Travel & Age: The Number Doesn't Matter

Another year already?!

This week I'm turning 28. Do you know what that means? I'm no longer able to pass myself off as being a "mid-twenty-something". Now I'm definitely in the category of "late twenties". And in just 2 short years I'll be blowing out thirty candles. But you know what? I'm okay with that. Yes, really.

Last year when I turned 27, I was full of anxiety of not fulfilling what I thought I would have at this age. But somehow, just a year later I feel like I have accepted where I am at this point in life. And I owe a lot of this newfound self-awareness to this past year. I won't lie, doubts and worry still come from time to time, but lately I have been able to acknowledge those fears and make peace with them.

My 27th year has meant saying goodbye to a country in which Ben and I created a home. It brought the purchase of a one way flight and long term travel with no real plan. We got our advanced scuba diving certificates and trekked to Everest Base Camp. It's been one hell of a year. 

But most importantly, my 27th year has shifted the way I think about life, careers, money, aging, and travel. And while I could ramble on about all these topics for days, I'll spare you and talk only about the last. This is a travel blog after all.

What's your number?

One of my favorite gifts I received earlier this year was a scratch off map from a couple good friends. I've always wanted one, and nearly teared up when I asked what the occasion was and they replied, "Just because!". (Getting older is making me hyper-emotional at the slightest things, like really good hugs and insurance commercials. But I digress...)

Lately, I've seen a digital version of this scratch off map. You know, the ones people keep sharing on Facebook that have the countries they've visited shaded in. This visual is accompanied by a percentage: "You've seen 8.64% of the world."

I'm not saying that these maps are bad or unhealthy – I made one myself! (Those things are somehow really addicting). But it's the way we look at the percentage this tools spits out that concerns me.

Some people share their percentage with a puffed up chest, "Look how much of the world I've seen." Others share it with an undeniable tone of disappointment, and I can understand their sentiment.

When I looked at my completed map for the first time, I felt like somehow I'm doing something wrong. Here's my thought process: I've made travel a big priority in my life – made sacrifices for it – and somehow I have seen just a tiny, minuscule percentage. How utterly frustrating, right?!

Hold up!

First off, let's take a closer look at the numbers. Someone who has visited the nightclubs in Buenos Aires for a wild weekend will add nearly 2 percent to their total. Another person who has spent a year living in South Korea (as a totally hypothetical example!), exploring its nooks and delving into the culture, will only add a measly 0.07%. So there we go: those maps – however fun – are not exactly accurate. 

And now that I have that out of my system, here's the bigger issue:

I don't want to measure my travel in percentages. That number doesn't account for conversations with new friends. It doesn't include the feeling of summiting a mountain in time for sunrise (#2). It doesn't represent the satisfaction earned after successfully ordering a meal in an unfamiliar language.

Perhaps to some people, seeing a percentage is encouraging. But no matter which angle you look at it from, it's just a number. And we can't put too much meaning into this number.

I guess the less tech-y version of this map is when people ask you straight up, "What's your number?" (as in countries visited.)

And in a similar fashion, people either answer with boastful or ashamed replies. It's not often that humility and gratitude peek trough when people share the number of countries they've been to.

Recently when people ask me how many countries I've visited, I've noticed that they react in one of two ways:

a) They are envious and ashamed to share their own number

b) They say, "Really, that's all?"

Neither reaction is a good one.

After 27 years, I know myself pretty well. To me, numbers signify competition: test scores, weight, running pace. No matter how good that number may be, I tell myself it's not good enough. There's always a better number out there. In some cases, a number helps me push myself to be a better person (and speed up that running pace!), but travel is NOT a competition. 

For my own sanity, I am choosing not to focus on the number of countries I've been to. It's not like I don't know how many (sure I do), but if the number is my focus, I know I'll never be satisfied. Someone will always have more boxes ticked than me.

I'll admit, I get a rush each time I pass through immigration and I hear the stamp connect with my passport, but it's not the only thing that drives me. And it's not how I want to measure my travel.

I want to measure how much I've traveled in laughter, and new foods tasted. I want to measure the times I have been pushed out of my comfort zone. I want to measure the number of times I've seen the sun rise into the sky with brilliant pink hues, and the times I've seen her sink into the orange horizon.        

And above everything else, I want to measure travel with gratitude.

Travel is a privilege that not everyone gets to experience, and the fact that I have been lucky enough to see a percentage of the world – however small – is pretty incredible. It's humbling and overwhelming, and makes me feel guilty for ever feeling discouraged by a silly number.

So as I turn 28, I have lots of goals for myself. Some big. Some small. But this year, no matter what I accomplish, I want to seek out gratitude. And not just in travel: I want to seek gratitude in my relationships, my body, opportunities I've been given, conversations I have.

There is so much to be thankful for in this world, and I don't want to lose sight of that. With gratitude, life is so much brighter.