It has been said that “travel is the best education a person can give themselves” and I will second that. I think the things I have learned about myself and the world through traveling the last couple years have been infinitely more valuable than the knowledge- much of it long forgotten- that I acquired through years of formal education.
We all experience things uniquely, and everyone will come away with different things from their travels depending on where they are at in their life and what they are looking for. A lot of people travel to learn more about or “discover” themselves; this is inevitable and a huge part of the allure of travel. An entire industry has been built on this romantic notion of travel with the popularity of books like “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Wild”. Of course, self discovery is important too, but I think the things I’ve learned about other people and cultures has been even more important; humbling me and giving me a realistic impression of what this planet that we inhabit is really like.
We are constantly learning, and this list could go on forever and ever for the rest of my life, but, here are some of the most important lessons that I personally have taken away from traveling so far:
The World is Safer than You Think
I’ve been traveling and living abroad for a decade now, but my trip to Southeast Asia last year was the first time I ventured into third world countries. I admit, since I do most of my traveling alone, I was apprehensive about going to countries like this by myself. I’m sorry to admit that I really let the media and those misconceptions we have about such foreign places get to me. Sure, there are the initial culture shocks and things you have to get used to, common sense is always going to be your best friend, but underdeveloped countries aren’t as run down and dangerous as we are often led to believe, and are worthy of a visit a million times over. If you don’t see places like this, you simply don’t have an accurate portrayal of what the world is really like, because way more people on this Earth are living in these kinds of conditions than in the cushy comforts of the first world- things that we most often take for granted.
When I got to Asia, this big step for me, I was astounded at how many nineteen and twenty year old solo backpackers- mostly European and Australian- that I constantly was running into. Many of them were obviously traveling on their parents dime. I would have never been so brave at nineteen or twenty to go to some of these locations on my own, and if I had been, my parents definitely would not have approved. But nowadays, it doesn’t seem so scary, since with the internet one can easily stay in touch with their family and friends every step of the way in their journey, and they don’t seem as far away as they really are. Also so many people are traveling now that, like it or not, you end up on a tourist trail with other travelers, and you are never actually stranded alone.
I wish that we could all just accept the fact that the media wants us to be scared, because it’s in their best interest to keep up feeling that way. With all this bad news, they end up putting us against each other by promoting fear and stereotypes about people and places that are different from us, when what we need to be doing is working together. However, while their business seems to be based on manipulating our perception of the world to keep us in fear of all the danger and the “bad” people out there, I have to say that traveling has shown me the opposite is true: there are more good people out there than bad, and the world is safer than you think.
The Power of a SMILE
I am certain that friendly interactions with people are highly determined by the friendliness that you put out. Nine times out of ten, if you start off any interaction with a person with a smile on your face and a friendly tone, that is what you will get back, and both parties will walk away feeling good about the exchange and happier in general, because friendly, nice exchanges with people- friends and strangers alike- make us feel good and reassure us in the good of humanity.
When traveling, you are quite often put in a position where you may feel helpless (out of your comfort zone) and need to rely on other people for help. In these moments, a smile is everything. People are much more willing to help and more receptive to you in general if you are nice to them. Even besides the fact that you are asking for help, it just feels good to smile and be nice to people. It’s in everyone’s best interest to smile and be kind to each other- for yourself and for the people you meet along the way.
In contrast, I have found the absence of a smile or a scowl to also be quite powerful, and I’d say there is a time and place when this kind of attitude can be used as a tool (as I talked about in my post about traveling alone as a woman) in moment’s when we do not want to talk to someone.
The bottom line is that there is so much power in your smile, facial expressions and attitude, and no matter how bad you might be feeling its worth it to just smile anyways to attract more positivity into your life.
Staying in the Moment and the Value of Slow Travel
I used to try and have everything planned out before I left, but a trip to Southeast Asia last year changed all of that. In just a little over two months, I traveled to five different countries in Southeast Asia- Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. I remember prior to the trip thinking about the time frame I had and all that I wanted to see and being faced with a decision: to try and see just a couple of places and come back later for the rest, or try and do it all. I foolishly chose to try and see it all. In the two months I was there I didn’t sleep more than two or three nights maximum in one location, oftentimes just stopping for one night before moving on. I barely got a chance to put my things down and relax. It felt like the whole time, I was just trying to get to the next place instead of enjoying where I was, instead of exploring and getting to know and fully appreciate each place and what it had to offer. This is the beauty and the gift of slow travel.
In hindsight, I would have done that trip differently. Maybe I would have picked two or three of those countries and just a few places in each one. I still feel like I didn’t really get to know Asia. But I learned from this mistake and since then when I plan a trip I plan as little as possible and see what happens. That’s how I ended up spending almost three months in Colombia and consequentially, did not get as far in South America as I originally thought I would. But I don’t regret a second of it, because Colombia was so good there was no reason to rush out of there. That’s the kind of freedom you want to have when your traveling: to be able to stick around longer if you really like a place and soak it in.
This way of travel is contingent on staying in the moment, which is another thing I am learning to do through traveling and is a really important thing to learn to do in life, albeit a difficult one, as we seem to be programmed to worry about what’s next as human beings. But the practice of centering yourself and trying to stay in the moment is a liberating one, just as is having the freedom to stay and enjoy where you are instead of fixating or worrying about where you’re going next.
Whatever you Choose, It Will be Right for You
I used to be a huge sufferer of chronic FOMO- that is, Fear Of Missing Out Disorder. There are always times when traveling (and in life in general) when choosing to do one thing requires us to miss out on another, and I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on something good, and so, decision-making was intensely stressful for me. Like it or not though, we do have to make a choice, and most choices come with their set of potential loss, potentially missing out on something else. As much as I wanted to do it all, see it all, not miss out on anything, the reality of being a human being is that we can’t do it all. We have limits. We have to make choices.
I would stress out about decisions that I had to make to the point that it made me sick. But ya know what? Things always worked out. Wherever I ended up going and whatever ended up happening once I made my mind up after all the angst of indecision, I wouldn’t take any of it back now. I was always able to see later on why it had to happen the way that it did and find meaning in the outcome. So the lesson is this: whatever you do end up choosing, you have to trust that it will be the right thing for you. All decisions come with some inherent regret for the lost possibilities of what you did not choose, that’s just a fact of life. But ultimately we can only choose one thing, and so we have to boldly detach ourselves from the could-have-beens and move forward firmly and confidently in the decision that we do make.
I will continue to expand on this list as I continue to live, learn and travel, and I would also be interested to hear reader’s comments on things that they have learned through traveling as well so, feel free to comment!