I have recently returned from an 8 week solo trip to Europe, which explains my lack of posts in recent months. I have wanted to write this particular article for some time and am finally buckling down to do it while the trip details are still fresh in my head.
I view traveling as a very personal endeavour. Everyone has preferences about how they travel; what budget they must stick to, who they bring with them (if anyone), what places they choose to see, which activities they choose to do within those places, and of course what kind of attitude they carry with them.
I firmly believe that traveling is an educational experience of tremendous value and perhaps one of life’s greatest teachers. Conducting yourself in foreign situations set in foreign countries among foreign cultures beside people who speak foreign languages is in many ways, the epitome of leaving your comfort zone and lends fantastically to transcending the many physical and mental limitations you have previously lived within. The things you learn about the world will stay with you and guide you for the rest of your life. The things you learn about yourself are an unexpected gift that will bring you a sense of peace and connect you in a very intimate way to each person you meet while abroad. They will also change your perspective, handing you a new reality that you must integrate into your life upon your return home. Below are just a few of the things I learned on this past trip. Perhaps they will inspire you to rekindle your sense of adventure and seek a trip, however far away and for however long, of your own.
1.) You Are Never Alone
Feeling lonely at home is one thing. Feeling lonely half way across the world conveys an entirely different sense of the word. Opening yourself up to the knowledge that your support system is not limited to the people you already “know”, changes that feeling however. Everywhere you go in the world, you will find people that have more in common with you than you could ever have initially guessed. Whether it be the language they speak, the job they just lost, their love of soccer, anything, we are all human and share similar triumphs and struggles. For heaven’s sake, we are all 99.9% genetic matches! The comfort I was given by acts of kindness from complete strangers in times of need and the conversations I had with people that outwardly seemed vastly different, but inwardly felt like a kindred spirit, taught me that we are never alone. For the majority of people, alone is a mindset and nothing more.
2.) Language Differences Are A Challenge, Not A Barrier
Some of the most wonderful interactions I had with locals while away were with people who didn’t speak a lick of English, and for all my efforts with Lonely Planet phrase books, I didn’t speak a single word of their language outside of “Thank you”. The cues you open yourself up to reading as soon as the power of language is taken away from you, is astounding. In Venice I learned to find my way by gauging the direction of the crowds. In Berlin I found out about interesting shops or local fairs by looking at the bags people were caring on the subway. In Santorini I was given an entire sightseeing tour by an old gentleman that used gestures and tones to convey his meaning. We later went for a beer together and admired a beautiful view in silence. Do not fear traveling without a tour group or guide that will translate everything for you. The sailing may not be as smooth, but you will get through it and your life will be richer for having had those experiences.
3.) There Is No “Right” Way To Travel
The first week of my trip I found myself paralyzed with the thought that I had to travel the “right” way. This idea of “right” was founded upon the experience of friends, the portrayal of travel in the media, the assumption that I should always be having a gay old time and that being unsure or homesick was for unadventurous sissys. I thought I should be meeting amazing people left, right and centre who would expand my horizons and accompany me on whirlwind escapades that lasted until sunrise and involved us shooting absinthe and losing our belonging to packs of wild dogs – or something equally audacious. I thought that every museum or ruin should blow me away and render me speechless, rather than producing an uncomfortable yawn accompanied by thoughts of how much my feet ached from walking all day. I thought hostels would be glorious places packed with new friends rather than full of dumpy mattresses and people who snore like bulldozers. Needless to say, the first week of traveling was an adjustment for me, but as soon as I calmed down, let myself be and opened up to what was around me, the experiences I so desperately thought I should have, well they came. In fact, they were better than anything I could have imagined. Best of all, they were real, and they were mine and they will be immortalized in my memories.
4.) In A World Of Strangers And Few Expectations, Perhaps You Can Find Yourself
It wasn’t until I put an ocean between myself and the expectations I have always lived my life under that I began to understand I was a different person in the face of fewer pressures. To wake up and only have to answer to yourself as opposed to your roommate, landlord, boss, parents, friends, significant other, dog, North American society, etc, is an experience unto itself. And let me tell you, was it ever disconcerting at first, at least for me. I struggled with feeling purposeless for a few weeks – I had no real obligations to fulfill and there wasn’t anybody asking for my time, so for once, I had to fill it myself, and I had to fill it with more than Friends re-run episodes. The time I spent alone gave me practice in listening to myself, and sometimes the things I chose to do surprised me! By the end of those 8 weeks I felt closer to myself than I ever have before – I can’t say how effective traveling is for discovering the authentic self compared to therapy or meditation say, but boy, it sure worked wonders for me.
5.) People Are Important
I saw many awe-inspiring works of art and historically important ruins. I learned a lot about the history of Europe and how that has shaped its evolution. I ate local dishes of exquisite flavour & presentation accompanied by some of the best wine, beer and liquor the world has to offer. I watched beautiful sunsets and sat through train rides in which stunning scenery flashed by. I did all of that, and it was heaven. But the most vivid memories are those of the amazing people I met and the things they taught me. The bonds you create with the people you meet while traveling are special for they are made under different situations than you typically encounter at home. Traveling brings out a spontaneity in people and an openness for new adventure, which of course includes making new connections. The fleetingness of travel, i.e. the knowledge that you may be moving on in 2 hours, 48 hours, a week, 3 months, what have you, gives us a freedom to befriend anyone and everyone and do so for honest and pure intentions. (Of course not everyone subscribes to this) Without the concerns of work, rent, relationships, etc, we become less self-involved & agenda-driven and essentially get out of our own way when it comes to making real connections with others.
6.) Stuff Is A Shackle
This is particularly true for backpackers who embark on longer journeys. Stuff becomes a burden that must be packed, unpacked, washed, accounted for, carried and stored. Thus, the less you have the better off you are. I was amazed by how little I was able to get away with carrying while traveling, all without ever feeling like I was missing the essentials. It turns out, you don’t need more than 2 sweaters and a single pair of shoes can honestly work for most occasions. I certainly don’t need 98% of the things I bet people are out Christmas shopping for at this very moment. When traveling, each item you accumulate is assessed based on “need” and to a very small extent “desire”. How come we don’t live this way all the time?? Oh yes, because the ingrained mindset of our society has somehow been built on marketed consumerism and the purchase of things for no other reason than the longing to satisfy our cultivated “need” to possess the unneeded. How silly of me. Where’s my VISA?!
Well there you have it folks, a few insights into my trip and the lessons I have taken away from it. Since returning home I fight the urge to fall back into old patterns and mindsets which indicates travel is a necessary ingredient in my life that cannot be neglected for too long. I have no doubt that new destinations will bring new struggles, new lessons and leave me, once again, a changed person. All in all, I suggest you let travel change you – let it get inside you, let it reunite you with yourself, let it reintroduce you to the world, let it reignite your passions. I plan to.