A Little Reckoning… On Transformative Travel Experiences and 9 Years of Travel

nine years world traveler

Nearly a decade of travel. The top left is my final day as a Los Angeleno, and the other three are from France, Kyrgyzstan, and Vietnam — all places I have visited this year.

To call it sadness gives it too much weight. But happiness is too vibrant and concrete. I don’t feel identifiably happy as I enter my tenth year on the road. At least not toward travel, particularly. It’s more like a heavy uncertainty. My life is pregnant with pause. I am waiting to hear from the Spanish embassy, and if it approves my visa application, I am moving to Spain, for now. If it doesn’t, I will move somewhere Stateside. Either way, it’s time to get an apartment. I will still travel, but at a different pace. I’ll have a home base from which to explore. A place to hang paintings, and a place to welcome friends. It feels right to change the direction of this path I ventured down in 2008. I accomplished so much more than the goals I had dreamed of when I began traveling.

Looking back at the 20-something version of myself, packing for her round the world trip, kissing friends and family goodbye, and crying on the way to the airport — I was poised on the edge of something great. Facing the uncertainty of my year on the road filled me with exhilarating fear. No matter the cost, I wanted the experience of travel. Absolutely. So I left; I adventured.

And years passed. Nine, to be exact.

After nine years of travel, I have deeply and fundamentally changed.

Which was my intention. Change would have happened either way, even if I hadn’t traveled, because nine years is a long time. But when I first nurtured the seed of an idea to backpack around the world, I flirted with the transformation narrative our culture wraps around travel.

We are told personal transformation — personal excellence even — is the result of a well-traveled life.

It’s a powerful narrative, an aspiration sold by the media, by the travel literati. The transformation narrative is desirable and sexy. Epic adventuring catalyzes deep internal shifts. Only travel itself unlocks the changes; without the travel experience, you cannot access all that is promised. What you will become is unknowable, the entire promise is possibly unattainable. Uncertainty only increases the appeal.

The lure of the transformation pulled at the lightest and darkest parts of my soul. Transformation promised me the opportunity to become the best version of myself, and it promised to lift me from my shameful background. I wanted in on all of that, no matter what it would take to make it happen.

My nieces and nephews have joined me along the way. I’ve taken them on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, adventuring in Thailand, and road-tripping in Mexico. My dad, niece and I traveled through Panama together, too!

…on my early days.

Growing up, I hid much about my life from friends. Around my middle school years I realized my family had issues. Fundamental dysfunction cracked our familial walls and splintered the bright, assumptive “American Dream” that I had supposed we were living during my early childhood. By my teenage years, it was clear that while there is such thing as being poor with dignity, we weren’t that kind of family.

At a time when I desperately sought to belong within my peer group, I developed deep shame about my background. I machinated a story of myself that better aligned with the outward version of “normal” I saw in everyone else. I was good at dissembling; I learned to tell an edited version of my life for “polite society.” Others would like me better, better accept me, if they thought my childhood was middle class, too.

And it worked, for the most part. I graduated high school with honors and had a bevy of middle-class friends. I was the first in my family to attend university. And yet, life followed me. When I participated in that classic middle-class rite of passage — a summer study abroad program — I flew home three days into it to bury my brother, the first of several family members who have been taken by the ongoing opioid crisis. His death leveled me. It flattened the colors of my world. I could not edit this family tragedy from my story.

It was my first truly transformative experience. I hadn’t chosen it, but it fundamentally changed me.

Three years later, I would leave on a one-way ticket to travel around the world. I would choose transformation through travel for all the light and happy things I wanted to become, for the lessons I would learn and the knowledge I could forever hold within me. And sure, I was escaping some things, too. That statement feels true. But it’s also true that I was running into the next step of healing, of growth. I was escaping my past into a more accepting larger world.

We all seek things — acceptance, love, truth. Travel looked like an escape hatch, but not one that would come easy or free. And that, too, appealed to me. Life had shown me at every turn that nothing worthwhile comes free.

jumping shots around the world

So many fun times while jumping at Petra in Jordan, jumping at a vibrant street-art exhibit in London, jumping at India’s Monument of Love, and even jumping on the Great Wall of China.

… on creating the space for transformation.

When I left nine years ago, I gave little conscious thought to what actions catalyze transformation. I had assumed that transformation was a byproduct of setting in motion my plan to travel the world. That didn’t bear out as true. To an extent, I had known that I would return from my trip with few epiphanies if I spent a year sunning myself on a beach in Tahiti — I would be tanner and more relaxed, but little wiser, and unlikely transformed. There isn’t a manual on a way to travel that guarantees transformation — had there been one, I would have read it.

It took years on the road to realize that deep, lasting, and meaningful personal transformation happened as a result of the connections that I created with new people and cultures.

Like many travelers, I’ve ticked off the classic bucket list items. I dove the Great Barrier Reef, stood in awe of Petra, and I walked the Camino de Santiago across France and Spain. These adventures satisfied my wanderlust and satiated my craving to see new things and to stimulate my curiosity, but it wasn’t the adventures that changed me.

As I look back on nine years of travel, I see that this life on the road has afforded me the chance to connect with people from every walk of life. Travel was the shiny wrapping paper around the experiences. Experiences like conversing with indigenous women in rural Mexico, and sunset hiking with Maasai warriors, and even casual conversations over yum kai dao with other expats in Chiang Mai. Years of conversations. Of viewpoints I had never encountered. Of stories I could have never imagined.

Hundreds of moments of connection over thousands of days of travel.

It’s the one through-line in my travels. Connection is the thread binding to me each experience and memory. Sometimes the beautiful vistas, waterfalls, and mountains blend together, but each story, laugh, and friendship stands as a distinct tick mark on the timeline of my nine years.

We have a fundamental need to connect. Perhaps that’s why no one had to teach me that this was my surest path toward personal transformation. We are wired to connect; pro-social behavior is programmed into our brains from birth. But despite these fundamental needs, technology has isolated us from connection. The more time I spend on social media or plugged into my online world, the easier I slip away from this fundamental truth: we require interpersonal connections.

Had you told me connection would make all the difference when I left to travel, I would have bought what you were selling. It makes sense. And it makes sense that travel is the ideal way to practice radical connection — travel friendships are intense and fast. It’s completely normal to meet a new friend and spend the next week eating three meals a day together. It’s a gauntlet of new situations and new opportunities to connect. Travel is a bootcamp for life, honing skills we need, skills that can lay dormant when we maintain a life of routine and familiarity.

Over time, however, I discovered that pairing acceptance with connection upped the stakes considerably. The thread that bound connections to me wove acceptance into my life, too. As I connected with new friends and throughout new experiences, I learned to radically accept those on my path. Stay on the road for long enough, and acceptance invariably comes. Acceptance of the people who surprise us and acceptance of the validity of ideas that challenge us. And acceptance of ourselves, too — somehow, that winds its way through the entire process.

My focus shifted to responsible travel over the years, giving me the chance to talk with locals in communities all over the world.

A decade of travel friendships. Some were friends from high school and college who traveled to far-flung places to join my journey. And some I met along the way, and their friendships resonated strong and deep.

… on what I’ve learned along the way.

As my travels progressed beyond the first year, and when I realized I would never return to the life I had left in LA, my professional and personal focus changed. Instead of sharing my journey on this site — I founded A Little Adrift to fill the gap in online information about long-term travel — I crystalized my focus on sharing stories that shifted the way others see the world. If connection was the root of my personal transformation through travel (and it was), then I wanted to create connections for those who may never travel. I wanted to share stories of the human experience that would eliminate distance and indifference across countries, continents, and cultures.

Over the years, my goals continued to shift and my career changed paths. Although I continued to work in online marketing for years, I also began promoting responsible tourism through this site, and through it’s sister site. And while I shared these stories for others, I was also in my groove. I loved traveling and talking to others. I loved finding these tiny social enterprises and interviewing the founders to learn how others were changing their small corner of the world.

The core of responsible travel comes down to experiencing and supporting people as they are. For years, I have entered cultures and communities all over the world to experience and accept them, never looking for the ways I could change them. Instead, I looked for the what I could learn from them. I advocated for travelers to take a journey of curiosity and learning, not a mission of change.

I spent years honing my muscles of acceptance — training myself to distance my personal desires and beliefs from the people, traditions, and cultures I entered. After hundreds (probably thousands) of conversations about connection and acceptance, after nearly a decade of talking to others (from high school and college students to other travelers to friends and family), I realized that I had healed many of the hurts from my formative years.

Deep in my soul, I have always harbored the what-ifs about my family and my life. Everything would have been different if only we hadn’t been poor, if we hadn’t lived in squalor. It would have turned out happy and healthy if my brothers had chosen education over drugs and crime.

I had deep shame about my background and I was unable to accept that I could not change or control the situation. Even as a teen, I tried to lift us from that, to forever shift our circumstances so that — as a whole — we were not identified with that income bracket, with being lower class, with being poor white trash. It’s not that I hated our poverty; I hated that we could not see our way through it. And man would I love to say that I reached adulthood and figured it out, that I accepted each person in my family for who they are. I didn’t. And when dominoes of bad befell my four brothers, I doubled down. I was desperate to save us. I channeled my anger and hurt into going even further, into insisting that we become a different family. I demanded that we break the cycle with the next generation, my nieces and nephews. Even as I traveled, this unhealthy shame and need for change bound me to my hometown in Florida.

With each passing year, however, acceptance seeped through the cracks. It slithered around these long-held hurts and shame. It healed parts of me that I had never known needed a balm.

Travel has brought me profound joys. It brought me new friends, forever friends who have changed my life for the better. It brought laughter, struggle, and interest to my days. But it’s the process of connection and acceptance that transformed me into the person I am today.

Traveling doesn’t transform you. At least not the act of travel. Instead, traveling becomes shorthand for the journey you consciously choose when you set foot out your door. Is your journey one of returning from a beach in Tahiti, nine years later and significantly more tan? Or is it a purposeful act that sets in motion your personal transformation.

Like most things in life, neither choice is inherently right or wrong, but the outcomes vary greatly.

I traveled with a goal of personal transformation, and I succeeded on that front. After nine years of travel, I am deeply and fundamentally changed.


33 Responses to A Little Reckoning… On Transformative Travel Experiences and 9 Years of Travel

  1. JoAnna December 5, 2017 at 10:02 am #

    I tucked this post to the side to read and think about with the time and care I knew it would deserve. I’ve admired your efforts to connect with grassroots efforts and local communities over your years of travel, Shannon, and I feel that, while many in the traditional “travel blogging” world veered off in some unsavory, generic and meaningless directions over the years, you have remained grounded and aware of who you are. Regardless of where and how your travels – stateside and beyond – take you over the coming years, I wish you all the best.

  2. Andrew November 28, 2017 at 8:10 am #

    Great transformation, Shannon. Travel increases happiness definitely :)

    Have you ever been to Russia?

  3. Randy November 24, 2017 at 10:37 am #

    Good Morning Shannon,

    Beautiful writing. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve been following the travel blogging community for 8-9 years and subsequently been trying to “expand my range” as it were. I’ve been a big proponent of the transformative quality of travel but events of late have me asking…Do we ever leave ourselves? You speak of a desire to have a place to hang your pictures but at the end of the day does that really matter? I wonder if during your travels you have encountered contemplatives who have stayed in one location an extended period of time and also described personal transformation.

  4. Mark November 23, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    Congrats on reaching the cummulation of your travels. I’m about to embark on full-time travel for a while with a “home base” in Miami for certain reasons. So I can’t quite relate to 9 years of solid travel yet.

    However, I have been a nomad for over 20 years now (long before it became trendy) and I can relate as my experiences as a nomad and as a part-time traveler changed me as well. I agree with you that a “lifetime” of experiences that is a result of nomading or traveling will change us in more ways than we expect.

    Such is the passage of life as the years roll by and the scenery changes before our eyes. Best of luck with your visa for Spain. It certainly seems like a good place to land for a while.

  5. Victoria November 23, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    Beautiful 💕

  6. Ryan Biddulph November 20, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    Beautiful Shannon. Having followed you from afar – literally and figuratively ;) – it has been a pleasure to track your journey. Travel has helped you purge the stuff, the fears, the clinging, the judging, the definitions, the past, so you can be more present and accepting of what it.

    After being on the road for some 6 years myself, travel taught me to be with my fears so I could do more things with the energy of love, harmony and fun. I have also cleared much of the family stuff I was afraid to clear, that I felt shamed about, that I clung to, through the very act of traveling as hitting the road and seeing the world forces you to leave your comfort zone. When you leave your comfort zone, fears appear, you feel them, then those energies dissolve.

    Thanks for sharing with us :)

    Ryan

  7. Carmela Resuma November 20, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    Ahh!!! This post gives me ALL the feels. Connecting with you during that one rainy day in Hoi An was definitely the biggest highlight of our time there. It’s a testament to how travel friendships are quick and intense, but lasting and treasured. Thanks for sharing such an honest and sincere account of your journey. You’ve been one of my biggest travel inspirations for years and I’m excited to see how your story continues to unfold.

  8. Betsy Talbot November 20, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such a private journey! Our private conversations about family, personal growth, and the gap between the two have been among the most profound of my adult life. I hope to see you in Spain to continue the conversations (and laughs). We’re now in a cave house near Granada—and we have a guest room! Much love to you, Shannon.

    • Shannon November 27, 2017 at 11:18 am #

      It was our conversation on your rooftop that helped me create the final break and create some distance and understanding. I so hope I can make it down that way and see your cave house! Truly thank you for the friendship, conversations, and perspectives.

  9. Elin November 19, 2017 at 7:49 am #

    You are such a beautiful soul. I am honored to know you….so very very proud of you….I cannot WAIT to see you in Spain. Keep me posted and let me know how I can help. Besos amiga xx

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:32 pm #

      Aw thank you Elin. I am so happy that these past years and travels brought you into my life. I do so hope that I see you soon in Spain. Much love to you both. xo

  10. Dan Brook November 18, 2017 at 11:35 pm #

    Thanks for this insightful, meaningful, and fascinating report of your physical yet more importantly emotional journey around the world. Although your story is poignantly personal and heartfelt, I found it also to be universal and useful.

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

      Thank you so much for the kind words Dan — I was exactly hoping that it would not only convey my story, but some lessons and ideas and struggles that would resonate with others. Many thanks for finding your way to my little corner of the internet. :) ~S

  11. NAOMI DUGUID November 17, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Dear Shannon, what a fab piece of thoughtful brave writing! Sending you love, with big hopes that our paths cross again very soon. naomi

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

      Thank you Naomi, that means so much to me as I deeply respect your work and perspective — you helped me see my travels with Ana in such an interesting light that really helped shape our trip. Much love, I do hope our paths cross again soon. ~S

  12. Sarah H November 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. It is one of the most heartfelt honest pieces I have read that illustrates the pursuit of transformation through travel beautifully. Enjoy your new community, wherever that may be.

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

      I appreciate your kind words and love knowing that it resonated with you. Many, many thanks, ~S

  13. Jay November 17, 2017 at 12:35 pm #

    Shannon I just want to say what a value your website was to me in planning my personal journey around the world and in the creation of my website (although it’s nowhere as fancy as yours) for friends ad family. I learned so much from you. Even though when I started out I had already visited 60 countries, I had never traveled for an extended period. I retired two and a half years ago and have been traveling since the first day of retirement. The journey was supposed to be one year but it turned into 2.5 years so far. This travel thing is pretty addictive. I am typing this from Chiang Mai, headed back to Mexico in January for three months and then to South Africa for 6 months if I can pull some visa magic. I like settling down and making roots, even if they have to be pulled up every three months or so. But the memories and bonds made on the road are forever.Your site was my go-to site and I have quite often sent links for your website to friends who wanted solid info on travel or info on a specific country. You have made an invaluable contribution to the world of travel and I hope you realize that. I hope this is not goodbye and there will be more. But if not, you have done a tremendous job. I wish you nothing but the best and will pray that your visa to Spain works out. Good luck! God Bless. Jay

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

      It makes my day to know that my site was able to provide information and advice you needed as you planned your initial travels. Thank you for sharing your experiences — we seem to have similar taste in expat spots as CM and Mexico have both long been my favored place to hunker down for three to six months and dive into the food, culture, and life. I truly appreciate the kind words, and that you took the time to let me know how you found my site and why you joined the community. It’s so often that online communities can feel like a vacuum. I hope to share more regularly in 2018, so not quite a goodbye, just a reaffirmation of travel. I hope our paths cross one day and that we can, perhaps, share a coffee and some conversation! And good luck with your South Africa visa application! :)

  14. joelcarilletsgravatar November 17, 2017 at 8:02 am #

    Shannon, I seldom comment on blogs (though there are many I enjoy reading, including yours), but after reading this I thought it time for an exception to the rule and to say thank you, for all the thought and heart and work you’ve put into what you share with us, not least in this post. You also kindly replied to an email I sent some years ago when I was working on my own website and had a couple questions about how you did yours. The way you replied so graciously to a complete stranger has not been forgotten.

    Wishing you the best in Spain, or wherever the future leads.

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

      I am so glad that you made an exception this week, as it is so heartening for me to hear when a piece resonates, and that the information has been helpful over the years. Thank you so much for your kind wishes, and I hope that your website and design came together just as you imagined it would. :)

  15. Kate November 17, 2017 at 4:11 am #

    This is exactly why I love that you’ve taken the time to talk to my students these past few years. Thank you for your insight and advice for first me and now them, for opening their minds to travel, and for becoming such a dear friend along the way. I have nothing but respect, love and appreciation for you and the way you approach not only travel but life, too! xo

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 11:11 am #

      Thank you lady. I have loved the chance to talk to your students these past years — to hear their questions and address their fears and longings for travel. And even more though, I am so grateful that travel brought us our friendship. Much love to you three! xo

  16. Kristen November 16, 2017 at 10:38 pm #

    I love your whole story. Every morsel of the entire truth. Congratulations on being so great about choosing to reflect and grow in every way you desired. One can do that anywhere, but it’s not often people feel un/comfortable enough to choose to. Even if they have everything needed at hand. Everyone should be so blessed with what you have trusted and continue to grow. What a success!

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 11:07 am #

      Thank you for those kind and supportive words Kristen. It was a piece that took me years to write as it felt so vulnerable to put it out there in that way, but I also wanted to share so that others could see their way through their own struggles and travels. Many thanks and glad it resonated. :)

  17. Drew Meyers November 16, 2017 at 6:39 pm #

    What a journey it’s been. You are still one of my all time favorite friends I’ve met traveling :)

    I (selfishly) hope you get that Spanish visa so I can come visit!!!

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 11:05 am #

      Agreed Drew! So glad the travel gods saw fit to make us friends. And I definitely hope to see you in Spain next year! That would be great fun. :)

  18. Terry November 16, 2017 at 6:38 pm #

    Wow! Great post Shannon. love it! You really put yourself out there on this one and it’s very insightful and interesting observations.

    • Shannon November 19, 2017 at 11:04 am #

      Thank you Terry! This post has been in the works for years now, it felt great to finally find the words and way to express it. Glad it resonated and appreciate the support! :)

  19. Aimee del Principe November 16, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    For what it’s worth, I never thought of you as low class. You always came to mind as a high-quality person that worked hard for something better. Your family always welcomed me, and the way you loved your brothers struck true despite difficulty. There was beauty, even if you were the one bringing it.

    My family has always held you in the highest esteem and is continually proud of all you’ve accomplished, overcome, and become. I’ve been thinking of you lately as we’ve been building up the farm. I’m so glad I got to read this today. Thank you for sharing it, and yourself.

    • Shannon November 17, 2017 at 12:13 am #

      Aw lady, your post made me weepy. Thank you Aimee. You are my oldest friend by a long shot; I so appreciate you weighing in and sharing your perspective on it. I think a lot of it back then was my perception of how others saw me in relation my brothers’ issues, I had this self-driven pressure to hide the dysfunction. Your family was so kind, and our weekly adventures cooking in your kitchen (with the mooing meat), and weekends at Hunsader Farm — some of my absolute favorite memories. I hope to meet your wee one some day soon, and have enjoyed seeing his smiles grow bigger as he gets bigger, too. Biggest of hugs, I am so glad that I heard from you today. xo

  20. Margreet November 16, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    Dear Shannon, Thank you. Meeting you and your cousins in Mexico was an experience to never forget. I remember every second of it. And I am kind of glad that you have decided now to live in an appartment, as I think humans need a nest to return to. Like birds. And especially you, you have been flying around the world for nine years!
    Love Margreet
    PS this summer we are going USA around NY with a camper

    • Shannon November 16, 2017 at 5:34 pm #

      Aw Margreet, it was such a highlight to meet you four in Mexico. My nephews still talk about your boys to this day when we reminisce about the road trip. I do agree that we need a nest. Having been unmoored for so long is tiring for the mind and spirit. I am ready to make a homebase, and I really hope I can do it in Europe, since you have such a beautiful range of cultures and countries in your backyard. You NY trip sounds incredible! What fun. My own family camper vaned the entire East Coast as a kid, staying at campsites and such, and it is, by far, some of my favorite memories. I hope you share photos on Instagram so I can follow along. :)

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