Travel is often thought of as a frivolous, self-indulgent activity. And sometimes it is. But what we often overlook are the life-changing lessons that travel teaches us.
Traveling, in my experience, has been more educational than my 4 years at university, and my time in the working world… COMBINED. Yes, I’ve learned about food, culture and history while traveling, but it’s more than that.
I’ve learned some very valuable and undeniable truths that I’ll carry with me when my hair is gray and I’ve forgotten all the facts I learned in school.
1. The world isn’t as scary as people tell you
If I’ve only learned one lesson from travel, it is this: The world is not a big, scary place.
There are not strangers lurking in every dark alleyway of foreign countries waiting to kidnap you and steal your ATM pin.
Bad things happen, yes. But there is so, SO much more good. When we fixate on the scary things out there, it takes the spotlight off the people bettering the world. It makes us fearful, and hole up inside our homes, watching the headlines scroll across the screen on CNN. It makes us look at people who are different from ourselves with distrust. That anxiety is tangible and fuels a hatred that goes both ways. And in a sense, we create our own evil.
When we spread this fear of traveling far from home, we imply that our country is safe and the rest are “unsafe”. Do I need to bring up the number of shootings there have been in America just the past year? I rest my case.
True, travel has also shown me the value of being street smart and aware of my surroundings. But I am constantly reminded that crime happens everywhere in the world. Not just in foreign countries far from home. (Do you know that the only place I’ve ever been robbed is in Ames, Iowa? That’s right. Not South or Central America. Not Europe or Asia. At home.)
Friends and family gave me nervous looks and warned me (with nothing but good intentions) to “be safe,” in Colombia. But it was in that country I met some of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever encountered. I read endless blog posts about “watching your belongings” in a particular border town of Laos, and in that same town witnessed a young local man hold the hand of a fallen tourist and help her up an entire flight of stairs. In the Philippines, we were treated like family on more than one occasion. And the sketchiest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires proved to be no more dodgy than those of Minneapolis.
It may seem that the opposite of love is hate, but I disagree. I think the opposite of love is fear, and hatred is a symptom. When we are scared of a certain group of people, we separate ourselves from them and create a barrier. We cease to learn about them and we create our own prejudices. In the end, hate creeps in like a stubborn virus and it spreads to even the best of people. The only way to stop this cycle of fear and hatred is to let the barriers crumble. To venture out of our comfort zone, and learn about others by interacting with them.
Travel has taught me that the world is full of beautiful, generous people who are worthy of my trust. I have chosen to pursue love instead of fear, and to ignore the (bullshit) warnings that propagate the idea that the world is a big scary place.
2. Trust others most of the time, and ALWAYS trust yourself
While traveling, you have to put your life into the hands of strangers each day. Without trust, you’ll have a hell of a time getting around – trust me. (No pun intended.)
Traveling has taught me all kinds of trust.
I’ve placed my faith in countless taxi drivers, and reminded myself that although they’re taking turns at race car speeds they know what they’re doing and will get me to my destination.
I’ve always made it.
I’ve trusted those friendly travelers I just met, and believe that they truly do care about the last 3 months of my trip and aren’t just looking for a way to steal my “sweet camera” they just commented on.
More often than not, I’ve made a great friend.
And I trust that the chicken kebab I just inhaled from a street vendor won’t turn me a shade of green and have me racing to the bathroom.
Nine times out of ten, a visit to the bathroom is unnecessary. We won’t talk about the other 10 percent…
Sometimes travel teaches you that trust can be broken. But the majority of the time, travel has taught me that people are decent and worthy of the confidence I place in them. I am constantly in awe of how many good people there are in this world, and am ashamed at any hesitation I have to trust.
Through it all, there has been one type of trust that has never let me down.
Trusting myself. I may get lost. I may lose things (a lot). I may get in bad moods or wonder what the hell I’m doing. But when I truly have faith in myself, amazing things happen. I remind myself that it was I who figured out how to get off an island with no money in my wallet. It was I who was dropped off on the side of the road 2 hours from any town, and hiked into the Andes to find my mysterious destination.
I remind myself that I can get through tricky situations because I’ve done it before. And that confidence in myself – my confidence in myself – is what drives me and enables me to keep exploring.
3. Mishaps often turn into the greatest adventures
There is a quote I heard once, and it has kind of become my mantra while traveling:
“Attitude is the difference between mishap and adventure.”
Let it sink in for a second.
So often when traveling, things go wrong. In fact, I can’t really think of any travels where everything went exactly, spot-on, as planned.
A misplaced bag at the airport may be the opportunity to visit a local market. And with a bottle of rum and a swimsuit, a rainy day can turn into a memory I will choose not to eternalize on the Internet.
This mantra is not always easy to remember in the heat of the moment when I get lost, or weather cancels my plans. When my throat tightens and tears sting the back of my eyelids, I remind myself that some situations can’t be controlled. I have two choices: I can let it ruin my day, or I can take those lemons and make lemon drop shots.
Bottoms up, y’all!
4. Traveling will Un-Spoil you, and Spoil you at the same time
Yeah, I’m aware that “unspoil” isn’t exactly a word (my computer is underlining it with an annoying red squiggle)… but stick with me here.
After sleeping in one too many rooms without air-conditioning, and traveling on buses so crowded that you’re forced to stand for hours at a time, you will start to understand the meaning of the word “unspoiled”.
There’s no way to explain the feeling of a real hot shower after a week of rinsing with a bucket on a remote Thai farm. And a flush toilet is damn near luxurious after spending months on end throwing tissues in a bin.
Ben and I joke that our standards have been lowered so much that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves in a nice hotel because even mediocre places seem lavish.
Sure, you could pay top dollar and have all the comforts you do at home, but where’s the adventure in that? Why travel in another country and live in a way that the locals never experience? There’s nothing authentic about that.
The beautiful thing about “roughing it” is that it will push you out of your comfort zone and teach you more about yourself than you could ever learn at a 5-star resort at which your every need is catered.
And the other, more humbling truth is that traveling the world will bring you through neighborhoods where children walk barefoot, not by choice. You will inevitably talk with people who’ve never left their hometown, not because they aren’t curious. And slowly, but surely, you will begin to understand that things you thought necessity are, in fact, luxuries for most people in this world.
For as much as we have been humbled by travel, we have also found ourselves spoiled beyond measure. We have seen landscapes that to us had previously only existed in screen savers and calendars. We have tasted food that makes the “authentic” versions at home seem like sleazy imposters, and we’ve had the privilege of spending time with some of the most interesting and kind people in the world.
Yeah, I’d say travel has most definitely spoiled us too.
5. Living simply is simply the best
There is nothing quite like the feeling of carrying all you need on your back.
Travel has taught me that material possessions weigh me down, and throughout my journey, I have slowly shed the items that I deem unnecessary bulk. And you know what? I have never felt so free in my life.
Before setting off on this life of indefinite travel, Ben and I sold many of our big possessions, and boxed up the rest. While we don’t own much, I can feel the weight of each of those boxes of clothing and kitchen utensils tying me down, like anchors to shore. I know that I am privileged to have those anchors and a place I so happily call “home”, but I feel the weight nonetheless.
Travel has taught me to put value and worth in experiences, because they are everlasting. That $500 stand-up kitchen mixer in a perfect shade of cobalt will rust and eventually be replaced, but the feeling of reaching Machu Picchu after 4 days of hiking through the Andes will stay etched in my mind forever.
I have learned throughout this journey that I really don’t need much. I look at clothes differently. That $78 dress is cute, but that amount of money could buy me 4 days of accommodation and meals in Southeast Asia. How many memories could I make in 4 days?
Now, I always choose experiences. Well, most of the time. Sometimes, the dress really is that cute.
6. Everyone has their own path
Some friends and family back home think we’re crazy. And we just might be. But travel has surrounded me with others who have quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and risked it all in order to see the world. They have reminded me that my dream is valid and achievable.
There are thousands – no hundreds of thousands – of people doing the very same thing I am right now. The guesthouses I stay at are packed, often to capacity, with others on round-the-world trips with no end date in sight. Here, I am not the only one.
I’ve met people who have lived in more countries than they have fingers. I’ve met those who have been traveling non-stop for half a decade. I’ve met people who have turned down the idea of a steady career, and worked instead at a myriad of jobs to keep their dreams afloat.
Travel has taught me that there isn’t one correct path, like we’re so often told. I have learned that the American Dream is not one size fits all, and that yes, it can mean different things to different people. For some, it is the traditional big house, and life-long career; and that’s perfectly fine.
For me, there’s no big house. At least not now. And I’ve learned that it’s okay that my dreams are constantly changing. Here’s a secret: Sometimes I lust for a permanent home the way my friends who are settled down wish to wander far away.
I’m not really sure how my dreams will look in the next 5 years. Maybe then it will include a house in the suburbs and conventional job. Maybe it won’t. But what I’ve learned is that neither dream is more valid or worthwhile.
7. People are the same everywhere in the world
We all want to believe that we are special, unique, one of a kind. And in a way we are. There’s no one who has the exact same constellation of freckles across their nose, and very few with as deep an aversion to ketchup. Sure, I’m special.
But when it comes to the stuff that really matters, we are all so much alike.
We want to succeed. Yes, it may look different to a guesthouse owner in rural Bolivia than it looks to the three-piece suit-wearing, Yale graduate on Wallstreet. But we all want success.
Everybody wants a community that they belong to. People who understand them. We all want to feel loved.
These desires can live in skyscrapers and on dirt roads. They don’t discriminate based on nationality, skin color, religion, orientation, or language.
Kids roll down hills in Laos the same way they do in Minnesota. And teenagers in South Korea giggle and joke just like they do in Miami. Circumstances are different. But basic wants and desires are the same.
When you accept that people are more similar than they are different, you see the world in a new way. When they celebrate, you celebrate, and when they hurt, you hurt. And you finally realize that while we are unique in our own freckles-and-ketchup ways, we are all more alike than we’d all like to think.
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Comments (19) on “7 Life-Changing Lessons Travel Teaches”
You have just put exactly what I feel into such beautiful words. I have traveled quite a bit, and everything you said is true. At nearly 70, I have sold my home and am purchasing a cargo van, and plan to see as much of the U.S. as I can. Finances permitting I also hope to travel more abroad. Lots of people think I’m crazy, so this article was so affirming. Thank you for sharing!
Greatest freaking article! Made me tear up… well written
Today I read your article with a longing to move on and travel. Ive done travel at home (US) but only to Scotland outside the US. I took the adventure because it was a dream my husband and I had…I did it aline 8 months after he passed away. On that trip I learned I could see and do things I never thought possible aline AND everyone I met was helpful, encouraging and some wanted me to stay (lol). It’s been 3 years and my urge to get back to traveling is unsettling. Your article just tells me that I am not wrong about people in this world…so my biggest problem is now where to go next. Thank you fir reminding me life is really simple and wonderful at the same time .
Wonderful article, and so well-written to remind us not to ‘fear’ the unknowns of life. I agree, most of it is simply because you haven’t experienced something or a particular culture different than your own yet.
Great article. I have limited travel under my belt but always with my daughter who convinced me backpacking was the way to get around Vietnam and Cambodia. How right she was, and what a time we had making memories. I never once felt unsafe, in fact I was quite happy to walk around at night sight-seeing, when at home I only go out in a car after sunset in my home town. I have given my suitcase away and bought myself my own backpack and can’t wait to cash in my travel vouchers once the world gets back on track.
Thank you so much! I am sitting home watching the rain hit my window and was starting to feel a little sad. My trips to Costa Rica, China, and Italy are all canceled. I am no longer as young as the two of you. I am that white haired lady who sometimes needs help getting my little suitcase up three flights of stairs in a train station oh, but that doesn’t keep me home. I have been traveling most of my life and have visited 27 different countries, not however in the way that you travel. I plan to sit at my computer today and start planning my next adventure so as soon as this pandemic goes away I will be at the airport and I won’t be smiling
Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a sweet message, Janet. We love connecting with likeminded people, and from your words, it sounds like you lead a pretty adventure-filled life!
It is such a strange time right now, isn’t it? Our hearts hurt for your canceled trips – we know how disappointing that can be. The only solace is in knowing that you’re doing the right thing by staying put. And that this won’t last forever.
We’re with ya, planning our next adventures (to keep ourselves motivated and sane!). Pro Tip: We love watching Anthony Bourdain’s shows of places we’re thinking of visiting with a bottle of wine. It’s a fun way to dream and get excited about a destination, and it’s even more fun when you finally get to that place and can visit some of the amazing local restaurants he highlights!
Sending you a virtual hug! Hopefully that next trip isn’t too far away!
This is one of the very BEST articles you guys have written. It is a spot on reflection of how I live my life and how important it is to step out of your comfort zone to experience what the world really has to offer outside those neat, safe little travel packages. I started traveling when I was a young lad in the Coast Guard back in 1991 (yikes) and I was a wide eyed, fascinated kid who learned at that early age that what you hear in the news can be a lot of just fearful bullshit. Our ship was assigned the task of opening the U.S. Consulate in post Cold War Russia in September of 1992. It was Vladivostok which a huge Russian naval base similar to our Norfolk or San Diego. We had no idea what to expect and all week leading up to our arrival they warned us to ‘watch our backs’ and ‘don’t travel alone’, etc. So naturally we were a little apprehensive. When we got there our experience was one that has set the tone how I view people and destinations from around the world-don’t be so quick to judge and don’t be afraid. The locals there LOVED us and treated us like royalty. You know, those scary Russians who hate us so much. There was a genuine curiosity to learn about each other and share stories about life, love, dreams, etc. So to piggyback off your point Kate, people really are the same everywhere you go and it is up to the traveler to open up his or her heart and mind and make a connection. Do your homework on a place you are interested in. Respect and appreciate the people, customs, and culture you are visiting. And damn it, have fun out there! Thanks for this article, I couldn’t have said it better here myself.
Well said, well written Katie! I couldn’t agree more. Before we had kids my wife and I quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world (76 cities 22 countries) for 6 months. This seemed like forever to us and our corporate friends but other long time travelers, mostly from Europe, took pity on us for how short it was. :). We are now planning RTW trip #2 with our 3 little kids. It’s so easy to stay put, much harder to actually pack up and leave, but your article has reminded us of why we travel and how valuable it would be for our kids. You’ve I spired us so thank you!
Here is our RTW blog if you are interested. http://www.eatplaylove.wordpress.com
Beautiful article. I left all in Europe and traveling through Mexico for months and want to go further. I share the same feelings and experiences as you guys. Thanx for posting, keep travelling!
Greetings! Your article and travel reflections made me cry and laugh at the same time. I can relate to your experiences and views and reading this article really sparked so much joy in my heart. I agree with all of your 7 lessons and you express them with such honesty and humbleness. Thank you for being you!
Wow! So true, so forgotten! We are all one family under the shining sun and calm moon. You have found the key to love, real love. No judgement, no predujice, only the savoring of the human histories that make us look different. We are bound and yet sadly seperated. I only hope my grandchildren and their grandchildren will know this kind of world. To see all with eyes that filter the difference and focus sharply on the vital sameness. To appreciate the sameness of the mom in etopia and the mom in new york. Thank you for such a " call to be better humans" I was rocked and touched. Keep writing as you are one of the game changers, the leaders in this movement. I send you prayers for health and success. And your def of success rings true!
I have been traveling since I was 17 and now have reached 60 . Ten years ago I suffered a stroke which put me in hospital for 5 months was unable to walk and had to teach myself , after three months I was able to walk although slowly but hey I survived which a lot of people don’t. I was gutted as thought my travels would be limited, but in the last ten years I have been to Portugal in my wheelchair and the Algrave still nothing stopped me had wheelchair assistance at airport found places to stay easy and everybody was so helpful. Now I am able to walk with a stick and have since been to Poland,Sri Lanka,Japan,Cuba and many more all staying in home stays or Guest houses. I feel I have been so lucky and will travel as long as I can , the people and culture is so rewarding ,I always teach myself a few words in the places I visit to get me by and people love it if you try and speak the language.
Oh! I forgot to add, i have felt the same way during my limited travels.. my travels have mostly been limited to India barring your home country, that people are the same – joy, sorrow, pain, feelings. We divide ourselves by country, race, religion ( which is perhaps the worst divider these days) but ultimately we are all the same.
So beautifully written, i fell in love with your writing and your thinking. Great blog, keep writing and i am looking forward to reading all your blogs. You speak from the heart and it reflects in the post. I so desperately want to do what you are doing, leave all behind and travel, will take inspiration from this blog and try.
You just made me cried! Soo heart felt!
Les, this comment just made our day! Thank you!
Katie, I am loving these posts. You write like you’re talking and I can hear the heart in your text! I can relate on so many topics. People at home thinking I’m crazy…people abroad traveling like me…how success looks different everywhere…people everywhere being more alike than different…
You’ve put a lot of thought into your blog topics and I really appreciate that. Keep up the great work. XoxO!
Wow, thank you Katie for such a thoughtful comment! This seriously just make my day!