Categories: LifeMusingsTravel

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

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

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

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

And years passed. Nine, to be exact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

… on my early days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… on creating 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.

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

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

… on what I’ve learned along the way.

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

Over the years, my goals continued to shift and my career changed paths. Although I continued to work in online marketing for years, I also began promoting responsible tourism through this site, and through 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 December 11, 2018 11:25 am

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

    • Thank you Carmela, I have so, so loved meeting you along the travels — rainy Hoi An and our night out is a highlight from my time there! Can't wait to meet up elsewhere in the world. :)

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

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

    Thanks for sharing with us :)


    • Hi Ryan, thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing about your own journey. I feel like those early years on the road really tend to focus on the fears and clearing it all out so that we can more clearly see the person we want to become and the life we could be living — as you said, with more love, harmony, and fun. Cheers and thanks for the support. :)

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

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

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

    • Hi Mark! Thanks for reading and sharing your own story — 20 years is certainly a long time to stay nomadic! I found out that I received the Spanish visa so I am looking forward to this next chapter that will be a bit more toward the part-time traveler that I think is a bit more sustainable long-term. Miami certainly has some great flight connections, so I hope that it makes a good home base for your continued travels.

  • Good Morning Shannon,

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

    • Hi Randy. Interesting question. I don't know that having a place matters to some people, but I can say that perpetual movement — and the lack of consistent, in-person friendships that go deep and wide from years of rituals and habits with friends — is wearying. I have friends from my pre-travel life who have stayed in one spot, and although most of them wouldn't likely say they are massively transformed (other than by things like now having children and mortgages, but not the personal transformation you might be referring to), some who have stayed in one place have taken a learners mentality to the world, and they are now entirely different people. When you look at the world with curiosity and learning, and an open acceptance of new ideas, I don't think you can help but be changed. Most of us are raised in one culture, and a single viewpoint from our family unit, and travel or life can shift that, widen it and thus widen and deepen who you are and how you see the world.

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

    • Thank you JoAnna for the kind words. Our industry really did veer off track in so many ways. I could always see the appeal — the money and ease of it, but it lost heart, and lost a lot of the community feeling that we had in the early years. But that we have stayed connected for these years has always been a touchstone and something I am grateful for. I hope that one of these days in the coming years our paths cross for an in-person catch up over drinks. I hope life in Kyiv is going well for you. :)

  • Wow! What a profound and insightful look at your travels, travel in general, and how it relates to life. I was deeply impacted by this post. Thanks for your vulnerability, Shannon, and for trusting us enough to share this with us. Truly enlightening. Happy travels!

  • Thank you so much. It's amazing how we all shift and shift again. Thank you for your Grass Roots Efforts! It's all about awareness. For those of us, who have volunteered, it is a feeling like no other. I am new to blogging, but if I can reach just a few people and help a few animals and organizations, well Dang-IT, that's what I am going to do!
    Thank you for your efforts and stories! I will reach out soon and see if I can promote your site.
    We are still a work in progress. Your efforts ARE appreciated.

    • That is a great way to phrase it, we are indeed forever shifting and changing. I am so happy to hear the piece resonated and that you're a fellow volunteer. So much luck with the new website, and don't hestiate to let me know if there is every anything I can do to help. I look forward to your email, Shannon.