It’s been two months since I returned to the U.S. after the round-the-world trip a.k.a. the 2014 Where Is Your Toothbrush? World Tour. The dust of resettlement has settled, the destination portion of this blog is winding down, I’m adjusting to life back in Portland (looking for a job, reconnecting with friends, sampling microbrews), and learning how to live like a perpetual traveler. Similar to many travel bloggers after they return home (see here, here, here, here, here, or here), I also reflect on what I learned on/from the big trip. No, I hadn’t set out to gain any of these insights—these travel lessons came as epiphanies.

Travel lessons

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Travel lessons: I took things for granted

After repeatedly going over to the dark side of traveling during the trip, I understood I hadn’t properly appreciated some of what my life in the U.S. provided. It was the little things, for example:

  • clean underwear
  • a hot shower with decent water pressure
  • decent wifi
  • decent pizza
  • espresso or just good coffee
  • air-conditioning
  • no touts in front of restaurants or taxi stations
  • no sewer smell on the street
  • drinking-safe tap water

as well as the big ones like health, time (see below), and money.

I’ve learned to value what I have when I have it because not only most people on the planet don’t have the same ‘luxuries,’ I myself may lose them at any time, especially when traveling. I returned transformed: more humble, more appreciative of everything.

Travel lessons: I need less than I thought (and less than I have)

I set out to travel lightly, bringing only essential gear in a 44-liter / 2,650-cubic-inch backpack and a shoulder bag weighing a total of 14 kilos / 31 pounds. But barely halfway through the trip I realized I still carried too much. I downsized to a 32-liter backpack and a smaller shoulder bag (I never got to weigh myself with the new combo) with some room left over, and after a few months I felt I could go even smaller. Many travelers learn this and exhort others to pack little. I learned, as the common advice goes, to buy whatever I lacked and then shed it, usually by leaving it behind for whomever comes after me or throwing it away, if necessary. I believe this can only be truly learned from personal experience.

The point was driven home again when I returned and looked at the little shed at my mother-in-law’s where Lindsay and I had stored a few boxes of personal stuff we wanted to keep. I went through every box to select what to bring with me back up to Portland. Ninety percent of the things made me wonder, ‘Why did I keep all this?’

Just like tasks tend to stretch themselves to the time allotted, the amount of stuff tends to accumulate in the space available. But no matter how small or large the space I live in, I need less than I think and most likely less than I have.

Travel lessons

A padlock on our little storage unit at Lindsay’s mother’s house.

Travel lessons: It happens when it happens

I come from a punctual culture. When I’m late for anything I feel a great deal of anxiety. Vice-versa, I hate waiting. And now I live in a culture where ‘time is money’ and real-time (as in now) rules. Yet, in most of the world, or at least most of the places we visited, time flows differently.

Though I was familiar with the concept of event time—’it happens when it happens,’ or, ‘whenever it happens is the right time’—as opposed to my own clock time conception, it was only on the trip that I truly learned to appreciate it and enjoy its advantages. Ever since I started letting things happen on their own schedule (I’m not talking about business appointments here, but rather about things I have no control over), I am calmer, more level-headed, and happier.

Traveling is my life

When I was a teenager I dreamed of a life in which I would live in a different country every 6-12 months. In college and for a few years thereafter I traveled a good deal, mostly around Europe and the U.S., so much so that my Serbian friends, whom I met traveling, gave me the nickname Petar Jebivetar (Peter the Windf#$&r). Then I moved to the U.S., and with just a few exceptions spread over a decade, I only traveled to visit family and in-laws.

On the trip, in Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, and Australia, I reconnected with friends I knew from my previous traveling life, and made a few new ones. I reconnected with the traveling version of myself, resumed the love affair with travel that had made so whole, became younger even as days kept adding up toward the ultimate Finish line. When I realized this was happening, about 4 months into the trip, it was an epiphany: traveling is my life. In fact, it is, as George Santayana points out, life itself.

Travel lessons: I am nothing

We humans tend to think we each are the center of the universe, but in the end we’re all unique just like everyone else. I passed through a lot of places, traveled more than 40,000 miles, saw a lot of people and a lot of natural and man-made things. When I placed myself next to all that, to all the humanity and its creations and to all the planet’s beauty, I felt small, nothing even. This was more immediate than the kind of smallness and insignificance one feels gazing at the night sky. It was a physical, visceral experience, that shook my body and mind into knowing that in any grand scheme of things I don’t matter. Just the thought of it now makes me once again bow my head in humility. It’s a good thing.

Travel lessons

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia.

What travel lessons has being on the road taught you? What wouldn’t you truly know without having traveled?

26 Responses

  1. Lily Lau

    Those lessons are so valuable… 🙂 I know perfectly what you mean with clean underwear (or any clothes!) and hot water, it’s when you think “home, sweet home”, but after a while you love the adventure again!

    Reply
  2. Melinda

    I love this post–while my travels have been far less ambitious than yours, I could relate to just about everything on this list.

    Reply
  3. Pech

    Great post, it really makes me want to travel. It’s been unfortunate that travel as a typical American has meant short trips of maybe a week at most and domestic, while I see family members in other countries somehow having more freedom as they visit other countries every year. Every year responsibilities and costs makes me put off the dream, but I hope to change that next year, and really mean it when I say I start next year! I admire that you made the fantasy of travel to experience other places and not just briefly visit happen.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      We could talk for hours about the differences in American and European vacation packages. Good luck in your travel planning. May I recommend: Start now!

      Reply
  4. Caitlin

    I can relate to this on so many levels! As much as I wholeheartedly agree that there are simple things at home that just push you into ridiculous bliss upon reunion (fresh sheets, no second thoughts about water from the faucet, flushing toilet paper, etc), it never takes long before the travel bug starts making me restless. It is totally humbling. Beautiful post.

    Reply
  5. Jane

    Very thoughtful post. I’m going to carry these ideas around with me. The idea of enoughness is a challenge, even just “are we enough,” and not only “do I have enough.” Everywhere I look, there seems to be pressure to be more and do more and make more.

    So, the question is, can you live like a traveler at home? Or do you have to keep leaving to remember these insights?

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      It’s possible to live like a traveler at home but it’s much harder than when you are actually traveling. It helps to reminisce and reflect on the trip, though…

      Reply
  6. Rhonda

    Well said and we whole heartedly agree! Now, while still in planning stages for our next extended trip, we have itchy feet to be on the road and yet are determined to enjoy our kitchen, our fantastic palapa out back, hot showers, good coffee, picking produce for dinner out of our very own garden, the ability to just sit down every so often, turn on a movie and spread out on the couch. As much as we love traveling, it’s always a catch 22… when on the road we know we will miss these things (and, of course, family and friends) and yet our soul hungers for more so here at home we miss the other lands, other languages, other ways of doing things. I think the VERY most important thing we’ve learned… treat every single day as the miracle it is because you never know when it’s the last.

    Reply
  7. Heather Widmer

    Great article! We’re ten months into our round the world adventure and can really relate to things that we have been taking for granted. Also, your point about personal items in storage while traveling. We have a closet of personal items at a family member’s home. After being on the road, you really do realize how little you need. I anticipate having a “why did I keep this” moment as well 🙂

    Reply
  8. Carmel

    I said something like, “it’ll happen when it happens.” and my family looked at me like I was from another planet. This was most definitely not the attitude I kept before we left. I don’t know what happened or when, but I’m glad I’ve taken a more laid back approach to time. It’s better for my stress levels.

    I’ve discovered that while long-term travel isn’t for me in the long run, we will always be travelers and wanderers. I know exploring more of the world is in our future and we’ll definitely make it happen again.

    Reply
  9. Emily

    A great sum up of lessons which I am sure will culminate for us when we return to Toronto in 2 months. 2 months?!

    Reply

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