7 Life-Changing Lessons Travel Teaches
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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What lessons has travel taught YOU? How has traveling changed your life? We'd love to see you in the comments below!