A little over a year ago, Alison and I threw our stuff into a 5×10 storage unit in Charlotte, NC and boarded a one-way flight to Bangkok, with basically no other plans. It’s been almost two months since we returned from our 12 month round-the-world jaunt and the time at home has afforded some reflective periods on a few of the lessons we’ve learned this year. Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about how we “found ourselves” (what does that even mean?) or any nonsense like that.
Some of these lessons came gradually, others from unlikely sources at unlikely times. In general, travel is the best form of education I know of. It makes you think in different ways and gain new perspectives. It challenges you to try new things, push your boundaries, and get outside your comfort zone. It exposes you to new people and environments and stimulates intellectual curiosity. It forces you to overcome challenges, roll with the punches, and learn new languages. It clears your mind to think about what’s truly important, to develop meaningful relationships, and to come back home with fresh perspectives.
1. The world doesn’t hate America
Some people seem to think that everyone is out to get us. We keep getting asked about the anti-American treatment/ sentiment we encountered, but we really didn’t have any. Sure, there were a few haters and people who politely stated they didn’t like our government’s foreign policy (probably because we bombed them at some point) or immigration officials (probably because an immigration agent took them to a back room and harassed them).
In general, the world cares about as much about America as we care about Colombia or Belgium. People have their own lives to live…they don’t spend their time worrying or thinking about us. As much as we like to think America is the center of the universe, it’s not (sorry if that sounds unpatriotic – it’s the truth).
That said, it is not uncommon to hear Justin Timberlake in random towns in asia or Hollywood movies played on bus rides in Peru.
2. Happiness is flexible
No matter where we went (1st or 3rd world countries), who we met (businessmen, politicians, fishermen, or beggars), or the circumstances in which people lived (luxurious high rises, beach bungalows, or huts with dirt floors), there were always plenty of happy people around. That’s because happiness is wanting what you have. And if all you want are the basics, you can be happy in most circumstances. I found that most people in all walks of life can be happy if they have the following:
- Families they love and who love them
- Shelter and a place to call home
- Food to give their families and share with others (everyone loves food and it largely defines our cultures)
- Games for kids to play (whether it’s soccer, baseball, or a homemade parachute contraption made out of coca-cola cans, kids love to play games)
- Hope that their lives and the lives of their families will improve
3. You create your own opportunities in life
Starting a business, running a marathon, traveling the world…these things don’t just happen, we have to make them happen. There’s never going to be a “right time” to accomplish our goals or someone waiting around to hand us what we want in life…we have to create those opportunities, and the best time to do that is now.
A lot of people we’ve talked to have said something along the lines of “I wish we could do what you guys did” or “I’d love to do that at some point.” Not to be rude, but if that’s what you really want what are you waiting for? The pot of gold that justifies spending the best years of your life hoping for happiness in the last? Long-term travel is the most rewarding and enriching thing we’ve ever experienced, and it’s easier (and cheaper) than you think. Sure, it takes some planning and a giant leap of faith. But I’ve never met anyone who regrets it. If you want to travel, do it now! While you still can!
4. The world is a stunningly beautiful place
We were fortunate enough to see some incredible natural beauty this year. We saw the highest mountain in the world, scuba dived untouched barrier reefs, climbed unnamed volcanoes, and stepped foot on a continent less than .001% of the world will ever visit. It was truly awe-inspiring to see the raw beauty of our planet in its some of its finest forms.
After seeing some of the crown achievements of mother-nature first hand, I feel an obligation to do what I can to improve the chances of our grandkids seeing the same natural beauty. Do I really need that plastic bag? Why not walk to the store instead of driving? Call me a hippie, a treehugger, whatever. I just want our great grandkids to see how beautiful the Patagonian icefield is…and it’s melting, fast.
5. Life’s too short to care what other people think
As Steve Jobs said, we’re all going to die someday, and that’s the best tool to help us make some of life’s hardest decisions. Sometimes we need to take a step back, look in the mirror, stop trying to please everyone, and start making decisions based on how we really want to live our lives. Don’t like your city? Move somewhere else. Don’t like your job? Find another one. Want to backpack Asia for six months? Make a plan, save money, and go.
Society creates all these excuses for why we can or can’t do things. These are our lives to live…let’s do what makes us happy. Although we were blessed to have strong support systems for our decision to travel, there were certainly people who were against it for one reason or another. We could have spent a lot of time explaining ourselves and trying to please everyone we know, but at the end of the day who gives a shit – it’s your life to live so do whatever you want and forget about the rest.
6. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive
A lot of Americans share the common misconception that travel has to be expensive. That we have to stay in big fancy hotels, drink pina coladas with an umbrella thingy, and eat at the nicest restaurants around. Let me fill you in on a big fat secret…TRAVEL CAN BE PRETTY DARN CHEAP, EVEN CHEAPER THAN YOUR LIVING COSTS AT HOME. Not only that, I would argue cheaper travel is more fulfilling because it forces you to actually interact with locals, learn about their cultures, and see things you wouldn’t see in a hotel lobby.
You may have to try a bit harder, but there are ways to travel much more efficiently and places where the dollar goes MUCH further.
A great place to start to learn more would be Nomadic Matt’s recent book on How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. We read this before we left on our trip to gauge costs in different parts of the world. $50 a day X 365 days = $18,250 to travel around the world for a year. That’s A LOT of money for sure, but probably much less than you would have thought. Furthermore, sticking to places like Southeast Asia or Central America, where you can travel comfortably for as little as $20-25/ day, can cut that figure in half.
7. If you were born in a western country, you hit the DNA lottery, but the gap is closing
There are countless advantages and opportunities that come from being born in one of the handful of western countries. Our “givens” are much of the world’s luxuries and pipedreams. Aside from the obvious ones (access to healthcare, education systems, functioning economy, welfare programs, etc.) here are a few of the many things we took for granted that are not even close to guaranteed in some parts of the world:
- Clean drinking water
- Not worrying about how or where to get food every day
- Choice of livelihood
- Stable currency system
- Toilet seats
- Functioning sewage systems
- Not having unexploded, immovable bombs in our backyard
- Freely elected officials at least trying to fix problems
All that said, the world is catching up with us. I didn’t expect cell phones to be ubiquitous in the poorest countries we visited. Most buses in South America have WiFi. Singapore makes Manhattan look like a slum. We received awesome healthcare in Vietnam and Nicaragua, and at a fraction of the cost of care at home.
There’s a strong argument that we aren’t the greatest country in the world any more (…GASP!!…), but we’re a heck of a lot better off than most. And for that we should be more than thankful.