plaza real bareclona

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Barcelona: Finding Home

Finding a way to stop traveling has been an evolving process. When I booked that one-way flight ten years ago, a year of travel loomed before me, an epic round-the-world trip that would fulfill my dreams to see more of the world while also preparing me to contentedly return to Los Angeles at the end. I had no idea that ten years later I would move to Barcelona instead. I also didn’t know that this decade would both fill my memories with achingly lovely moments and allow me to find my passion for writing and photography while also bringing a raft of unexpected health and emotional challenges, too.

When I set out on this journey, I had big expectations. I didn’t love all aspects of myself and my life when I left—I hoped that traveling would shore up those lingering doubts, fears, and insecurities. And I hoped for adventure, grand adventures beyond the borders of the U.S. and into cultures I had never yet seen, through the landscapes I had only glimpsed in magazines as a child.

Six years later, depression creeped into my life, infiltrating the edges of even the most banal thoughts. I didn’t talk about it much because, well frankly it wasn’t a great year for me. At first I just drifted away from blogging. I needed a few months off from travel writing to right my world.

I just needed space.

A tiny hiatus and I’d be right as rain.

Plaça Reial in Barcelona

Searching for Home

Even then, however, I suspected that it wasn’t blogging alone that needed to change. I needed a home base. I moved to a beach town in Mexico for five months, and it helped. I took nightly sunset walks on the beach, my desire to write came back in fits and spurts, and having an apartment settled me. But it didn’t stick. By picking a country with a lenient visa policy—six months free on arrival for Americans—it allowed me treat the endeavor like a grand lark. When the good friends that I had made moved on, I did too. I traveled again but distanced myself from my travel writing. Instead, I returned to my hometown in Florida to connect with old friends and to find new ways to treat depression’s quiet darkness that would never quite lift its invisible tentacles; its darkness had reached into every part of my waking life.

I eventually moved to Oaxaca, Mexico with a bestie who was also a long-term traveler in search of a place in the world to call home. It seemed promising. I fiercely wanted to hang my hat there and officially end my peripatetic decade.

When my six month visa expired, I bid it adieu forever. During that spring in Oaxaca I experienced the most serious allergies I’ve ever had—hay-fever so terrible I would flee street-side dinners with friends so I could shower and hide under my covers, the only place I found relief from the urge to rub every last piece of skin from my face. By the end of my time there, my activated immune system developed a permanent allergy to my contact lenses, which I had worn for 20 years without issue (I’m still a little bitter about that).

Alcala in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Hanging at Hierve El Agua

flame tree in bloom

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

I left Mexico tired. Every year on the road seemed to worsen my allergies, which I have linked to nearly dying of dysentery my first year on the road. I needed to stop traveling but I was at a loss for which place in the world was worthy of calling home. It had to be perfect if I was going to finally pick a single city to see every day of my life.

So yeah, of course I fell back on old patterns and I traveled while I figured out the answer. Travel has been my default state since I left in 2008 and it I have struggled to stop moving, to pull the trigger on a decision like buying furniture again and a car. Partly because the weight I felt the decision held, but also because it was cheaper for me to travel the world than return to LA. I am terrified of being in debt again, of that desperation I felt just a couple of years out of college as I sunk under the weight of low-paying work and ever-accruing credit card interest. The debt was complicated; it wasn’t all from “keeping up with the Joneses,” it was a series of unfortunate events that created a teetering tower of debt that threatened to crush me if I didn’t constantly run on my spinning wheel. Traveling arrested that process. Three-and-a-half years into my travels and I had cleared that ominous debt tower. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but I was free from debt and the thought of returning to a lifestyle that would put me back in that circumstance wasn’t on the table.

Another year on the road slipped past me almost unnoticed; I was a leaf caught in a rushing river and riding the easiest current. I housesat in southern Spain, spent a few months with friends in Australia, and then for the hell of it, I backpacked Vietnam for three months. It wasn’t my best moment of follow through, but that additional year of travel got me closer, somehow, to where I am now. Closer to Barcelona.

When I left Vietnam, I returned to the states to fulfill one of my last big travel promises: to take my remaining niece on an adventure. Over this past decade, I somehow managed to backpack Southeast Asia for seven months with my angsty pre-teen niece Ana, then I followed that up with a road-trip across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with my two naughty nephews (cute, but naughty). Children are so impressionable in the middle school years, and I deeply wanted to show each what I loved about this huge world of ours at least once before they entered adulthood. Last summer, my niece Jinnai joined me on a five-week, 500 mile (800 kilometer) pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago Frances.

Our long, long walk is a story for another day, but suffice to say that at the end we wanted nothing more than sun, sand, and good food. We headed to Barcelona. One day during our week of exploring, we wandered through charming working-class neighborhood called Barceloneta. Dockworkers lived here in times past and now it has a “village within a city” feel. Laundry dripped from rows of wrought-iron stretching into the sky and the neighborhood’s narrow streets all led to the water. I looked around and realized this was it; in a stutter of a heartbeat I decided to move to Spain.

Viewpoint in the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago 12.5 km sign

End of the Camino de Santiago

Plaça Reial

Barcelona Parc de la Ciutadella

Finding a Home

I am penning this dispatch from my apartment in Barceloneta—a small six-floor walkup with heaps of sunshine and views of the ocean if I lean over my balcony. And I feel at peace. Friends and travelers have asked why I chose Barcelona, and my answer is usually something like: “I realized it was good enough.”

There are people who fall in love with Barcelona in an instant. That wasn’t me. When I visited in 2012, I thought it a gorgeous city but with little to compel me beyond that. I didn’t dislike the city—I’m not really sure how anyone could dislike it!—but I didn’t fall for it in the way that people assume.

Instead, on my second visit I realized that this small neighborhood near the beach, in a city where I speak the language and enjoy the culture, was enough. It’s not perfect—local Spaniards laugh at me when I tell them I moved to Barceloneta, which will heave with tourists come summer—but all of these years I have searched for the impossible: an idyllic place that combined the best aspects of every city I had ever loved.

Barcelona instead meets most of my checklist wishes; it’s a vibrant city with a young population and it sees more sunny beach days than not—as a born-and-raised Floridian, I am fanatically committed to both warmth and water. The one thing that had long kept Barcelona off my list was that I know almost no one in the city. I am not just tired of traveling, I am weary of being far from connections, from the people I know and love in this world.

It had always seemed like moving back home to Florida was the most obvious choice since most of my dearest friends live there, and my family, too. Even as I applied for my long-term Spanish visa last fall—an arduous process—I looked at real estate near my hometown and thought hard about where I should settle, because it was going to happen in 2018 no matter what. For so many reasons, however, Florida is an unhealthy place for me. One day it might be right—after all, I never saw the curveball coming that I would live on the road for nearly a decade, make a living writing about responsible travel, and have friends dotting the globe. When I received a letter in the mail just after Thanksgiving granting me the right to live in Spain for a year, I knew it was the right move. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified, because panic flashed in my chest that I was making the wrong choice and needed to abort ship asap.

I didn’t abort ship.

Barceloneta architecture

Pretty buildings in Barceloneta

Barcelona Cathedral

views of barceloneta

window view from my house in Barcelona

Here in my small apartment I have created balance that I haven’t had since I left Los Angeles in 2008. I furiously write every morning and my mind dizzies with the number of creative projects I am inspired to work on—without constant strain of planning travels and nonstop movement, my mind has space for new ideas. I am writing a book proposal, and the idea SO spot on for what I want to put into the world that I can’t believe it’s taken me this long figure it out. And now I have the time to make that project, and this blog, all a bigger priority in my life. I can work, but also have a balance with other aspects of non-travel life. There are joys in this, too.

On the weekends, I walk to the market nearby and already the vendor knows to weigh out a half-kilo of cherry tomatoes while I sort through the selection of peppers. An old man who lives in my building waves when we pass on the street and the owner of my local bodega gives me a mini chupa chups lollipop for free when I stop in for a chat and a bottle of agua con gas.

And friends come visit! That’s a new one for me since usually I’m the one passing through for a quick hello. Victoria and Steve brought the tiniest addition to their family and we had grand fun playing in the park, strolling the beach, and partaking in many cups of gelato.

friends from BridgesandBalloons.com

Barcelona

Gelato on a sunny day

Sunday brunch in style!

It’s fun. Better yet, it feels right.

My friend Louise lives in London and we last traveled together to Cuba many years ago—since then we have rarely managed to cross paths. Now that I am living in Europe, she invited me on an impromptu girl’s weekend to Lisbon next week. And in June I’ll jet over to Morocco with a Florida-friend—I have these great little trips planned for every month from now until October! Instead of feeling a heavy weight on my chest from the burden of planning new travels, there’s no pressure—I’ll stuff a few clothes into daypack and leave the rest folded neatly in my drawers for when I come back.

Because I live here now.

I live in Barcelona.

Maybe not forever, but I live here now and that’s enough.

How travel transforms

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

[caption id="attachment_17079" align="alignright" width="357"]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.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_17076" align="alignnone" width="720"] 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![/caption] [divider]

… 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 comes free.

[caption id="attachment_17078" align="alignnone" width="720"]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.[/caption] [divider]

… on creating 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, memories of 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.

[caption id="attachment_17080" align="alignnone" width="720"] My focus shifted to responsible travel over the years, giving me the chance to talk with locals in communities all over the world.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="attachment_17077" align="alignnone" width="720"] 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.[/caption] [divider]

… 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 its 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 of 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 sometimes 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.

Hierve el Agua, Mexico

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Mexico: Oaxacan Life

Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Oaxaca Valley, Mexico Oaxaca, the land of heirloom corn and the heart of Mexican cuisine.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.

All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.

On Local Grassroots Tourism

Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]microfinance in Mexico This En Via borrower used her loan to bulk buy wool and dye for her weaving business making rugs.[/caption]

[divider_flat]I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.

Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]En Via microfinance, Oaxaca A line of carefully embroidered aprons in San Miguel del Valle, a rural town about an hour and a half outside of Oaxaca City.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]microfinance volunteering in mexico On my En Via tour, we visited a seamstress in San Miguel de Valle. She shared her plans for her business, as well as how her embroidery has shifted to meet a growing trend of more elaborate apron designs.[/caption] [divider]

On Work & A Little Adrift

For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.

There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.

Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.

To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]oaxacan hot chocolate Confession: in lieu of things to do, I go hunt down some freshly frothed Oaxacan-style hot chocolate. I read. I drink. It’s all very delicious (the free time and the chocolate).[/caption] [divider]

On Current Travels

Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.

My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.

Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca Found a pair of flipflops on the edge of these pretty pools of water. I think the owner was won over by the beauty and forgot them in the excitement.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Oaxaca Valley, Mexico Fun with reflections in the mineral-laden waters at Hierve el Agua. The pretty pools of water seem to just fall over the cliff side into the surrounding mountains. These pools of water are part of larger formations that resemble rock waterfalls. The name, Hierve el Agua, translates to “the water boils,” and this site pops against the muted blue and green mountainside. Small springs feed the pools of water. The water is full of calcium carbonate and minerals, causing cool, variegated pools of green and turquoise. It’s all swimmable and it’s a like a nature-made infinity pool with views over the mountains.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]The boiling waterfalls of Hierve el Agua The waterfalls appear frozen against the mountains, with just trickles of water falling down the white “falls.”[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico The sprawling ruins of Monte Albán outside of Oaxaca City. This was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, about 500 BC. This pre-Columbian archaeological site sits some 6,400 ft (nearly 2,000 meters) above sea level. It’s surrounded by the arid mountains and cool dry air. And it’s scorchingly hot. I love the scale of this site. Tiny people dwarfed by the large pyramids then dwarfed by the vast mountain range.[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Zocalo Oaxaca City, Mexico Oaxaca City’s zócalo bustles with activity in the late afternoon. On the weekend it’s packed to the gills, with music, bands, dancing, buskers, vendors, and people all enjoying the cool spring evenings.[/caption] [divider]

On What’s Next

I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.

For now, this spring I’ll continue creating ALA responsible travel guides. If you’re keen to keep updated on where I am specifically at any given moment, I am much better about updating this “Now” page, and I update Instagram a lot too.

I welcome your thoughts and emails. What is spring looking like for you?

decision to travel

A Little Choice… or a Big One? Reflections Making Choices & Seven Years of Travel

Seven years ago, I boarded a flight that forever changed the direction of my life. The flight took me from Los Angeles, my home for the previous two years, to Sydney, Australia. Sydney was the first stop on a largely unplanned year of traveling around the world. The route would take me home by way of Asia and Europe. I was scared.

The morning of my flight, I called my bestie with breathy hiccuping sobs. I implored her to convince me that leaving LA to travel was the right decision. Tied up within those desperate and confused sobs were a myriad of fears. Fears related to the journey. Fears related to derailing my career as an actress. Fears hitting me as an abstract pain in knowing that I would see neither friends nor family for an entire year. In the 24 years I had been alive, I had never been alone for that long.

[caption id="attachment_11465" align="alignright" width="336"]I have the best readers; one of them included this meme from Indiana Jones in his email. It really can feel like that big of a choice. I have the best readers. One emailed me this meme when he wrote for advice. (And it’s thanks to a Portland-based reader, who tied me to a chair a year ago, that I watched Indiana Jones and understood the reference!)[/caption]

I asked myself over and over in those final hours before I headed to the airport: What if this is the wrong choice?

That moment of struggle is one we all face at various points in our lives. Over the years, my readers email with a frequent and heartfelt email refrain of “how did you know you should go?”

They want to know what click of certainty happened to tell me this was the right decision. How did I know that the desire to travel long-term was the impulse I should follow, rather than other impulses. Impulses like staying to build a career, staying to solidify friendships and relationships. Should you take that fantastic job across country? Should you go to college? Should you pack up your life and travel for a year?

Deciding to travel involves a litany hard choices. It requires answering “no” to everything except travel. Each decision and answer the course of your life. No matter how you answer, you’ve now made a big decision. And alongside those hard choices are other struggles too. Some readers have unsupportive families, or fears of traveling solo, some fear leaving fabulous jobs, or are on the cusp of deciding to have kids, and many are struggling with eh lack of autonomy stemming from being a minor.

Readers email me in the throes of their own tough decisions. I email back with reassurances and advice. And to them, and here, I acknowledge that I hardly feel qualified to dole out pearls of life wisdom. Having taken that year-long trip, however, I will share my thought-process in making the big decision for an abrupt change.

Readers ask: “How did you know that taking a year to travel was the right choice?”

Quite simply, I didn’t know. Selling my things and getting on that plane seven years ago filled me with complete uncertainty and left few guarantees. In my obsession to label that trip as “the right direction for my life,” I missed the fact that using the terms “good choice” and “bad choice” is a fallacy in our language. You can choose wrong on a science test, you can’t chose wrong in constructing your life. A choices is a single decision; what comes next is a series of outcomes, reactions, and a trajectory that you continue to steer. Ensure that you’re not making the choice because of abstract fears and the status quo. These decisions construct the life you will lead for years to come. In that moment of choice, look at your priorities and assemble the pieces that build the life you want to live. Then, in a year—or many years from now—accept that you, with all your functioning capacity, chose the route.

[caption id="attachment_11490" align="aligncenter" width="710"]how to decide to travel Two pivotal decisions in my life. On the left, I drove across the country in 2006 with my dad on my move to LA We stopped at the Grand Canyon en route and everything I owned was in the trunk of my car. On the right is my final day as a Los Angeleno; I owned almost nothing and I hiked Runyon Canyon with friends hours before I boarded my flight to Sydney. Both shaped who I am and how I got here. I wouldn’t take back either decision.[/caption]

The choice readers face is usually between long-term travel and a more prescriptive life, like taking a job, staying the course, etc. I had that moment of choice too, and I chose to travel. That choice set in motion a series of events that have me at a place in my life that I often love. I travel, I speak to college students, and I have this amazing community of like-minded people on A Little Adrift. How could that have been wrong?

The thing is, staying in Los Angeles would have likely been just as right. We are adaptable creatures. If we keep the comparison game in check and live with gratitude, like moths to the flame of positivity, we thrive in our environments. It’s not that LA would have been a wrong choice for me, but instead it’s my ghost life. Cheryl Strayed used a beautiful analogy that has stuck with me for years. When looking at our lives from afar, we can see a ghost ship floating along beside us. It’s the life we would have led had we made different decisions at pivotal moments. Leaving LA was a pivotal moment. I could have had a great life there, but I’ll never know what waited on that ghost ship.

For anyone facing this choice, know that you can stay put and build an amazing life and have no regrets. You can travel for a time and build an amazing life and also have no regrets. You can combine and mix them. It’s your decision and nothing is wrong. You can switch up any plan mid-stream, too. When I left to travel, I had this overwhelming fear of “what if I hate traveling and I want to come home but I’ve already told everyone my big plan and they will think I failed and it will be shameful to not be able to do it.”

And that was total bullshit. I did want to come home at points on my trip. After eight months, I desperately wanted to come home. I stayed the course for the rest of my year, but I decided to travel in six months stints going forward. That’s the balance that worked for me. I found my balance by testing the reaches of my comfort zones. To know the limits of my ideal life, I had to act on that initial idea of “hmm, what if I work and travel and see what that kind of life is like.”

decision to travel

The enormity of picking up your life and leaving, especially solo, can seem huge. It is huge. Travel is expensive. It’s doable—it’s comparable to a year of living in the U.S, whatever that may cost you right now, as it will likely approximate your travel style and budget on the road—but saving that much money is a considerable feat for many. When I left, my income was a smidge above poverty level. My online job allowed me to work every single week of these past seven years. Without that job, I would have spent years saving the funds. But I could have saved. Saving was within the realm of possible. Even more, the U.S. dollar is a strong currency, and I live in a country with work opportunities and a social safety net.

There is privilege in even having this choice. Recognizing this privilege snaps it into perspective for me when I get angsty. It’s a big decision, but there is only relative risk in either choice, to go or to stay. I carry around the world one of the most powerful passports. It gains me entrance—often for free—to a myriad of fascinating cultures and people and lands that generations before me could only see in the pages of their National Geographic magazine. In the depths of feeling like I was charting a course for self-destruction, it helps to remember that this is a privileged choice. It’s an honor to have this choice. If you have the means to travel the world—by way of having enough money and a strong passport—it’s a gift. I say this not to sway you to travel long-term, but to take the angst from the choice. Travel should never be a burden, travel is a gift. How long you travel, whether it’s on weekend trips meshed into your work-kids-home life, or whether it’s an epic journey to circumnavigate the globe—it’s going to be great either way.

I have a ghost life in Los Angeles. It floats next to me when I visit the city and walk the streets of my old neighborhood. This ghost life punches with nostalgia when I sit across from my ex eating lunch at what was once my favorite café. This life hovers just beyond my reach. It was an option; it was a path I could have taken. The path wasn’t more right or wrong, but it was drastically different from what I have now.

If I had ridden that other ghost ship, I would have given up all the highs and lows of these past seven years on the road. And, to be sure, moments on that other path might have been just as sweet and transformative. I would have held tight to LA-based memories shimmering with goodness and happiness. As I have written many times in the past, though, travel was my bootcamp for life. Having made this choice, and the past seven years of people, places, and stories form the bedrock of who I am today.

I looked at the possible ships my life could take that day. With all the unknowns, uncertainties, and fears, I picked up my suitcase and boarded that plane seven years ago. There were no guarantees and no promises. I stood with no more than the power and privilege of making my own life choices. I am so glad I chose travel.

~Shannon

A Little Adrift… In Search of Balance

For seven months, the gaping absence of Africa stories on my blog has nagged me. During this time, some of you wrote me with concern. Thank you, all is well. I needed time to sort out personal things post-Africa. As this new year takes shape, I am jumping (maybe limping) back into writing. And for starters, I thought it apt to share a bit about this past year that has gone unsaid.

It was a hard year for me.

I started the year on a high, speaking at a National Geographic Live event in Washington, DC, which scarcely seemed real — it was an honor I hadn’t dared to dream of when I left six years ago. And yet there I was, up on stage and talking to people about how they can create meaningful travel experiences. It was rad.

Speaking at NatGeo

And yet, even then, as I confidently told the audience of my plans to travel across Africa, I was unsure if that was the right next step. I loved the lure of Africa, but never thought I’d go there solo. I left anyway. I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa in early February and I already feared burnout. My Dispatches from Africa were darker, more critical of each experience. The problem, of course, is not with Africa; how could an entire continent be at fault?

My ability to cope with the highs and lows of travel skidded to a halt early last year. Six years is a long time to travel, and I wasn’t in a good head-space at the start of the trip. A series of setbacks — many not unlike those in past travels — began to snowball. I killed my pricey laptop a week into the trip. I was robbed in Cape Town… twice. Sketchy internet made working with my clients difficult. Traveling Africa was expensive and a lot of the hostels were empty of other travelers. I was alone all of the time. There is something to be said for persevering, though. It was poor timing, but dipping my toe into Africa’s range of cultures and history widened my perspective. Traveling through parts of Africa deepened my appreciation for travel. Even more than before, I believe travel creates so deep connections in our lives.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Exploring the gorgeous Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Views over Cape Town and Lion’s Head from Table Mountain in South Africa.[/caption]

[divider_flat]I stayed the course throughout the spring. I checked-off bucket-list items and I found amazing local projects, the stories of their founders begging to be told to a wider audience. I was there with these incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences, yet under it all, I couldn’t shake a deep depression. I was sad all the time. The last straw was contracting dysentery (again) a few days before my flight home. I’ve struggled with depression in the past, and there is a deep history of it in my family. Constantly traveling exacerbates the problem. I needed to stop moving and collect myself.

I kept it together for the two weddings I attended in June, just long enough to wish them well, then I broke down. I didn’t want to talk about Africa and I cried a lot. I had lost my ability for gratitude and perspective. Things are on the mend now. I’ve gotten help and I reconnected with friends. I slowed down and house-sat in Seattle for two months. For the past three weeks, my dad and I hosted family from Panama for their first visit to the U.S. (a visit complete with Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center, and plenty of time exploring Florida’s lakes and beaches).

[caption id="attachment_10936" align="alignnone" width="720"]lake seminole park, florida Everyone was in town for my birthday, so we headed to Lake Seminole Park in Florida for a picnic and time on the lake.[/caption]

[divider_flat]There was much good in 2014, too. This year made me examine my long-term goals and assess how I can better balance work, travel, and life. I was still making traveling the point of my life, and it no longer fit.

The whole of this is to say, I was working on me these past months. I was putting back together the parts that I allowed to break by constantly moving.

I haven’t figured anything out for sure. But six years traveling is a long time to constantly travel solo. Too long, maybe. I miss having a community and a set of friends. For years, I have loved picking a place and living for three to six months in a new city. I loved finding a new pop-up community of nomads like me, it added to the journey of self-discovery and fun. And each day I was grateful for my ability to construct this intentional life; it felt right.

[caption id="attachment_10939" align="alignnone" width="700"]Six years traveling I celebrated my six-year travel anniversary this past November. I created this collage to look back on all the amazing friendships I have cultivated all over the world. To celebrate the stories and people who star in my travel memories these past years.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Now however, I’m considering where I can find a home-base from which to travel for shorter stints. I’ll leave for a month or two at a time, then home to work on other projects. Projects like lining up more college speaking this year, a second book, or any of the cacophony of ideas tearing through my thoughts each week. I will look back at my travels last spring with a fresh perspective; I will share stories in the coming months of the people and places from my time traveling across Africa.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"] We parked on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania for a stunning sunrise that changed and shifted with each passing second. From the tinge of pink at the start to a lifting of red-tinged fog as full day broke over our safari car.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Also! I’m adding two new members to the A Little Adrift Jr. gang. My oldest nephew turned 11 a few months ago, and he informed me that “it’s my turn to travel with you, just like Ana did.” And since I was taking him, I figured I needed to take my 10-year-old nephew too, just to be fair. And though I won’t homeschool them, this summer I will scoop up my nephews for a month of roadtripping the Yucatan in Mexico. They are both already psyched and googling the beaches and cenotes we’ll explore while there. After that, it’s off to London in August for a wedding and hopefully a bit of time exploring Europe (I’d love to head back to Ireland).

At the beginning of each new year I set goals for myself. I’ve used vision boards in the past and I’ve also asked for accountability by laying out my goals on the blog.

Instead of goals, however, I have set one intention for 2015: creating balance.

What are you working toward in 2015?

A Little Musing… Thoughts on Running My First Marathon

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="266"]Disney Marathon That’s what it looks like when you realize you finally made it![/caption]

At 5:30 am last Sunday, my best friend Niki and I threw a jaunty wave at Mickey Mouse as he encouraged us to have a great run. Six hours and six minutes later, we limp-ran across the finish line of our first marathon, both burying our grimaces and tears behind exhausted joy at the promise of sturdy benches and waterfalls of Biofreeze for our aching muscles.

In the first weeks I trained for the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, I decided to conquer this latest challenge with aplomb. People on the internet spout rainbows and puppies about the meditative benefits of exercise, and just before I signed up, the brilliant guy behind The Oatmeal comics published a six-part comic entitled “The terrible and wonderful reasons I run long distances.” His comic prefaced my decision to run. The entire marathon plan sounded aces to me and I whiled away the low-mileage runs in those early weeks listening to the sound of my footsteps and waiting for the promised life-altering epiphanies.

Then my scheduled training runs were longer and enthusiasm for running a marathon wore thin—I berated myself into putting on my running shoes each day. The promised nirvana of meditative clarity eluded me and I regretted the commitment before every long run. I couldn’t let my friend down, so I continued, but for weeks the only delight I felt came during the brief periods of runners-euphoria just after a run.

In the early days of training, I knew it would be hard but I thought: I got this.

Months later, I adjusted my thought: Just cross the finish line.

Lance Armstrong finished his first marathon saying “That was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.” Yep. Agreed. Holy crap, I agree. I asked myself why I agreed to do  it in the first place since I am a reluctant runner at best (pretty much only in the face of imminent danger).

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Running through NYC Training runs throughout NYC and in Central Park while I was there on business were a highlight. It was an intriguing lens through which to see areas of NYC and bond with other runners in the city.[/caption]

[divider_flat] And I’ve had many, many (seriously—many) hours to come to a conclusion during my training runs. I ran for the same reason I left to travel back in 2008. And for the same reason I joined a 10-day silent Vipassana Meditation course.

I ran to push myself against a personal wall—”the wall” as it’s called and running—and force myself to the other side.

Travel memoirs speak to the transformative power of traveling, and back in 2008 when I was in a transition in my life, I thought, “That. I want that.” I was not a traveler before I left, so I knew a solo year on the road was a challenge, and I wanted to measure myself against this lofty ambition and see what came out the other side. Vipassana was a similar challenge—I had scarcely meditated a day in my life before I signed myself into a 10-day silent retreat that I likened to solitary confinement in the days after I finished it.

For most of us, life rarely forces us to test ourselves, we choose our physical challenges. Primo Levi wrote,

And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…

Early last year, I shared how lost I felt after years on the road with no real plan going forward. I flirted with depression, family things had gone horribly the preceding fall, and my failures echoed loud in my head. An underlying decision in signing up for the marathon in July was to once again meet this wall, this strong resistance, and to remind myself that I am strong enough to come out on the other side of the down times, the sad times, and the failures.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="467"]cinderella's castle during our marathon What adventure would be complete without a jumping shot? We ran through Cinderella’s Castle just after sunrise. We were in high spirits and around the six mile mark–just 20 more to go at that point.[/caption]

And in the way of lessons, many hitched a ride in the months leading up to that 26.2 mile run (42.2 kilometers) to confront me on the other side of the finish line.

Looking back now, my favorite run was 17 miles spent running through crisp, late-fall sunshine in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was the run I resisted most, I delayed the run two weeks because I just couldn’t fathom what I would do for five hours (it sounded terrible). But I  surprised myself. I loved the process. I felt strong on the other side of it. I spent nearly five hours thinking about my footfalls and willing myself through the fatigue and shooting pains in my knee. It took four months of training to realize that the rainbows and puppies were a metaphor for the mental quieting that comes from running long distances. I like solitude and I’m content with my own company more than most people I know. It’s what’s made these years on the road successful. Give me a book, or even silent hours writing, and I’m happy. On those long runs, though, I discovered a new form of solitude. The meditative quality lied within the hours of escape—an absolute void—from the litany of thoughts we all cycle through: work, bills, health, travel, friends, life, family. Focus transforms into an elemental refrain of footfalls, breath, and focus on propelling forward, overcoming pain and fatigue, and finishing. Nothing else exists. Nothing else existed for me on that run.

The runners high was brief, though, and a good run did not magically ease everything after it. Running just existed in my life. I ran on days I hated it all, on rainy days, and days when I doubted my decision. I ran to uphold a promise to a friend. And on race day, I was proud of myself for showing up every single week for six months and pushing to reach this moment. I once again thought: I got this.

At mile 21 though, my emotions tanked and my body broke down. I wanted to quit. I begged my best friend to run ahead without me—I didn’t care if I made it, I just wanted to sit down and cry. Instead, Niki linked our arms, maintained our pace (we did a 3:1 run-walk pace the entire race) and we continued running. As we passed mile 25 (nearly six hours into the run), I turned to her, tear-stains still visible on my cheeks, and admitted that I would not have made it without her.

Disney MarathonDisney Marathon

[divider_flat] I don’t often ask for help. In fact I never do. It’s a personal thing, asking for help makes me uncomfortable. And perhaps another lesson in this marathon—if I’m going to read into it, and let’s read into it—is that no great things are achieved alone. I am still learning each day that it’s okay to lean on my friends. The test in this marathon was against myself: could I will through the fatigue, the pain, and the doubt to finish. Needing help did not make the achievement less, it made it sweeter on the other side to come through it with my friend.

Though I had no intention of setting goals and resolutions in the new year, this year I take with me lessons from this marathon. Lessons in patience, perseverance, and friendship. And a reminder that “the wall” may hit in any aspect of life, but I can push ahead.

***

And on a different note, a few reader emails wondered if my long stint in the US (I’ve been stateside since I returned from Panama in July) means I am done traveling—nope. Africa is just weeks away and soon you will see heaps of safari photos and stories of the grassroots projects I hunt down across the continent this spring. This marathon is one of the reasons I stuck around this long, Niki and I have not lived in the same city since I left LA in 2008, and this was a fun way for us to keep in contact and reconnect across the distance.

The other reason is the National Geographic event in two weeks in DC. If you’re in the DC area, tickets are on sale and you can come hear myself and three other Travelers of the Year talk travel.

Then it’s off to Africa (my first time there!) in mid-February with Cape Town as my first stop. I can’t wait. :)

A Little Musing… Cheers to Embracing Your Weird

I wave and grin at the teenage boy playing basketball in his driveway. My feet beat an unsteady staccato on the pavement to the African-infused rhythms of Paul Simon’s The Boy in the Bubble. The teen shuffles and nods in my direction, but avoids eye contact. Ever since he caught me run-dancing down the sidewalk last week we switched from an innocuous “we’re just jolly, friendly neighbors” wave to this bashful greeting instead. He is embarrassed for me.

With my first marathon just two weeks away, my runs have been like clockwork, always catching this teen in his driveway in the late afternoon as he shoots hoops. Running through my head as I run is the recent litany of questions from long-time friends soon following me into the next decade of our lives. How does it feel to hit a milestone birthday? Am I okay with turning 30?

It’s my birthday. Three days after Christmas and just before the New Year… a really crappy placement on the calendar, but then, I didn’t choose it. I woke up this morning and greeted 30 with little fanfare but much contemplation. The only thing on the schedule for the day was a run. My birthday gives me the odd convergence of aging with the new year, which I have talked about before. Each year, my personal goals float on the waves of resolutions circulating as the world blows kazoos to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

 

my runs

My thoughts again drift to the teenage boy, the thumping of his basketball has long faded. It’s god-awful-terrible to be a teenager. High school was a painful experiment in conformity, humility, and perseverance for me, and I know why this boy is embarrassed on my behalf. Heck, I would have ridiculed the now-me, fearful of anyone confident enough to live their own brand of weird.

Fifteen years, though, changes a lot.

Progression is inevitable.

I double back toward home. Like many people, each year I make mini-goals and resolutions that march me forward into a New Year. Some I share here, others I hold tight, fearful if I tell someone they might hold me accountable. Then the year progresses with its daily dramas, mild successes, and hard-won happiness. A year later, I check back in on December 31st to take stock and see how much I have accomplished. Then I judge myself against that list. I lament over the little failures, and nit-pick any success, assuming anything good that happened was a fluke—never to replicated.

The boy’s driveway is now empty, and I think back to the 15-year-old me, full of insecurities and fears. I am not that person. Though any single year in the last 15 years netted many failures and losses, there were successes within those years I missed at the time. Fifteen years later, I am different. I am changed for the better. Travel did some of this for me, the decision to leave five years ago caused profound shifts in my perspective (and life). But I worked hard throughout too, and looking back now, those little successes I never celebrated have shaped the best parts of what I have now.

In the macro perspective, it’s easier to be kind to myself. And that’s worth thinking about. Worth honoring.

This boy is in his home now, I am a forgotten moment lost to his own daily dramas. But as I turn onto my street, I am thankful for this final lesson before the New Year. He reminded me to step back from the minutia of last year that seems so significant now—minutia often masks progress—and instead look at the fuller picture. Even in the years I felt unmoored, confused, or purposeless, even in those years I made progress.

I share this now because it gave me unexpected happiness to think of the progression a decade brings. I have faith that this year will see progress too.

And to the questions about my perspective on entering my thirties? Bring it!

As always, thank you for the support over the years. Many new readers joined the A Little Adrift community this year—welcome! I look forward to getting to know more of you through the comments, interactions on the Facebook page, and in reader meetups. If there’s ever any way I can help, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Cheers and happiness in 2014, I hope it’s a year filled with your own brand of weird and awesome. :-)

~Shannon

A Little Adrift … 20 Powerful Life Lessons from My Solo Travels Around the World

20 Powerful Life Lessons from my Solo Travels Around the WorldFive years ago today, I sat at Los Angeles International Airport watching the ground crew load the plane outside the window with baggage and fuel. Conflicting emotions warred inside of me. In two short hours, I would board a one-way flight to Australia to start my year-long round the world trip. This moment was the culmination of five months of meticulous planning and the realization of my dream to see other places — to find a purpose for myself while traveling through the cultures and countries I had read about in National Geographic all my life. My brief but powerful panic attack earlier in the day gave way to acceptance as I sat at my gate. I was nervous and still unsure about what awaited a slender, solo 24-year-old woman from the states who possessed little travel experience but great curiosity. But, I had faith that even if everything went wrong and I hated this decision, that I would come out OK on the other side.

I didn’t know it then, but that solo trip in 2008 evolved into five+ years of slowly traveling and working my way around the world. I have spent long periods of time exploring just a few regions of the world. And beyond that, I have used these years to gain a better perspective on myself. A few lessons were hard-won and humbling. Others came from unlikely tutors and at unlikely times. I thought it fun to compile 22 things I’ve learned since that day I sat at the LA airport debating the wisdom of my decision to travel solo around the world.

travel lessons

1. The world is inherently kind.

New acquaintances hearing my story are often alarmed by the breadth of my travels. Or, more pointedly, by a few of the countries I have visited. It’s hard to have an open perspective on the world if you only hear negative stories and stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. Traveling unravels those prejudices with a more complex story of the world. Even more, traveling illuminates the light of inherent kindness pulsing from the world. Though traveling has some dangers — I have discussed them before — there is a deeper well of gracious kindness that coats every corner of the world. In every place, and within every culture I have found new friends and new stories about these places. People have have welcomed me into their homes. Many others helped me when I was sick. All of them shared a nuance about their culture and country that has forever lit that place in a new light for me.

2. Language barriers are surmountable.

New travelers, and those with the dream to travel, write me to share their travel fears. Many express fear about the language barriers in new places. It’s also a frequent question asked middle schoolers when I speak at their schools (right up there with “what’s the grossest thing you’ve even eaten?). The world has hundreds of languages and dialects. On a travel day in some places you can pass through half-a-dozen languages before you fall back to sleep that night. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the perceived obstacle. That’s a lot of languages to learn! But the truth is, English is the language of tourism. While there are few places where English-language guidance is rare, major tourist sites generally default to English as the second language of communication. This undercurrent of tourism suffuses so many pockets of the world. But where it’s scarce, even then it’s not a travesty. I’ve always found that a bit of preparation (like a phrasebook or smartphone app) works when coupled with patience, a game of charades, and a big smile.

3. Solo does not mean lonely.

It can mean lonely at times, I have never been lonelier than when I was sick on the road. Those moments, however, are the exception, not the rule. Traveling solo these past five years opened up conversations, moments of clarity, and deep friendships that would have been harder if I had traveled with others. Because I’m alone on the road, I seek friendships that other travelers may not need nor notice. And as a single woman, I am accepted into places males are not allowed. Women befriend me on buses and invite me to tea. In many cultures, men and women alike take me under their wing the moment they find out I am alone. Across dozens of cultures and countries, people have offered me help, friendship, and safety. Even more, traveling solo affords the solitude and space to work through thoughts and issues. It gives more time process each travel moment and assimilate the lessons and ideas. Solo travel teaches more about yourself than any self-help book ever could. Solo never has to mean lonely. Male and females both should travel alone at least once in their life.

Pleasantly accosted by an Indian Family on my way to a lake in Rajasthan.

4. Travel is affordable.

Traveling the world for five years on end is out of the norm for most people. Traveling away from home for long stretches in unimaginable for many people who have a strong homebase and routine. That’s OK, I’m not suggesting that long-term travel is the only way. But even shorter trips should be a priority for those who express a love of travel. Travel does not have to be a high-end luxury cruise around Europe. It can be that, but for those who dream of travel, it’s more affordable than many assume. My 11-months on that first year cost me about $18,000 for everything from lodging to airfare to food. Developing regions are not only more affordable, but they offer some of the most fascinating opportunities to learn more about the world. It’s also where your impact will go further if you spread your money responsibly by supporting social enterprises. Over the years, I have met travelers from every income bracket and socio-economic level. If you prioritize travel, you can find the ways to make it happen.

5. Travel, like life, is personal.

What one traveler loves, another might find dreadful. I eschew big cities and I am content to travel through towns with sub-500 people. That sounds like hell to some travelers. By traveling all these years, I learned that museums are not my thing, but I can wax poetic on my hike or the linguistic nuances of a new language I’m learning. We all geek-out on different things, and it’s totally fine to geek-out on whatever makes you happy. By personalizing a trip to exactly the activities you enjoy, it provides a fresh lens on the world and a deeper way to understand the local culture.

6. Gratitude is the greatest lesson in cultivating a happy life.

Traveling with my niece underscored for me the importance of instilling the character traits of empathy and gratitude into the next generation. With Ana, we talked about the wealth disparities we witnessed in each new place. A mother in  Laos shared how hard she had to work to send her child to the most basic schooling. And in turn, Ana learned a tangible appreciation for her educational opportunities. My niece saw the long, arduous hours farmers put in to grow the rice and coffee that fill our tables in the West. We watched workers spend hours to earn a living wage that barely supports their most basic needs. Practicing gratitude is not exclusive to travel, but long-term travel cultivates lessons in thankfulness and instills the practice deep into your life.

7. Eating the street food makes a trip memorable.

Some prominent travel guidebooks caution against sampling the local street eats in a new place. For shame. While there are definitely street-food safety precautions, the flavors, freshness, conversations, and friendships formed on tiny plastic stools sitting at rickety tables behind steamy hot street food stalls are many of my greatest memories. It’s worth it.

8. You should always carry travel medicine.

It can save your life, especially if you eat the street food. ;-)

street food in mandalay

9. Lessons come from unlikely places and unlikely people.

I have spent hundreds of hours in deep conversations with strangers on buses, trains, and planes all over the world. Each new person offered a fascinating story, a nugget of wisdom, or a nuance of the local culture. Through these conversations I learned a great respect for how different our lives can be, but even more the shared commonalities. Travel made me face my arrogant notions of “book smarts” and instead look at each conversation and experience as a chance to learn.

10. The developing world is more modern than you think.

Though I have seen great poverty and wealth disparities on my travels, it is the modernity of foreign places that surprised me. Bangkok, Thailand has some of the most spectacular glass malls in the world — a dozen floors of haute couture, trendy restaurants, and enormous cinemas. Tokyo, Japan is completely developed and yet nothing like the West. Sub-Saharan Africa has more developed cellular phone infrastructure than most Western countries. And they innovate through that network in ways no other places ever has. There are no stereotypes that prove true about any one thing, and that includes developing regions of the world.

11. Make new friends, but keep the old ones.

I had a music box in childhood that tinkled the notes from a song into the air when it opened. The lyrics play as a refrain in my head as I travel the world and meet new people, “make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” These past five years have taught me important lessons about nurturing and maintaining my old friendships even in the face of new ones. Travel has limited my ability to keep and build those deep, old friendships. There is joy and value in the new friends and new lessons, but also a limit to the depth of the human experience I can encounter when I constantly move. Through this website, I have formed connections within the travel community. I have also become formed deep friendships with several people I met through travel. I value these people and the role they play in my life, but equally important are the friends I know who know my history. It hasn’t always been easy to balance traveling long-term with supporting those friends. Traveling all these year taught me to be increasingly grateful for the deep and lasting friendships — it has taken very specific focus to ensure I maintain the friendships that pre-date my travel days.

An elephant munches on trees and bushes outside of Hongsa, Laos.

12. Accept kindness.

Somebody wise probably once said that cynicism is the great killer of joy. If not, they should have. Accept kindnesses from strangers and be open to invitations and new experiences. Accept the chai tea offered by the friendly shop owner and learn his story. Jump at the offer to go to a large Indian wedding in the next town, you’ll have a blast. Be gracious, bring a gift, and be open to the new experience.

13. Call your parents.

My dad has never made me feel guilty for staying on the road all these years. As a thanks for his support, I assuage his fears in whatever way I can. Although I am not a parent, I know my the weeks I drop off the grid without any contact are hard on him. So, whenever Internet allows I send frequent e-mails and we Skype a couple of times a month. I respect that this person invested 18 years of his life making sure I lived to adulthood, the least I can do is keep him in the loop.

14. It’s okay to buy souvenirs.

I buy myself paintings from all over the world and ship them home. This flies in the face of the traveling minimalists who huff at the notion of souvenirs and “stuff.” I think it’s a question of acquiring the right stuff. My paintings are all in storage right now, and I don’t know when or where I may eventually settle, but they are treasured possessions. I also ship home thoughtful gifts to the people in my life who matter. My dad receives coffee from all over the world, we bond over this and it has made him feel a part of it (see number 13). One friend loves collecting jewelry from new places, another is a fan of scarves. My mother loves nothing more than those super touristy t-shirts, you know, the ones with an embroidered Eiffel Tower and the name “Paris” in cursive just below it; I send these to her from every new place. They’re little tokens, and some people don’t get it, but to me, these things matter.
monks in Thailand

15. Take your mom’s advice: Count to 10 when you’re frustrated.

Traveling in developing regions of the world could try the patience of a saint. There’s the constant bargaining. The swarm of people who surround you when you leave a train stations. The touts and tuk-tuks vying for your attention. It’s overwhelming if it’s you’re not accustomed to the chaos. There are moments when I desperately need space and I feel like everyone’s ripping me off. This is when it’s time to count to 10 and take a deep breath. Learning how to control yourself in the most stressful of situations. Step away from the situation and gain a little head space to take stock of the situation. Find a bench, find a bathroom, find some way to back off from the overwhelm and find some perspective. You are in a new, foreign culture and that takes adjustment. It’s not your place to yell and create a scene, it’s your place to find the way to progress forward in a way that respects the local culture while keeping yourself safe.

16. Spend money when it’s warranted.

World Travel Lesson from one woman who travelled solo around the worldWhile there are times to be frugal and keep to a budget, a once-in-a-lifetime trip should be memorable. Always convert local currencies back into the US dollar before you nix a new experience. It’s easy to freak out over that 120,000 kip day-trip in Laos, but it’s really only $15 USD and that’s not quite so alarming a figure, is it? This is also true when it means splurging on a central guesthouse, or taking the taxi home if it’s safer or if it’ll make your life a bit easier. As with everything, keep perspective. It’s also more polite and respectful of the local culture to maintain perspective that haggling vendors down to their last nickel discount makes little difference in your travel budget, but is a huge difference in local salaries. Travel is only humbling and perspective-shifting when you make a conscious effort to make informed choices and learn from each new experience.

17. Never leave your luggage unattended.

Airports make the luggage announcement every 15 minutes. Never leave your luggage unattended. It’s wise advice when you’re about to face TSA, and it’s also sage travel advice. In many places, take your hand off your purse and it may be the last time you see that purse. Be conscious of your belongings when you’re in public, and spread your valuables among your bags. To whip out another cliche, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Maintain a consciousness of your possessions at all times, this is one of those “hard-learned” lessons every traveler learns at some point.
Antigua, Guatemala

18. Pack light, you really can it buy it there.

When I sat in that airport terminal five years ago, I had completely over-packed. I ditched heaps of the things that I thought I would need. And I also lugged a year’s-worth of some items that were easily replaceable. You really can find: tampons, shampoo, new clothes, safety pins, and all the other myriad things you think you might not exist outside the US. The one thing you can’t find? Solid deodorant. I don’t like roll-on deodorant, and it’s difficult to find solid deodorant in many places. Now, I pack my Diva Cup, I replace shampoo in each new place, and I pack an extra stick of solid deodorant. For all things non-deodorant related, however, you can likely find it there.

19. Great things lie on the other side of fear.

The idea of traveling solo terrified me when I first left. Over the years though, it’s at the very moment that I am most afraid to move forward with an idea — when fears paralyze me — that I know I need to push through. I don’t mean fears like a physical danger, but rather the fears that box us in and prevent us from reaching our goals. Travel taught me that when you feel resistance, it’s that very thing that you will like find most rewarding on the other side. Understand yourself first and foremost so that you can make know how to make the big choices that best reflect your life goals and aspirations.

Me and Jordi around Town

20. Smile often. :-)

Smiling is a gift that transcends cultures. It is the universal communicator. You should learn the basic “thank yous” and “hellos” in the local language too. But smiling replaces either of these gestures, and it should always accompany them. Not only can you express gratitude with a smile, but a simple smile has been the start of many amazing conversations over the years. Only take caution in parts of the world where a smile from a woman is seen as forward or promiscuous. In the bulk of the world, however, one small gesture of curiosity and kindness from me opened the door to reciprocal offers of kindness. Smiling makes you approachable to foreigners and locals alike. Really, you can’t go wrong if you approach your travels with smiles, patience, and gratitude.

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It’s been a wild ride these past five years. I had no idea I would find a way to continue working from the road and traveling this great big planet. I have the deepest thanks and gratitude for the support of my readers. Throughout this journey, connecting with A Little Adrift readers has long been one of the best parts. If I can ever help you shoot me an email. If you’re keen to meetup, sign up for event notifications on the Facebook page, and safe travels wherever you next find yourself!

~Shannon