This post is from my old blog – Roaming 20’s.com. While the blog is gone, the mission of filling the world with good that started it is very much alive! Enjoy!
Pre-travel me and post-travel me feel years apart, even if they’re basically fraternal twins. Making the decision to travel right before I turned 20 was perfect timing — it brought about character changes and taught me lessons that have been propitious as I have tried to navigate this next chapter of my life with higher stakes and greater responsibilities.
Flashback to pre-travel, and I really didn’t know how to be alone, or how to find my way around. I didn’t start conversations that I couldn’t predict. I avoided eye contact with strangers. I was never the first to say hello. I spent a lot of money on clothes (that I have since regretted and sold) and I worried a lot about missing out. I went out to see friends no matter how tired I was, because to me being alone meant being a loser and missing time with friends meant missing out on life. I spent money mindlessly on crap food and bad movies. I read a lot less for a few years, and spent a lot less time thinking about who I wanted to become and how I would make my mark on the world. None of these things describe me anymore. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that it’s bad to go out with friends and enjoy your life, but when that is your driving force — when fun is your entire, all-encompassing why for waking up in the morning, and you never do anything that pushes you — you’re not all that you could be.
Travel certainly isn’t the only catalyst that brought about my “re-prioritization,” but it helped solidify a lot of changes that I was in the process of making, and made habits out of my good intentioned acts. I think long-term travel is especially transformative and eye opening, but shorter glimpses into other ways of life are never unwarranted. I learned a lot of lessons in different parts of the world that I am continuing to learn at home, and someone on a shorter trip could certainly do the same.
I probably learned a few things that I haven’t even realized yet, or know how to put to words. I do know that there are marked differences in my priorities and my behavior that didn’t truly flourish in my life until I came home from my first backpacking trip.Thats what travel does: it shows you what you don’t know — about the world, and yourself. Pictures and travel stories are great, but the personal lessons you learn are the heaviest and most significant things that you back into your suitcase when it’s time to go home.
The lessons start when you make the concrete decision to go travel, and you learn to save and budget. To take my first trip, I worked two jobs, never ate out, minimized using gas, and pretty much never spent money on anything that wasn’t bills.(Which was all excellent preparation for moving out on my own.) I learned to be happy spending my free time hiking with my dog, and I found I actually liked cooking for myself more than eating something overpriced at a restaurant. I learned to be truly disciplined with money and to live within my means. I also worked my butt off at my job because I knew what I was working for, and that doing the hard thing now was going to pay off for me when I was traveling.
One big kicker is learning that you don’t need everything that you think you do.Backpacking helps you to see how little you actually need to survive. Everything I needed could fit in two small bags – and even that was more than completely necessary. My belongings have since downsized significantly, and my shopping is done much more purposefully and thoughtfully. Many destinations also show us people who live much simpler ways of life, or people who can’t afford nearly as much as we can. It exposes us to poverty and scarcity unlike anything we have ever known. I think that American’s generally know that we have more than most countries, but sometimes it takes seeing it for yourself to truly put your life in perspective.Backpacking also limits you in terms of buying souvenirs, since you can’t really carry much with you. I learned to remember places by pictures, stories, and conversations, rather than by “stuff.”
One of the best parts is learning to accept the kindness of strangers, and then be that stranger to someone else. At least once or twice during a backpacking adventure, you will find yourself in need of help from a stranger. Until I traveled, my social interactions with strangers are probably best described as individuals on a New York City subway car — everyone avoids eye contact or speaking. You all just go about your separate ways — similar paths that never overlap.
In Normandy, I found myself hitchhiking with a French family because I was stranded in the countryside. In London, I found myself cooking meals in a hostel with strangers who all became friends in a matter of hours. In Paris, I sat in a hostel room of other solo-traveling women from all over the world, listening to each others travel stories and laughing late into the night. In Dublin, I found myself in the pouring rain getting directions to the train station from a little Irish women who was determined to help me. In Nice, a young girl in at a flower market gave me a Macaron because she felt bad for me when she watched someone steal my sunglasses from my head.
Life is funny, difficult, and amazing in many different ways, and it helps to have each others backs through it all. When you travel, you learn that “each other” is not limited to close friends and family — it can be anyone, anywhere, at any time. We are joined by our common denominator of humanity, and we can all be there for each other, regardless of our language or background.
There are a lot of things that you can’t control when you travel, and you just have to find a way to make situations work for you. You learn to go with the flow, rather than trying to orchestrate the world and losing. You can’t control the weather, the timetables of trains, or road closures in places that you want to explore. More often than not, I found myself realizing that I do not have life all figured out, and learning to accept what was given to me. This is extremely important to embrace no matter where you are, and it ultimately makes your life much more enjoyable. You have to learn to plan while staying open to the unexpected changes that occur on small and large scales throughout life.
No matter where you go, hopefully you learn that the world is full of drastically different ways of life lived by people who are remarkably similar to you. I read an interview with Brad Newsham where he talked about how how people in the Middle East cheered when the twin towers came down. He said,”I had this thought that they could never have cheered the death and destruction if they had known the people involved.” Traveling and getting to know each other reveals the common threads that run through all people, as well as the different ways of living that you never thought about. We all have similar wants and needs, and we can all understand each other on one level or another if we take the time to get to know each other. It can also be eye-opening to see what certain cultures choose to prioritize, and can call into question some of your own decisions. I like the fast-paced, goal-oriented mindset that I’ve adopted in America, but I also appreciated the laid-back, simple life that I saw when traveling on the west coast of Ireland.
In the end, travel can reward anyone at any age with a greater sense of their place in the world. It starts with the decision to go, and ends with a better version of you.