Last year, I set out on an open-ended backpacking trip through Central and South America with one of my best friends from childhood. She and I had one-way plane tickets, much-too-heavy backpacks, and an agreement that we wanted to go “everywhere,” see “everything,” and avoid what we considered the “real world” for as long as we could afford to.
I fantasized about the concept of travel and the ways in which the places I would go and the things I would see were going to enhance the quality of my life, change me for the better, and make me happy—permanently. What I was unprepared for were the much less glamorous—but much more impactful—perspectives I ended up gaining when things didn’t go the way I had anticipated. We expect travel to offer us new experiences and a personal escape from the contraints of the societies we know, but the reality is, meaningful travel isn’t a relief from the “real world”—it’s a direct confrontation with it.
Here’s what I truly learned from a year of travel—how my attempt to escape reality, in effect, gave me a large dose of it.
1. Leaving the place you call home doesn’t mean avoiding life’s happenstances or only experiencing the good ones. The same things that can happen to you in your “real life” can, might, and probably will happen wherever you go. Receiving bad news in my personal life was just as devastating to deal with on a white-sand beach in Colombia as it would’ve been from my couch in California. The reality is, you’ll face good and bad things no matter where you are. Regardless, you’ll have to pack your baggage (literally and figuratively) and keep moving—and there’s nothing more valuable than the confidence of knowing through experience that you can do so, even when it’s uncomfortable.
2. Some of your best memories will happen in the most unexpected places, and some of your worst moments will happen in the places that were at the top of your must-do list. I fantasized about the beaches of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras for months before leaving for Central and South America. Those beaches were beautiful, but what turned out to be one of my fondest memories was the warm hospitality of my hospital roommate’s family when I spent three days hooked up to an IV with a 103-degree fever in an emergency room on the border between Brazil and Uruguay. The experiences you’ll cherish and learn from may be the ones you never saw coming.
3. Let your plans change. Let your plans change. May I say that again? Let your plans change. While in Colombia, my travel mate and I decided to switch arrangements last minute in order to reunite with another backpacker we’d met a few months earlier. To do so, we skipped out on visiting a widely known adventure hub town in Colombia. We ended up at a weekend-long traditional Afro-Colombian music festival in a city that we didn’t previously know existed. We didn’t paraglide over the Andes as we’d expected to in the town we had been planning to visit—instead, we spent four nights dancing ourselves clean, surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic Colombians in the world capital of salsa. Be open to experience and let the world surprise you.
4. Trust yourself to work out issues. Making snap decisions based on nothing more than urgent necessity is not only totally fine, but it’s also going to happen often. On the way to La Paz, my travel mate and I had a rude awakening when we discovered that our bus, which stopped to allow all of its passengers (including us) a five-minute bathroom break, had just left without us—but with all of our belongings. We immediately determined, with a quick, wordless glance, that this wouldn’t be the day we’d be losing all of our belongings. Instantly, she ran in one direction and I in the other, pleading with every local we could find (in frantic and broken Spanish) to help us track down the runaway bus. An extremely kind man let us hop in his car and (speedily) drove us up, and down, and left, and right, through those windy Andean roads, chasing the bus until we got our things back. Whenever there comes a time in which I need to believe in myself, I think back to that road in Bolivia and remember the day it almost all went awry—but it didn’t, because we handled it. I also remember the importance of accepting help from others, because sometimes it’s as simple as you can’t do it alone.
5. Authentic, important relationships can be formed in a matter of days. There will be plenty of people you’ll merely cross paths with, but there will be many others whom you’ll quickly and delightfully grow to care about. One night, in the candle-lit living room of the hostel in Guatemala I’d spent months volunteering at, I looked around the room filled with laughing, dirty backpackers from all over the world and felt like I was surrounded by my closest friends—and at that moment, I was. Inevitably, saying good-bye will become a constant. It will make you feel like an incredibly small person in a tremendously large world, and that will be important. The people you meet can leave a surprisingly lasting impact on your life if you allow them to—impressions that will linger in your mind far longer than any view will, no matter how magnificent. You’ll often find that we humans are all totally different and exactly alike at the same time.
6. At some point along the way you'll get tired, and the things that wowed you at the beginning of your trip might no longer excite you the same way. Things that should not seem mundane might start to feel just the slightest bit ordinary. The beautifully detailed 16th-century cathedral I toured in Quito didn’t seem that remarkable because I’d seen intricate architecture in the last 10 cities I’d visited. My eyes glazed over at the sight of hundreds of cows grazing the roadside fields in Ecuador because I passed cows on every bus trip (and I took a lot of bus trips).
Here’s the thing: No matter where you are in the world, no matter how exotic your location, there will always be times when you’ll have to consciously work to maintain your sense of wonder. Your experience is only what you make of it and later what you attempt to learn from it. That will be true anywhere, whether you’re across the globe or down the street from the place you call home.
Embarking on a long-term adventure means making a constant commitment to staying amazed at and excited about the life you’re living, the world around you, and the things ahead. And as it turns out, that might be the most useful skill you could ever learn—no matter where you are, no matter what you’re looking at.