As I contemplate the last four months of world travel, I realize I’ve learned a lot from the experience of backpacking across Europe and Southeast Asia. I’ve discovered places that eclipsed my wildest imaginings, explored modern cities and ancient ruins, watched sunrises and sunsets with newfound friends, climbed literal and figurative mountains and stripped away layers to reveal a stronger, smarter and braver version of myself.
I know I’ll want to remember a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, so here’s eight of the important ones…
1. The world is at your fingertips
The amazing part of travel is how varied and incredible the world we live in actually is. The place someone else loves may turn out to be your own personal hell, while another destination you’ve been lead to believe the worst about turns out to be the one place you swear you’ll never leave. So take the well-meaning words you hear in hostel common areas or read on travel blogs with a grain of salt; go find out for yourself what it’s really like out there. Keep an open mind and get ready to for your expectations to be smashed into a million pieces (trust me, this is a good thing). Whatever your travel style, regardless of your preferred level of luxury or willingness to get down and dirty, the world is waiting for you and the time to start exploring is now.
2. Anyone can travel
Old, young, single parent with kids in tow, broke, overweight, frail, workaholic, sober, afraid, reckless, clingy, heartbroken, introverted, depressed…whatever your personality and personal demons, world travel is for you. I mean it. Don’t trap yourself with the story that world travel is just not for you…because anyone can and should get out there and explore the great big beautiful world we live in. I was amazed by how many travelers I met who didn’t fit the backpacker stereotype. Travel will teach you to embrace your flaws, discover your unknown strengths. You will find humans everywhere who are thriving despite facing similar or far more real challenges than you are.
3. Age really is just a number
At 28, I expected to be literally wading through swarms of 18-22-year old, this-is-my-first-backpacking-trip-and-I-haven’t-been-sober-in-two-months, obnoxious partying backpackers in muscle tank tops and ass-baring cut off jean shorts, but for the most part I found this hostel-staying backpacker stereotype to be overplayed. Some of the youngest travelers I met were also the most worldly and mature. And surprisingly, there are a lot of people in their late twenties and thirties doing the hostel thing, along with parents traveling with kids, and people in their forties and fifties and beyond. Granted, the older crowd tends to gravitate towards places that are described as peaceful (not the party hostels), but thanks to the internet and sites like Hostelworld, it’s pretty easy to pick the right place to stay. Just read a few reviews and watch out for words like ‘bed bugs’ ‘stinky shower’ and ‘all night party in the common area.’
4. Wear sunscreen and mosquito repellent
Yes, your mom was right. Isn’t she always? Regardless of your skin color, sunscreen is always a good idea. I recently spent a few days on an island off Lombok with a very brown-skinned Vietnamese guy who was losing skin in strips, like a snake. It was not a good look. And bug spray does no good sitting at the bottom of your backpack, so spray away —and yes, the natural kind actually works pretty well if you remember to reapply. Since the hot weather means you will undoubtedly be showing a fair amount of skin, avoid covering your entire body in itchy red bites (which turn into scabs when you have zero self control, like I do). It’s also wise to cover up around sunset with loose fitting long pants and shirt, since this is when the mozzies are out in full force. Don’t forget about your feet —with the sunscreen and the bug spray. Your healthy, non-malarial, non-skin cancer suffering future self will thank you. You’re welcome.
5. We’re all citizens of the world
One of the great lessons of my trip was just how important the US political arena is to the rest of the world. Watching the US election results unfold from the airport in Athens, surrounded by a group of fellow backpackers from Brazil, Mexico, Korea, India and Germany, I was amazed at how informed and passionate everyone was about United States politics. Everywhere I traveled, I met global citizens who wanted to talk about the recent election in the United States, and engage in serious dialogue about parallel challenges their own country faced, like populism, immigration and opposing ISIS. Whereas many of my US friends were content to engage in Trump-bashing or point fingers at our political parties, the non-US travelers were more interested in understanding the nuances of American voters and discussing how the events of the recent election would play out over the next four years. After making so many friends from other countries, I now find myself caring much more about US foreign policy, and spending more time reading news about other countries in order to be an informed citizen of the world. Get ready to come out from under that rock, because traveling the world will teach you to embrace your global citizenship and stop living in a bubble.
6. Solo travel and solitude are two very different things
If you expect to be lonely or alone on your “solo trip” around the world, think again. Check into your first hostel, sit down in the common area and strike up a conversation. Try the standard backpacker questions (‘Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been?’ and you’ll undoubtedly find endless conversational fodder). Before long, you’ll have streams of Facebook and What’s App chats with friends from all over the world, and you’ll find people to explore your current location, travel onwards, and meet up at your next destination with. Need some solitude after all that socializing? It’s equally easy to melt into anonymity and simply strike out on your own for points unknown, spend a day (or a week) wandering the city solo or lingering in a local coffee shop over a good book. You’ll discover there’s a balance between the two extremes, and everyone’s balance point is a little different. When it comes to the myth of solo travel, the reality is you choose your own adventure.
7. You are smarter, braver and stronger than you think
Regardless of how confident you are in your ability to navigate foreign countries, languages, restaurant menus, subway systems, city streets, driving on the opposite side of the road, telecom systems and a million other unexpected challenges between points A and B on a map, your experiences while traveling will build you up into a badass travel warrior. Every challenge you overcome is another notch in your belt of travel experiences, and you’ll soon find that things that used to terrify you (driving a scooter in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, for example) are now commonplace and barely worth batting an eyelash over. That backpack you could barely lift at the start of your trip is now a comfortable weight on your shoulders, and you laugh when more inexperienced travelers ask, “Isn’t that thing heavy?” And street smarts is something you’ve developed in spades, easily picking up phrases in the local language and navigating complex local transportation systems with ease. Say hello to your new super-savvy, courageous and powerful world-traveling self.
8. Good people exist everywhere
It’s true, bad things happen to good travelers…no matter how cautious or experienced you believe you are, you might get robbed, sick or cheated, or even robbed and cheated while you’re sick. But rather than the rule, these scenarios are the exception. Instead, most of your interactions with locals and fellow travelers alike will be colored by kindness, honesty and altruism… the guy that chases you down the street when you forget your ATM card in the machine, the grandmother who safeguards your purse when you leave it behind at a coffee shop, the teenage boys who pull your scooter out of the mud and drive you to safety when you get in over your head while offroading with your rented motorbike, the kind stranger who offers honest and helpful advice when you dodge a horde of hustling taxi drivers and stumble into a tea shop, or get lost in a rough neighborhood, people who wake up at 3 AM when you arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the night, strangers who loan you cash when your debit card doesn’t work… spend some time traveling the world, and your faith in humanity will be restored a thousand times over.
What important lessons have you learned from world travel? I’d love to hear from you. Share in the comments below!