’re travelling with a laptop or tablet, be aware that’s going to need to be pulled out at every airport screening, so don’t bury it. Pack anything you’ll need to access during the day in an outside pocket, while things you generally don’t reach for (like a change of pants) can stay more towards the bottom. Have a day pack or a smaller “grab bag” of your essential and valuable items you can pull out of your main pack and keep with you, in case your bag needs to be checked at the airport or tied on top of a bus or otherwise separated from your person.

Don’t pack to the brim: life isn’t that simple.

It’s much easier to pack at home, over time, than it is at five o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar room which may or may not have good lighting and a flat surface. Assume your packing job on the road will be several degrees worse than your initial plan. So, leave space for those wrinkled clothes, and remember that you probably won’t want to fold your laundry. You’ll thank yourself for packing only 80-90% of the space in your backpack. Whether for souvenirs or your own eventually-expansive messiness, that space will fill.

At the end of it, your suitcase will only define your trip if it’s a pain. Most of the time, though, as long as you pack lightly and reasonably, you won’t even remember your luggage when you look back on the trip. Just follow these tips to keep yourself organised and collected, and enjoy life on the road!

Wild Animals (Swahili Vocabulary and Tidbits)

For those who are familiar with safaris in eastern Africa, you’ll know that guides and rangers are in constant communication with each other, sharing the locations of different animals in Swahili. For a long time, I assumed that the use of the language was so that guides could make their way towards the attraction, and yet avoid disappointment for the non-Swahili-speaking tourists, in case the animal ran away or couldn’t be seen anymore.

Then, I heard another perspective: for tourists on longer, multi-day safaris, there is something to be said for stretching out the wildlife-viewing experience, so that guests feel their longer (more expensive) trip was worth it. In order to do that, it’s imperative that they don’t see every animal in one day; if you can see the big five in one day, why did we pay for ten? In these circumstances, communication is done in Swahili to evade the tourists’ ears, so they don’t realize that they’re actually avoiding certain animals, or at least saving them for tomorrow.

Either way, or even just to point and name the animals you see, here’s a list of some wild animals you might see. This isn’t an exhaustive list; I will just include the well-known ones, that I’m most likely to study and use and remember. I don’t know the difference between an antelope and a gazelle and an impala and a hartebeest in English, so I’m not even going to worry about it in Swahili.

  • nyani = baboon
  • nyati (or mbogo) = buffalo
  • duma = cheetah
  • mamba (or ngwena) = crocodile
  • ndovu (or tembo) = elephant
  • twiga = giraffe
  • kiboko = hippo
  • chui = leopard
  • simba = lion
  • kima (or tumbili) = monkey
  • kakakuona = pangolin*
  • kifaru (or pea) = rhinoceros
  • nyoka = snake
  • punda milia = zebra

*You might not think that pangolins are a common animal, but I wanted to include it because (fun fact) at this point in history, more than elephants or rhinos, pangolins are actually at the top of the list for poaching and export. Hippos, surprisingly enough, are also way up there. Additionally, if anyone can explain to me the word derivation of “kakakuona,” I’d love to hear it, because it sounds like “sister to see” (kaka kuona), and I’d love to know the story behind that.

Okay, enough stories and tidbits, go study the vocabulary! At least, that’s what I’m going to go do.

Uganda: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Uganda.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Uganda, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Uganda… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Uganda

When travelling to Uganda, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Kampala
  • president: Yoweri Museveni (who came to power in 1986, and is Uganda’s longest-ruling president)
  • currency: Ugandan shilling (UGX)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although the most-spoken language is actually Luganda)
Here is Uganda’s flag, so you recognize it during your travels.

Uganda: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Uganda in East Africa

Here is Uganda in East Africa. Notice that it’s on the equator, but most of the country is to the north. While it’s landlocked from the sea, it does have quite a lot of water access from lakes.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Uganda’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Uganda with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Kampala = Uganda’s capital and largest city
  • Entebbe = city with Uganda’s international airport
  • Jinja and Masaka = two Ugandan cities well-known with visitors
  • Lake Victoria = Uganda’s largest lake

In addition, take note of the land borders. Uganda borders South Sudan, The DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya. Also, notice that one branch of the Nile begins in Uganda.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Uganda’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved).

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Uganda?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Uganda overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Ugandans

Some Ugandans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Ugandans, who are definitely household names in Uganda.

  • Yoweri Museveni (b. 1944): Uganda’s current president (and longest-standing leader), took the presidency in 1986
  • Milton Obote (b. 1925): Uganda’s first prime minister (1962-1966) and president (1966-1971), re-claimed the presidency after Idi Amin (1980-1985)
  • Idi Amin (b. 1925, d. 2003): Ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” was a brutal ruler and his reign saw much bloodshed
  • Rebecca Kadaga (b. 1956): lawyer and politician, Uganda’s first female Speaker of the Parliament (2011-2021), currently serves as the Deputy Prime Minister
  • Okot p’Bitek (b. 1931, d. 1982): Ugandan author and poet, famous for his parallel works “Song of Lawino” and “Song of Ocol,” known for his writing in the Acholi language
  • Monica Arac de Nyeko (b. 1979): Ugandan author, her short story “Jambula Tree” made her the first Ugandan winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing
  • Moses Isegawa (b. 1963): Ugandan author, best-known for his book, Abyssinian Chronicles
  • Loukman Ali (b. 1990): Uganda filmmaker and graphic artist, his film “The Girl in the Yellow Jumper” is the first Ugandan film on Netflix
  • Eddy Kenzo (b. 1989): Ugandan musician, winner of various international awards, well-known for his viral videos with Masaka Kids Afrikana

Thoughts on Packing for Three Months in a Backpack

Today, I stared at a backpack.

It was given to me, and it was going to work. No matter that the packing list recommended an eighty-litre pack, and this one was fifty litres. No matter that I don’t have a compression sack, and my sleeping bag was taking up half the volume. No matter, no matter. Everything I needed would have to fit in this backpack.

If it didn’t fit, then I didn’t need it.

I had packing cubes, but they were already tearing apart at the seams, having been stuffed one too many times. Would the mesh last for three more months? Three more months, one backpack. Go for minimalism, I told myself. Just wear the same clothes over and over.

I stared at the pile of shirts.

I smell, you know. I am a sweaty, stinky human. I can rarely wear shirts more than one day in a row, especially in the company of Americans, who have a strange preoccupation with body odour, and in whose company I would be. I needed to pack more deodorant. I packed six shirts.

I needed pants. I don’t really own pants. I wear long skirts and dresses, so my mother gave me a pair of old hiking pants she doesn’t wear. They have become my only pants, and I folded them on top of my skirts. I wonder how often I’ll actually wear them, but regardless: I am the proud owner of a pair of pants.

Once packed, I strapped the backpack to my back, and stand there, just wearing it. I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t even bother to walk around the house. I’ve always liked the feeling of backpacks. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling it. You have to meet a new backpack, you know, get acquainted. 

“Nice to meet you,” I told the backpack.
“You too,” she replied.
“Three months…” I trailed off, unsure of myself. “Are you ready for this?”
“Don’t worry. I got you.”

Tanzania: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Tanzania.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Tanzania, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Tanzania… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Tanzania

When travelling to Tanzania, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • largest city: Dar es Salaam
  • capital city: Dodoma
  • president: Samia Suluhu Hassan (Tanzania’s first female president, in office since 2021)
  • currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS)
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are 120+ languages spoken in the country)
Here’s Tanzania’s flag, so you recognize it when you see it during your travels!

Tanzania: An Introduction via Maps

Maps are a great way to visualize the basic information you’re expected to know about a country before you visit — major cities, borders, land features, general sense of “where exactly am I?” So, let’s check out some maps.

Tanzania in East Africa

Here is Tanzania in East Africa. Notice that Tanzania has a long coastline along the Indian Ocean, with the island of Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) along the northern coast. The entire country is located south of the equator, but it’s relatively close.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Tanzania’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Tanzania with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Dar es Salaam = Tanzania’s (and East Africa’s) largest city, used to be the capital city
  • Dodoma = Tanzania’s capital (since 1974)
  • Mount Kilimanjaro = Tanzania’s (and Africa’s) tallest mountain
  • Zanzibar = Tanzania’s most famous island, a popular tourist destination

In addition, take note of the land borders. Tanzania borders Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Tanzania’s Roads and National Parks

Here’s a bit of a more detailed map for visitors, showing national parks and major roads (remember: major doesn’t mean paved). Here are a few things to notice:

  • Arusha is a major tourist destination, because of its proximity to both Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park
  • Notice the two islands along the coast in the north — Pemba and Zanzibar — two out of the four four islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago.
  • Notice Lake Taganyika, in the west. Tanzania’s entire border with the DRC runs along the middle of this lake. Before independence, Tanzania was known as the Taganyika Colonial Territory.
source: World Factbook

Size Comparison Map: How Big is Tanzania?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Tanzania overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Tanzanians

Some Tanzanians are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Tanzanians, who are definitely household names in Tanzania.

  • Julius Nyerere (b. 1922, d. 1999): Tanzania’s first president post-independence, known for his Ujamaa socialist policies, often referred to as “Mwalimu” (teacher)
  • John Magufuli (b. 1959, d. 2021): Tanzania’s fifth president, in office from 2015-2021, known for denying COVID-19
  • Samia Suluhu Hassan (b. 1960): Tanzania’s sixth president, in office since 2021, the country’s first female president
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. 1948): author, known for books such as “Paradise” (1994) and “By The Sea” (2001), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021
  • Diamond Platnumz (b. 1982, Naseeb Abdul Juma): bonga-flava musician and recording artist, known for hits such as “African Beauty”

I feel like my list of famous Tanzanians is quite short — please comment and let me know who you would add! Happy travels!

Kenya: A Traveller’s “Must-Know” Introduction

This spring, I’ll be spending approximately a month each in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. While I used to live in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are new to me! I’m very excited about the trip, and will be channelling my excitement into some introductory blog-posts about each country. So, this post is a quick introduction to the “must-know” factoids about Kenya.

Note: This post is not a travel guide to Kenya, and doesn’t include logistical advice on travel — instead, this is a run-down of some common knowledge and household names you should really know if you’re going to spend any time in Kenya… don’t want to be the ignorant tourist!

Must-Know Basic Facts about Kenya

When travelling to Kenya, there are a few basic facts which would be quite embarrassing to be caught in ignorance of, so let’s go over those first!

  • capital and largest city: Nairobi (Mombasa is #2)
  • president: Uhuru Kenyatta (since 2013 — his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was also president, 1964-1978)
  • currency: Kenyan shilling (ksh), often referred to when speaking as “bob”
  • official languages: Swahili and English (although there are around 70 languages spoken in the country)
And, just so you recognise it, this is the flag of Kenya.

Kenya: An Introduction via Maps

Now that we’ve got the absolute basics, let’s check out some maps to get a better sense of Kenya’s geography.

Kenya in East Africa

I know, it’s basic, but we’re starting from the beginning! Kenya is in eastern Africa, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Notice that Kenya is directly on the equator.

source: Ian Macky

A Basic Map: Kenya’s Major Cities, Geographic Features, and Land Borders

Next, check out this map of Kenya with some major cities and geographic landmarks shown. Here are a few you should take specific note of:

  • Nairobi = Kenya’s capital city
  • Mombasa = Kenya’s second-largest city, and largest port
  • Mount Kenya = Kenya’s tallest mountain
  • Great Rift Valley = one of Africa’s largest features, a giant valley where the continental plates are being slowly ripped apart

In addition, take note of the land borders. Kenya borders Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

source: World Factbook

A Tourists’s Map: Kenya’s Roads and National Parks

Next up, check out this map of Kenya more meant for tourism, with roads and national parks marked. Remember: roads doesn’t necessarily mean pavement, although Kenya does have an extensive network of paved roads, primarily in the central/southwest part of the country. You’ll notice that some “big names” aren’t on this map, like the Maasai Mara. That’s because it’s a national game reserve, and this map only shows national parks.

source: World Factbook

A Size Comparison Map: How Big is Kenya?

For any Americans reading, a size comparison can be a really helpful tool in understanding how big a country is. Here is Kenya overlaid with the eastern United States.

source: World Factbook

Famous Kenyans

Some Kenyans are household names internationally, some are not. Regardless, here are some incredibly accomplished and well-known Kenyans, who are definitely household names in Kenya.

  • Jomo Kenyatta (b. 1897, d. 1978, president of Kenya, 1964-1978): leader in Kenya’s independence efforts during the colonial era, first Kenyan leader post-independence
  • Daniel Arap Moi (b. 1924, d. 2020, president of Kenya, 1978-2002): second president of Kenya, known for his autocracy, ethnic persecution, and ban of opposition parties
  • Mwai Kibaki (b. 1931, president of Kenya, 2002-2013): third president of Kenya, signed into effect a new Kenyan constitution in 2010
  • Uhuru Kenyatta (b. 1961, president of Kenya, 2013-present): current president, son of Jomo Kenyatta
  • Raila Odinga (b. 1947, Kenya’s opposition leader): recently known for holding an inauguration ceremony in 2018, having declared himself the winner of a disputed presidential election (despite the government’s declaration that Kenyatta had won)
  • Wangari Maathai (b. 1940, d. 2011): environmental and social activist, first female African winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Eliud Kipchoge (b. 1984): world-renowned long-distance runner, holds the world record and Olympic records for the marathon
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b. 1938): academic and writer, known for works such as “Decolonising the Mind” and his promotion of literature written in Gikuyu and other African languages
  • Sauti Sol (group of Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano, Savara Mudigi, and Polycarp Otieno): afro-pop musical group, released their first record in 2008
  • Fena Gitu (b. 1991): musician and rap artist, well-known for her singles such as “Fenamenal Woman”

10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Process The Pre-Departure Roller Coaster)

If you want to write something about your travels before you actually go, but want to write something more substantial than a packing list, here are ten writing prompts to help you process what’s about to happen. Most of these are meant for long-term travel or moving abroad (ie. won’t be coming back for several months, at least), but could be adapted for shorter trips.

  1. Write a letter to your future self, describing what you know (and don’t know) about the countries and places you’re going to. Admit all the gaps in your knowledge, and embrace the things you think you know (but are very likely wrong about). Be humble, and be excited for your future self to look back and laugh at your innocence.
  2. Make some effort to learn something about where you’re headed. Make it something you’re interested in — food, history, music, art, nature, sports — whatever you want. Don’t write a generic “guide.” Write about some weird things you discovered that make you even more psyched to be going there. Find something fascinating. Fall into the wormhole, and take us with you.
  3. Share your epic saga or pre-departure logistics. Passport, visa, tickets, medical clearances, quitting a job, leaving an apartment, domestic flights, COVID tests — be dramatic as possible. Try and make the most tedious bureaucracy be an edge-of-the-seat affair. Write a thriller of paperwork and appointments.
  4. Attempt some basic language-learning for the country you’re headed to. Write about what it felt like. Did your head spin? How did the words taste? Can you imagine actually speaking this language on the street, to a person, and not just to your computer screen? Do you feel strong in this other language, or like a turtle who wants to go back inside its shell?
  5. This is not a packing list — don’t you dare list gear. Instead, write about how packing feels for you. Where are you doing it, standing above a neatly organised bed? Things strewn across the floor? How many times did you repack? Any amusing stories of trying to carry the suitcase down the stairs? How long until you were lying on the floor in tears? Let us into your experience, not your stuff.
  6. Write your manifesto — the reasons why you’re leaving, why you’re going where you’re going to do whatever you’re doing. What do you believe in? Write something you can look at and pull strength from when life on the road gets tough.
  7. Write about the moment when the trip felt real, when it transitioned from hypothetical to something so concrete your ears started ringing. When did you believe it was actually happening? Tell us about that moment.
  8. Admit your jitters — the still-unpacked suitcase, the things you’re nervous for, the bits you’re unsure of, the doubts, and all the reasons people have said you shouldn’t go. Throw them up against the wall, and tackle them. Acknowledge them, and then destroy them. Or accept them, as you wish. Just address them, however works for you.
  9. Write a goodbye letter to wherever you are now, or some aspect of that place. You can focus on the entire place, or just pick one thing you’ll miss and write to it. Goodbye, burrito. Goodbye, squeaky door. Be nostalgic and sentimental, or laugh and slam the door on the way out.
  10. Write about what you did the night before you left. Whatever happened, whatever you felt during it, write about those last few hours before your suitcase became your new home, and you headed for the check-in counter.

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

Want more travel writing prompts? Check out my list of 10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Connect With Loved Ones Who Don’t Travel).

10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Connect With Loved Ones Who Don’t Travel)

One of the biggest challenges of travel (especially for those of us who travel a lot and/or live abroad) is connecting with friends and family who aren’t experiencing the same things we are. We want to connect and share our lives with them, but bridging that gap can be difficult.

So, here is a list of ten travel writing prompts to help you connect with your loved ones who don’t travel. Whether you use them to write a post card or a blog post, hopefully they bring you a little bit closer to the people who matter in your life.

  1. Write about what you’re experiencing in terms of your emotions and reactions, rather than focusing on the place. This goes against common thought for travel writing, but your loved ones care about you more than the foreign destination. Write about yourself, because that’s what they want to connect with.
  2. Describe an interaction you had, rather than focusing on the place. We all have interactions — the concept of connecting with another human is comprehensible, relatable. It’s easy to connect with, and easy to respond to. Write about a conversation with someone you’ve met.
  3. Write about a gaff, a social faux pas where you’ve messed up. If this is due to a lack of local knowledge, even better. Sometimes, stories about travel can be interpreted as bragging to those who don’t have the privilege of travel — telling a story about how you messed up can help with this. Plus, admitting you weren’t an expert on the region connects you with your non-travelled friends and family (who might be self-conscious about their own ignorances).
  4. Write a how-to guide about something in your daily routine. It can be hard to picture life abroad, which creates distance. Knock the distance away by telling them how you buy phone credit, how you shower, how you cook breakfast. Share the ordinary, mundane details — it’s not all that different from their lives, anyway.
  5. Draw a map of the city where you are, with the landmarks that matter for you. Write them a mini-guidebook, not of the tourist attractions, but of the places that matter to you — where you live, where you buy bread, where you like to walk at night. Like a world map at the beginning of the fantasy novel, this is what makes it feel tangible. Describe the little corners that make up your world.
  6. If you’re living abroad, write a letter about a friend — their name, where they’re from, what they’re like. Give details, enough that when you tell other stories, your friends and family at home know who you’re talking about. Give them the inside scoop. This is one to keep personal — letters or emails, not blogs or published writing.
  7. Write a recipe for a favourite dish you’ve tried abroad. Write it for a specific person you’re missing, with details that will apply to them. Use the measuring cup with the broken handle, you know, the one from the third shelf. Pour these spices into this foreign grain, but cook it in the pot your brother bought you. Intertwine your lives through food.
  8. Select a collection of photographs, taking from your point of view, from throughout your day. View from the kitchen window. View from the hotel door. View from the remote desk at work. View from the bathroom. Not the Instagram-ready shots — the honest ones. Write descriptions for each one, of what it’s really like. Focus on your routine, if you can, so that your people at home can imagine — what ceiling are you looking at when you wake up? What is the background noise where you’re working from? Make it less foreign for them.
  9. Write a short story that hinges on a few words in a foreign language. Teach them a few words that matter to you — I promise, they’ll remember them. Let them into the “insider knowledge,” the local lingo. Like an inside joke, knowing these words brings them into your world, and makes them know you’re a part of it.
  10. Draw a map of your travels, and write directions to go with it. Surprisingly often, our friends and family just aren’t really sure where we are, and that automatically creates distance. Don’t make them do research just to find you — draw a map, write about how you got there, what the travel was like. Where exactly you are now. What’s across the street? If the internet died right now, how could they get to you? How would you get to them?

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

Want more travel writing prompts? Check out my list of 10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Handle Reverse/Return Culture Shock)

10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Find Grounding in Overwhelming Foreign-ness)

It happens sooner or later — as a traveller, you find yourself overwhelmed by simply how “different” and “foreign” the place where you are is. The diversity and complexity of our world is something to cherish and appreciate, but it’s hard to process, much less distill into something relatable and comprehensible in your writing. Here’s a list of ten travel writing prompts to help yourself find grounding in the most foreign-feeling of places, and to help you write through the curtain of “foreign-ness.”

  1. Select a food that you don’t really like, that you don’t really connect with, and write about the moment you’d crave it. Whether it’s a soup that would be perfect on a cold, rainy day, or a sweet pastry that is absolutely what you’d want for a brunch with friends, or a street food that is the absolute must-eat for that panoramic view, describe the food in its most perfect context.
  2. Walk around for a while, and describe people. Give a sentence or two to each person. See them as people. Include yourself, as just another person on the street, being described in a sentence or two. Make yourself one of the crowd, in third person. Find the parts of yourself that aren’t so foreign, and just mention those. Continue writing about the people you see. Let yourself just melt in.
  3. Write about your process of going home, whether to an apartment, a guesthouse, or to an overnight bus. Describe how you “closed up” for the night. Did you pay the bill and walk home? Did you zip up a backpack and head for the bus station? Describe your sense of closure and routine, regardless of whether you have either. Write about the evening as a conclusion, and welcome the evening as a homecoming. Greet the moon.
  4. Write about experiencing a familiar smell, amongst absolutely unfamiliar sights, sounds, and feelings. Situate that familiarity within the unknown, allowing for the simultaneous combination of both. Allow yourself to find comfort in the speck of familiar. Breathe deep, and write about how you carry that smell with you, through unfamiliar streets.
  5. Seek out an interaction, however substantial or insubstantial. Write about the interaction with great appreciation. Do not comment or critique, neither the other person nor yourself. Just describe it, in as much detail as possible. Describe it in overwhelming detail, yet focus on the ordinary. Do not concern yourself with exotic dress or foreign flavours — focus on their fingernails, the wrinkles near their eyes, the depth of their voice. Write about the crinkles in the currency, the texture of the receipt, what the paper plate looked like. Did the neon flicker? Did you tap your toe? Become lost in the mundane details. Don’t frame the interaction as “foreign.”
  6. Describe what parts of the place you’re in give you energy. What feeds you; what opens your eyes wide and makes you smile like a child? Describe whatever gives you a pep in your step, the little café you keep returning to, the “secret” spot you’ve come to love for sunset, that crazy thing you’ve noticed here that always makes you smile. When you woke up this morning, what were you excited to experience again?
  7. Write about how overwhelmed you are! Admit what you don’t know. Instead of focusing on the place, frame the foreignness as a gap in your own understanding of the place. List your questions, identify your misunderstandings, and enumerate your curiosities. Write your to-do list, your to-understand list, your to-learn list. Embrace the excitement of everything being new. Concretise the overwhelming nature of the whole experience. 
  8. Select a boring errand, and describe how it works where you are. Buy toothpaste, do your laundry, find a public restroom. Write about the process, the ordinary routine of fulfilling your needs in a foreign place. Write about the people you encounter along the way, the places you end up along your mission. Celebrate your minor accomplishment.
  9. Describe the parallels between here and home. Focus on the little things which feel familiar, no matter how random or small. Smile at the window frames which feel like home, high-five the street signs, and notice that the voice announcing incoming trains sounds just like the one in your hometown.
  10. What have you figured out? What challenges of this place have you overcome? Surely, there are things you didn’t know how to do yesterday that you are capable of today. What has this place taught you? What growth has it sparked? Write about the things you can do now, after being in this foreign place, that you weren’t previously sure you’d be able to do.

If you happen to use any of these prompts and post the results anywhere, please include the link back to this page, and let me know! I’d love to read what comes of this, if anything, and would love to share your writing, as well!

Want more travel writing prompts? Check out my list of 10 Travel Writing Prompts (To Smile During Travel Delays).