What travel has taught me

When I first headed overseas after spending nearly two decades in the education system, the absolute last thing I was interested in doing was any more learning.  For me learning was something that you did from a dusty old book in a library or from a dusty old professor in a lecture hall, after which you forgot at least ninety percent of it before trying to write an essay or sit an exam on a topic of minimal interest and less relevance.  Not so exciting.

Once I got to the other side of the world, however, I soon realised that learning life lessons was far more interesting than sitting in a classroom – especially because I tended to learn them while doing something I loved.  Travelling.  Over the years it has taught me far more than anything else that I’ve done and, I’d like to think, made me a better person for it.

Here’s a few of the lessons I’ve learned with a pack on my back.

Go with the flow

Before I first hit the road, I’ll admit that the small things used to stress me out.  If the bus was late, or the service was bad, or my hamburger was cold, or the beer was warm – well, that was just the end of the world.  How dare the world not be just as I would like it?  That just wasn’t good enough!

After spending time in places where public transport runs on its own schedule (or no schedule at all), food quality is variable, service is terrible, I don’t understand the language, accommodation is dubious, bathrooms are a health hazard, people are trying to rip you off, or any one of a million other challenges that travel throws at you, I’ve come to realise that there really is no point in sweating the small stuff.

Breathing deeply and laughing at life seems a far better approach.  Even when things are going to hell around me, my stress levels remain somewhere below the stratosphere and I’m much better equipped to deal with the problem and move on.  Freaking out about minor inconveniences (and most things really do fall into that category) just doesn’t help me or anybody else.

Other than warm beer, of course.  Now that’s worth getting upset about.


Stop planning

I have this vivid memory of sitting in my bedroom a few months out from the start of my first trip to Europe, totally surrounded by guidebooks, travel brochures and printouts, with a large writing pad in front of me furiously scribbling down all of the places that I wanted to go, how much it would cost, how long it would take, how I’d get about, where I’d stay and god knows what else.  What a waste of time that was.

Once I actually got there, I’m pretty sure that in the end I didn’t go to half the places I’d planned to, went to a bunch of other places that I’d never considered, spent more, stayed elsewhere and generally paid absolutely no attention to that list whatsoever.

In a similar vein, I had a number of ‘life plans’ that I was supposedly setting out to achieve – owning two houses by the age of 30, for example, living in a certain city or earning a particular amount of money.  Guess what?  I haven’t ‘achieved’ any of those either.

Instead I decided a few years ago to stop planning so much.  Detailed itineraries – whether for my travels or my life – have seemed to only get in the way of new and exciting opportunities, so I’ve stopped making them.  To quote an overused cliché – “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”  These days, a rough idea or a vague notion is more than enough – I tend to leave the rest in the hands of the gods.

Que sera sera.


Stuff doesn’t matter …

I spent an entire post on this subject a few months back, so I’m not going to go on about it in detail here.  Suffice it to say that one of the most important things that travel has taught me is that material possessions really don’t mean much at all – not only are they not a pre-requisite for a happy or fulfilling life, they often seem to actually hinder it.  The more junk that I jam into my backpack, the more it weighs me down and holds me back when I’m on the road.

The same principle applies when I’m not travelling.  Getting rid of a significant chunk of what I own when I move countries every few years has been highly liberating, and as a result you’ll never hear me use the amount of ‘stuff’ that I have as an excuse why I can’t pack up and buy a plane ticket.  It just isn’t that important.


… and in the grand scheme of things, neither do I

At the grand age of 22, I thought that I knew it all.  At the grander age of 34, I now realise that I haven’t a clue.  The more I see, do, feel and experience, the more I realise that my sense of self importance was highly misplaced.  I think that realisation hit at about the time I stepped off the Eurostar in Paris in 1998, into a city and country where I couldn’t talk to the shopkeepers, read the signs or even order my breakfast without relying on the kindness of strangers.  Unless somebody was happy and willing to either stoop to speaking my language or engage in a tragic game of charades, I was left standing in the rain, hungry and pissed off.

And that’s why I realised that I really wasn’t as important, clever or knowledgeable as I thought I was, and that I needed other people a lot more than they needed me.  A realisation that we probably all need at some stage in our lives, I think – I’m just pleased that mine came early and has stuck with me ever since.


There’s more than one way

After travelling for a while I came to realise that there’s no right or wrong way to do it.  If a two week bus trip through Europe is what grabs you, go for it.  If you’d rather spend those two weeks just hanging out in a small village in South America, then do that instead.  Fly, train, bus, walk, swim to your next destination – it doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, it’s up to you how you travel and what you get out of it.

The same applies to the rest of your life as well.  I presumed that I’d be settled down with a wife, family, sensible job and a nice house in the suburbs by now.  As of today I have precisely none of those things – and my life has never been better.

Learning how to live life on my terms, and be satisfied by it regardless of the opinions of strangers, has been probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.

What have you learned from travelling?  Other than that not everything that tastes like chicken actually is, and not to eat the yellow snow.  Although those, too, are very important to know…

26 Responses to “What travel has taught me

  • Valerie Looi
    8 years ago

    Avoid LAX at ALL costs!

  • Valerie Looi
    8 years ago

    oh yeah…and if something will go wrong on a flight, it will be on the last 1-hr flight of the 24-hr long haul!

  • Sam Edgerton
    8 years ago

    One of my favourite articles yet! I have the same flashbacks of reading guide books from cover to cover and making wildly impossible plans before my first os trip! Learning to muddle through any way possible is good for travelling and life.

  • @Valerie – agreed on both counts!

    @Sam – aww thanks! Reading those guidebooks etc and making enormous lists sure was great fun … and entirely useless at the same time! 🙂

  • HA! I just wrote a post somewhat similar to this one. I totally understand. I mean, there is a whole different world at 27 than there was at 22. I can only imagine 34 – although the prospects are kinda exciting.

    Thank you for the post!

  • Hey Erica, thanks for stopping by 🙂

    Yup, I guess I have a pretty different perspective on many things now to what I did then! Very pleased I do though … I like the current version of me a lot more!

  • Christine
    8 years ago

    That’s what I really like – a travel blog that is a philosophy lesson as well….

    Well done – life is all about learning new things,meeting new people, going to new places and geberally learning anew what you are capable of.

  • Agreed agreed and agreed! Although I am still quite young (I will probably always say that), I learned more in those years I spent studying abroad rather than studying in a stale classroom at my home university. I love your humbling travel realization. I never thought of that one, but it is very true.

  • Interesting read! Surely one of favorites!
    Truly, traveling-a great learning experience!

  • Fantastic post – I agree with all of your points as they are all things we have discovered too on our travels. The hardest thing can be not sweating the small stuff – it can be difficult when you are on a hideous bus journey, but when you do achieve the zen like calm when things are going wrong there´s no better feeling.

  • @Mum – pleased you liked it! It wasn’t necessarily meant as my attempt at some kind of philosophy amateur hour, but hey, if it makes people think, I’m happy. 🙂 And very true that that is what life is about – you should take some of the credit for bringing me up in an environment that helped me become the person I am. So thanks heaps!!

    @Suzy – don’t worry, I still think, feel and act like I’m about 25 at best – age is a mindset. Thanks for the lovely comments 🙂

    @Ankur – it sure is, and I’d recommend to anyone and everyone.

    @Erin – thanks! And I absolutely agree, it’s an awesome feeling but not always easily achieved when you’re under pressure, tired and grumpy. I don’t manage it every time, that’s for sure … just a lot more often than I used to! As long as the beer isn’t warm at the end of it all … 🙂

  • Sofia - As We Travel
    7 years ago

    I hate to say it but I have little trust in education. All the important things I’ve learned is from traveling and being out there exploring the world, not from sitting by a desk staring in books….

  • This is a really great list to point at when I try to describe that I tell if someone has traveled or not with a few minutes talking. These things that you talk about change us deep enough to be seen from outside.

    BTW try England. Had some quite nice room-temp Cask Ales there.

  • @Sofia – I do know what you mean about not learning much from starting at books, but I do reckon there’s a lot of value in an inspiring teacher – they can turn even the most boring of topics into something amazing for a young mind. Of course, the reverse is also true… 😛

    @Andrew – Thanks, and I entirely agree about the changes in people being visible from the outside. I did have the ‘pleasure’ of trying a warm ale or two when I was living in London, but they didn’t do much for me really! Guess I’m just a lager drinker at heart (other than St Patrick’s Day, of course…)

  • Awesome article. Im #rtwsoon, and stressing out. Im not even a planner. Im the reverse, Im stressing that I will get there and miss all the great things because I wasnt prepared 😮

  • Thanks! I reckon you’re better off to under plan rather than over plan … gives you more flexibility that way. That’s not an excuse to sit around the hostel all day trying to think of something to do, of course, but I’m sure you won’t fall into that trap. 🙂

  • Thanks so much for this! I always love to hear what others have learned from their travels as I continue to learn from mine!

  • MIchelle
    7 years ago

    What travel has taught me. Do you have anything new to add to this post Dave? Any other things you have learnt in perhaps say your more recent travels? No minor inconveniences that you’ve freaked out about? It’s all small stuff eh?!

    • Hahaha 😉 Funny you say that though -I was actually thinking about this very thing the other day!

      Despite the stressful start to my trip, I never freaked out when passport or laptop temporarily parted company with me – just kinda did what needed to be done and stayed pretty calm (on the outside at least!). So I guess travel actually *has* taught me something – who knew? 10 years ago I would have totally lost the plot on both occasions!!

  • Cassandra Frear
    7 years ago

    I love travel.

    How is that I find a part of myself I was missing each time I go?

  • HAHA “How dare the world not be just as I would like it?” Don’t worry buddy, warm beer upsets me too. I still get anxious about some things, but like you said there’s no right or wrong way so I just try to take my time and go with whatever the hell I feel like!

  • Brilliant post! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  • Trisha Carter
    6 years ago

    Great post thanks Dave.
    Like you – travel has taught me to go with the flow and go easy on the planning.
    Probably the thing I am most thankful for learning through travel is the ability to talk easily with strangers and because of that I eventually learnt that while things can be very different between people of different cultures there are so many things we have in common as well!

  • Hello i am jitendra i saw your post and completely agree! The small things that annoy people as a traveller actually spoil the whole intention of the journey: Joy ! Isnt it because one did not like the same boring schedule when a warm cup of tea waited for him/her at the table, or when s/he had to reach the office at 8’O clock Sharp and for that had to leave home 7’O clock sharp so that s/he could catch the bust that arrives at 7.30! Eveything was picture perfect. when someone leaves home for travelling it is the adventure s/he is looking forward to want to explore new places and people and culture adn want to learn new languages. why then irk at a glass of warm bear, a cup of cold coffee taht was actually meant to be piping hot as per the order, and shouting at the driver who doesnt understand our language. The coffee may be cold that is not good but lets find something that is good: may be the owner is a kind, accommodating person, maybe the place is nicely built or decorated, maybe the other people at the cafe are engaged in an interesting conversation or may be the climate is too “bright” to feel angry or irritates. If not one thing than other thing might be in a good taste. Just appreciate those good things and forget about the bad one. I use to call it “skipping” you bad thoughts and hopping on the good ones until you find something good enough to settle on.

  • George Kaponay
    3 years ago

    Great post Dave!
    2011 seems to be a signature year for quitting jobs, selling everything and traveling the world. We did this too, only as a family with two young children. All I wanted to say was don’t shut out the possibility that you could have a wife and family. Who says you have to be settled down to do so? There is no need for this at all. We live a life moment by moment, where every day, together as a family, we take in what the day has to offer as life learners, without plans, and are happy beyond measure. I came to your blog through our 13-year-old daughter Réka, who is the chronicler of our experiences through her blog Dreamtime Traveler. This might give you some insight as to how as a family, what you do today, is fully possible.

    Thanks for the insights and the experience!

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