I wrote this blog post in 2014, the summer before my senior year of college. I had spent the previous year away from Penn: one semester studying abroad in Argentina, followed by a leave of absence to work at an investment bank in Chicago and then backpack around Australia and New Zealand.
I gained a lot of maturity through this reflective quarter-life crisis. I highly recommend taking time off from school or work in your early 20s if you have the opportunity to do so.
One year ago today, I was in Budapest. In reflecting on how much has changed over the past year, I was reminded of what I wrote about travel back in 2014.
Enter 21-year-old me.
Why Not to Travel
I love to travel. And over the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make travel a priority in my life. Among other trips, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires and traveled around South America, braved a long flight across the Pacific to see Australia and New Zealand, visited friends and family across the country, and participated in a service-learning trip to Rwanda.
Travel has enriched my life. I’ve met people, been exposed to new points of view, and seen things that I would have had no chance of laying eyes on back at home. As St. Augustine said,
"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page."
But the more that I travel, the more I look inward and wonder just how much it has changed me. I wonder if some of the lessons that I’ve learned wouldn’t have been easier and simpler to learn closer to home. I wonder if all of the money I’ve spent on airfare, hostels, and alcohol was worth it. I wonder if my life was changed enough during my travel experiences that I’ll be able to make a bigger impact on the world in the future than I otherwise would have – or if I should have just donated the thousands of dollars I spent on travel to charities that tangibly improve people’s lives right now.
Every time I start a trip, I manage to convince myself that it’s going to be life-changing. That somehow the experience of physically being somewhere different will fundamentally change me – make me more outgoing, more interesting, more motivated to learn new languages, more likely to walk up to that girl in the bar, more like the Dos Equis man.
I think this is in part what has been sold to us today. Travel has become commoditized and romanticized. We’re hooked on images of exotic lands, pristine beaches, new adventures, strange tongues, and moonlight trysts. It’s a mental state, an attitude that companies try to package and sell to us. They claim: "If only your surroundings change, so too will you as a person. You can be anything that you want to be; you can be the person that you've always dreamed of being."
The more that I travel, the more I realize that the whole claim, while alluring, is utter bullshit. I'm the same person in Argentina that I am in New Zealand that I am back home.
We all expect that travel will be “life-changing” or “incredible”, so we only share the highlights of our trips. We don’t tell our friends about the long nights spent sleeping on airport benches, the lost luggage, the feelings of loneliness thousands of miles away from anyone in your support network, the boredom as we lie in bed at an empty hostel in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.
Our problems don’t disappear when we travel. We still have the same worries, insecurities, anxieties, vices, and character flaws that we do at home. Physical location doesn’t change any of that. Yes, travel can lead to incredible growth experiences, but you have to work at it, just like anything else in life. Changes don’t magically occur.
Emerson recognized this. He claimed,
“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”
I agree with Ryan Holiday that there is no inherent value to travel. You don’t win an award for having more stamps in your passport than your friends. Talking about all of the places that you’ve been comes across a little bit like bragging about your SAT score. Nobody cares and everyone is just a little bit put off.
I’m guilty of this myself. When I’m on a trip, I find myself wondering about what countries I can “do”. As if flying into a country and being there for a day or two somehow makes me a more valuable human being.
All that being said, we can work to make travel incredibly valuable. Travel can be a great learning experience, can enhance and enrich our lives. But we can’t let it fundamentally define our lives.
The first step is to define why you’re taking a trip. Have a purpose or an objective. Do you want to learn about a new language and culture? To escape the normal routine of everyday life? To just lie on the beach and relax?
Any of these are fine. But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing. And be realistic about your expectations for what the trip will bring. Realize that the whole concept of “things falling into place” or “things just happening” is ridiculous. You have to work to make those great experiences happen.
Seneca once said,
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” It’s definitely true that travel can recharge your batteries and give you the perspective that you need to take on new projects back at home.
But he also claimed,
“They [travelers] make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.”
Travel to enhance your life. Not to escape your life. You can’t outrun your inner demons. Your physical location doesn’t matter so much as your mental state and actions. Wherever you happen to be in the world.
What I've Learned from Travel
It’s been said that all travelers are either running from something or looking for something. For most people, it’s probably a combination of both. And while I just said that you can’t romanticize travel as the solution to all of your problems, I still find a lot of value in travel. You just have to be running away from and towards the right things.
Personally, I love the novelty of travel. I’m running from monotony and my day-to-day existence, in which I’m not as mindful as I could be. (I know, I’m working on this…) I’m running towards new experiences, new languages, new cultures, and new people. When I’m on a trip, out doing things, I feel alive, as if I’m an active participant in all that life has to offer.
Travel like this can be invigorating and have positive effects even when we return home. We need periodic breaks from work and everyday life in order to be more productive and happy.
Beyond those benefits, I’ve also learned a lot through various trips. If you do it right, travel is a great way not to let your schooling interfere with your education. With that in mind, I wanted to share the top lessons I’ve learned and ways that I’ve grown through travel.
Patience & Going With the Flow
If you travel, you will learn patience. When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and have to deal with a bag mixup, or you’ve been waiting two hours for a bus and don’t know if it will show up, or all of the trains are shut down without an explanation, you start to freak out. Then, after a couple minutes, you realize that it isn’t the end of the world. You can figure this out and your life will go on. It becomes an almost Zen experience.
When you get back home, you won’t complain about having to crash on the floor of your friend’s apartment or a flight being delayed a few hours. You’ve been through worse. I’m a firm believer that in travel, as in life in general, you can choose to either laugh or cry at just about everything. If you choose to laugh, you’ll be a lot happier. Moreover, you’ll have accrued a lot of funny stories that you wouldn’t have had you just stayed at home. Those stories will pay dividends in bars and at family reunions for years to come.
Talking to Strangers & Getting Out of My Shell
The first trip that I took completely alone was a few months ago in New Zealand. The first few days, I was quiet and just read. It was nice and a really good opportunity for me to decompress after working really long hours for the previous three months. But after a while, I started to get bored.
I quickly realized that there were only two options here:
- Stay quiet and remain bored and lonely.
- Start talking to people.
So I bought some beer and shared it with my roommates in a hostel. Surprise – they didn’t bite my head off. Everyone was in the same situation that I was and wanted to meet new people. I got over my fear of going out alone. The reality is, it’s not a big deal to go to a bar, or grab dinner, or do anything by yourself. Nobody really cares – they’re all too worried about themselves.
One of the best things about travel is the people that you meet. You make friends who are completely different from you and learn entirely new world views. People who travel are some of the most open-minded and interesting people that you’ll ever meet. The traveler population self-filters – anyone who is closed-minded or boring will just stay at home.
Additionally, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve found that people are generally proud of the place that they are from. That’s not to say that they’re jingoistic, or have a misconception that where they live is a utopia. Rather, they can see the good in where they live and are eager to share that with other people. As a traveler, it is an incredible experience to be on the receiving end of this energy and to learn firsthand about a culture from someone who is enthusiastic about it.
How to Listen
Travel can teach you how to deal with myriad people and situations. When you’re in a place that you’re not familiar with, you are constantly absorbing information. Every cab driver, waiter in a café, or person that you meet in a hostel has a story that you can learn from. And when you’re in this state of absorbing information, you really learn how to listen.
When you talk to most people, they are (in a best-case scenario) thinking about what they will say next to continue the conversation. Truly listening, focusing 100% of your attention on the person that is talking to you, is an invaluable skill. People notice. Travel causes you to be more present in the moment – it can also cause you to be a more present listener.
You Won’t Get Kidnapped, Murdered, Etc.
The media completely blows out of proportion the risks of traveling abroad. Talking about the great experiences that people have abroad just doesn’t make for good news. But the vast majority of travelers I’ve talked to have never encountered the slightest issue.
Granted, you have to take obvious precautions. Talk to the locals about which neighborhoods to go into and which to avoid. Don’t get too drunk. Don’t travel alone down sketchy alleys at 3 am. Don’t get involved in drug deals with cartels. Don’t visit Syria right now.
But even in places with lots of violence, the violence doesn’t revolve around tourists. People realize that if you start to kidnap or kill tourists, they stop coming to your country, which just hurts business for everyone.
There will be occasional muggings, kidnappings, and even deaths. But this stuff happens in the US, too. Imagine if we were to judge New York City based solely on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or Chicago based on all of the murders that happen there (over 500 in 2012). That’s exactly what we do with other countries.
Frankly, I felt safer living in Buenos Aires than I do living now in Philadelphia. If you take the necessary (i.e. obvious) precautions, the risk that something will happen to you is minimal.
I spoke Spanish pretty well before I left for Argentina, but by the time that I got back I really felt like I was fluent. There is a huge difference between being able to speak the language in a classroom and being able to speak it in everyday life. I found that I was able to understand everything that was said in the classroom, but was challenged in trying to talk to my peers. All of the slang and the stronger accents that people use with one another in casual conversation made it much harder to communicate for me, as I learned the language in a classroom. But by constantly being exposed to that slang and normal, everyday speech, I soaked up the language like a sponge.
Immersion is the best way to learn a language. And in the Internet Age, you can work to get that at home, but there’s always a huge temptation to fall back on your native tongue. Moving to Argentina and being away from my entire English support network forced me to learn Spanish. At first, after concentrating hard to communicate for as few as 15 minutes, I thought that my brain was going to melt. But gradually, it got easier and easier. Being fully surrounded by the language increased my skills more than classes ever could.
Being Selfish is Okay
Travel is principally for our own benefit. That should be recognized. There’s nothing wrong with going to Mexico and hitting the beach. The entire economy of some tropical countries is predicated on tourism. By traveling, you’re doing your part to stimulate the local economy.
However, “voluntourism” has become very popular lately. The idea is that you spend your vacation doing service work – building houses in Nicaragua, or helping with a water project in West Africa. This concept has come under a lot of criticism. Quite frankly, the money that is spent on these trips would be better spent if it were sent to the communities directly. Then, local experts can be hired to work on these projects. This both ensures that the construction is sound (after all, experts, rather than a group of well-meaning but ultimately clueless kids, are working) and the local economy is stimulated.
This was an issue that I wrestled a lot with prior to my trip last summer to Rwanda. With a group of Penn students, I spent 10 days living in a community for high school-aged children who were orphaned during the genocide. I wondered about the impact that we would really make. Would it be better to just donate the money, rather than spend thousands of dollars to travel there?
I came to recognize that I didn’t change the world during this trip. Quite honestly, if my goal were to make the most positive impact right now, I would have donated all of the money to a quality charity that works on infrastructure projects in Rwanda.
I realized that the trip was primarily for myself and my education. That’s fine. I learned firsthand what life is like in Rwanda. And I hope that in the future, as I earn money and gain professional experience, I’m able to give back and make intelligent decisions about giving based on what I experienced in Rwanda. I hope that this trip will allow me to make a greater positive impact in the future than I otherwise would have been able to.
I learned that in general, these trips are primarily for the participants’ benefit, not the benefit of the local community. The positive impact comes from what the participants learn and what actions they take when they return home.
My Travel Limits
As great as travel is, at some point you’re going to want to come home. The time period is different for different people, but eventually the vast majority want to put down roots somewhere. Maybe you’re done with a trip after two days, maybe after two weeks, two months, two years, or even two decades – at some point you want to come home.
I reached my limit during my study abroad in Argentina. I think that at this point in my life, I can travel and be away from friends and family back in the US for about four months. But when I reached that point in my trip, I started to get homesick and was ready to go home.
Ultimately, travel has caused a great deal of introspection and led to a lot of personal growth for me. I truly think that travel, when done right, can be one of the most valuable experiences that life offers.
Getting to distant places is cheaper, faster, and easier to do now than at any other point in history. The world is your playground. Get in the sandbox, get dirty, and see what you can learn.