A Little Adrift… Perspectives on How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me

Last updated on May 11, 2023

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

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

Graffiti in Shanghai, China
These buildings in Shanghai are marked for demolition with graffiti; we saw this symbol all over the country as China destroy pieces of the past to make cities appear newer/fresher for events like the Olympics and World Expo.
hiking annapurna nepal
Two men quietly talk in the early evening high in a town we paused in for mere minutes while I hiked along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal.

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

Because travel is personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On my background …

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the lessons and changes along the way …

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

A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan
Views of a Bedouin and camel at dawn on a morning camel ride in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

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

bus in india
Rooftop seats on a very, very full bus in India was the norm, rather than the exception.

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

On who I am today …

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

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

Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
A pretty sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

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

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

In short, travel changed my life.

51 thoughts on “A Little Adrift… Perspectives on How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me”

  1. This is beautiful. I am just 18 but I am serious about saving and traveling. I have been reading your blogs and it just feeds my want/need to travel. I am planning a RTW trip in a couple years as I build my savings and I keep coming back and reading blogs such as yours to keep me motivated. My main point is thank you for posts like this and also the one to “Young Dreamers.” I keep that and this one bookmarked in my computer to go back and read once in a while. Thank you.

    • Thank you Alexandra, I am so glad that this resonated with you and that you are working long-term to save and accomplish this goal. No matter how far away it seems, by keeping focused and motivated it will happen. And reading and staying a part of the RTW travel community is a wonderful way to stay on track. If there is ever anything I can do to help as you save and plan, don’t hesitate to let me know! :)

  2. As travel has deepened your ideas on life, the world, and yourself, do you ever find it difficult to relate to others who have not had a similar experience… Particularly in a close/intimate relationship?

    • That’s a tough question Jon. Pieces of that issue were the core problem in a very long-term relationship that ended a couple years ago. We had met pre-travel, but over time, there was a disconnect between our worldviews that was irreparable in the long run. I hold out hope that there are some willing to either travel more, or that I’ll meet someone on the road who has also used travel as a bootcamp for life. :)

  3. The world feels like a smaller place, where tensions or joys on the other side of the globe have the potential to impact my daily existence. Before traveling outside of the country, these things would have seemed more trivial and distant to me.

  4. What a wonderful post! We have only been traveling (as nomads) for 12 months but already have seen massive changes in ourselves, and each other. The people we are today, because of travel, are the people we have always wanted to be but never quite made it.

    We love your blog! It has been an inspiration to us throughout the planning stages (12 months prior to departure) and since we’ve been on the road, so thank you for that!

    • Twelve months on the road is a good long time, and it’s amazing how the perspective shifts can just begin to sink in over time … as the travel and the cultural immersion sinks in, there are lessons to be had. So many thanks for the kind words about the site — safe travels! :)

  5. Great post Shannon! I enjoyed reading it from top to bottom, thank your for sharing your thoughts. I’m sure there are many with me that can relate to what your writing.

    • Thank you Pernilla, it’s one of those things that is so hard for us to put into words, but I know I have talked to fellow travelers who have been transformed by travel as well. Thanks for reading, I appreciate your time and sharing your thoughts! :)

  6. Great post! Traveling does bring in a change among us! Change in mood, perspective, personality and overall. It is amazing how people celebrate different traditions and lifestyles.

  7. Hi Shannon!
    We just stumbled upon your website when looking up Jordinian food! And I’m so glad we did :) You wrote beautifully about how travelling changes a person. We too have been travelling for a long time and are currently living in China. The shifts, growth and experiences that happen during travel are hard to put into words, but you somehow did.
    Safe Travels.
    Goats On The Road

    • Thanks for sharing your story too Nick, living in China would certainly give you a even different perspective on travel and sinking into experiences and letting them affect you. Love the name of your site, safe travels! :)

  8. I think one of the reason I am addicted to traveling is because it always changes me. It always makes me wiser, stronger, and gives me a broader perspective on life. Great post!

    • I agree Stephen–the internal changes and shifts are wonderful, and when you couple that with how interesting it is to constantly learn new things, it’s surely addicting :)

  9. I think one of the reason I am addicted to traveling is because it always changes me. It always makes me wiser, stronger, and gives me a broader perspective on life. Great post!

  10. Beautifully put, Shannon. Your descriptions of places and events are so evocative of emotions I’ve similarly felt while traveling. A friend and I were recently having a similar conversation about travel’s effects on us. She explained how travel has expanded her as a person and increased her capacity for emotion, and for living; her lows became extremely low, but it made her highs that much higher and every feeling seemed that much more vivid. Travel really does change us, though sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint just how, but you’ve done a great job of self evaluation and articulating something that can be so difficult to convey. Cheers to many more years. :)

    • Your friend’s statements about the highs and lows are exactly how I feel as well, it’s in knowing the range and depth of sadness, loss,
      and loneliness that we are able to better enjoy the joyous moments. Thank you for stopping in and sharing your thoughts Kaleena, safe and happy travels! :)

  11. An interesting article, I enjoyed reading from the top to the bottom. As a traveler we have different perspective in life, thanks for sharing yours Shannon.

    • Thank you Richard, perhaps one day we can grab a coffee if our paths cross and talk travel and perspectives :) Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. Thank you for sharing this with the world. As someone who hopes to head off for some extended travel very soon it was very encouraging to read. Hopefully one day I can write of what I’ve learned from four years of travel.

  13. It will come back to you later in life.. you may not have time to decompress, reflect or remember .. but now with the internet you can connect with people, with digital photos you can see places and faces.. you have a HUGE advantage.. my 7-15 years abroad.. are just in my heart and mind.

    • Thank you for weighing in Nancy. I know it will be years still until I realize how lucky I was to have so much technology at my fingertips to record and help me remember. I hope you journaled during your travels and time abroad :)

  14. Great post. I think travel definitely changes everyone for the better as they gain so much more perspective on the world. I like collecting little mementoes from my travels such as train tickets, admission tickets etc, and I look back on these and my photos years later to remind myself of all the wonderful countries I visited.

    • Yes! Like you, I have certain little pieces of the travels I bring back for scrapbooking. I also have consistently purchased artwork along the way so I have an easy way to pull in elements and memories from the experiences and countries. :)

  15. Beautifully written, Shannon, and a good reminder of all the ways that travel has shifted my perspective as well. Thanks for sharing :)

    • Thank you Christine, I do believe it’s in the settling back into life to some extent, as you are doing a bit of now, that the reflections truly begin and sink in deeply :)

  16. Very introspective. So many of us that have traveled know that there are changes and are unable to put them into words. I can relate to your ‘memory’ problems but agree that sometimes it’s a smell or a moment that will bring me back to whatever place, the people and the experience. Thank you for sharing.

  17. You did such a wonderful job of putting your amazing experience into words! A really great read. Keep traveling, and keep writing!

  18. AMAZING!!! Thanks for summarize what travel is! I left my job and travelled around the world with my girlfriend for 6 months, it was the most incredible and eye-opening experience in my life! If you are going to Argentina in the future, please let me know!

    • Six months is a wonderful amount of time–you sink into the travel and really start to get into the new rhythms and experiences. I haven’t yet made it to South America, but I would love to grab a coffee with you both when I do make it there (I am hoping in 2013!!!) :)

  19. Shannon, what an amazing and introspective post! I too struggle often to reconcile what travel is doing for me, how it is helping me, and what my part is in the ever-growing tapestry that reveals itself to me throughout my own travels. I know I am changed…but how isn’t always clear. More perspective, more compassion, more experience? Each of those is a valid, but I often wonder whether I am really experiencing change or am I really just along for the ride…a tourist who is reaching for meaning in a string of checked off travel boxes. Well, this post has given me insight as to what it truly means to be transformed by travel. Thank you for such a personal and insightful perspective. I continue to learn from you!

    • It’s hard to see the changes, and even harder still I think to direct and lead your travels toward what you think you should learn. You guys are still right in the thick of your adventures, with so much happening every day! Good luck on the rest of your journey! :)

    • Thank you Rika; it is often so difficult to find the words to pinpoint just how it feels, which is why I feel like I rambled a bit there for a while, heh heh. Safe travels and happy diving :)

  20. “In short, travel changed my life.”

    Well said, my friend, well said. Like you, travel has changed every aspect of my life. I seriously look back on who I was pre-2005 when I went abroad for the 1st time, and “WTF was i thinking” is the first thought in my mind.

    • It’s so very true, I was talking with an LA friend last week and I just kept circling back to thinking about how different (and not in a necessarily good way!) I was even just four years ago! I like who you are now Drew, perhaps great for us both we crossed paths only just this year :)

  21. Thanks for that deep perspective, Shannon. You’ve managed to tackle a topic that’s hard to summarize – how do we talk about how travel’s changed us & what it means to us? So much of what you said really resonates!

    I love what you say about not always being able to tell stories on the spot, but yet being thrown back into memories when a smell or sight triggers something. I experience something so similar, when people ask me general questions, I end up with some mediocre story, often because like you say, travel is so personal, it’s hard to quickly summarize how it was backpacking a year or meeting people in Myanmar or making Chiang Mai home. There’s so much emotion & excitement wrapped up into these experiences, it’s so hard to make exciting soundbites sometimes.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts & photos – the beauty of having a blogging community is that we don’t have to tell the meaning of our travels or how it has changed us in one post, luckily there’s a community listening.


    • Your experiences in Myanmar were so immersive and intense that I am intrigued to see how you and Kyle process that in the coming months and years. Every piece of the journey has no doubt impacted your trip, but I know from our talks that there were many highs and lows about your time there, and I am intrigued to see as you said, how you process and share those stories and lessons in the coming months and years. Hugs right back atcha :)


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