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The 5 Most Important Things I've Lost and Gained From Being a Traveler

Student Work
by Jill Meinecke May 27, 2015

1. The notion that home is tied to a place, not a feeling

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in the Smithsonian that home is a way of organizing space in our minds; that home is more than just a place, but an idea. “Home is home and everything else is not home…Some people as they move through their lives rediscover home again and again.”

For so many years growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, home for me was always tied to my 4-bedroom, 3 ½ bath house on the corner of a cul-de-sac. Home meant dinners with mom and dad on Sundays around the dining room table, barbecues on the patio, and Christmas mornings unwrapping gifts in our living room.

After I started traveling, things changed as I created temporary homes for myself all over the world. Places far away from my familiar comfort zone like Philadelphia, Australia, and Hawaii became home to me. All of these new destinations were places I forged friendships, held jobs, and experienced incredible cultural differences from my own. I attached a sentimental bond with my temporary homes and realized that home isn’t a place, but rather an emotional feeling we get about a place.

2. The belief that bigger is better and opulence holds the key to happiness

The National Journal states that, with middle-class households more vulnerable to economic hardships, due in part to the Great Recession, ideals of the American Dream continue to shift from wanting bigger and better to holding on to what you’ve got.

I come from a hard-working, middle-class family that before the recession enjoyed the soft, cushiony perks of financial security: all-inclusive resort vacations, a weekend house, a speedboat, my own car at 16, etc. After I graduated college and tried to perpetuate a lifestyle of the up-and-up, I worked at an advertising agency crafting words around ideas whose sole purpose were for financial gain. I became disillusioned about the “real world” and what it meant to live for making more money and buying better things.

I booked my first solo trip and discovered that not only did I not want to live in a big fancy house anymore, but I preferred the exotic, free-wheeling lifestyle of flying by the seat of my pants. I needed nothing more than my backpack, a plane ticket, and a couch to crash on. I loved budgeting and scraping by. I posted pictures of myself on Facebook from all over the world, the smug grin on my face photographic proof of my resourcefulness. I found perfect solace during my days of contemplation in a bamboo hut with no running water. I had come a long way from my suburban McMansion.

3. The thought that leaving my friends back home meant putting up with the cold, mean strangers of the road

Are we so driven by money that the only reason we’d consider staying “strangers” is to save a buck? National Geographic’s feature “Stay for Free: Sleeping with Strangers” explores hospitality exchanges, an inevitable part of budget travel, as more than just a way to save money on the road. In fact, “sleeping with strangers,” a phrase that no-doubt makes your mother cringe, is a valuable way to create lasting friendships.

I had a going away party when I first decided to move away from home after living there 23 years. All of my friends from childhood and beyond showed up. I was touched to have such a supportive sendoff. After the party, my dad said, “If I had this many friends surrounding me, I’d never leave.” I cried in bed for an entire day thinking about leaving behind so many people I loved — the only people I’ve ever known. I worried about the strange people I’d meet on my travels and how I’d ever make friends.

Fast forward 5 years later, and I’ve met many kindred spirits from all over the world — people with whom I have just as much, if not more, in common with than people back home. While I always value and cherish my friends, I no longer feel badly about missing out on happy hours with the girls. I carry their love with me while I rendezvous with my “travel family” anywhere in the world our hearts desire. “Stranger dangers” turned out to be some of the best friends I’ve ever made.

4. The view that I have to work hard my whole life so that I could enjoy traveling during retirement

US News’ Money Blog points out that most people need to wait until age 66 or 67 to start collecting unreduced social security benefits, meaning the ideal age of 65 to retire is starting to get pushed back.

As our bodies and minds age, we are no longer able to enjoy the freedoms of youth: lessened inhibitions associated with young bodies make the thrill of adventure that much more alluring.

I considered putting off traveling for my retirement like the rest of mainstream America. When I chose a life of travel over a traditional trajectory of career first, travel later, it was almost as if the universe conspired to reward me for my decision. I jumped in and out of the back of pickup trucks with ease, survived a week-long bender in Thailand relatively unscathed, swam with wild dolphins in a strong, Hawaiian current and had endless adventures only those blessed with a healthy, active body could achieve.

Now, I wholeheartedly urge people to travel while they are young and able.

5. The expectation of finding my perfect soulmate to settle down with

A study based on the US Census reported by Business Insider says that people are waiting longer and longer to get married. In the 1950s, women and men got married at 20 and 23, respectively. Fast forward to 2010 and the median age has risen to 27.1 for women and 29.1 for men. With the reduced social stigma of living together before marriage, couples are in no rush to settle down and start a family.

When I drained my bank account for the sole purpose of traveling, my mom was horrified. “That’s your down payment for your first house with your husband!” she pleaded. I couldn’t understand why I should save money for my future husband and our house. I didn’t even have a boyfriend. I still worried, though, about what I would do when it was time to “settle down.”

I set out to travel and eventually found my perfect soulmate. Our storybook romance is not exactly a scripted Disney tale. We purchased our first “home”: a pop-up truck camper. We lived on wheels camping in national forests, along lakes, next to rivers, and atop mountains. Home was where we parked it. For us, settling down means a life full of adventure. We’re not so focused on getting married and buying a house. As long as we’re together and having fun, that’s our version of happily-ever-after.

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