When we talk about traveling, we often hear that it expands your mind, opens your eyes, and helps you to “find yourself”. In fact, I mention this sort of stuff in my blog all the time. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the misconception that all you have to do is hop on a plane to somewhere unknown and three months later you will return home a new person. This, of course, is just not true.
We live in a silver bullet society – we all want to find the one solution, the one pill, the one activity that will change us for the better without us having to do any of the work ourselves. We don’t actually want to change our behaviors or our lifestyle, because that would be hard and would force us to admit we are doing something wrong in the first place. Instead, we are constantly searching outside ourselves for solutions to our problems, rather than looking within.
Traveling is one solution that some people grab onto in an effort to fix whatever they have going on inside. While traveling is an amazing way to learn about the world, to challenge your beliefs and experience new cultures, traveling in and of itself is not going to expand your mind for you. You aren’t going to find yourself simply by traipsing through a bunch of foreign countries, snapping photos of local attractions, checking off boxes and filling up your passport. Growth and learning don’t occur through some magical international osmosis.
Just like so many things in life, what you get out of your travels is all about what you put into it. You could easily spend months hopping from hostel to hostel, interacting only with other travelers, seeing the sights during the day and partying each night, and return home with no greater knowledge of the world than someone who googled all the locations you visited. I’ll be the first to admit that this can be a whole lot of fun – you can meet heaps of amazing people and have some awesome stories to tell when you get back. If this is what you are looking for, then hey, keep on doing what you’re doing!
But if you are looking for something a little more out of your adventures, you’re not likely to find it in the usual places. Traveling isn’t a magic pill and it won’t do the work of personal growth for you – you have to decide what it is you want to gain and then make the conscious effort to cultivate that for yourself while abroad. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but nothing worth doing ever does.
In the past, I have never really gone into my travels with a central focus or thing I wanted to achieve, other than connecting with amazing people and seeing the world. But for my current 4-month stint around SE Asia, I knew I had something a little more specific I wanted to achieve and I thought a lot before my trip about what my goals and intentions were for my time here. Having just turned 30, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection and letting go and I figured this would be a good opportunity to really look inside, to do a lot of meditation and yoga, take care of my body and brain, and spend time examining myself, my life, and my beliefs.
While I don’t want to stifle my ability to go with the flow by giving myself some rigid parameters within which to spend my trip, I am finding so far that it has been helpful to have sort of a guiding light for my daily actions and experiences. Because I know that I want to focus on taking care of my body and doing some soul searching, I don’t feel like I’m missing out when I don’t go to the bar with everyone because I have other goals in mind. If I feel like having a quiet afternoon to myself instead of joining the group for a meal, I am easily able to choose the former because it better fits what I want in that moment.
Does that mean I always have to say no to partying or socializing? Not at all! As an extreme extrovert, it is just as important to my happiness to spend time connecting and socializing with others as it is to be alone. But knowing that it’s ok not to meet every single new person I possibly can allows me to take time for other things without feeling like I am missing out somehow. I am learning to find a balance that works for me in each moment based on the growth I want to achieve, while staying open to the possibility that it may change throughout the trip and will certainly change for future travels.
I highly recommend setting intentions for any activity, whether it is a big trip, a new activity you are trying, or a personal relationship. Be honest with yourself about what you want to get out of these things, write them down, and then figure out how you can honor yourself by working towards those intentions each day. And, importantly, be open to revisiting those intentions often and altering them if they are not working for you or are no longer relevant. It’s always ok to change your mind.
Learning to Listen
Something else I’m trying to work on in my current trip is the art of listening. I love meeting new people and I love talking and sharing my travel stories! But sometimes I will leave a conversation realizing that I just spent an hour with someone from a country I have never been to and didn’t ask them a single question about what their home is like. Of course, hearing about it is not the same as being there, but some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had while traveling have been ones where I ask the simple question of “What is it like back home?”
I have learned so much from this small but significant question. I have learned that it is compulsory for Israeli women and men to spend two and three years respectively serving in the army when they turn 18. I have learned that in Denmark, you basically get paid to go to university for three years. I have learned that Leipzig is a very cool city with a great art scene.
As fun as it is to share my own life with other people, I learn so much more from asking questions and listening. This is not to say that I go out of my way to avoid talking about myself – far from it! – because that is also a way in which I can meaningfully connect with others and build new relationships. We can’t expect people to share with us if we aren’t willing to share ourselves. But I think a lot of us could do a better job of being more interested in the person sitting across from us than in waiting for our turn to speak. And if we practice this skill when we travel and are lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are from completely different cultures, we are likely to learn a whole lot more.
Unlikely animal friends
Ok, the title of this section might be a bit misleading due to the word “animal”, but technically, humans are animals too (and I just really love any chance to reference those adorable photos of gorillas holding tiny kittens).
So, on my first day in Siem Reap, I sat down to breakfast at a table of strangers with whom I ended up spending the next 2 days. We were one New Zealander, one Polish girl, and four Americans, one of whom was a conservative Republican Trump supporter. By the time this information “came out”, we had all already gotten to know each other a bit and while I knew this person wasn’t necessarily someone I would normally interact with in my daily life, I liked him.
He was loud and gregarious, wore a backwards baseball cap and drank beer all day long. He preferred hotels to hostels, but his traveling buddy had talked him into giving Siem Reap Hostel a try. Though I could tell from the start that we were very different, I also noticed right away that he was generous and caring, open and friendly, and interacted more with the locals than any of the rest of us. He was always the first person to give a dollar to the kids selling postcards at Angkor Wat and constantly seemed to be having a good time, regardless of what we were doing.
Things in our country have become so polarized, long before the last election, and I knew this was a good opportunity for me to let go of my prejudices and try to see someone for more than just their political party. In many ways, traveling is a great equalizer – it gives us the chance to leave behind all the baggage we carry around with us in our own countries and just enjoy exploring a new place with new people who don’t know everything about us. Portland can be such an echo chamber – it would almost be hard to find someone who voted for Trump even if I tried.
On our last night together in Siem Reap, Mr. Conservative and I hopped in a tuk tuk and asked the driver to just drive us around town to some random places. He had done this himself the night before and when I lamented the fact that it’s less safe for women to just go about town alone, he immediately offered to join me. We stopped at a brightly lit Christmas display on the lawn of a museum, burned incense at a random temple, and grabbed cheap coffee at a KFC.
We had great conversations about life and even talked about the fact that we came from very different worlds but both appreciated that we were able to enjoy each other’s company and not focus on the things that would have separated us back home. Neither of us had any desire to convince the other that their beliefs were wrong (and besides, there is plenty of research showing that arguing over strongly held beliefs only entrenches people further in their values and convinces them they are right). We just hung out as two humans in a foreign city and had a really nice time together.
Now, would we become best friends if we were living in the same city back home? To be honest, probably not. The truth is, we are very different and we hold a lot of opposing values. Maybe we would occasionally meet for coffee, but I can’t really see us blending into each other’s lives in a meaningful way. But I’d like to think we both learned a little bit from spending some time together.
These kinds of experiences, however small and seemingly insignificant they may be, add up over time and slowly open us up to other viewpoints. We have to be able to see people as more than just their political party or who they voted for. While those things are clearly important, they are not everything and I think we have lost sight of that in our current political climate.
To sum it all up…
I’m not sure this post really had one coherent message, other than I’m having a great time on this trip so far and you should all be jealous of the awesome adventures I’m on and how much I am bettering myself (*high-fiving a million angels*).
Oh, and I suppose we should all remember that personal growth is up to us – set intentions, put the work in, and constantly revise your goals and check in with yourself. It’s ok to change your mind and to change the direction you are going! Honestly, you can grow just as much from being at home as you can from being in a foreign country. While traveling does provide us with awesome opportunities, we are responsible for taking advantage of them and using them to improve ourselves in whichever areas we choose!