How travel changes you

I’ve come across a few articles lately that are along the lines of “how travel/living abroad” changed my life. I particularly enjoyed this one by Crystal, which focused on the money saving tips she picked up by living overseas for four years. However, there are a lot of different ways you grow and change by traveling, and I decided it’s time that I reflected on how my travels have affected my own life.

I was having an email discussion with some friends about what kind of travels we’ve tried or would be willing to try, and solo travel was one of those options. Many people said they would never do it, but it occurs to me that not only have I been to probably 40 or so states completely on my own, I’ve now also checked out a few foreign countries as a solo traveler. In France, some of the people I met couldn’t believe that I was brave enough to travel on my own – but it just didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Funny how my perspective has totally changed!

In a few weeks, I’ll be going on a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. I did a summer study abroad there between my sophomore and junior years of high school, and I’m really ashamed of how I didn’t take advantage of the experience. While I had been to Europe a few times before that, it was always with my parents to visit my family in Warsaw, where my dad grew up. I accepted the prospect of flying alone in stride, knowing that there would be someone at the other end holding a placard with my name and taking care of me until I was back home. I wasn’t really worried about taking care of myself, which I was already used to doing in college; what I couldn’t handle was being on my own.

I didn’t make friends as easily there as I did at home, and I found myself very lonely. As a result, I covered up my insecurities by bonding with my one friend, Heather, about how Denmark was “backwards” compared to the US. I didn’t appreciate the culture one bit; instead, I constantly compared it to life back home, construing anything unfamiliar as “bad” and anything Americanized as “good.” For example:
-An honor system on the train for ticketing? Bad – don’t these people know that if you don’t make people pay, they’re not going to? What a waste of lost revenue!
-McDonalds on the corner by the train station? Good – what a great source of drunk food at 2am before heading home on a Saturday night.
Ugh! I really regret how I squandered that opportunity, and am really looking forward to going back and seeing the incredible culture I’ve since read about and missed.

After college, I immediately took a job in consulting, which had me traveling to work at my client site four days a week, every week. My first long term assignment was in Boston, which was an easy commute and an easy city to get to know (being so similar to New York). Being in Boston this past weekend for pleasure made me nostalgic for that time – and with the lens of “how I’ve grown from travel,” I couldn’t believe my change in attitude. When my friend with whom I was staying had a volunteer commitment on Sunday afternoon, I headed off to a pub in Harvard Square to read, play on my computer, and people watch. I giggled to myself as I thought of the night a few years ago where I went to dinner by myself. I was so unused to the idea of eating alone that I asked my manager for advice on a good place to go, where I could sit at the bar so as to dine alone in an inconspicuous manner, and I could chat with the bartender throughout my meal. After all that courage, the bartender ended up being too busy to talk to me, and I spent the meal feeling horribly uncomfortable and self-importantly thinking everyone was staring at me and wondering what kind of a misfit I was that I had to dine alone. Today, I actually welcomed the opportunity to go grab a bite on my own – it’s harder to people watch when you’re with someone and have to keep making conversation and eye contact!

On the negative side, I’m probably not as fun of a group traveler as I once was. When I went to the Dominican last summer for my brother’s wedding, my family’s inexperienced packing skills and maladroitness at navigating the airport drove me nuts; this weekend in Boston, I was itching to go off and do my own thing instead of what the group wanted to do, but probably would have hurt people’s feelings by doing so. I don’t have the same awe I once did at the massive flying machines that somehow stay aloft and can shuttle us from place to place in such a time efficient manner, and I don’t get easily impressed by an expensive restaurant unless the food is really exceptional. All of this makes me worry more and more that I’m turning into a snob… but I think that worldliness doesn’t have to translate into snobbery if covered with a down to earth manner and genuine appreciation for the unique opportunities I’ve had. I think travel has turned me into a much more confident and self-reliant person, and I’m grateful for that transformation. Now, I just have to hope I can find someone else who can catch up :)

What has travel taught you about yourself?

Comments

  1. I travel so much for work – but it’s to the same places. When I’m gone for a week, I find running groups to join in with – which is always fun. And i acutally enjoy eating at a bar alone. Sometimes I chat with people, other times I just enjoy my wine and people watch. Ahh…how I love people watching. I actually enjoy the alone time and doing things that I want to do. :)

  2. After I graduated from college I set off to Central America for three months. For the first half of the trip I traveled with one of my best friends. That was great, but, after 45 days of nothing but each other, we split ways for the second half of the trip, which was AMAZING. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and had a great time. I was able to do exactly what I wanted, exactly how and when I wanted. I had so much fun, was able to relax so much. The only sucky part was having to keep an eye on my stuff while I swam in the ocean (and fight off a raccoon trying to steal my passport. That’s what I get for keeping candy in my pant pocket).

    I love traveling with my husband, but traveling with friends is so stressful, trying to make sure everyone is having a good time, trying to fit in doing what everyone wants to do. Ug.

  3. Chloe, for me, going to the same place all the time for work was what helped me start to move out of my comfort zone… and then I started going all over the place!

    Rose, the raccoon thief is hilarious! But yes, totally agree that there are some things that are tough to do while solo (like put sunscreen on your back).

  4. What a wise and insightful post!

    I think travel has taught me to seize the moment, and not be put off trying something new or doing something different because it might be a little difficult or inconvenient at that moment.

    My only travel regrets are those where I let a golden opportunity pass me by because it was too expensive, didn’t fit into my schedule or seemed too strange.

  5. I hate hate hate traveling with family!! I can’t handle it! Thy just drag their feet and don’t know their way around. Grrrr

    So I guess I’ve found out that while am a pretty understanding person normally, I am very impatient in airports. :)

  6. Traveling solo in Southeast Asia for three months last summer taught me that I never want to be stationary again. And also to trust, trust, trust. People want to help you, they really do. If I never trusted a single person, I wouldn’t have had dinner at a Vietnamese woman’s house (where no one spoke English and I’m pretty sure I insulted them about 700 times) nor would I have gotten to spend the night on a dive boat off the coast of Cambodia. That’s the kind of stuff that is WAY BETTER than fancy restaurants and first class. Stay open and honest, and no judging when you’re traveling. I’m heading to India, Nepal, Bangladesh, et al at the end of the year for another extended stay (with some volunteering thrown in), and I don’t know how I went 25 years without doing it!

    If you’re wondering about long term travel check out Sarah at http://www.yesandyes.org or Jenny at http://www.whereisjenny.com. And obv Chris Guillebreau at theartofnonconformity.com. Geniuses!

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