A Little Perspective … How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me

When I talk about the direction my life has taken over the years, and what I think about for my future, I find myself circling around the fact that the act of near constant travel these past four years has shifted my perspective on life in tangible and identifiable ways. It shifted who I am, who I want to be, and how I perceive myself. And ultimately, it changed how I see and interact with the nearly every aspect of the world around me: family, jobs and career goals, political views, consumerism and consumption, friendships and my relationships. A time or two, I’ve alluded to these changes on A Little Adrift, but never have I elaborated—neither in person, nor on this site, nor even to myself.

But, it seemed appropriate to celebrate my four-year anniversary of travel this month (I left on election day 2008) with a look back on how I feel now—four years later, dozens of countries, hundreds of experiences, thousands of memories, stories, ideas, and challenges. The years have been filled with so much; I feel blessed by the opportunities I have had, and it’s surreal for me when I think of my first year on the road. I have a terrible memory, which means I can’t recall specific events off the top of my head. Ask me for a highlight from my travels and my brain blanks, little slices of panic creep in for a moment … surely I have something intelligent to say about four years of near constant travel. But I often don’t, and I falter and smile and come up with something that suffices but that rarely encapsulates the highs and the lows, the new perspectives and ideas.

Graffiti in Shanghai, China

These buildings in Shanghai are marked for demolition with graffiti; we saw this symbol all over the country as China destroys pieces of the past to make cities appear newer/fresher for events like the Olympics and World Expo.

Instead, a certain smell triggers my memories. Or perhaps the quality of setting sunshine casting shadows over a landscape pulls in delicate threads of all the past experiences that echo how I felt at that moment, what happened before and after that moment, and the shifts that were happening inside of me.

Because travel is personal.

For me, the memories, reflections, and changes are intertwined with far more than simply being there. It’s more than the fact that I watched sunrise very nearly on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, and instead that experience is indelibly linked to the fact that I cried for nearly an entire hour because we left at 4am, we hadn’t had breakfast, my blood sugar was tanking, and I surrendered instead of continuing. I camped out on a rock while the rest of my group continued to the summit and watched the hazy and cloudy sunrise alone. Sure, I can tell the story of a sunrise in the Himalayas if it occurs to me (which rarely happens) … but that memory only crops up when it’s linked to a me reflecting on failure in a quiet place. Like I did on that mountainside three and a half years ago.

hiking annapurna nepal

Two men quietly talk in the early evening high in a town we paused in for mere minutes while I hiked along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal.

I try to record key moments on my blog, experiences that resonated and changed me in some way, and the journey these past four years, but I invariably miss a lot. And I often leave out the major arch and themes—the reflections on what has shifted when looked at from a macro perspective of four years, not just perspective shifts in a single moment.

Last month, a reader emailed me with a simple request: “You asserted on your site that travel has shifted your perspective—How? Why? What is your perspective now?” Throughout the week I received that email, I pondered a response and dug deep to come up with something that would encapsulate what I feel and express something I had never yet put down on paper. Two days later, yet another question—quite similar in nature—popped up in my email. He wrote: “How has your perspective on your own country changed now that you see it through a more globalized lens.”

Nepali Nuns from Arya Tara

Two young female monks (nuns) at the Arya Tara school just outside of Pharping, Nepal.

While I’m not superstitious, I do mostly field travel-specific reader queries via email (questions about the how-tos and the technical aspects of it all), so two questions in the same week told me this warranted a closer look more deeply into the effect my travels have had on me.

It was hard to formulate a response that did the question justice in a single email. And the response is dynamic, which is likely why I never quite tackled answering this question. Ask me in another year, five years, even ten, and my answer will morph to include elements of every new realization and experience. My response changes with every new development in my life, and every trip I take. In conversation, my statements about travel changing me are assumed true by those who have never traveled, and echoed by those who have traveled, but rarely articulated by anyone involved. The assertion is my truth and accepted as such. But there is more to it, there are personal thoughts I have penned over the years that stand out as moments that changed the direction and my path in life. So, with that in mind, I will attempt to break down some of what has gone on inside myself over the years.

On my background …

At the most basic level, travel has humbled me and expanded my perception of my place in the world. I grew up in the United States and the circumstances of life insulated me from a visceral experience within any other culture. I did not grow up wealthy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I grew up in suburbia in a split household (my father raised me, my mother raised my brothers) and exotic for us was the luxury of eating at a delicious Thai restaurant my dad favored as I was growing up—no international travel for me, but I knew other places existed and in my teens my parents traveled to Ireland together. I had food on my plate every day, clothes from the second-hand store, and new toys and books under the Christmas tree each year. That was my normal and the foundational basis for my America, my version of what many outsiders see as the American dream—not perfect, not wealthy, but enough.

lake districts england

A solo one-handed self-portrait in the sheep-filled pastures in the Lakes District, England in my first year of solo travel.

Once I left my bubble in the U.S., I was thrust into new situations outside my realms of previous experience. I saw extreme wealth living aside startling poverty; I met people with radically divergent religious views. People who hated my country but not me. People who loved my country and assumed my America was a land of great wealth, equality, and outrageous opportunities. Opinions, stories, and new baseline realities were shoving into me at startling speeds.

The pace of life quickens when you’re outside of your home base.

The comfort of familiarity was gone and I was a stranger in each new place, the new experiences stacked up faster than I could write them down. That first, mostly solo year on the road was, in a way, my boot camp on life and perhaps the quickest period throughout which I assimilated new lessons. But it was the ensuing years that allowed me to process what I was experiencing; and it is over the years that I formed opinions, ideas, and patterns based on my shifting perspective and the lessons I’ve learned.

And there have been many lessons. Personal lessons and personal growths that were hard-learned and boy were some of them earned. And wider lessons, on truths and patterns that exist outside the knowledge bubble I operated from for the majority of my life.

On the lessons and changes along the way …

Over the years, the nuggets of similar truths found in every city, town, and village I passed through often surprised me. Amidst poverty and hunger, I felt a commonality of shared experiences—a desire within a person to better themselves, or perhaps a parent working diligently day and night on the hope of a better life for their child. The circumstances of the people I have met while traveling were often so seemingly disparate from the suburbia of my youth, but yet underneath, deep within the travel experience were common themes. I found common hopes and common fears within each person’s story. Witnessing this, hearing the stories and feeling the inherent kindness of communities all over the world, has broadened my sense of self, and my understanding of the threads of connection binding us all.

A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan

A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan

I have learned that relative wealth—the wealth we have in the West in the form of opportunities and a government that generally provides basic services and support—does not isolate us from similar common human experiences. Though I have never gone hungry or wondered about my next meal, I do understand loss. I watched loss echo off the dense trees of a remote mountainside in Nepal as a keening wife followed a funeral procession down mountain behind her husband, gone to soon. And the deep pain in that woman’s voice jarred me back  several years, to sitting on a couch as my mother processed my brother’s sudden death. Both were deep losses, both illustrate shared commonality that crosses cultures—a shared humanity connecting without regard for culture or wealth, class or color.

bus in india

Roof-top seats on a very, very full bus in India was the norm, rather than the exception.

And then there are the things I see and have yet to assimilate, yet to turn into “lessons” … the things I don’t yet know how to process and accept as reality. The haunting eyes of a child with a distended belly, dirty hands, and probing eyes gave me a regular glimpse at the devastating effects of wealth disparity … children are starving to death every single day, and yet children in my life throw temper tantrums because they don’t “like” the taste of some food provided for them in great quantity and on a daily basis. And I know there is a flaw in direct comparisons. I see this though, and there is a pain as I attempt to reconcile the two realities … but then the travel moment changes, the pickup truck engine starts again and the faces fade into a cloud of rough red dust. Or maybe something happens at the dinner table to channel focus elsewhere, off of the children, and the moment is over, blending into the next experience with the only commonality between these moments me, as the witness.

On who I am today …

I am a traveler and a sometimes outsider to life. In both places, home and on the road I witness both experiences, I assimilate what I have seen without judgment on a good day, joy on a great day, and sadness on a bad day. I observe and try to understand it all. Try to focus my lens into crystal clear clarity, though I know there are some things for which there is no easy answer. I am often at a loss about what I can say in the tough moments both here and on the road, so I mostly stay silent. And I post pretty photos and tell the happy stories.

And what does all of this mean for me, each day after four years of travel?

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

At the core of it all, travel has recalibrated the point of view through which I approach problems and situations in my life, it has given me a sense of gratitude for what I have in my life through nothing more than circumstance of birth, and even more grateful for my ability to share that message with others. I know more, and though I have learned much, I understand less than I once thought. My view of the world has taken flight like a bird—outside of the microcosm of my country there is a pulsating planet of other people, like me and yet so very different; so different from what I am, have ever been, and will ever be. I appreciate travel if for no other reason than for the fact that I now feel more able to take the proverbial step into another person’s shoes and imagine their struggles, feel their hopes, and respect their successes and failures.

Travel has made me feel more deeply for other people and has put into perspective the highs and lows in this world. I hurt more and I love more deeply, I see more joy and much more sorrow, I’m more introspective and less impatient. I argue just as passionately but with a lot more experiences to call upon, and a place deep in my soul now understands the meaning of the word solitude, which has taught me to seek the friendships, conversations, and slices of happiness I can find.

In short, travel changed my life.

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