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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…