THE LAST 16 MONTHS of my life have been spent wandering.
After graduating from college, like many of my peers I had no real clue as to what to do with my life. I did what anyone with an insatiable travel bug would do and took off to an exotic destination to teach English.
The exotic destination quickly turned into a mundane daily rhythm that was full of obstacles, frustrations and existential questions. At the end of my contract, the travel-bug and existential questions were still there. I kept traveling.
I struggled to define myself. Was I a vagabond? An unemployed 20-something with no future?
Some people made me feel like I needed to define a goal for myself, so that all this traveling and wandering would lead to something concrete. In trying to quell their concerns, I realized that I really didn’t have an answer about my goals.
Three continents, several undeveloped rolls of film and one minor leg burn later, I’ve learned that what I was doing all of this time was defining myself as a human being; in finding my niche as a traveler I was learning how I wanted to live.
Now, as I try to establish a normal routine in my home country, I hold onto lessons from the road. They are my support system, reminding me of who I am and where I have been.
Here are 4 of the most important life lessons I learned while traveling.
1. Focus on the “now”
When the path ahead of us is unclear, it’s easy to question what we are doing with our lives. Western society teaches us that we should go to school and get on a career path.
But some of us want some time off in between school and careers. Yes, we all want great jobs where we feel good about the work we do, but some of us want to postpone, and in some cases escape, the 9-5 lifestyle.
For those of us destined to walk down this path, it’s inevitable that others will ask questions:
- “So what exactly are you doing on this trip?”
- “What do you expect to do when you get back?”
- “Don’t you have a five year plan?”
These are all questions that you do not need to have an answer to – remember that it’s OK to just travel for the sake of travel.
There is plenty of time in life to follow schedules and make five year plans, but traveling is about taking a breather from high intensity, stressful society and relearning how to focus on the present. This teaches you to deal with life on a day to day basis.
2. Embrace the ordinary
Being open to possibility is the only thing that allows us to move forward. Often we find that the reality of travel is very different from our dreams. Yet without those illusions about the traveling lifestyle, we may never have had the courage to hit the road in the first place.
Talk to anyone who has studied, traveled or worked abroad and they will tell you about the difference between glamorous expectations and normal everyday routines.
When we travel for extended periods of time we see that not everything is as exotic first thought. Television ads in a foreign country may seem weird as long as we hear them in that foreign language, but as soon as we get a sense of the language, the ads seem as absurd as anything at home.
Long-term travel is not about constantly seeking the extraordinary, but coming to terms with the ordinary itself. It’s about learning to appreciate the simpler moments that everyday life offers.
3. Push your comfort levels
Traveling is about breaking out of our own personal boundaries. No matter the length of time, be it one week or a whole year, just being in a new place forces us to push ourselves.
We are obliged to memorize a string of strange sounding words just to order a simple coffee, master new public transportation systems, learn how to use unfamiliar toilets and ask for directions by way of body language, pictures and the common language of laughter.
In new places we want to be able to handle the situation, and so we force ourselves to learn.
Returning home after a trip often seems boring compared to our recent experiences; because in a new place we are constantly succeeding in conquering new situations. Recreating that feeling is therefore a matter of finding situations that push us as human beings, be it with a job, seeking knowledge or in our personal relationships.
4. Stay flexible
If travel teaches us anything at all, it’s that an itinerary can change at the drop of a hat. Buses break down, hurricanes roll in and travelers get sick.
Being a good traveler means always having a backup plan or being ready to think of one. My difficulty with the five year plan was because I am always ready to do something different.
In our travels we can never predict the future, and the same holds true for our “regular” lives back at home. Staying flexible allows us to achieve what we truly believe in even if that means sailing off course.
It allows us to push our boundaries and move beyond what we, and others, think is possible.
What life lessons have you learned through travel? Please contribute to the discussion by leaving a comment below!