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