Travel is a ruthless and effective teacher. From the first step outside your home, you are thrown into a world of uncertainty, and in this world, you’re forced to cope, adjust, and learn, or suffer. It need not be cruel, as these lessons, even the hard learned ones, are ones that you will carry with you for life. Here are a few of the lessons the road has taught me:
You need little
What is true of life is also true of travel. You simply don’t need much. Beyond the essentials, your sense of happiness and well-being arises not from your possessions but from your experiences, your relationships, and most importantly of all, yourself.
Excessive possessions can slow you down physically and weigh you down mentally. The things you own and carry will weigh so heavily on your mind, existing in a constant state of alert fear and anxiety about being lost or stolen, that invariably they will begin to own you and your thoughts. This is counter to the point of travel. Travel light, and you will be free. You need little more than the clothes on your back, some comfortable shoes, your passport, some money, and any essential medical items. and you can get by just about anywhere. Certainly what is necessary will change depending on where your adventures take you (a tent is not an essential in Bangkok, but it is in the wilderness), and proper research will alert you to the essentials of a specific region, but be sure to scrutinize every item you carry, asking yourself if it is truly essential, and how you would feel if it was lost. The most valuable things you will carry with you are an open mind, a spirit of discovery, a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn. With these things in hand, your travels will be a success.
These are the fundamentals of everyday life as well. Your happiness will never stem from possessions, for more than a fleeting moment, until the desire for the next thing arises. Invest your happiness in this viscous cycle, and you’re bound to lose. It has always, and must always come from within, and no possessions can alter this fact.
Travel is Easy, leaving is hard
Travel is easier than you think. When you’re on the road, you deal with each situation, each new challenge as it arises, and you typically find a way. When you can’t find a way, you learn, so that next time a similar situation arises, you’re better prepared to handle it. When you’re sitting at home thinking about travel, you overwhelm yourself with hypothetical situations, imagined dangers, fabricated stresses. It is for this reason, that the most difficult part of travel is taking the first step. I’m a notorious over-thinker, and planning for my first trip to Asia took far longer than it should have, and caused far more stress than is normal. Finally, I forced myself to buy a ticket, and a date was set. The weeks leading up to my departure were a strange mix of serenity and panic, of excitement and fear. Yet when I stepped out of the door on the day I was set to leave, I knew I would be alright, because the reality was made clear. When you’re actually “doing”, as opposed to “thinking” you deal with each thing that’s before you, and not the millions of things you conjure up in your own fear-based mind. In the ever wise words of Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride”. You won’t regret it, and you may even surprise yourself.
People are (generally) kind
In your travels you’ll encounter hawkers, scammers, liars, thieves, con-men and cheats. It will get daunting at times, and frustrating at others. This is simply reality. However, by and large, people everywhere are kind, and friendly, and are only interested in going about their business, and extending their kindness to those around them. This includes you. The most important thing to remember is to not develop a jaded attitude. 99% of those you meet will be lovely humans that will leave a positive impact on you for days to come. Don’t let the 1% of bad seeds ruin the experience for you. In those times that the bad seeds get to you, take a deep breath, gather some perspective, try to see the positive, and keep going.
While in Bangkok, I was suckered into the classic tuk-tuk scam, wherein a tuk-tuk driver will offer to drive you around to a variety of sites for an outrageously low price, while also taking you to tailor or gem shops, that give the driver commission or gas for bringing in people. It happens to many people, and if you find yourself in that corner of the world for the first time, it will likely happen to you to. Yet, at the end of the experience, I had only spent about a dollar or two, enjoyed a great ride around the city in a fun vehicle, made clear to both the drive and the shops that I wasn’t planning on buying any suits (and spent a total of 30 seconds in the shop), got to see a few great sites, and was dropped off near my guesthouse. Overall, a fun filled day. Sure, I got suckered into a scam, but with a positive attitude, some perspective, and patience, you’ll find that even in those situations there is good to be found. In addition, my tuk-tuk driver was a great guy, who was just trying to earn a living, and we had a lovely conversation along the way. Even the scammers are human, after all.
By the same token, I’ve encountered people who have displayed the most generous of kindness to me, without so much as knowing my name. It is these impressions, not the negative ones that will persist with you, even when your travels come to a standstill.
The people you meet will affect you just as strongly as the places you go
As time goes on, and your travels grow in length, you will come to look back at not only the wonderful places you have been, but the incredible people with whom you spent your time. In fact, these people may come to be the highlights of your trips. Indeed, many a drab location is made exquisite by the kindness of a stranger, a conversation with a new friend, the companionship of people on a similar road. The cumulative effect of these people that you will constantly meet (and, in most cases, leave behind) is one that is profound, and character building. They add perspective to those necessary times that you are alone, and add joy to those times that you wish you weren’t. Through the wide variety of people you meet, you grow. Approach these characters with an open mind, and open heart, and you will find that the relationships you build, while brief, will be intense. Humans are, by nature, social creatures, and we strive to build networks of varying size regardless of where we find ourselves. Travel need not be different, though the nature of these networks tends to be more temporary.
Some of the greatest experiences are free
Watching a river flow, soaking in beautiful scenery, a spontaneous conversation with a stranger, an act of kindness, a long walk, reading on a quiet street, observing people, and taking the time to slow down and see what makes a place tick are experiences that cost nothing, but make up the bulk of the beneficial experiences you are likely to have. It is true that not all great experiences are free: music festivals, a drink with friends, admission prices, transportation, etc, all have their price. Yet many of the most meaningful encounters you are bound to have will be both free and unexpected, and typically the most beautiful ones will completely blindside you and breath new life into your experiences. Be open to them.
We Take much for granted
One of the important qualities that travel bestows upon us, is a set of new eyes with which to see our own homes in a new light. Running water, warm showers, electricity, internet, sanitation, availability of food and water, political stability, television and entertainment, personal time, and support networks of loved ones, are among the numerous things that are simple to neglect when we are home. It is simply how our brains work. We become comfortable with the familiar and neglect it, because it is always available to us. There are few things that will make you realize the stark beauty of your own home (because beauty exists everywhere) than being away from it for a long while, and few things that make you aware of the comforts of home than no longer having them. This lesson is a crucial one.
Returning home after a long trip is always a surreal experience for me. It is as though I am laying eyes on my own city for the first time, and with these new eyes I am able to notice all the intricacies, all the beauty that I take for granted going about my daily business. These fresh eyes are one of my reasons to travel.
Things don’t go according to plan
Transportation breaks down, weather changes, people flake on your plans, and your own desires change. Plans only go so far, because there is no certainty in the future. There are no guarantees. It is for this reason it is important to do research, but not as important to have a plan. Instead, know what interests you and be flexible, because you can never know what awaits you at your destination until you are standing in it. Many an itinerary and plan are ruined by the simple chaotic nature of life. Don’t shun this chaos, it is fundamental to what makes life as beautiful as it is, but instead know of its existence, and be ready to bend, and to change. All things change. So will your plans. So will you.
To further this point, don’t be afraid of having no plan at all. When I bought my ticket to Bangkok, I had no idea where I was sleeping that night, or indeed anything beyond when my flight was. Yet everything worked out for the better. It was a moment where the kindness of strangers yet again shone through. The lovely lady sitting next to me, also from Los Angeles, but of Thai origin, offered me a ride to the hotel she was staying in in the middle of the city. In this way I was not only able to find a place to sleep, but got a free ride into the city and had some wonderful conversation with a complete stranger. Be open and flexible, and things tend to work out. This brings me to my final point:
You’re capable of more than you think
You will surprise yourself. Your assumptions of who you are, and what you are capable of will be shattered. You will be forced to confront your fears, and anxieties, and your notions of what the world is like will be challenged Some of your ideas will remain, and indeed be strengthened. Some will fade. This is perhaps the most fundamental reason to travel. Just as you gain new eyes for your own city, so too do you gain new eyes to focus on yourself. There are few ways to learn about yourself, and to challenge yourself that are as effective and efficient as travel, because you will have no other choice but to confront those challenges. Do not fear this, embrace it. Know that your beliefs will be questioned. Be ready to defend or release them. Keep what works, drop the rest. This is how you grow. In the end, you will find yourself a bigger person, wiser and more capable. These are, of course, qualities that you possessed from the beginning, but the challenges of travel forced them to the surface, and in those moments where you persevere, and make it through, your reasons for travelling will suddenly be honed to a laser focus. Congratulations, you’re evolving. That’s the point.