How many times have you seen the words “travel” and “find yourself” lumped together?
From the study abroad posters featuring beaming college kids prancing around Prague, to REI’s brochure with the backpack-clad adventurer ziplining to Nirvana, traveling seems to promise us the world… literally. It will help you figure out who you are. The destination might be far, but the real journey is inside.
This is the sales pitch.
And so, throngs of searching souls scrape the bottom of their bank accounts to finance trips to new destinations, seeking adventure, thrill, and life experiences. If not to pass on to future grandchildren, maybe just to post to Instagram: #blessed.
There is a major shortcoming in this attitude toward travel. A disregard for the many-pronged aspects of going somewhere new, which often impact much more than simply yourself. You tread on strangers’ grounds and take photos of their daily backdrops. You salivate over their specialties and snap up souvenirs. Pieces of others’ daily lives become your mementos.
Let’s face it: this Eat, Pray, Love -esque travel often reeks of privilege and ignorance. Travel is not a universally available or common experience. It is an opportunity not just to see the world, but connect with the world. Not to merely observe, but to experience. To let the people 500 or 5,000 miles from home show you a different way of life.
How can you take advantage of this personal, life-changing experience while properly examining your role in the bigger picture?
Basic searches for any destination will showcase a wide variety of ways to travel while enjoying the most comfort, ease, and peace of mind possible. Shelling out enough cash ensures you never have to face the language barrier between you and the bus ticket cashier, needn’t gesture wildly when asking for directions on a street corner, or wade your way through a sea of chain restaurants to find the hidden gem where the locals hang out.
Even for nonconformist youthful backpackers, conveniences offered by hostels tend to usher international travellers into activities sheltered from the real people. You know, the ones who are just living their daily lives in the place you’ve dubbed your vacation spot.
They are the cab drivers, baristas, street vendors, and plaza performers.
They are the ladies on the bus, the supermarket cashiers, or your barstool neighbors.
They are the AirBnB and couchsurfing hosts or the friend of a friend’s cousin who said yes to you crashing on her air mattress.
You need to meet these people, because they will help you see this place’s truth. They are your chance to dodge past the paid tour guide’s version and get to the gritty reality. Locals know all of the ghost stories and gossip. They can take you through back roads and get you the best pancakes in town. With their guidance, you can avoid the danger zones and explore the out-of-the-way-but-so-worth-it spots.
This slice of the world you have crash landed in is their home. If you leave without knowing their version of it, did you really visit in the first place?
You might think that language barriers or cultural norms preclude such interactions. But don’t underestimate the power of a shared meal, a dance, a handshake, a bow, a picture or a silent moment between two strangers. The overlapping times of individuals from different parts of the world, brought together for a few minutes, hours, or days, reflects our humanity and the transience of existence. Through travel, we have the chance to connect with someone we otherwise would never have known, and this can affect us instantly. People do not have to be with us for long to impact us for life.
During your trip, reflection can seem like an afterthought. In fact, by definition, that’s exactly what it is. You’re likely spending so much time doing (which, depending on your daily life, might feel like a huge departure from the norm) that stopping to think about it all seems counterintuitive.
However, reflection is an absolutely critical aspect of conscious and balanced traveling. Whether your trip is one week or one year, if you’re not considering the gravity of your experience in a larger context, then what are you learning?
Find time on the transit between your destinations to record parts of what you’ve seen. Make a voice memo, write a note, or draw a picture. Document these powerful moments.
The drumming circle you happened upon in the park. The homeless child who deftly stole your wallet. That incredible baklava from the dingy café. The way the sun seemed to burn the mountaintop as it set. How the waitress looked just like your mother when she was young. The lost dog that wouldn’t stop howling all night.
Then, when you can, process it. Talk to your friends. Write in your journal. Make music or art. Meditate. Ask the bigger questions. What did these experiences help you see about yourself? About this culture? About the world? How did they touch your heart? Scare you? Give you pause? Make you question what you thought you knew?
Don’t let these potentially profound realizations escape due to lack of time or motivation. Screw the pictures and the souvenirs. These thoughts will be the most important thing you take home.
As you re-enter your daily life, you have to figure out how to express your journey to others. Frustratingly, the most difficult part of coming back is the questions.
For many, these are simply socially predetermined niceties. Your coworker, Judy, who passes you on the way to the break room, probably doesn’t really care about your trip. But you left and now you’re back and she needs to acknowledge that. So she asks that tried and true query to do her due diligence:
“How was it?”
Open, vague, and unanswerable in any concise manner, this question leaves any reflective traveler with many a moment of panic.
How do you distill all that you now know into a socially appropriate response? Do you reply with the equally flippant “It was great!”? Thus, obliterating the possibility for real dialogue about your complex and multifaceted experience? Do you try to explain, fumbling over the words to bring your moments to life via verbal regurgitation? Do you pull out your phone, and swipe through the highlights, hoping some visuals will begin to relay this behemoth that is “your trip”?
Usually, it’s some combination of the above. But luckily, Judy is not everyone.
For those who do demonstrate a genuine interest in what you did, try to get enough time to talk in-depth, to share not just the perfectly composed snapshot by the famed landmark, but also the connections, the conversations, the moments of spontaneous laughing fits, thwarted stereotypes and cultural exchanges. Talk about how this place moved you, pushed you, or challenged you, and explain that, in the end, you can’t really say “how it was.”
Because “it” is not a place on a map. It is not an airport or an exit ramp, a postcard image, or a building. No, it is a beautiful, messy conglomeration of smiles, morsels, cheek kisses, sandy feet, sleep-deprived train rides and faraway, fledgling friends. And no amount of pictures or videos could ever capture them.
“Is it worth going?” they often ask.
You tell me.
Gina Edwards is an unapologetically snarky blogger with a love of parentheses (but who isn't?) and beer with funny names. She's currently be-bopping around Santiago, Chile on her bike, teaching her native language to fancy people. Her skills include making hilarious puns, no-bake cookies, and mountains out of molehills.