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.
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.
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.
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.
This post was last modified on July 19, 2018, 11:13 am