As a child, I daydreamed of traveling the world. Dreams turned into reality when I chose to take a gap year before college. I still remember the taste of warm dumplings nestled in bamboo steamers, eaten on a grimy street corner in Shanghai— or how I hugged a toilet bowl for seven days straight in Hanoi. I made mistakes, got lost, cried tears of frustration, loneliness, and happiness (sometimes all at once). It was nothing and everything like what I had dreamed. I was hooked.
Almost a decade on and I’ve traveled every which way—alone, with a boyfriend, with a best friend, with strangers, with work, and even with my dog. As I near my ten-year travel-versary, here are some reflections on how travel has been different in my 20s.
You know what you like (sort of).
I hate museums. I SAID IT. Think all the judgmental thoughts you want—I’d much rather explore a city by foot (for free) than pay to look at art. This may not be a popular opinion but it’s my own particular truth, learned from long dreary hours spent inside when Rome/Paris/[INSERT COOL CITY NAME HERE] is just beyond those art-hung walls.
One of the keys to travel is experiencing new things—but also going about it your own way. For me, that’s foot-to-pavement wandering followed by some delicious grub. Of course, strong philistine opinions are meant to be broken, and I’ll make exceptions for those this-will-change-the-way-you-think experiences, i.e., the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
You have tried and true travel buddies—and enemies.
While tooling around Europe during my gap year, I started traveling with two British guys who seemed cool. Five days later, I wanted to cause them bodily harm. Our sleep schedules were at opposite ends of the spectrum, their reliance on me to set each day’s activities made me into a glorified tour guide, and I hated the way they ate cereal.
These aren’t real enemies, but when you’re traveling with someone and it’s just not working, it can feel like a war zone. The close quarters and sometimes high-stress situations of travel require a certain type of partner-in-crime. And while the wrong person can drive you to the edge, the right person can make your travel-soul sing.
You know the drill.
Adrenaline made my hands shake the first time I ordered food in a city where I didn’t speak the local language. I pointed and mimed my way through the meal, certain I looked ridiculous. But one plate of Nepali momos later, and my bout of nerves was a distant memory.
The exhilarating high of my early travels often came from these small forays out of the familiar. Ten years on, I know that language is rarely a barrier to finding shelter, food or friends. The confidence I’ve gained in my own abilities to navigate new countries and cities allows me more meaningful experiences. And over time, I’ve been lucky enough to return to certain places, like Nepal, again and again. It’s far easier to connect with another culture when you aren’t daunted just by the task of communicating.
Time is (more) precious.
I can’t imagine ever being as free and unburdened by responsibilities as I was at eighteen—at least not in this stage of life. As I near the end of my 20s, it feels as though this decade has been one of constant instability: moving for college, moving post-college, changing jobs, not having a job, hunting for jobs, contemplating selling your soul for a job. In between “strategic career moves” and saving up for that ever-elusive Future, it can be hard to find time for soul-expanding travels. So, when I do travel for myself, I make sure it counts—and I savor those trips passionately because I know that they are few and far between.
YOU are different.
Though I may still get carded on the reg, I’m not the eighteen-year-old I was once. As I’ve changed, my relationship to traveling has changed as well.
As a teenager, I thought travel was only about me learning about the world. But every time I return from a trip, it becomes a little bit clearer that I don’t really know anything—and so every trip that introduces me to more of this big mysterious planet also increases my awareness of all of those cities and countries and people and experiences I know nothing about. But instead of feeling dumb and insecure, I feel connected to the energy of the 7 billion other beings on our homeplanet. And that acceptance of my own limited knowledge is, to me, the essence of growing up.