WHEN I FIRST MADE THE DECISION to move to Japan in 2006, I thought, like so many other ESL teachers, I would stay a year and then return home to work a full-time job, find an apartment, meet the right girl, and “fulfill” my life. After six years on the road, I find my life pretty fulfilling as it is. However, there are some revelations I’ve learned in my time as a traveler that I’d like to share.
6 Truths I've Realized as a Long-Term Traveler
I recently saw a Scottish man get a little irate at a Thai attendant for shooing him to the back of the full bus. He turned to the attendant and said something to the affect of “I understand you want me to move, but there’s no point in saying it over and over.”
It still amazes me when I see tourists requesting services, then shouting in English when they receive a look of befuddlement. There’s absolutely no point in speaking to someone, at any volume, in a language they clearly can’t understand. The most remarkable thing is while I’ve seen many locals take these encounters in stride, some tourists get angry when confronted by others speaking a foreign tongue: “I can’t understand you! Speak English!”
Likewise, even if locals can’t understand your language, speaking badly about them, their country, or something in their presence to their faces is just plain rude and immature, the equivalent of mocking a blind man with dirty hand gestures. I know all too well the temptation to just tell someone off knowing they can’t respond and be satisfied, but even when you want to complain, try to make yourself understood. And no matter where you are in the world, I believe it’s best to speak slowly and even toned.
2. Solo v. group travel
I believe solo travel can only sustain someone for so much time, until places and experiences become so commonplace, and you miss the perspective of friends. Rather, a perspective other than your own.
My first years abroad, everything was new and exciting; it didn’t require other foreigners to make it real for me. If anything, the presence of those closer to home took away from the experience. I wanted to grow using my own eyes, learning what I could as I made my way on foot across islands.
Now, having seen a great deal of the world, I often find myself jaded. Everything is just one more tourist attraction, one more picture to take, one more knick-knack to buy, and one more thing I have to see or do.
With friends as travel companions, things are just better for me. Sometimes they slow me down, but they offer their own unique perspectives on travel… things I just can’t imagine asking myself. My time in the Canadian countryside wouldn’t have been complete without my friends from Korea showing me around the Scottish games.
Dijon would have been just another small French village if Jessica hadn’t taken me on a hike through the vineyards past an old lady willing to sell us her bread, as all the bakeries were closed (French holiday month, and all).
I can’t say for certain I’ll stay on this path of non-solo travel, but if my perception of travel and the world keeps evolving the way it has, I don’t see how I can go back to walking the road alone.
At a certain point, I think you just have to choose which is more important to you: a stable life or one of a vagabond. You can’t have both. At my age, I walk the fine line between irresponsibility and freedom. As a 20-something traveler coming into my own in Japan, I couldn’t see an end to the journey.
So what if I was teaching English as a second language (a dead-end career in Asia if there ever was one)? I was in Japan! I was eating sushi and taking pictures of shrines! My friends posted comments on my Facebook profile about how jealous they were and how much they wished they could escape. How could I want that life to end?
Today is no different. I’ve been avoiding trying something stable in the US for the better half of a decade, and soon I’ll have to choose.
4. Love and relationships
There’s no rule for love, obviously, but even though I don’t have someone with whom to share my experiences abroad, I believe it’s perfectly plausible others can, and do. I used to believe I had to remain in one place long enough to meet the right person. Now I think as long as you’re positive in pursuing your passions, love will find a way.
Attachment will ultimately end up limiting your experiences (except when it comes to people). I’ve seen it happen so many times to even veteran travelers: they want to step off that plane and find a wifi network and a Coca-Cola before doing anything else. Your desire to find the familiar in a strange land, from meeting English speakers at a pub in the foreign district, to buying McDonald’s, to having the same routine you would have living at home, doesn’t make you a traveler; it just makes you someone unwilling to soak up some of the world around you.
I have nothing against long-term travelers who need the occasional break of a Hollywood movie in their flats (I hosted poker tournaments). Even people who try to “go native” for the entirety of their vacation may cry out for a ham and cheese sandwich. Just be aware that for the right price, nearly every food, accommodation, service, and entertainment is available to you almost anywhere on the planet… some exceptions, of course. Indulging in them, rather, being too attached to what you had at home, can, at its best, lead to stagnation in your travel, at worst, suffering.
6. Greener grass
Looking at the grass on the other side of the fence will drive you hopelessly insane. There was a study done on Facebook users that determined the more time people spent on the site, the more likely they were to be depressed. Not so much because they were idling their time away in front of a computer, but because the site gives users the chance to show the best highlights of their lives. We see smiling faces, wedding pictures, birth announcements, and, in the case of travelers, photographs of destinations not yet visited.
I’m just as bad as the rest, eavesdropping on conversations during a layover to somewhere exciting; yet when I hear where others are going, I forget just how amazing my current itinerary is, and can only long to see the greener grass. Just remember: You’re never going to be able to see and do everything on this planet. All you can do is make the most of the time you have, and never compare your journey to someone else’s. Your journey is your journey. Not a competition.