Last week I found myself in a spirit of reflection. As friends and family in the USA were celebrating Thanksgiving, I was celebrating my 6-month anniversary in Australia. I thought about loved ones back home, my spending the holiday season abroad, and the lessons I have learned so far during my first go at long-term travel.
After reflecting on the last six months, I went back further in time to revisit all of my international adventures. For each of my previous trips, I realized that one clear “take away message” or lesson stood out clearly. Experience is a great teacher, and I found that each venture abroad has taught me something about my travel style, preferences, and goals.
1) Travel slowly
Have you ever watched The Amazing Race? I have faithfully watched every season, and it never ceases to amaze me that contestants often circumnavigate the globe in the month-long competition. Despite my desire to be on the show (hello, season 3 application!), I do not envy the teams’ breakneck travel style. Contestants spend 1-2 days in each city, perform a variety of tasks, and see the sights from a train, taxi, or car. While they see and experience much, I wonder if they have any time to enjoy the journey. My first trip overseas was on a much, much smaller scale, and it taught me the importance of traveling slowly.
After an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, my father and I picked up our rental car from the Shannon Airport and set off to see as much of Ireland as possible in the next six days. We landed without an itinerary but had a rough idea of everything we wanted to see and do after flipping through guide books on the plane. On day two, we set out early to drive the picturesque Ring of Kerry en route to our next overnight stop. When we arrived in Killorglin, I noticed that my wide-eyed dad was trying to take in everything as he drove through the town. “Man, I wish we had time to stop,” he said. “It’s so beautiful. If we come back to Ireland, I wouldn’t mind spending time time here.” At the time, I knew we had to press on or risk being lost in the early-sunset darkness. But looking back? Why didn’t we stop in Killorglin to explore?! Would an hour or two really have mattered? I left Ireland very appreciative of everything I had seen but with a desire to have spent the entire week in only one or two places. Since Ireland, I have focused on one or two cities per trip to experience depth versus breadth and wouldn’t have it any other way.
2) Travel longer
As a rule, Americans do not receive as much annual holiday/vacation time as citizens of other countries. So when I planned to travel to Australia for three weeks between finishing graduate school and starting my new job, I thought I was taking a big-time trip. It was the longest vacation I had ever had, but in the end it wouldn’t prove to be long enough.
Having learned to travel slowly in Ireland, I split my time evenly between Brisbane and Sydney and had the time of my life. I introduced my youngest sister to international travel. I was adopted by a friend of a friend who took me to two Aussie sporting events. Another new friend invited me over for dinner and a chance to do laundry. By the last week, I realized how many great people (travelers and Aussies alike) I had met; how much I had experienced between the two cities; and how confident, free, and relaxed I felt. My eyes had been opened to a whole new world and I did not want the trip or feeling to end.
As I loaded my suitcase into the airport shuttle just outside of my hostel, I wished I could have said goodbye to my sleeping roommates one last time. I climbed into the last remaining seat beside the driver and brushed away a tear. Turning to take one last look at the hostel, I saw one of my roommates dashing through reception and bounding through the front door. He stood on the sidewalk frantically looking in all directions and then our eyes met. We held up our hands in a wave goodbye before the shuttle slowly pulled away.
Five days later I sat in a new office and thought about my friends in Australia. I ached to be back with them, continuing our journeys together. It was then that I decided to make future trips a minimum of three weeks, if I could help it, and to begin saving money for long-term travel.
3) Friends are worth traveling for
You never know when someone meaningful may enter your life and bring with them a world of surprises. In December 2006 I met a friend in London who, until then, I had only known online for two years. After hearing so much about his circle of friends, I hoped that we would get along well when we decided to meet in person. Little did I know that the first night we met would only be the beginning.
We met for the first time at Victoria Station. I was traveling with my dad and youngest sister, and he was with his girlfriend and five of their friends. The real-life connection was instant, and we all spent the evening smiling, laughing, and talking. Two days later we were invited to their New Years Eve party and had a blast welcoming 2007 in a packed 19th floor flat in the city. Less than six months later, my sister and I returned for our second visit. We missed our new friends, and they were eager to have us back. We were officially adopted into their tight-knit group as the members from “across the pond.”
One year later I did something I never imagined myself doing. After receiving a Facebook invite to one of their parties, I RSVPed “Maybe” but had already decided to go — yes, for the weekend! I didn’t have enough vacations days left to take more than Friday and Monday off, but these guys were worth a quick trip over the Atlantic. I had to tell a couple of people I was coming but asked them to keep it a secret from the others. That didn’t happen. But what did happen was a big weekend with a big group of friends who couldn’t believe I had flown so far for so little time to see them. A few thought I was absolutely mad for doing it. Maybe I was. But it was one of the most spontaneous and fun things I have ever done.
Since that quick weekend trip, I’ve been back to see them once; 3 of them have come to visit my family for Thanksgiving; and 10 met me in Dublin this past March for my 30th birthday celebration. No matter how many countries remain on my “must visit” list, I will return to London for the rest of my life to enjoy some of my favorite people in the world.
4) Travel with a mate…and solo
Partner and solo travel each have their pros and cons. If you’ve done both, you’ve surely experienced them first hand. While I had traveled with family or by myself before, trips to Germany and Istanbul helped me be mindful and thankful of both styles.
Traveling with a partner can make the fun times more so and the difficult times less so. In Germany, I stayed with a friend, who like the one in London, I was meeting for the first time after two years of online friendship. I relied on him for German-to-English translation. For taking my desire to see the sights on foot very seriously and leading me on countless steep hikes that left me huffing and puffing. For raising an eyebrow when I ordered a Banana Java Chip frappuccino after I’d already had a scoop or two of gelato earlier in the day. For pointing out that “my American was showing” when I laughed perhaps too loudly at something he said at lunch. By the end of two weeks, I had learned more about seeing myself through the eyes of another person, compromise on the road, and communication in the midst of cultural and langauge differences. My experience in Germany wouldn’t have been the same without him.
On the other hand, I have no doubt that my week in Istanbul would have been very different if I hadn’t been traveling solo. For the first time, I was not traveling with someone or en route to meet someone. I landed in the middle of the night to an airport with no more than 20 people. My pre-arranged shuttle driver no-showed and I had to find another way to the hostel or wait another three hours for public transport to open. When I arrived at the hostel, I was told I’d have to wait on the balcony for the remainder of the night as no beds were available. As I sat in the pitch black night and watched birds fly around the Blue Mosque’s minarets, I felt so alone. Thankfully, it was the last time I would feel that way all week.
Despite being an introvert traveling solo, I found myself at ease initiating conversations with fellow travelers in our small hostel. Several Turks were staying at the hostel temporarily and offered to show me around and meet me for meals. Two Istanbul natives met me after work for dinner, sight-seeing, and raki. While I struggled with knowing how to respond to people calling out to me in the streets when walking alone, I’m grateful that I was out of my comfort zone and able to learn from the experience. Traveling solo in Istanbul stretched, enriched, and blessed me.
5) Tackle the bucket list
I’m not sure if I experienced a quarterlife-crisis, but there was certainly a series of moments when I had to decide whether or not to quit my developing career to travel long-term in Australia. Spending a year Down Under had been on my mind since I learned to “travel longer” in 2006. As I read Delaying the Real World for inspiration, one contributer shared that, “Every day you postpone a dream you weaken it a little. The longer you wait, the less likely you will ever chase it.” The statement certainly rang true for me. Time seemed to bring more what ifs, buts, and questions when at the end of the day, I still ached to make it work. So one morning I woke up and decided to make it work. We’re never guaranteed another day, so why put off our dreams and bucket list goals?
In 2003 I decided I would return to Ireland in seven years for my 30th birthday. This past March, I traveled to Dublin and spent a week with 12 friends welcoming a new decade and a new chapter in my life. Less than one week after returning from Dublin, I gave my supervisor a resignation letter. Six weeks later I left my office for the last time, and two weeks after that, I hugged my parents goodbye from an airport in Washington, DC. Thirty or so hours later, I handed an Australian Immigration official my passport and kicked off a year of traveling longer and more slowly than ever.
Lessons from the road
As Christmas and New Years approach, my introspective nature will no doubt kick into high gear. I look forward to the unknown experiences before me and the many lessons still to be learned.
What are the most valued, clear, or unique lessons you have taken from the road? Whether it pertains to travel style, life philosophies, or the big or small picture, I would love to hear what stands out for you.