Last updated on May 11, 2023
Every so often, readers email me asking what compelled me to travel solo back in 2008. Then they wonder why I never stopped traveling. They ask: “Why were you willing to pack up your life and leave my friends and family behind?”
Their curiosity leaps from the page. I hear the gentle upspeak at the end of the question as they wonder about this strange creature who doesn’t have the trappings of many other women in their late twenties: house, toddler, and a 9-5 job.
Some readers presume I use travel as a way to run away from my problems and issues. They hurl the accusation as if they are catching me in a lie. The short answer is: I was probably running, but it wasn’t away from my problems, but rather into the one thing I thought could help me manifest the personal changes I wanted for my life.
There is the shiny side of traveling, which I have talked about before. There is that shining, beacon of hope for travelers that comes from the pure desire to see new places. This is a dream that pushes many to travel. They yearn to see the bright colors and faces of new city, to hear the slide of new languages lilt over the ear, and to capture those moments in time. We capture these moments through story, photos, or simply being witness to the travels. It’s the dream of many, but yet in the U.S. so few of us take the steps to realize that dream; culturally round the world trips are just not very common.
Crafting My Motivations to Travel
I had those shiny travel dreams too, but in the days leading up to purchasing my one-way ticket I realized more than the distant notion of seeing a place, I had perhaps found a way to help me transition into a new and shinier Shannon too. I wanted to quickly shed everything I had built up until then. I wanted to run. I wanted to change the me I saw myself becoming. I wanted to run from obligations I felt looming over me. And I wanted to run from a cookie-cutter pattern for life that felt molded for someone else. I know using personal issues as a catalyst to travel seems naïve — because you can’t solve anything by running—but it’s only naïve if you think you’re escaping by running.
I am impulsive rather than brave. I often let (present tense, it’s still something I do) frustration be my guide as much as anything. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, just months graduating college, I gave everyone a four-week notice. Why four weeks? I could tell you it was because I had a burning desire to jump into acting, but equally alongside that desire was a simple truth: I needed immediate space from my family.
When I was 21-years-old, one of my four older brothers died of a drug overdose. His death was a turning point for my family. His death created a crack from which we have never come back. It created rifts and pains that remain unhealed because his death was too much for the fragile balance of our familial dysfunction.
So I moved to Los Angeles. And it followed me, as all things we run from do. I shared a bit more on that here. But suffice to say, I spent two long years living in LA and working in the entertainment industry. I felt the city breaking my spirit. I fielded more family dysfunction from my hometown across the country. I found myself frustrated and primed for a change.
A conversation with my dad planted the seed for traveling overseas. Since I work online (and I had this work even before I read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek), I had more choices than many in my circumstance. Traveling and working was a novel idea, it wasn’t one that had ever occurred to be mfore. And it came to me at a time when I felt like I was drowning — I hated LA by that point. I don’t hate it now. My hatred was more about me than the city. Now think of that period of time in the City of Angels with a tingling nostalgia. At the time, however, I struggled with the superficial nature of the acting industry. I wasn’t doing a great job navigating my first grown-up relationship. And I had handled my family situation horribly.
We each make decisions we think are healthier for us, decisions that will give us a hand in navigating our life. Choices related to our life’s work or our health, decisions to cut out family members or friends, or perhaps to move out of our home state to gain distance from poisonous relationships.
I decided that I would travel and hope that time, distance, and growing up would give me clarity on each of those other choices facing me in my life. The personal side of me craved the distance from issues I had not yet learned to cope with, just as the intellectual dreamer in me craved the new cultures, people, languages, and interactions.
Accepting Someone Like Me Could Travel
I have dreamed of travel since I was young and paged through National Geographic magazines. I feel a pull, a need to make distant places feel like my own. To feel like I have laid witness to the range of experience and place this world has to offer. I also love languages and have studied many over the years—Spanish, Italian, Thai, and American Sign Language. Linguistic nuances fascinate me. The way we express ourselves shapes how we think and act. During college, I loved it enough to declare myself a linguistics major for one brief semester in college.
In deciding to travel long-term, I married my internal struggles with my dreams. I don’t regret the dysfunctions or issues that brought me to the decision either. It’s likely these very aspects of myself that motivated me to leave and allowed me to overcome the fear of setting off solo. And I am fortunate that I came to this place in my life in my mid-twenties, when I had the lack of responsibilities, the time, the willingness to “rough it,” and just enough narcissism to justify leaving behind my friends and family.
Accepting that travel was possible for me—a moderately poor, still in student loan debt, no real savings kinda girl — owning that decision, changed my life. From that moment of acceptance to buying my plane ticket spanned about a week. That’s the impulsive side of me. I knew I wanted to travel, I was a little lost in my life (some might even say adrift), and a week later, June 16, 2008, I bought a one-way ticket so I that couldn’t back out of the plan.
Using Travel as an Incubator for Personal Growth
My decision wasn’t just about seeing the world and traveling; I needed the time, space, and perspective to become a better person, to feel like more of a whole person. Travel did not fix me, but it instead it was an incubator for personal growth—something I craved five years ago and something I often hear as the main rationale behind why teens and young adults should travel more. Before I left to travel, a close friend told me: “No one out there knows who you are, they hold no expectations. Become the person you want to be.” And the road is a good place for that sentiment.
The travel experience holds a mirror to your face and forces you to come to terms if you’re the person you want to be. Once you see yourself, traveling gives you ample time to dissect the nuances of those discoveries on marathon 36 hour bus rides, endless trains, solo dinners, and dark moments hugging a toilet hours later.
I consciously choose both reasons for traveling, and I know this is not true for everyone. For many I speculate there is more purity in the decision, but heck, I only speculate. Because perhaps, deep inside, many of us know that life on the road will give us the chance to re-write our story. I re-wrote the story I told myself about who I was. And although there are many paths in life, I couldn’t have rewritten my story without this new path in my life.
Travel is an accelerator allowing your own issues to bubble to the surface—healing those issues is an option, you can choose to travel and remain unaffected, or you can seek out the person you want to be and allow the lessons on the road teach you the path. All of this occurring alongside the breathtaking moments of joy as you see whales breaching a foot off the bow of your boat, a spectacular sunrise in a jungle forest hanging from a zip-line, and the laughter of new friendships.
That being said, if I had known just how forcefully travel would make me face my own demons, I would have lacked the courage to even back my backpack.
It was in my Vipassana meditation course that I came to terms with my brother’s death. Surely some of the peace I now feel would have come through another experience in my life had I not spent those ten days in solitary contemplation. But travel was my gateway. Travel provided me with a path for healing. I am nicer than I was, and that was partly from reconnecting with volunteering and service as I traveled. Traveling butted me up against the worst aspects of myself: the girl who was (is?) quick to anger, the girl with strong opinions, the girl who runs from her problems. Travel is and was my boot-camp for life.
Though, I assimilated life lessons more quickly in the first two years of travel than any other time in my life (which I talked a lot about in my four years of travel piece), I still have a long ways left.
There are pieces of me that will remain no matter what I do. These pieces are a part of my story. But there are issues, patterns, habits, and behaviors that travel mirrors back to me, it allows me to see those that no longer serve me. Traveling solo built the strength in me to face the issues that propelled me into leaving. It didn’t solve them, but it taught me where and how to find the strength to address them. There are no doubt many other choices in life that can bring similar results, but those were not my path.
And so, that single decision to buy my one-way ticket was the start of the personal journey to fulfill my dream to travel, and to become a better person. It was the day I decided not allow circumstances to dictate who I am.
I needed time to heal through some personal struggles—and I have healed through many, though far from all—and to follow what I now believe was my path. I was meant to be a traveler, and in coming well into my fourth year on the road I realized that the time and experiences with my nieces and nephews have given me a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life in one way or another (and once I overcome the fears related to this new venture): I want to share travel with youth, to get to them when they’re young and inspire them to find the new ideas, perspectives, and personal growth that long-term travel and service provides.
More than anything I want the next generation to learn their place in the world, because I know that only in making myself whole, only in taking that personal journey over the past four years have I come to a place where I can begin to truly be of service.
Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.Pico Iyer
Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:
- How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
- On Safety and Solo Female Travel: What’s it like to travel as a solo female, and what are the real fears versus perceived fears for travelers.
- Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
- On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
- On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.
48 thoughts on “A Little Honesty… On Why I Decided to Travel the World”
Thank you, Shannon, for this post. Beautiful story. This just about sums me up in a nutshell as well. I’m about to embark on my own RTW journey. It scares me, but I hope to come out of it with new light.
Congrats so much on your upcoming RTW. It can seem so daunting when you’re about to begin, but it’s an incredible experience and I wish you all the luck and fun. I hope it’s an amazing trip. :)
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Thanks for this gift of sharing and esposing yourself to help others!
You’re welcome Savannah, thank you for reading. Safe travels. :)
Beautiful post. I’m 100% on board with your desire to inspire younger kids to travel and incubate their own self-growth, I’ve been trying to push my younger brother into it for years haha. I’ll be following along and looking for more info on that project! :)
Hi Sally! Sounds like you and I are kindred spirits here — I try to push my family into traveling as much as possible. I hope you have luck with your younger brother :)
looking for housing/volunteer jobs in SP but gotta keep looking, hitting walls….:)
my vision board was only started in Jan, but u just game me alot more inspiration shannon. ty, hugs from nh to fl. i didnt realize how much you were doing…its awesome. In the middle of my board is huge word that says TRAVELER on it, i cut out from the front of National Geographic , and im ready for my next adventure. I also have the new girl on there, and if i keep traveling, i will def be the new girl..in more ways than one…ty again
I do love vision boards for helping visually show what you want to manifest in your life — it makes it easier to map out what you actually prioritize. Keep me posted on where you travel to next, like you, I am always looking for the next place to be the “new girl” :)
thank you, theres a few great spots i know of its just getting income that is always holding me back instead of jumping and trusting…great places in cali and oregon…:)
Great article. I just came back from 18 months in S.E. Asia and I can certainly attest to the therapeutic affect of so much time to think and ‘just be’ (as wanky as that sounds!). Some financial dilemma’s have brought me back home (Oz) for a few months, but I’m already itching to get back out there (hence I’m surfing all these blogs such as yours). This time I’ll get myself a TEFL certificate so I have something to fall back on in between other writing projects.
Glad to hear your adventures are still going well. Yours was one of the blogs I read while planning my own ‘trip’ – and I can confirm that as of two months ago, Chiang Mai is still a great place to spend a few months.
It’s interesting to hear how other people’s plans for life-long travel began.
And I still remember the day that the idea (and plausibility) of perpetual travel was planted in my head. I was in Egypt for 2 weeks in 2004 – I bought the tastiest falafel and it only cost me 15 cents. Blew my mind. Lol. And the seed was planted! Then I used the precedent set by all you lovely bloggers to re-assure my friends and family that it was all above-board and completely normal :)
Thanks and Good luck with everything.
(sent from Sydney, with a week of rain, 13 degree temps, and a sandwich that cost the price of 10 Pad Thai’s).
I am so sorry it took me two weeks to see this comment Nat! I hope the family dilemmas are working themselves out for you, and that you are finding ways to keep the travel dream a part of your life while back home (I do not envy you that cold weather — yikes!). Thank you for sharing the moment your own travel-seed was planted, a 15c falafel sounds pretty excellent right now and has me itching to hit the road as well (I am home in Florida for the summer).
Cheers to perpetual travel and I hope you’re able to set off on some more adventures soon, keep me posted! :)
This is just lovely and touches some raw nerves for me. Thank you for sharing.
On a separate note, I once took a day long seminar in which we made vision boards. At the end, the group leader said that he always finds it interesting to see what we put right in the middle because usually it’s the most important thing to us. I think my was a mishmash of a bunch of different things, which figures since I tend to be a little scattered.
Thank you for reading Carmel, it can be tough sometimes to navigate the more personal aspects that lead us to make big decisions, please email me if you ever need someone to bounce ideas off of.
The vision board is one of those things I never thought would be as useful as it was, just to really see how varied my own ideas were, but even in the scatteredness (mine is a bit all over the place too!), there we elements of the things that I ended up manifesting in my life that year prominent (and lots near the middle)! Hope yours also leads you to positive places :)
A little courageous sharing, Shannon! Thanks.
Aw thanks Susanna, appreciate the support, some of that was terrifying to put out there :)
That was inspiring and lovely story. Everyone of us has different story why we travel and we do this with passion.
People wonder about grandmas who have gone nomad, too.
Hah! Thanks Teresa, good to know others don’t get less curious with age — I think I’ll be a nomadic grandma one day too. Thanks for popping in :)
I just found your blog and I’m so glad I stumpled upon it just now so that I could read this post.
It really touched me in a lot of ways. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. It’s great that you’ve made peace with it now. I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through, but thank you for the honesty.
I’m setting of to travel the world with my boyfriend last month and we’re both sooo excited. This blog will be a great resouce for us – thank you!
We’re sort of “running” from becoming a boring 9-5 couple with a hose, car and all that. That life really seems depressing to us, even though not many of our friends and family seem to understand it. Oh well. Can’t wait to see the world! I feel so restless when I live in the same place for too long! And I’m constantly reading about other countries and cultues – can’t wait to experience them for myself! :D
Thank you again for a great blog!
Hi Celia, I am so glad you found the site and that some of it resonated with you. In these last weeks before you leave please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is something I can help you with. I know as you get closer to the leave day stresses start stacking up and I found I had these niggling fears about maybe my friends being right about the staying home, house, kids (briefly, so briefly). Enjoy the time before you leave, happy planning, and safe travels!
Loved this. This is my first visit to your blog. I’ve also had trouble owning up to my dream of wanting to lead a different lifestyle, and wondering who am I to want such things for myself. Reading this reminded me that I’m not alone in that thinking, and that I can also get beyond it.
Hi Amber, so glad you found the site and thank you for sharing your own experience. It can feel so disheartening to look around and feel like you don’t quite fit in with the life others are living around you. Once I owned the decision, and gave myself permission to find a way to follow my own dream, my perspective shifted I started to see the opportunities to make it a reality. If there is every anything I can do to help you please shoot me an email! :)
Beautiful post! I think, much like you, I also see travel as a means to self-discovery and dealing with a lot of the issues that I can’t seem to reconcile at “home”. I ran away from problems when I moved across the country and realized that those issues followed me–they weren’t related to the place; they were internal. Your post was really enlightening and certainly resonates with me at the point I’m at in my life. So, thank you. :)
Thank you so much for sharing your own experience Megan. I think recognizing that you can’t escape the problems, but rather can use the road to give time and space to processing is key. If there is ever anything I can do to help or lend an ear please shoot me an email and we can chat :)
This was beautiful Shannon – thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry to hear that you lost a brother but I’m so glad to hear you’ve managed to make peace with it (although I know it will always be a loss that you feel – i feel that way about my uncle too)
I love traveling too & I’m at that point in my life where I can’t really pinpoint a specific reason why I feel a need to travel. I do feel part of it is running away but I think, as you rightly pointed out, I crave the ability to reinvent myself over and over again. There’s no need for me to pigeonhole myself when I’m meeting new people everyday. I find it very freeing. But it’s also immensely hard to explain this to my family who very much like having a routine.
Thanks for sharing your story – I plan to travel long term in the future too (need to save up first! am a student for now!) So it’s lovely to hear from people like you & Jodi (from Legal Nomads) who’ve been doing it (so eloquently & elegantly) for years!
I think the best thing we can each do in our lives is follow the path and journey we specifically were put here for … and for some of us that is not the routine that works for the majority. Though I have very supportive friends, I know that deep inside they really don’t understand why I travel, they want me their with them raising a family and owning a house — traveling and meeting others with a similar need to travel, explore and reinvent was one of the most freeing parts of being on the road for me.
As you plan and save for your own travels, please don’t hesitate to email me if there is ever something I can help you with. I really appreciate you sharing your own story and experiences here and hope your studies are going well! :)
Yes times a thousand. I agree with you on every point here! Very well-written. This needs to be out there. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks Rika, it was terrifying to share it but it’s been heartening to see in the comments that it’s helped others accept their own reasons for travel. :)
There is a mistrust of expats and travelers. I found this especially true when it came to Americans. Surely there is something wrong with a person who leaves the “greatest country in the world”, right? Indeed. It seems a lot of people think that someone who has avoided the fate that awaits most people is somehow defective for not fitting in. But the greatest minds in history didn’t exactly fit in. Not that backpackers on Khao San Road and the expats in Pattaya are the greatest minds in history, but neither are the obese suburbanites in Ohio…
Travel has been and continues to be the most mind expanding experience I’ve ever had. The degrees, the years in college, and the work experience are nothing compared to seeing child beggars in Bangkok and Romani in the Soviet blocs outside of Tallinn. Or seeing the beautiful lakes of eastern Finland or the quiet elegant hills of Wiltshire.
At the same time, these experiences have made it harder for me to relate to those suburbanites whose paths I cross back in the States. But that’s fine. I always know I can get a ticket and be with my own kind in some shitty dark bar in Shanghai or a hostel outside Rome.
That’s so true. And people back home that ask “why” already have a bad mindset. “Why not?” I would reply. For the first time in history, a common person is capable of exploring the earth (something not even possible 50 years ago), and it is an amazing opportunity one would be foolish to pass up.
Agree Julio, travel is more accessible and affordable than it ever has in been in history, and though the take-aways are different for each person, we all have the chance to be profoundly affected if we seize opportunities to head out on the road. :)
We still have a long journey ahead before the majority of the public in the US sees the wisdom in travel — sees that there is a value and beauty in these other places that is intrinsic to the place, not simply because it will then show people how great our own country is. After traveling with Ana and telling people I had my niece on the road with me, some Americans mentioned how great it was that she was now able to have gratitude for being an American. And while there is truth in that, I wanted her to have gratitude for the opportunities handed to her easily, they didn’t get that it was more than that, that I wanted her to see the exact opposite, that there are wonderful cultures and (sometimes better) lives to be had outside America. In fact, now that I am writing this it makes me think the topic deserves a blog post.
I hope one day we can share a beer in one of those dark bars in Shanghai. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, I always appreciate your insight and feeling there is a kindred spirit navigating many of the same waves life is throwing at us. :)
What a beautiful and brave post. The quote from your friend really resonated with me…“No one out there knows who you are, they hold no expectations. Become the person you want to be.”…that’s exactly how I felt when I studied abroad in China. I had the freedom to become the person I longed to be. I think that’s why I grew so much during that time, and why I have such strong memories of it. I dream of the day when I will start my travels, and your posts here are the best kind of inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us.
Thank you so much for sharing your own experience here Erin; traveling in China was such a culture shock for me that I can imagine spending time studying there would have given you the time and space to really look closely at who you are and who you wanted to be. If there is ever anything I can do to help you plan your own travels please let me know. :)
This is such a beautifully written and heartfelt post Shannon – I’m so glad you had the strength to write this because I know a lot of people will benefit from it.
Finding out why others travel is one of the best things about travelling; it’s a window to the soul!
Thank you Toni, I sometimes get the impression from people that there are right reasons to travel — that it’s wrong to try to travel as a primary reason for growth — though we all recognize it’s a side-effect. I do hope it helps others out there felling a little lost that we each have life circumstances, motivations and needs and they are all right reasons to travel. :)
Thank you for sharing such a personal, touching story about yourself Shannon. I can relate as I started traveling to get over a girl’s rejection. Nice to hear that you’re grown so much as a person and have travel to thank for that.
I think the most important thing is that we recognized that we could use travel as a tool for growth; I hope the time on the road helped you get over the girl! Safe and happy travels Tony :)
Great post. I can sort of relate in that my dad passed away 5 years ago and loved to travel, and I definitely inherited this from him. I need to get off my butt and start traveling more.
I found that making the decision that you will find a way to travel allows you to then look at life and find the opportunities that will get you there, rather than the obstacles. I hope you find a way to travel soon and bring that memory of your dad’s love for travel with you too :)
I know that was hard. I’m glad you got it out there. I quite like the you that you are.
Aw shucks, thank you James. I’m eager to have dinner with you and Maria in a year’s time and see how your perspective on leaving and travel has shifted too :)
Very thoughtful and heartfelt. There are many opportunities and doors in life. Glad you seized upon the chance to open some up for yourself, to get to a better place internally.
Thanks Michael, it’s true that there are many doors, and I know that for you a big piece of the journey was going overland and feeling every step of your own round the world — you had heaps of time to think about life by traveling by land :)
Thanks for sharing, Shannon. I can relate in so many ways. Vipassana also helped me find peace in loss. Love your vision board, too! My Pinterest boards are pretty much an electronic version of what you took so much time to piece together.
Thanks for sharing Angela. You’re right about Pinterest, I hadn’t framed it like that in my mind, but it’s a great idea. Beyond just pinning recipes, to find the visual representations of the coming year. Sold! Also, saw your own post on Vipassana and I am so glad it was able to help you find some peace as well, Goenka’s lessons each night still come back to me at times in my life when I need some perspective.