1. The first time you feel like you’re on the cover of National Geographic
But you aren’t. You’re in someone else’s daily routine, walking through a tent-covered market in 100-degree heat, your stature too tall to fit under the cloth awnings, your hands too awkward to maneuver piles of unidentifiable fruit. You’re in someone else’s life, walking down a dirt road, children stopping to stare at you on their way home from school, some with enough bravery to come up to you and smile.
You’re simply in someone else’s world, not on the cover of a magazine. This is real life. This is the reality of travel.
2. The first time you realize how ephemeral the term “stranger” is…
Maybe it’s the English-Israeli yogi on your plane to Baltimore who tells you you’re entering your 4th consciousness cycle and that’s why you feel like you’re at such a crossroads. Hours later, you’re hugging and wishing him best of luck on his elopement. Or the couple at your hostel that just so happens to be traveling through your hometown in the coming months, and you’re going to be there to show them all the hip holes-in-the-wall.
People are only strangers if you let them be strangers; otherwise, they’re only strangers for an instant.
3. …and the first time one of those “strangers” changes your entire life
Every step out your door offers a possibility. The number of strangers in your life increases with every place you go, and the first time someone makes an impression, it’s hard not to think about all the other impressions you’ve been missing. Maybe they share a piece of wisdom: “You never know who can help you, so you might as well ask everyone.” Or maybe it’s something more concrete, like, “Here’s my brother’s number. He’s a recruiter. Call him.” Whatever it is, you’ll never forget it.
And someday — or maybe already — you’ll be that stranger to someone else, leaving an impression without so much as leaving a name.
4. The first time you realize that where you grew up made you “you”…
It turns out your accent isn’t the only thing you got from your upbringing. All of a sudden you’re sitting in a group of people from Canada, Turkey, Thailand, England, Russia, and you realize your entire worldview has been shaped by where you live and where you’ve been. Had you been born 500 miles south, maybe you would’ve been a quesadilla connoisseur or sported feathers in your hair, maybe you’d be thinner, fatter, more or less tolerant, religious, conservative — whatever.
It’s not just your genes; you’re everything you have — and have not — experienced.
5. …and the first time you sense that “you” are becoming someone else
The same way where you grew up determines a large chunk of your personality, where you travel morphs it, too. And if you pay close attention, you’ll see it change. All of a sudden that bucket list seems to be calling out a little louder.
6. The first time you traverse a thousand miles on Earth to see millions of miles into the sky…
Your entire body is asleep, and Spotify has been repeating songs on its “summer roadtrip” playlist since just after lunch, but the second you get out of the car and see that milky glow covered in celestial glitter, you lose track of whether or not you can feel your legs. All of a sudden you’re aware for the first time that the ground beneath your feet is floating and you’re floating on it…it’s hands-down the most memorable moment of your trip.
7. …and the first time you learn that campfire coffee beats a $4 latte any day of the week
Coffee is made better one of two ways: Either you pull an all-nighter (studying for that exam, falling in and out of love), or you wake up in a sleeping bag, pull on a sweater, and walk out of your tent into a foggy, chill air. The second option surely beats the first, and it’s only then that you realize how the not-quite silence, the nip to the air, and the barely there sunlight takes that cup of joe to the next level — not fancy mugs and organic beans.
8. The first time you use a fully rusted, barely-a-hole-in-the-floor squat toilet.
Questions of culture, privilege, personal comfort, biological need, human connectedness — if there were a single physical manifestation of all these philosophical threads, it would be the squat toilet. The world really does work in mysterious ways.
9. The first time you understand just how little you actually need
Dusk jacket? Check. Wallet? Check. Passport, ID, chapstick? Check. A clean pair of socks, a pair of boots, sunglasses? Check, check, check. Anything else is gravy. You will survive, and it’s easier — and freer — than you once thought.
10. The first time you truly feel all on your own
It could be hiking through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, wandering through the streets of Kotor, Montenegro, or just driving for hours on end eating your own family-size bag of Doritos, aiming to get wherever you wind up, when the moment hits: You are your entire world. It’s definitely scary, but nothing’s changed. You’re still just fine.
11. The first time you say goodbye to a place, and it’s as powerful as saying goodbye to a person
Places can resonate. They can get you. They can understand, they can hold similar values, and they can seem to welcome you with open arms. In a strange way, they can feel like family, giving you a second home if you need one, only they never rebuke or interrogate you. Leaving the first place that does these things for you is tough — but it opens the door to potential second, third, and fourth loves waiting on the next pages of your passport.
12. The first time you realize you can start a new life at any given moment
You almost hopped that freighter to Alaska. You know someone in Saigon who says you’re welcome whenever, and he lives next to the best banh mi shop in town. There was that phase you went through when you wanted nothing else but to scoop gelato in middle-of-nowhere Italy. And you know what? All these things are possible. All these things are lives you could be living. You didn’t realize it before you started traveling, but they’ve been there all along (and better yet, they still are).
13. The first time it seems Mother Nature is speaking directly — and only — to you
Most often it comes in a ray of light sneaking perfectly through a break in the trees, as if she’s running her bright yellow highlighter over something of particular importance. Sometimes she talks in gusts of wind or in a well-placed butterfly. And when you’re the only one around, there’s no reason to think Mother Nature isn’t lifting the veil for you to get a peek of what’s going on behind our cell phones, earbuds, and laptop screens. It’s simply a matter of translation.