Photo: Fernando Tatay/Shutterstock

How to Reinvent Yourself While Traveling

by Matthew Guttentag Apr 20, 2009
Leaving our mental baggage behind gives us the opportunity to escape ourselves when immersed in a new culture. Here’s how it’s done.

We all know that travel lets you experience new cultures, see incredible sights, and meet fascinating people.

However, being on the road and jumping from hostel to hostel, especially alone, provides another unique opportunity: the chance to acquire an entirely new personality at every fleabag dorm room of your trip.

Not since the first day of freshman year has such a golden opportunity arisen, so be sure not to miss out with this handy guide to the new you on the backpacker trail.

Step 1: Acquire a fancy new accent

That Southern drawl might attract the ladies back home in Raleigh, but it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sais crois to cut it with the unwashed traveling bourgeois. Have no fear – at the hostel, nobody knows that you really sound like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Just roll that “r” a bit, swallow that “g,” and soften your vowels a hair, and suddenly you’re a veritable citizen of the world.

With this unidentifiable but notably cultured accent, you can pontificate at length on the differences between tea quality in Northern and Western China, and no one will suspect that you have no idea what you are talking about. Which brings us to step two.

Step 2: Become an expert

I’m not talking about actually putting in the work to be an expert in something new. (That would take way too much time).

Lucky for you, on the road, just use some personal experiences and then add any commentary that pops into your head, and voila, you’re the hostel/backpacker bar expert.

Took a rafting trip in Kenya? By all means, present your analysis of the electoral problems there. Volunteered for a week at an orphanage in Guatemala? You’re the Richard Feynman of Fair Trade coffee! Went on a day trip to the West Bank? Write an article on the state of Palestinian tourism for an online travel magazine!

Step 3: Change your life plans

Deep down you know that you’re going to go home, finish your CPA, and work at a faceless corporation for the next thirty or so years. Suppress that realization as hard as you can, and take the opportunity to indulge your wildest fantasies about dropping everything to live a life of expatriate leisure.

Go ahead and tell everyone at the bar that yeah, you’re “pretty much set on starting a little café on the Peruvian coast”, or whiling away the next few decades “surfing and designing websites from the South Pacific.”

You can even add a bit of weight to your proclamations of life in self-imposed slacker exile by making a few inquiries into real estate prices in the area – “I actually already looked into acquiring the lease on a little bar in Budapest. Think I’m gonna go ahead and make an offer.”

But be careful what you wish for or it might come true; you could end up fifteen years from now spending all your nights with this expat crew.

Step 4: Try a new religion

It’s no secret that for many people, travel and spiritual discovery go hand and hand.

Put aside that annoying inner skeptic who tells you that your sudden interest in Buddhism might have more to do with those mushrooms you ate at the full moon party last night than any long-term religious awakening.

Go East, young man, and let your soul take you wherever it should wander: Hinduism, Baha’ism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism…the gringo trail will present you with an incredible spread of delicious religious offerings.

By all means, make your way to the buffet table. (Besides, everyone knows that ashram chicks are totally hot).

Step 5: Go native with the clothes

Is that Lawrence of Arabia over there, walking into a Jordanian desert sunset in a brilliant white dishdasha and checkered red kuffiyeh? No, it’s the new Bedouin you!

Or consider that local Bolivians will have no idea that you’re a tourist hiding under that traditional poncho (if you to tuck the Nikon D300 inside).

Show the world that your mind has been liberated from the corrupting influences of rampant Western polyesterism by donning some of the local threads. Just remember when you get home: email your boss in advance to make sure that the Cambodian monks’ robe is good to go for casual Fridays.

Step 6: Become an instant outdoorsman

It doesn’t matter that your longest “hike” on a typical day back home involves getting from your car to your cubicle. Get yourself some $250 hiking boots, a set of topographical maps, and an absurdly over-featured GPS, and as far as your hostel mates know, you’re Henry Morton Stanley.

Make a point of regularly staring quizzically at your laid-out maps, muttering comments under your breath about “precision bearing” and “attack points.” Then just hire a local guide when it’s actually time to start the trek.

Step 7: Find out that you’re still you

You’ve got a sore throat from all those fake French “r” sounds. You get called out on the fact that you keep referring to Sydney as the capital of Australia yet claim to be intimately knowledgeable of Aboriginal burial rites.

You realize that at the end of the day, all of the new personas which we acquire while traveling slip away just as easily as they came about.

You get bored after swinging in a beach hammock for three days, much less the rest of your life. You realize that real Buddhism actually involves more than a yoga session and a Putumayo CD. That Jamaican Rasta woven hat is really itchy, and it turns out that the great outdoors is actually filled with things that bite you.

And you realize that at the end of the day, or month, or around-the-world year long trip, all of the new personas which we acquire while traveling slip away just as easily as they came about.

Travel does indeed change us, but luckily these changes tend to be more profound than a new accent or organic diet.

And although travel may give us the opportunity to try out new personalities, in the end it teaches us more about who we really are, if only through the process of elimination.

What you do think think of reinventing yourself abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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