Guys…guys. Throw some stuff into a bag, buy a ticket to somewhere, and travel. I cannot emphasize this enough: TRAVEL. I don’t think that there’s anything more important that one can do in their twenties.
I know that we’re all going through a lot – you may be going through All The Things. But that just means that you need travel even more. I’ve realized that there are always far too many good reasons why it isn’t a good time: the two reasons that I hear most often (even from myself) are Time and Money. These are very legitimate, important resources of which we often feel we do not have enough – especially during this school-to-real-life transition.
But do you know what is even more important than Time and Money? Experience.
Experience includes but is not limited to: laughing so hard you cry in a new country with old friends. Laughing so hard you cry in a new country with people you only met a few hours earlier. Tasting foods from another culture, from another era, from the other side of the world from where you were born…and loving it. Recognizing that there are organized systems in place to take advantage of tourists like you, and being savvy enough to avoid them. Seeing works of art and ancient structures that take your breath away. Adapting to an foreign culture and different social structure. Getting used to how it feels to not understand anything anything around you – not the signs, nor the people talking next to you, nor the significance of the hand gestures they’re using. Feeling the texture of a new language in your ears and on your tongue. Being in a taxi with a driver that looks just shy of 80 years old who has no GPS, no English, and clearly no idea where your address is…and arriving at your destination safe and sound. Generally navigating a new city in a language that you do not speak. Finding the best view of this new city from a secluded rooftop bar surrounded by good people and savoring every moment like you savor each sip of the delicious drink you ordered.
I have been living in France for 5 years now, and am embarrassed to admit how little I have traveled. But I had such good reasons! I was an au pair – no time! I was a student – no money! I was an au pair AND a student – no time OR money! During the periods where I did have time and I had a bit of money, I couldn’t find anyone to travel with me and organizing a trip on my own seemed so daunting. Then when I got a job, I almost felt bad taking vacation days – I needed to get used to the new rhythm, and I needed to prove myself. Even when I had a salary I kept thinking – I need to save.
Regrets: I have them. And the worst part is that as long as you don’t travel, you don’t realize what you’re missing.
I made the beautiful “mistake” of traveling recently, and now that I know exactly what I’ve been missing…I can’t go back.
One of my best friends wanted to travel around Europe for her birthday, and I will be forever grateful for her persistence in making it happen, and in insisting that I join her. All in all, she and her roommate went to 5 cities in 3 different countries – I simply joined them for the 4 days (one evening, 3 full days and one morning) they scheduled in Istanbul, Turkey.
I feel like it would be a bit dramatic to say something like AND THIS TRIP CHANGED MY LIFE but I can say with 100% certainty that it changed how I see traveling, and certainly forever shifted my life priorities.
In four days, I experienced everything I listed above (re: Experience) and more. Just prior to leaving for Istanbul, I was not OK. I wasn’t feeling like myself and I needed a change of pace, of scenery, anything. Being in this completely foreign place yet with friends I know and love allowed me to be 100% myself. I was very conscious during my trip of how/who I was, and felt as though I was rediscovering myself. It did me a whole world of good.
The strongest analogy that comes to mind is a comparison with the classic philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is how I feel when I travel.
Let me explain: you are the tree, “falling” is equivalent to “being,” the forest is wherever you are in the world, and “no one around to hear it” is referring to the lack of familiar points of reference: people, places, language. My adaptation of the question would read something like this: When I am (more or less) alone in a completely unfamiliar situation, who am I? Am I still the same person that I am every day, or am I different?
I believe (and this is of course only my humble opinion) that when you find yourself in a new place where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you, you get a special kind of insight into who you really are – an examination and evaluation that is simply impossible unless you get out of your comfort zone. It isn’t always fun – I’m not proud of all the decisions I’ve made in these situations – but it is always a learning experience and I always feel richer and more centered because of it.
Beyond these moments of enlightening introspection, the beautiful land- and cityscapes, the delicious new tastes and smells and the immeasurably gratifying experience of different cultures, I have to say that the best part of traveling is the people.
First of all, if you travel with friends I promise you will get to know them much better, and in ways that you never would have otherwise; I highly recommend it. That being said, you might want to have a sit-down travel meeting with your friend(s) before setting out, since people’s traveling styles do not always match up.
Secondly, you will meet some of the most interesting and wonderful people when you travel. Some people you’ll want to hold on to for life, and others will simply be meaningful to you in ways that you’ll never forget. For example, the Uber driver that used a talk-to-text translation app to communicate with us when we realized that the Uber app had given him the wrong address, and then stopped the meter and drove us all the way across town (through horrific traffic) to get us to where we needed to go. Or the man who worked in one of Istanbul’s many bazaars who insisted on giving me a few souvenirs from his shop for free because to him, I “looked perfect.” No sales pitch, no creepiness, no demands at all. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know mine but I’ll always remember the interaction – especially since it stands in such stark contrast to the other interactions we had with men in Turkish bazaars.
And then there are the people that you really just get along with, and want to hold on to. On our last day in Istanbul, my two friends and I met two guys staying at our hostel – we’ll call them Ten Cars and Ginger Spice. Ten Cars is from Germany, Ginger Spice is from Australia, both of them were traveling alone at the time and for an entire afternoon we explored part of the city on our own and later we went out for dinner and drinks with Ginger Spice (Ten Cars unfortunately had other plans). In that short time span, we shared so much. We all just clicked, and while it was a shame that Ten Cars didn’t come out with us that evening, the three of us girls and Ginger Spice had an amazing time. I hope to keep in touch with both of them, and look forward to our paths crossing in the future. However, even if I never see either of them again and we gradually lose track of each other, they will always be a part of my life and my life story.
If I hadn’t been pushed to get up out of my comfort zone and get myself to Istanbul, I never would have met Ten Cars or Ginger Spice, and that would have been a real shame. I would never have gotten to know my friend’s roommate – now someone I consider a friend – and I might never have had the lovely experience of traveling to a new country with my girl friend, one of the best friends I have.
One of my earliest memories as a kid is when I realized how many people there were in the world, and that if I only spoke English and lived in the U.S. I might never be able to meet/communicate with them. Furthermore, what if my soul mate lived in another country and/or spoke another language??? These ideas made me so sad, and pushed me all the way through learning French and moving to France.
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from traveling: there are people who you will love and appreciate, and who will love and appreciate you all over the world. There are people from other cultures, countries and walks of life with whom you can and will share beautiful moments. Everyone has something to teach you, one way or another, and when you travel you expose yourself to so many diverse and wonderful lessons about yourself and the world around you.
Good news everyone – if you’re reading this, then you speak good enough English to get by in most parts of the world. Travel is becoming more and more accessible, and if you prioritize it, you will find both the time and the money. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but get out of your comfort zone. Go places. You won’t regret it.
To quote the timeless Dr. Seuss:
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
All images are the property of the author.