It’s birth-week. I am one of those people who prefer to celebrate the entire month, but especially the week of. I am hitting the age where people are asking questions such as “Are you ever going to settle down and get married?” [Maybe] “Are you ever going to have kids?” [ NO] “Are you ever going to get a house of your own?” [hopefully sooner rather than later]. I am sure all of these questions are not intended to make me feel bad about my decisions to forgo a conventional life, but are just out of curiosity. At least, that is how I choose interpret it. So in honor of my 30-ish years on the planet, here are 30 ish things I have learned from traveling.
1. The world is big, and I will never see it all.
Mountains, hiking, clouds, history, photography…these are just a few of the things I’ve encountered while exploring the world.
With each new country I visit, I become acutely aware of how many there are left for me to see. The world is a big, amazing place, and I will likely never run out of places that I want to explore.
2. Solo travel is not that scary
I am an introvert. It takes me awhile to get to know people. I don’t always talk to strangers. I don’t like to make plans. I used to think that solo travel wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I could enjoy it. I didn’t think I could handle it, to be honest. But I underestimated myself. I am a different person when I travel. Still somewhat quiet, but being alone makes it easier for other people to approach me. And I DO talk to strangers, and I can make friends. Now, it’s hard to imagine traveling any way other than on my own.
3. It’s OK to not love a place
New York City comes to mind. Yes, it has everything. Yes, it is the center of American culture. Yes, it has amazing museums, history, architecture, Broadway, ect, ect. It was interesting. It was enlightening, but I didn’t love it. I think it was just too much. Of everything. I am glad I went. And I don’t think I’ll ever go back on my own. And that’s OK.
4. Technology has changed the way we travel
My first trip aboard was in 1997. When I learned I was to be in England all summer, I went to the local [English] library, researched day trips, and weekend trips. I went to the train station and got a copy of the timetables from Stafford. I wrote letters and sent postcards and used the phone infrequently because international rates were so expensive. I used a lot of film. Now, I can do most of my research from home on the internet. I take photos on my digital camera and upload them to my website wherever I have a wireless connection. I travel with a Kindle and a digital camera. I use my Kindle to read tons of books, my cell phone to Skype people at home, and Facebook is an amazing way to keep in touch with new acquaintances and old friends.
5. The world is not as scary as the media would lead you to believe
I no longer watch the news on a regular basis because if I did, I’d never leave my front yard, but if you’re like most people and get your opinion of the world from the news and movies, you probably view it as a dark, dangerous, and scary place. A place where terrorism is widespread, people kidnap tourists for ransom, and the likelihood of being robbed, maimed, or otherwise harmed is alarmingly high. The reality, of course, is that the world is not actually scary at all, so long as you keep your wits about you. At least, no scarier than some places in the USA.
6. A country’s history is not indicative of its present or future
If that were the case, I would have never visited Colombia. Or Serbia. Or I may be planning a trip to Mexico. Certain parts of the world have particularly dark pasts — war, genocide, communism, terrorism… But the truth is, NO country can boast a completely peaceful history. [Especially not USA] Instead of judging a place by its past [and perhaps avoiding it because of that past], it’s better to look at a country as it is right now. Don’t write a destination off just because of something that happened there 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years ago. By the same token, don’t automatically choose a destination you loved 10 or 20 years ago without taking into consideration today’s current events. People change. So do countries. And governments. And policies. [Let’s just say I would be planning a trip to the US if I didn’t live here].
7. I am incredibly lucky to have the passport that I do.
Yes, it was a pain to get my Bolivian visa, and $135 to boot. Yes, I had to make a trip to the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta to get my Brazilian visa [another $150], but there’s no doubt about it– my American passport is a very valuable thing. With it, I am able to travel virtually anywhere in the world. Even though I have to have visas for some countries, I realize how lucky I am to have been born in the United States and have all the rights and freedoms associated with my citizenship.
8. Being an American does not have to be a negative thing
I know some Americans who are ashamed of where they come from — especially when they travel. They say they are from Canada, or wherever. I have done this once, but only after someone assumed I was a Spaniard -I didn’t correct him. Big assault rifles were involved. People were ‘escorted’ off the bus. They didn’t get back on.
This one is particularly difficult for me. I have state pride. I often readily admit I am from South Carolina, one of the United States, but when I just say USA, a lot of people say California? or New York? When I say that I am closer to Cartagena than California, people don’t believe me…until I break out a map. But I am getting better. Most people I’ve encountered around the world love Americans. They don’t necessarily love our government or world policies [and to be fair, I don’t necessarily love our government or world policies], but they love us and are open to learning more about us.
South Carolina has beautiful mountains with many creeks and waterfalls in addition to a gorgeous coast on the Atlantic Ocean.
9. You cannot judge a culture that you know nothing about
There is just enough true about stereotypes to make them true. Having said that, I believe that having an open mind will help you realize that stereotypes never fully represent anyone. You cannot judge a culture if you do not understand it — and basing your understanding on a stereotype does not equal understanding. Before you pass judgment on traditions or beliefs, take some time to get to know the culture you are judging first.
10. It’s OK to keep returning to a place you love
Even though the world is huge with endless places to discover, I’ve realized that some places will keep pulling you back. I visit the SC coast at least once a year. I will probably go back to Argentina and Colombia at some point in the future. You will leave bits of your heart in different corners of the globe, and those places will call to you periodically. And this is OK. You don’t always have to go somewhere new to be a “traveler.”
I’ve been to London 5 times, and plan to return every single time I visit Europe. It is a magical city.
11. Having an open mind will take you far
It’s OK to have a plan. It’s better to scrap the plan if something better comes along. Traveling with an open mind will allow you to have amazing, unforgettable experiences. Forget what you think you know, and life will be much more rewarding.
12. We are not so different after all
At the end of the day, things like language, skin color, religion, and culture differentiate us much less than we think. No matter where you go in the world, people want the same things: To be successful. To be happy.To care for their families. Keep this in mind whenever you start thinking “us” and “them” thoughts. Because, at the end of the day, our dreams and goals are not that different. Even if we have different definitions of successful and happy.
13. People back home may never understand
You are the only one who can truly appreciate your travels. When you return home from a trip and have all these amazing memories and experiences buzzing around in your head, chances are your friends and family back home won’t be nearly as interested to hear about your adventures as you’d like them to be. They won’t care you taught health classes in Spanish with the Caribbean looking over your shoulder. They make look at the photos–once, but while you were off traversing the world, they were carrying on with their normal lives. [One friend had a baby. Another got married. And those with kids already–well, those kids weren’t babies when I returned home.] They may never understand, and I’ve learned that you just have to come to terms with this.
14. Every destination has something to offer — you just have to find it
I didn’t love New York City. Or Lima, Peru. Or Santiago, Chile, but I found something in each place that was cool. In NYC, it was the zoo and Central Park. In Lima, it was its proximity to the coast, and in Santiago, it was just hanging out in the main square people watching. Maybe I’m just an overly positive person, but it’s my belief that every place — no matter where — has something interesting to discover about it. I try my best to discover these redeeming qualities about a place wherever I travel, and I think it helps me enjoy the whole travel process more.
15. When the universe sends you signs, pay attention
Over the past few months, I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of signs from the Universe, pointing me down this path or that one. And, finally, I’m starting to pay attention. Whether it’s related to travel or not, if Fate or God or the Universe or whatever is sending you signs, you’d better be listening.
16. You and your excuses are the only things holding you back
People often tell me how they wish they could take a month off to go somewhere. My answer: Well go. Their usual reply: I can’t. I’ve got ___________. Maybe that’s true. Maybe its just an excuse. If you want to travel but currently aren’t it’s probably because you are making excuses. YOU are the only thing truly holding yourself back. You can make time by prioritizing and planning ahead. You can save money by staying in hostels and using deal websites like skyscanner.com. You can manage the responsibility smartly. You can bring children with you. And you can overcome the fear.
17. My own country is pretty special
Acadia National Parke, Maine
Zion National Park, Utah
I love traveling abroad. It has a certain amount of glamour associated with it, but over the few last years I have traveled to Washington, DC and New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle. The entire USA has so much to see from the Grand Canyon to Florida Keys to Crater Lake to barrier islands. I could never leave the USA and still see something amazing on every trip I take.
18. Being nervous is natural
Being nervous is natural when it comes to traveling. I’m not any braver than you are. There have been several times when I’ve seriously considered canceling a trip or an activity at the last minute because I was scared. [OK, I actually did cancel a couple things] Scared of the unknown because travel is full of unknowns. It’s pushing through this fear and nervousness that really make you brave.
19. You really can make lifelong friends while traveling
Yes, it’s true that traveling long-term often means having to say a lot of goodbyes. Frequently. But it also allows you to meet a ton of amazing people who love traveling just as much as you do. Occasionally, you’ll form bonds so strong that things like distance and time won’t matter. With technology today, maintaining international friendships is easy. And having friends all over the world is never a bad thing.
We were neighbours in Peru; then I vistied her in San Francisco and Seattle.
20. Getting lost can sometimes be a blessing in disguise
I get lost all the time–even in my own hometown. Sometimes, though, losing the map and just allowing yourself to get lost can be a great thing. As long as you don’t find yourself lost in a bad neighborhood or otherwise dangerous situation, being lost can help you discover a place in a unique way that you just can’t do by following a map or a guidebook’s suggestions. You’ll stumble across tucked-away restaurants, funny street art, and scenes most people probably don’t see. You may even get to talk to some locals about non-travel stuff!
21. Being able to read a map is crucial
Despite smartphones and Google Maps and all that, being able to read an old-fashioned paper map is still a great skill to have. Why? What if you end up somewhere without internet access! Or travel without a smartphone. [I never take my smart phone out of the country]
22. Hostels are a great invention
I love hostels. I love that I can have a room without having to pay for the entire room. As a solo traveler, I loathe paying for an entire hotel room that charges the same price for one as it does for two or four people. They are affordable, usually centrally located, and allow you to easily meet other travelers wherever you are. Sometimes they are really nice, too.
23. A travel style can change
Just as there’s no one travel style that works for everyone, there may not even be one travel style that works for you all the time. As you grow and age and gain travel experience, your style may well change. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A backpacker can stay in a 4-star hotel, just as a comfort-seeking traveler can rough it in the bush.
24. Don’t compare your travel style to anyone else’s
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that they know the “right” way to travel. There’s only the way that works for YOU. Whether you’re a budget backpacker or a luxury seeker, just travel the way that you want to and ignore everyone else. In the end, you will be a much happier traveler.
25. No one cares about my eating/drinking habits
I’ve never been a very adventurous eater, and I don’t drink alcohol [anymore]. I always figured people would judge me for this. But I’ve learned over the past few years that trying weird new foods can be fun. And I’ve learned that most people accept that.
26. Travel gives you wisdom. On so many levels. Culturally, socially, historically. I can’t think of an area where travel hasn’t helped me in some way.
27. You will learn patience when you travel
You have to. I am a fairly patient person to begin with, but traveling and especially taking public transportation in out of the way locations you have to be patient.
28. Say ‘yes’ even when you want to say ‘no’
I have said ‘yes’ to lots of things while traveling that I wouldn’t have agreed to at home… Saying ‘yes’ to a date with a matador. ‘Yes, please’…Signing a lease on an apartment in a foreign country. ‘Yes’ twice–actually…Spending the night in a stranger’s house ‘Ummm, yes’ [not without hesitation]…Eating strange foods ‘yes…um ok’. It is easy to say no, especially when you are out of your comfort zone. Say yes. As long as you don’t die, it will at minimum be a learning experience.
29. People are generally good and it’s OK to talk to strangers
You don’t always have to be on the go in order to meet people. I love nothing more to park myself on a bench/cafe/ect. and just people-watch. Sometimes I even talk to them [gasp!] If you’re like me, you probably grew up listening to the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra and watching videos in elementary school about ‘Stranger Danger’ . But perhaps we should rethink that golden rule. I am living proof that talking to locals and fellow travelers when you travel can only enhance the experience.
30. We don’t need as much as we think we do
Packing seems to be a major headache for a lot of people. I pack basically the same whether I am traveling for one week or six months. You don’t need all that stuff you think you need, and technology comes in smaller and faster packages every day.
31. It takes time to transition to new things
In my first weeks traveling in South America, I felt lonely and unsure of how I would continue to live this new life for so long. Then I transitioned to my new life and the new rhythm of it all and it was okay. I realized that I needed ‘transition’ time every time I changed cities and said goodbye to new friends or even hotel rooms. I would get to my new destination and would feel a bit uncomfortable and a little bit lonely. But I knew if I gave myself a day or two, those feelings would go away and I would have new reasons to enjoy where I was and often times, I found I liked it even better than the last place. This is one of the reasons why SLOW travel is better than flying through an area just to say you’ve seen it.
32. It’s OK to ask for help
Several times I have been forced to ask for help. I hate it every. single. time. I hate having to ask people to watch my cat or check the mail. I hate having to ask for directions in a new place. I hate having to ask where the nearest store is, but you know what? Most people are happy to help.
33. It’s not always about the money
Traveling is almost always more expensive than staying home, but there are ways to make it more affordable. Once I showed up in a resort town on New Year’s Day night without a reservation or a place to stay. I went to hotel after hotel. It started to snow. I was getting very depressed. And cold. And hungry. I finally found a place that had one room left for 200 Euros. I didn’t want to spend that much money, but I took it. It was the best 200 euros I could have spent at that moment. A hot shower and a warm bed did much more than take the chill off; it rejuvenated my soul. And I was much more able to enjoy the rest of my trip.
34. Travel will change you in ways you can’t imagine
There are the things you can think of–such as making you a more educated world citizen, having stories to tell at any occasion, and realizing that people are people no matter where you are. Sometimes, when the timing is right, when the events line up in just the right way, you can recognize the moment that the change happens. Sometimes it can be profound – you can find a life’s purpose. For me, it was running my very own health clinic in Peru. This one volunteer project has changed the course of my life. Sometimes it’s small, like discovering you like gelato or pretzels or ceviche. Sometimes, it is just remembering who you wanted to be instead of who you are today. These changes, big or small, alter us as individuals if we let them. And the really cool thing is that it can become contagious.
Wandering– without being lost– Laguna Miscanti, Atacama Desert, Chile 2010