Four years ago, as my final semester of college came to a close, I was just another soon-to-be graduate with surprisingly little direction as to where I wanted to head in life. In the time since, I’ve made my way to three more continents and found far more direction and perspective in my travels than higher education ever came close to providing – and that’s coming from someone who excelled in academia. Each adventure has revealed distinct lessons in travel and most importantly life. It’s not often that you’re afforded such realizations. Most of the time you’re working to sort through gray area and a perpetual shroud of uncertainty. This is the story of those lessons and the insight each successive trip has provided along the way.
May 2011 – Western Europe
After graduation, my Dad organized a two-week vacation to Western Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands). He undertook the bulk of the planning, as I had no idea where to begin. I named a few random places that sounded interesting, “Rome,” “The Alps,” “Amsterdam.” I was clueless. I just thought it would be a great experience to share with my Dad, and as an added bonus, be able to say I’d been to Europe. I was still in ignorant tourist mode at this point. But until you’ve traveled, you don’t really have a say in the matter.
We made a plan and set off with our Rick Steves book in hand to tackle the big adventure. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt “culture shock,” but this was the closest I’ve come. Everything was an entirely new experience since it was my first big trip. I had no previous international travel to use as a frame of reference. For the first few days, we pretended like we were seasoned travelers and were hesitant to come off like we didn’t have a clue (which we most certainly did not). We’ll call this lesson number one and a realization that’s proved critical to every trip since.
1) THERE WILL BE SITUATIONS WHERE YOU LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT, EMBRACE THEM.
The sooner you come to terms with this, the better. You need to have a sense of humor and be able to laugh at yourself if you want to enjoy traveling – or for that matter, life. Whether in cultural differences or language barriers, it’s bound to happen. You’re going to get yourself into some ridiculous situations.
This lesson still holds true for me four years later. During my most recent trip to Vietnam, I stopped by a grocery store to purchase bug spray. The extent of my Vietnamese is about three phrases. After a few minutes of failed communication, I picked up a can of Axe – the deodorant spray that incites immediate migraines – and pretended to spray myself while saying “mosquito” in front of the store clerk. I provided her entertainment for the day – let’s be honest, the week – but she understood and handed me a bottle of their finest lavender mosquito repellant, specially bottled for hypochondriac westerners.
Along the same lines, there are also going to be situations where things don’t go as expected and are completely beyond your control. You just have to make the best of it. On our third day in Italy, my Dad and I were stranded at a train station in the actual middle of nowhere. The railway employees decided 2:00 PM would be an opportune time to go on strike and they shut the train down right then and there. Does that suck? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No.
There are solutions to every problem if you’re creative and resourceful. Much of this has to do with not being afraid to ask for help and keeping things in perspective. Recognizing the situation, my Dad and I made our way to the nearest town while most other passengers sat around at the station mulling over their misfortune, rather than doing something about it. After a series of rather humorous exchanges we organized a cab through some locals and were on our way. The point being that many times while traveling, and in life, you must overcome your apprehension of looking like an idiot in order to make progress and move towards a solution.
If nothing else, these ‘oh-shit’ moments make for the best stories later on.
May 2013 – Eastern Europe
Once I’d recovered from being a poor college graduate, I planned a trip with one of my closest friends to explore Eastern Europe. After some initial research, Croatia emerged as the favorite. This was a ten-day sprint through these two countries. Only my second trip abroad, I was still attempting to fit in as much as I possibly could in our limited time (tourist red flag). Another Rick Steves book didn’t help my cause. But hey, you have to start somewhere.
This trip was a major milestone for a couple reasons. First, I planned it entirely on my own so I developed a much better grasp of exactly what these trips take to pull off. Second, it was the first time I really began to appreciate the bonds formed with fellow travelers, by far my most important realization of this trip.
2) You will encounter more genuine people traveling in 10 days than you will in an entire year back home.
Some of these encounters are intense short-bursts that burn out as fast as they’re ignited. Others will blossom into lifelong relationships. Both are important and serve their own purpose. I was astounded to find that I could meet so many like-minded, passionate people halfway across the world. I’m talking the kind of people that within a few hours of meeting, you are completely immersed with in huge conversations about the world and discussing the intricate details of your lives.
On this trip in particular we came in contact with some amazing people. In Croatia we met and have kept in touch with a couple from New Orleans who are two of the kindest, most generous people I know. These are the friendships that restore your faith in humanity. On this same trip, I also happened to meet an Aussie who has become one of my close friends. We’re currently working on a screenplay together; one of the most important projects I’m committed to. We share a strikingly similar outlook on life and regularly engage in some of the most inspiring, thought-provoking conversations I have.
What makes life enjoyable are the relationships you form and the experiences you share. Sometimes in order to find the most important people in your life you need to venture beyond your comfort zone and immediate circle. It’s here where you can discover relationships based on substance rather than convenience.
February 2014 – Patagonia, South America
With two trips to Europe under my belt, I felt confident enough to venture to another continent. Patagonia had always been near the top of my travel list and it offered a great opportunity to explore South America. I built the trip around hiking the ‘W,’ Patagonia’s classic five-day trek through Torres del Paine National Park.
This trip provided perhaps the most important period of growth I’ve experienced during my travels. It was the first time I felt comfortable wandering and at home on the road. This was also my first true backpacking experience and something I would come to embrace. We met quite a few travelers who were on the road for months, which opened my eyes to the idea that long-term travel was both feasible and affordable. This led me to a critical bit of knowledge that I needed to continue my travel binge.
3) Traveling overseas isn’t nearly as expensive as you think.
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear from friends who have yet to travel outside the country is that it’s just too expensive. The truth is that if you’re smart about it, you can afford to travel almost anywhere in the world.
With that being said, if your idea of traveling overseas is finding the nearest Hilton and having dinner at the Hard Rock Café, you’d be better off lighting your money on fire. You can have the same vanilla, sheltered experience at your timeshare in Florida.
If you want to pursue new experiences and step outside your comfort zone, you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is; I certainly was. The biggest expense of every trip is usually the flight – without a close a second. Once you’re actually there, you can live for a fraction of what you would spend in a normal day back home. Generally speaking, the dollar and euro are stronger than most other currencies, so your money goes significantly further.
This is especially true in Argentina, as I learned on my trip to Patagonia. U.S. dollars are in high demand since Argentina’s economy is far less stable. As their government has sought to restrict the circulation of dollars, it’s created a massive black market. The official exchange rate is already quite favorable at 8.82 ARS (Argentine pesos)/USD. But if you take advantage of the dolar blue rate (the unofficial exchange rate on the street) you can get close to 13 ARS/USD. That’s a 47% difference, and it adds up fast.
For those concerned about exchanging money on the street, I assure you that it’s standard practice. There’s even an official dolar blue website detailing the most up-to-date exchange rates. If you wander down Florida Street in Buenos Aires, you’ll hear a chorus of voices muttering “cambio, cambio, casa de cambio,” (change) every few feet. These are your people. Disregard your mom’s advice and make sure you judge the book by its cover here. If you do your research, bring crisp dollars in large denominations, and know how to spot counterfeits, you will be just fine and reduce the cost of your trip significantly.
Of course not every country has loopholes like this. But you can travel quite comfortably without dropping huge sums of money if you’re smart about your destination and style of travel. Hostels are always the cheapest accommodations and they’re much nicer than most anticipate. This is hands down best way to meet fellow travelers. Even if you’re apprehensive about the true hostel experience, you have options. Across Asia, Europe, and South America you can find private rooms in incredibly nice hostels or bed and breakfasts for as little as $20/night (total). Talk to fellow travelers and do your research ahead of time and you’ll be surprised at how easily you can pull off the vacation of your dreams.
February 2015 – Southeast Asia
My most recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia provided the last little spark I needed to completely adopt the traveler mentality I unknowingly set out for. These two countries took me by complete surprise. During past trips, I’ve considered how it might nice to live abroad one day, but my experiences in Vietnam made me realize that this once farfetched idea could easily become my reality.
There are an abundance of beautiful places in the world. Vietnam and Cambodia are certainly that, as is every other destination listed above. But what distinguishes the most memorable trips are the people. This includes fellow travelers (realization #2), but just as importantly the local people and the culture. It’s something I acknowledged prior to my recent trip but never really understood until I experienced it firsthand.
4) Sometimes it’s the places you least expect that steal your heart.
I didn’t expect to fall completely in love with the culture and people of Vietnam. Not that I had it out for them. I just figured the cultural differences would be too vast to connect on a deeper level. As it turns out, I have never been more wrong in my life. The culture was obviously different, but I found that I more strongly identified with their values and the way they go about their lives than what I’m familiar with back home. Kindness and honesty are cornerstones of daily life, rather than the exception. It’s quite a breath of fresh air. Excess is nonexistent and people are genuinely happy with simplicity and the few things they do have.
Travelers are always searching for the place that has the 'it' factor. It’s different for each person based on how well you identify, but culture is the key component here.
If you fall in love with the culture and the locals, it’s what allows you to connect on a deeper level. This connection is what provides the sustained euphoria that travelers search far and wide for. It’s the rare place in the world where you immediately feel at home and can relate to almost effortlessly. It’s the place that is your breath of fresh air.
If you have the means to travel, there’s really no excuse not to. The smartest minds have and always will be well traveled. Developing the capacity to relate to and empathize with a wide-range of people is perhaps the most valuable life skill there is. This isn’t something you’re born with and there’s only one way to get there. Travel. And travel often.
It’s a far better use of your money to buy fewer things, live below your means back home, and invest in experiences you’ll carry forward for the rest of your life. You can spend an extra $10,000 on a sunroof and leather seats in your next car, or that same amount can get you 4+ trips to anywhere in the world or multiple months abroad. Talk about opportunity cost.
Traveling will challenge you in more ways than you could ever imagine. This is a good thing. It will push the boundaries of your comfort zone and offer up some of life’s most important lessons. As you discover new cultures you’ll meet some of the most important people in your life, develop greater perspective, and hopefully discover a place that truly feels like home.
After all, what we crave most is the experience of feeling alive. There’s no better way to achieve this than spending your lifetime traveling and exploring what our vast planet has to offer.