My Travel Advice From Years of Living Abroad
When I left for a trip of indefinite length to Thailand a few years ago, I was confronted with a common question by more career-minded (and rational) folk than myself—“Why?”
I personally have never really been very good at thinking ahead, which is exactly why I wanted to leave to begin with. Going to college in the D.C area, many of my peers in school and work were completely dumbfounded by the fact that a trip around the world would have no foreseeable end and would merit no huge financial reward. So the question kept coming, “Why?”. I needed to think of a response.
There were many answers for this, but truth be told, I hadn’t really bothered to challenge myself with this question. I was intent on leaving; I honestly didn’t need a reason “why” so much as I was searching for a reason “why not?”
I left America with the romantic notion that I would discover uncharted territories, fully assimilate into a culture and come back completely changed. Not all of those things happened, and although I departed with the intention on a sabbatical from both work and education, here are a few things that I managed to learn from extensive travel.
1) Only travel the world if you are prepared to discover uncharted territories of other countries as well as within yourself.
Chances are that wherever you are going, millions of people have already been. When I left for Thailand I thought that I was going to be a modern Columbus, Sir Francis Drake, or even Colonel Kurtz (minus the colonialism, the imperialism, and “the horror” ) and would be a solo intrepid earthly navigator. Come to find out that I was quite wrong. Wherever we travel in this world, there have been scores of other travelers there before us. I thought I would be the first outsider sharing my story, but instead many had stood where I was before me, sharing their own stories as well.
At first this bummed me out, thinking that a fair amount of the individuality and uniqueness of my experience would suffer, but when I revisited the idea, I found out what I was worried about as a negative turned into a humble positive. I came to discover that the story of traveling isn’t a selfish one that is for me alone, it wasn’t an experience that I should be able to look at by saying “I did this first” or “I traveled the longest”, (although you’ll meet more people like that than I care to mention) but instead traveling—and living for that matter— is a shared experience for everyone who roamed there before and since. The streets, trails, beaches, hostels, bus stations and airports turned into some sort of an heirloom passed down from generations of travelers. The entire experience changed from a stale, solitary experience into a something like an old pocket knife given to me from my grandfather.
2) Learning to mime is probably more important than all out learning to speak the language.
We live in a world of 7 billion people which has just over 6,000 widely used languages, but we seem to all know body language and hand gestures. Only a handful of people (pun intended) know how to speak an accredited sign language, yet I am convinced that there is an untaught natural consciousness that we are all innately familiar with. I have had many a scattered conversation about everything from food and friends, to religion and politics, all with only waving my hands and awkwardly moving my body, and not only have I gotten the point across quickly and effectively, both parties had a great laugh at my expense.
3) Only leave the material comforts that you are surrounded by if you are willing to come back and understand how unimportant they truly are.
Deliberately pack your bags light so that you are slightly underprepared. Then realize how little you need and how little the things actually mattered in the first place. Downsizing in material things and living a tinier life can be truly liberating, allowing you to focus on what is truly important.
As the great Tyler Durden says what you own ends up owning you. True indeed, Tyler.
4) You are still yourself. You shouldn’t expect (or want) a massive change through traveling alone.
While traveling extensively I was in search of something just about as much as I was hoping to lose something. I was a confused kid recently out of school and struggling with anxiety and depression, which is unfortunately not a rare condition in this age it seems. However, when I was traveling for short spurts I was able to show those around me my best side. Everyday I was on the move, learning, communicating, experiencing and was unable and unwilling to crawl into my depression as I did when I was home. I was no longer concerned with the little things that bothered my mind anywhere on a sliding scale from minor pestering to an all out plaguing. The constant stimulation refocused my brain, but it simply couldn’t last forever.
After I stopped moving to teach, I truly understood the phrase wherever I went there I was. After a while I was in a new country with the same old self-imposed anxieties. I had to face the hard truth—traveling wasn’t going to turn me into a different person. Nothing happened magically and instantly, but what traveling did do was give me a large tool belt of how to deal with anxiety and depression before it took it’s hold on me. Traveling gave me the confidence to know that I could form amazing friendships half a world a way with people of another language. Most of all traveling gave me the appreciation that even on the darkest of days, that I have everything I need for happiness within myself.
5) Brace yourself for the possibility that once you leave home you are embarking on a lifelong decision from which although you may come back, you may never quite return.
If you find me in America in a cold winter, I am really on a Thai beach. If you happen to come across me on a rainy day, I am really diving in Indonesia. If you think you see me in a traffic jam headed to work, look again, I’m just not there. Once you start traveling you will have a personal solace of international travel from which to return when the real world just isn’t cutting it.
6) Finally, and most importantly, never stop smiling.
Along with the adventures and experience, traveling can also give way to a generous amount of self reflection.
(Fight Club Image Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures )