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.
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.
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.
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
This post was last modified on December 10, 2016, 10:01 pm