15 life lessons from 15 years of travel
Early February, 1998.
Janet Jackson had just hit number one on the Billboard charts, Bill Gates had just received a pie in the face in Brussels and I had just walked through the departure gates at Christchurch Airport. With a deep breath I clutched my passport, said goodbye to my homeland and boarded a plane to the other side of the world.
I figured I’d be in London for a year or so, take a look around Europe, then return to New Zealand and settle down. That’s what everyone else did, after all.
Life, though, had other plans.
Last week I celebrated 15 years of travel. For the last decade and a half I’ve been addicted to life on the road. Dreaming about it, talking about it, saving for it or simply doing it, it has come to define who I am.
Back then, barely in my twenties and armed with a degree and a guidebook, I thought I knew everything. I didn’t. I still don’t have all the answers – indeed, I never will – but I have picked up a few things along the way.
Here, then, are fifteen life lessons from my last fifteen years of travel. I’m hoping for many more of both.
The older we get, the more stuck in our ways we become. We become too afraid to try something new, afraid to rock the boat, afraid of failure. We choose to stick with more of the same, burying the exhilaration of the unknown beneath the warm security blanket of what we are already doing.
Cast that blanket aside. I have quit a job to travel half a dozen times and never regretted it. I’ve moved countries on a whim, followed my passions where they may lead, taken risks in business, life and love. Every time I’ve been afraid. Every time I’ve backed away from the abyss, once, twice, often more.
In the end, though, I’ve thrown myself over the edge and embraced the change. In those moments, I feel more alive than any other. Change is often necessary and always exciting. Don’t be too afraid to make it.
Find out for yourself
Our media – and the society it serves – does a great job of spreading fear. Those who look different to us, don’t practice the same religion or speak a different language are viewed with suspicion. We are taught to be afraid of the ‘other’, to walk in lockstep down a road that ends in xenophobia, anger and war.
It’s easy to hate the bogeyman. It’s much harder to hate the person that bogeyman represents when they’re standing beside you offering a cup of tea. It was only when I travelled, and came to rely on the very people that I had been taught to fear, that I realised how wrong – and dangerous – those ingrained attitudes really were.
Ignore the papers and magazines. Ignore the breathless reporters on the cable news show. Ignore the old guy down the street. Go and find out for yourself.
One size does not fit all
People love to generalise from their own experiences. I’m doing it right now. For many this means that since they live their lives a certain way, you should too. Because they and everyone they know has a house in the suburbs, an SUV and an investment portfolio, so should you. If you don’t – and worse, if you don’t even want it – there’s something wrong with you.
For a long time, I believed that. I bought a house, filled it with stuff, renovated and eventually sold it. I invested in shares and rental properties. I bought an expensive car. The problem was that, in the back of my mind, I didn’t actually want any of it.
I no longer have a house. I’m selling my cheap little car. I own a backpack and two small boxes of memories. My investments are in cash and experiences. This works perfectly for me.
It won’t work for everyone, of course, and that’s fine. We are all different, and achieve happiness in different ways. One size does not fit all. Remember that when choosing your future.
People are fundamentally good
When I left New Zealand I was afraid. Many things frightened me, most of all other people. The world was scary, right? There was theft, rape and murder at every turn, according to the news reports, so I’d have to keep my wits about me. Don’t talk to strangers, keep my cash and documents in a money belt, always lock my bags, avoid bad neighbourhoods, all the rest.
It was a horrible way to travel. Basic security is one thing, paranoia about it is something else. Slowly, eventually, I let my guard down. I talked to people I’d just met, and accepted their invitations. I threw out my sweat-stained money belt. I visited the so-called bad neighbourhoods, and let my gut tell me whether I should stay there.
In 15 years, I’ve never been attacked or robbed. Instead I have been given directions – or a ride – when I’m lost, food when I’m hungry, drinks when I’m thirsty. I’ve embarked on glorious adventures with people I’d only known for a day or two, and when we finally said goodbye, hugged them close as friends.
Is everyone like that? No, of course not – but most are. With few exceptions the people I’ve met on my travels have been fundamentally good. All I needed to do was let them show me.
We all want the same things in life
It really doesn’t matter where we come from, what we look like or what we do for a living, there are a few basic things in life that we’re all searching for.
We all want somewhere warm and dry to sleep at night, and to not be hungry or thirsty when we’re doing so. We all want a decent education, for our kids if not ourselves, and the ability to improve our lot in life. Good health is important, as is medical care when we need it. Finding love along the way wouldn’t go astray either, with family, friends and partners that care about us.
From a sheepherder in Tanzania to a banker in New York City, people’s fundamental desires all look the same when you boil them down. At the end of the day, our similarities far outweigh our differences.
Entitlement is ugly
I vividly remember the first time I visited a non-English speaking country. Arriving in Paris on a cold winter’s day, I couldn’t read the signs. People shrugged if I spoke to them, whether in English or abysmal French. I was staying outside the city centre and struggled to catch the train, find the hotel, buy groceries at the supermarket or do anything much at all. And I was angry about it.
How dare people treat me like that! Why weren’t people helping me? What was wrong with this city?
I didn’t return for ten years, convinced it was a horrible place. When I finally did, however, something strange happened. People were friendly. Life was easy. I joked with the waiters, laughed as I messed up my coffee order, bought a whole new wardrobe for the Moulin Rouge without a hitch. Surely Paris hadn’t changed that much?
Of course, what had changed wasn’t Paris at all. It was me. My arrogance, so strong in the past, had diminished, and I realised that this place, like every other, owed me nothing.
It was nobody else’s fault that I couldn’t speak French or understand how things work. The world didn’t revolve around me, and that was my problem to deal with. Once I lost my ugly sense of entitlement, the world became a much better place to be in. It was a valuable lesson.
Open your heart
As adults, we’re taught to hide our feelings. We act professionally at work, keeping our thoughts to ourselves. We get hurt in relationships, losing our trust of others. In New Zealand in particular, men are supposed to be strong, taciturn and emotionally stunted. Over time our horizons narrow, and we close our eyes and our hearts to new experiences.
Screw that. The more I travel, the more excited I become. I have regained the child-like sense of wonder that so easily disappears when you "act like an adult". I laugh when I’m happy and cry when I’m sad. I sing in the shower and dance in the rain. I stand in front of a waterfall and stare, open-mouthed and silent, at just how incredibly damn beautiful it is.
Open your heart. Life becomes much more beautiful when you do.
For at least six months before I left home, I planned. Some days, that’s all I did. I had guidebooks, brochures and print-outs. There were colour-coded sticky notes, multiple notebooks, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets … and that’s just the stuff I can remember.
It got totally out of hand – and of course, once I actually started travelling, it all went out the window anyway. I didn’t get to half the places on my list, went to many more that I’d never considered, and quickly realised how unnecessary all that planning had been.
As life has continued I’ve found myself making plans less and less, travel or otherwise. I never end up sticking to them anyway, and they stop me having those wonderful random experiences that turn up if I just let them.
Plan less. Live more.
For some reason, I used to walk around with a permanent frown. Maybe it was low self esteem, maybe it was a general lack of happiness in my life, maybe it was something else entirely. I don’t really know why I did it, but I do know that it had very predictable results.
After travelling for a while, I noticed that I’d adopted a different approach. Smiling. Because I often didn’t have the benefit of a common language, I had to resort to body language and a cheerful expression on my face. Suddenly I was making new friends and acquaintances. People would approach me for a chat where they never had before, or be happy to do me a favour without even asking.
It seems like such a simple thing, but learning to smile at strangers has been one of the most rewarding changes that travel has made in my life. While I wouldn’t recommend it in every situation – solo females may want to think twice about smiling at men they don’t know in some parts of the world, for instance – in general it’s an easy route to new friendships and experiences.
Give it a go.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
As a young adult, I was seriously uptight. When things weren’t going my way I’d view it as a personal insult. How dare the bus not turn up, the movie tickets go up in price or my hamburger be cold. I’d fume, shout and rage about the smallest things. It wasn’t pretty.
These days, things go wrong all the time. Missed flights, broken ferries, no accommodation, a tsunami – all of those things have happened in the last few months, and many more beside. These have potential to be real problems, but my reaction now is quite different. A raised pulse, a couple of deep breaths, and then just dealing with it. This didn’t happen overnight – it took many bad travel days to achieve a degree of ambivalence about it all.
The good thing with learning how to deal with the bigger stuff is that it taught me to not care at all about the small stuff. More and more of life’s annoyances seem to fall into that category.
You can learn something from everyone (especially the kids)
I used to think that education was something that happened in classrooms and lecture theatres. Once I got my degree, I thought, I could get rid of the books and be done with the whole learning thing.
Well, I sold the books alright, but it turned out that I didn’t stop learning once I walked through the university gates for the last time. If anything, that’s when I started.
I learned the value of hard work from a street vendor in Thailand, and hospitality from a mother in Malawi. A moto-taxi rider in Vietnam taught me to trust strangers, while a teenager in Cambodia showed me the importance of hope. A lesson in humility came from an old man playing saxophone in Central Park, and by her own sacrifice, a young woman from Melbourne convinced me to become a part of something bigger than myself.
And kids, everywhere, are the best educators of all. Every day they teach me how to wonder, and they teach me how to dream. Unlike my school days, I never want those lessons to end.
Age is a number, not a limitation
It’s a funny thing, age. Some people view the passing of the years as a limitation, while others see it as merely an idle curiosity. I’ve met 30 year olds who swear they’re too old to stay in hostels, and 70 year olds climbing into the bunk underneath me. I’ve met 40 year olds who tell me it’s far too late to change careers, and 60 year olds heading back to university.
If I’ve learned one thing in the last 15 years, it is that you are never too old to try something new. All that you need is for the pain of the status quo to be greater than the pain of change. Of all the reasons or excuses that you might find not to do something, your age isn’t one of them.
After all, you’ll never, ever be as young as you are right now.
You’ll never have it figured out, and that’s ok
I had it all figured out. After university I would travel for a year or two then return home. By 25 I’d have my first house, and my second by 30. I’d be married by then as well, probably with a kid, and be earning at least six figures. That was just how it was going to be.
I didn’t go home after a year, or even two. I didn’t own a house by 25, nor two five years later. I’ve never had a child, I wasn’t married by 30, and any chance of a six figure job at that point had disappeared in a flurry of passport stamps.
I’m now 37 years old and living out of a backpack. I work harder, for less money, than I have in any office job, and I do it from every part of the globe. I met my girlfriend on the road, and together we have a truly wonderful life – one that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams 15 years ago. And, I’m pretty sure, this is just the beginning.
The only thing I now know is that I definitely don’t have it all figured out. I never will. The great thing is that I really don’t need to.
Opinions are like bellybuttons
Seeking advice from others is human nature. So, it appears, is giving advice to others – whether they are looking for it or not. Over the last fifteen years I’ve received more opinions about how to live my life than I ever thought possible.
Travel more. Settle down. Get married. Stay single. Have kids. Don’t breed. Buy a house. Rent an apartment. Invest in shares, or bonds, or cash, or property, or nothing at all.
I used to try to follow everybody’s advice as best I could, until I realised it was a recipe for disaster. Opinions are like bellybuttons – everybody has one – and now, although I’ll happily listen to the views of others, I am far more selective about whose advice I take. At the end of the day there’s only one person that knows me perfectly and always has my best interests at heart.
That person is me.
I nearly didn’t go travelling when I did – a good job came up as I was about to leave, and I almost put things off. What’s another year or two, I thought? The same thing happened when I was leaving London, and again I almost cancelled my plans.
For a long time, too, I was afraid of travelling solo. It took months to work up the courage to finally book the ticket, and I was desperately trying to find a reason not to go until the last minute.
Almost every time I’ve made a big decision in life, actually, there have been plenty of good reasons not to do whatever I’m contemplating. Not to cancel it, perhaps, but to just postpone it for a while.
Don’t do that. We can always find an excuse not to do something that scares us, and fear will make any reason seem like a great one. Don’t wait until you have more money, don’t wait until you have someone to do it with, don’t wait until your friends think it’s a great idea, don’t wait until the timing is perfect. It never will be – so just go ahead and do it anyway.
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