Forewarning: this is a long one.
It is inevitable, travel changes you. It must. Just as any experience must. But travel in particular has the association of change. Young people going abroad to find themselves, career breakers who realize they haven’t been happy in their jobs, or lives, searching for something new, different, inspiring. As you travel the world is cracked open, you find perhaps what you were looking for, though more likely you find something else all together. You realize the world is full of opportunities you didn’t know existed. You see, and you learn, or at least you do your best to remember. You realize where you’re from isn’t so bad, and that there are more beautiful places to see than a lifetime permits. You also realize its the people, not the places that make travel so enriching. You become addicted to the thrill of travel, of discovery. But when you go home, you realize many of those changes you felt life altering are temporal. You forget, you get sucked back into the grind. But perhaps you are a bit better, certainly a little older, hopefully a little wiser, something will always be changed, even if you forget. And then you crave the person you knew on the road, you must escape the norm and find yourself once again, blissfully free of all the holds and false promises of the western world. The world gives you so much, not all of it joyful, but it imparts a stamp unique to those who chose to venture long term beyond their own shores. It isn’t better, nor worse than other lifestyles, but simply different, and once you’ve set out you can never be entirely the same again.
Travel has changed me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. The simple act of stepping on a plane bound for east Africa nearly three years ago has so altered my path that the version of myself prior to travel seems obscured. But in the end, however much travel has taught me I remain essentially, the same person I have always been. Just perhaps a little more savvy and better at crossing the road in traffic and falling asleep in awkward positions.
Here, is a brief list of a few of the things I’ve learned on the road thus far.
1. Travel is empowering. Growing up a highly introverted, cautious kid tends to make you think you aren’t all that capable of anything others might consider “brave.” But if I can hop on a plane to east Africa, or Nepal, or anywhere really by myself, and navigate a new country, culture, and language on my own and even have a good time of it, I really feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. Travel has given me confidence. Throw what you can at me world! I seriously doubt it’s got anything on navigating West African public transport.
2. The world is a vast place. Filled with opportunities and inspiration.
Being abroad has shaped how I live, from small influences such as realizing the incredible practicality of scooters/motorbikes, and a general appreciation for asian inspired design to larger ideas related to materialism and minimalism. Prior to traveling I had a bit of a consumer consumption problem. I owned far more than I needed. And while I still very much enjoy parts of our consumerist culture, like fashion, I’ve traded quantity for quality and in general own very little. It’s extremely liberating. And the cascade effects are fantastic. A minimal life means money stretches much further than before. Few possessions equals smaller space requirements, less upkeep and fewer additional costs. Living several months with only the possessions on your back makes you realize, there’s very little you need. In fact, I’ve found having less increases my happiness directly through decreased stress and attachment to physical things. I plan on continuing a minimalist lifestyle for the remainder of my life.
3. Family really is everything.
In the end, who else will be there?
Every traveler learns, it is not the places, it is the people. Grand experiences are made better by the people you meet. Whether they are just for a bus ride, or lifetime friendships. Whether they are local, or other travelers, it is these people that we will remember. Similarly, few pleasures in life are as fulfilling as relationships, our families, in whatever form the take. My parents, who I am lucky to have in my life taught me from an early age that family is everything. But just like everything else my parents taught me, all of which is painfully obvious now, I didn’t fully appreciate until adulthood.
“May you return to the shores of your loved ones.” Being six hours away from home in college isn’t quite the same as spending Christmas atop a sand dune in Peru. Though our ad hoc family of fellow volunteers had fantastic, memorable time, it was impossible to recreate the joy of being with family. They make home worth ending travel for. And if you know me, you know very little in this world trumps travel. My family, from my parents and sister to my extended family, and people I now consider as such mean everything to me. I would be little without them. The distance of travel heightens the joy of reunion, and the gratitude of having such a support system to return home to.
The US values families, but it values independence more. Kids are shoved out of their homes as teenagers and told to make it in the world they must be their own person, often without support of their family. And while this happens everywhere it is particular noticeable in the US for me, since I grew up there. But in other cultures, family is regarded as more important than the individual. Large extended families and communities, extremely tight knit. What you lose in your personal life you gain in serval people behind you, rooting for you and there to catch you if you fall. It at first made me jealous to see, and then, made me thankful for my family, small as it may be. And I realized that support system is there, if only I make an effort to help build it up. As a result, it’s extremely important to live as close to family as possible when I’m older. Or at least see them often. One of the most profound gifts travel has given me is a deeper appreciation for my family.
4. I still don’t know what I want to do “when I grow up.”
In a prototypical post collegiate move I went to east Africa in search of myself, in search of direction. The path I had chosen didn’t look so appealing anymore and I didn’t know where to go next. I thought some time away would help me discover what it was I should be doing with myself. And while I certainly grew to know myself more, what I discovered was that I would unlikely ever know exactly what I want to do. And I’m OK with that. I’ve grown to stress less about knowing exactly what to do, stress after all will get me no closer to my eventual goals anyway. Instead, travel has shown me first hand that simply by following, to sound completely cliche, my heart, and working diligently, small choices I make will lead to greater things. Not to mention, who knows who I will meet, or when I will be, or what paths may suddenly appear. I want to be open to it all, instead of trying to fit myself into a career just for perceived peace of mind. And for now, travel has helped shape my next move. I’m confident in my career goals for the near future, something that’s taken the last three years to come to light.
5. People are generally good.
I have in general always been skeptical of people. In a form of defense I generally operated under the assumption that a stranger isn’t to be trusted until proved otherwise. While traveling this guard was extremely heightened, to the point that a few times someone has been trying to help me and I brushed them off, assuming they were trying to scam me. And that’s terrible, even if sometimes its true. I’ve gotten much better, largely from meeting some really incredible people on the road. Of course, there are incredible, generous people at home too. But there’s something quite faith restoring in complete strangers in a foreign country who have little to no investment in you, nor share many commonalities going out of their way to help you. On a few occasions I’ve been completely at the mercy of others helping me. It has always worked out. Those who have made it their personal mission to assure my safety have left a lasting impression, something I try to pay forward at every opportunity. I am still, in complete awe of some of these people and only hope I can be at least a little like them.
6. The world isn’t so scary. When I was going to Africa and South America I got the occasional, “but is it safe?” question. A doctor, during a pre-trip vaccination appointment blatantly said “I would never let my twenty two year old do something this dangerous.”
When abroad, and answering the question of my origins, and responding with say, L.A. Or New York, I’ve often gotten responses from locals and other travelers to the effect of, “oh, New York, such a dangerous place!” Of course, the are a few places in the world I wouldn’t dare venture at the moment, but in general I don’t find the world to be this scary place my adolescent education made it out to be. Sure, big cities require caution, everywhere in the world. The places I felt the most threatened were mostly in the US where I wandered into a bad neighborhood. While traveling I generally don’t get the opportunity to venture too deeply into a city that I might accidentally end up in an truly dangerous neighborhood. Overall, I’m smart about my belongings and keeping a look out for anything that makes me uncomfortable. The truth is, something could happen to me anywhere. The more I travel the more I realize the majority of what people say about a particular place is vastly blown out of proportion.
7. America isn’t such a bad place.
I used to apologize for being American. I was embarrassed by my country. Not that I didn’t have reason to be, but my anti-patriotism was a bit exaggerated. Now, I love that I’m from the US, or at least California. Having this as a home base means I get to travel in the first place. I am lucky that I just happened to be born in a country that grants visas to leave. Even if other policies make me cringe. I’m not proud of much of what we’ve done, but all countries have faults, though ours are a bit more public than others. I love my home, and while I might insist that certain parts of the US be exiled to a new country I don’t have to associate with, I am no longer embarrassed to say I’m American.
8. The road is the best education.
Let’s face it, much of our adolescent education is lodged deeply in the recesses of our minds. Prior to travel I knew an embarrassingly little about the world, in terms of history, geography, current events and probably more subjects than I’d like to admit. While a traditional classroom is certainly best for say, calculus and the hard sciences, for most the rest, I feel as though I’ve learned far more abroad then I ever did in school. Aside from my geography being vastly improved I have a greater interest in world events, in part because I’ve been to other parts of the world. It’s easy to be concerned if you’ve been to the country you’re currently reading about. Of course, travel isn’t mandatory, but it certainly helps forge a connection. It’s also much harder to forget, and far more fascinating to learn about historical events by visiting the places in which they occurred. Thanks to Vietnam I am far more versed in the Vietnam war, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Cultural education of course is vastly improved through actually meeting the people who live in the country of interest. But most importantly, the world is simply enriching. You cannot see the way of life of others and be untouched. The little bits of others become part of you, you understand just a bit better. Travel teaches tolerance, understanding, compassion, patience and so much more. I truly believe its vital that kids in the developed world understand first hand how the majority of the world actually lives, travel is an excellent medium to that end.
9. There is no such thing as a “right path.”
When I was in high school, dead set on my path to medicine what I viewed as successful was very clear cut. I’ll admit I had elitist views. And while I don’t want to blame these views on the society in which I grew up there’s no denying that we in the west, and particularly the US foster the idea that success is measured in things like degrees earned and money made. If someone had told me they were a doctor, or lawyer I would have been impressed. Now, when I hear someone is a lawyer all I think of is all the lawyers I’ve met complaining about billable hours and soulless work. But when someone tells me they quit the corporate world to become a dive master and run a dive shop on a small beach in Lombok, then I’m impressed, and intrigued. Im guessing that person is pretty interesting. Not to say lawyers are boring, I love my lawyer friends! But it took awhile to shake from my mind that there’s such a thing as a time schedule to life. No one needs to buy a house and have their first child by thirty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If it brings you joy, it’s probably right for you. But not for everyone. A teenager doesn’t need to go to college right away if they aren’t sure if that’s even what is right for them. There are no rules. There are complications, yes, but rules? No. It’s a very obvious, simple idea. And perhaps reading this you might not even think all that profound. But for me, it has been a huge weight off my shoulders. I had put enormous pressure on myself to fit a mold I had set for myself. A mold that clearly, was a bad fit. I used to get anxious right after college thinking about all my friends already continuing their degrees when I wasn’t, as if getting my degree a few years later would make any difference at all. And it’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t trade the past three years for anything.
10.These are the stories we will tell our grandchildren.
Travel is not an escape from “real life.” Travel (for me) is life. When I’m older and telling stories of my past they will not likely be about how I got my graduate degree, started working, got married and lived in some house somewhere. They will be about that time I motorcycled the western coast of Lombok Indonesia, or summited Mt. Kilamanjaro, saw lions on safari, went scuba diving in the gulf of Thailand, ate balut with locals in Saigon, and the people I shared these experiences with. They will be about the things that left me dumbstruck with wonder. Travel may be an escape, but that escape has been where I have felt the most alive. I used to view travel as a deviation from real life, but that is simply not true. If repelling down a 90ft waterfall in the south of Vietnam isn’t living, please, tell me what is.
I will also remember what it was like to live in New York, or reminisce about the how family would gather during holidays to cook epic meals and enjoy each others company, and how I looked forward to these times perhaps just as much as, if not more than, any form of travel. And as my life continues I’m sure I will add stories of my future family and the adventures that will bring. But for now, my life is simple. What brings me joy, and makes me feel alive is mostly attributed to my family, and travel.
In the past three years I have had the great fortune to have a lifetime worth of adventures. Travel has enriched my life so much I can’t imagine life any other way. From the extreme highs, to the lows and times where I’ve been burnt out, or uncertain, travel has given me so much.
I couldn’t be more thankful for these opportunities I’ve been afforded, and hope that at the end of the day I am better for them. I have learned much more than I could write here, I’ve changed in ways I’m sure I haven’t even noticed. But it will never be complete, there is still so much to learn. It feels very much like this chapter of my life is closing, and another is just about to begin. I can’t wait to see what the world has in store for me next.