Categories: Advice and TipsLifeMusings

A Little Adrift … 20 Powerful Life Lessons from My Solo Travels Around the World

Five years ago today, I sat at Los Angeles International Airport watching the ground crew load the plane outside the window with baggage and fuel. Conflicting emotions warred inside of me. In two short hours, I would board a one-way flight to Australia to start my year-long round the world trip. This moment was the culmination of five months of meticulous planning and the realization of my dream to see other places — to find a purpose for myself while traveling through the cultures and countries I had read about in National Geographic all my life. My brief but powerful panic attack earlier in the day gave way to acceptance as I sat at my gate. I was nervous and still unsure about what awaited a slender, solo 24-year-old woman from the states who possessed little travel experience but great curiosity. But, I had faith that even if everything went wrong and I hated this decision, that I would come out OK on the other side.

I didn’t know it then, but that solo trip in 2008 evolved into five+ years of slowly traveling and working my way around the world. I have spent long periods of time exploring just a few regions of the world. And beyond that, I have used these years to gain a better perspective on myself. A few lessons were hard-won and humbling. Others came from unlikely tutors and at unlikely times. I thought it fun to compile 22 things I’ve learned since that day I sat at the LA airport debating the wisdom of my decision to travel solo around the world.

1. The world is inherently kind.

New acquaintances hearing my story are often alarmed by the breadth of my travels. Or, more pointedly, by a few of the countries I have visited. It’s hard to have an open perspective on the world if you only hear negative stories and stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. Traveling unravels those prejudices with a more complex story of the world. Even more, traveling illuminates the light of inherent kindness pulsing from the world. Though traveling has some dangers — I have discussed them before — there is a deeper well of gracious kindness that coats every corner of the world. In every place, and within every culture I have found new friends and new stories about these places. People have have welcomed me into their homes. Many others helped me when I was sick. All of them shared a nuance about their culture and country that has forever lit that place in a new light for me.

2. Language barriers are surmountable.

New travelers, and those with the dream to travel, write me to share their travel fears. Many express fear about the language barriers in new places. It’s also a frequent question asked middle schoolers when I speak at their schools (right up there with “what’s the grossest thing you’ve even eaten?). The world has hundreds of languages and dialects. On a travel day in some places you can pass through half-a-dozen languages before you fall back to sleep that night. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the perceived obstacle. That’s a lot of languages to learn! But the truth is, English is the language of tourism. While there are few places where English-language guidance is rare, major tourist sites generally default to English as the second language of communication. This undercurrent of tourism suffuses so many pockets of the world. But where it’s scarce, even then it’s not a travesty. I’ve always found that a bit of preparation (like a phrasebook or smartphone app) works when coupled with patience, a game of charades, and a big smile.

3. Solo does not mean lonely.

It can mean lonely at times, I have never been lonelier than when I was sick on the road. Those moments, however, are the exception, not the rule. Traveling solo these past five years opened up conversations, moments of clarity, and deep friendships that would have been harder if I had traveled with others. Because I’m alone on the road, I seek friendships that other travelers may not need nor notice. And as a single woman, I am accepted into places males are not allowed. Women befriend me on buses and invite me to tea. In many cultures, men and women alike take me under their wing the moment they find out I am alone. Across dozens of cultures and countries, people have offered me help, friendship, and safety. Even more, traveling solo affords the solitude and space to work through thoughts and issues. It gives more time process each travel moment and assimilate the lessons and ideas. Solo travel teaches more about yourself than any self-help book ever could. Solo never has to mean lonely. Male and females both should travel alone at least once in their life.

4. Travel is affordable.

Traveling the world for five years on end is out of the norm for most people. Traveling away from home for long stretches in unimaginable for many people who have a strong homebase and routine. That’s OK, I’m not suggesting that long-term travel is the only way. But even shorter trips should be a priority for those who express a love of travel. Travel does not have to be a high-end luxury cruise around Europe. It can be that, but for those who dream of travel, it’s more affordable than many assume. My 11-months on that first year cost me about $18,000 for everything from lodging to airfare to food. Developing regions are not only more affordable, but they offer some of the most fascinating opportunities to learn more about the world. It’s also where your impact will go further if you spread your money responsibly by supporting social enterprises. Over the years, I have met travelers from every income bracket and socio-economic level. If you prioritize travel, you can find the ways to make it happen.

5. Travel, like life, is personal.

What one traveler loves, another might find dreadful. I eschew big cities and I am content to travel through towns with sub-500 people. That sounds like hell to some travelers. By traveling all these years, I learned that museums are not my thing, but I can wax poetic on my hike or the linguistic nuances of a new language I’m learning. We all geek-out on different things, and it’s totally fine to geek-out on whatever makes you happy. By personalizing a trip to exactly the activities you enjoy, it provides a fresh lens on the world and a deeper way to understand the local culture.

6. Gratitude is the greatest lesson in cultivating a happy life.

Traveling with my niece underscored for me the importance of instilling the character traits of empathy and gratitude into the next generation. With Ana, we talked about the wealth disparities we witnessed in each new place. A mother in  Laos shared how hard she had to work to send her child to the most basic schooling. And in turn, Ana learned a tangible appreciation for her educational opportunities. My niece saw the long, arduous hours farmers put in to grow the rice and coffee that fill our tables in the West. We watched workers spend hours to earn a living wage that barely supports their most basic needs. Practicing gratitude is not exclusive to travel, but long-term travel cultivates lessons in thankfulness and instills the practice deep into your life.

7. Eating the street food makes a trip memorable.

Some prominent travel guidebooks caution against sampling the local street eats in a new place. For shame. While there are definitely street-food safety precautions, the flavors, freshness, conversations, and friendships formed on tiny plastic stools sitting at rickety tables behind steamy hot street food stalls are many of my greatest memories. It’s worth it.

8. You should always carry travel medicine.

It can save your life, especially if you eat the street food. ;-)

9. Lessons come from unlikely places and unlikely people.

I have spent hundreds of hours in deep conversations with strangers on buses, trains, and planes all over the world. Each new person offered a fascinating story, a nugget of wisdom, or a nuance of the local culture. Through these conversations I learned a great respect for how different our lives can be, but even more the shared commonalities. Travel made me face my arrogant notions of “book smarts” and instead look at each conversation and experience as a chance to learn.

10. The developing world is more modern than you think.

Though I have seen great poverty and wealth disparities on my travels, it is the modernity of foreign places that surprised me. Bangkok, Thailand has some of the most spectacular glass malls in the world — a dozen floors of haute couture, trendy restaurants, and enormous cinemas. Tokyo, Japan is completely developed and yet nothing like the West. Sub-Saharan Africa has more developed cellular phone infrastructure than most Western countries. And they innovate through that network in ways no other places ever has. There are no stereotypes that prove true about any one thing, and that includes developing regions of the world.

11. Make new friends, but keep the old ones.

I had a music box in childhood that tinkled the notes from a song into the air when it opened. The lyrics play as a refrain in my head as I travel the world and meet new people, “make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” These past five years have taught me important lessons about nurturing and maintaining my old friendships even in the face of new ones. Travel has limited my ability to keep and build those deep, old friendships. There is joy and value in the new friends and new lessons, but also a limit to the depth of the human experience I can encounter when I constantly move. Through this website, I have formed connections within the travel community. I have also become formed deep friendships with several people I met through travel. I value these people and the role they play in my life, but equally important are the friends I know who know my history. It hasn’t always been easy to balance traveling long-term with supporting those friends. Traveling all these year taught me to be increasingly grateful for the deep and lasting friendships — it has taken very specific focus to ensure I maintain the friendships that pre-date my travel days.

12. Accept kindness.

Somebody wise probably once said that cynicism is the great killer of joy. If not, they should have. Accept kindnesses from strangers and be open to invitations and new experiences. Accept the chai tea offered by the friendly shop owner and learn his story. Jump at the offer to go to a large Indian wedding in the next town, you’ll have a blast. Be gracious, bring a gift, and be open to the new experience.

13. Call your parents.

My dad has never made me feel guilty for staying on the road all these years. As a thanks for his support, I assuage his fears in whatever way I can. Although I am not a parent, I know my the weeks I drop off the grid without any contact are hard on him. So, whenever Internet allows I send frequent e-mails and we Skype a couple of times a month. I respect that this person invested 18 years of his life making sure I lived to adulthood, the least I can do is keep him in the loop.

14. It’s okay to buy souvenirs.

I buy myself paintings from all over the world and ship them home. This flies in the face of the traveling minimalists who huff at the notion of souvenirs and “stuff.” I think it’s a question of acquiring the right stuff. My paintings are all in storage right now, and I don’t know when or where I may eventually settle, but they are treasured possessions. I also ship home thoughtful gifts to the people in my life who matter. My dad receives coffee from all over the world, we bond over this and it has made him feel a part of it (see number 13). One friend loves collecting jewelry from new places, another is a fan of scarves. My mother loves nothing more than those super touristy t-shirts, you know, the ones with an embroidered Eiffel Tower and the name “Paris” in cursive just below it; I send these to her from every new place. They’re little tokens, and some people don’t get it, but to me, these things matter.

15. Take your mom’s advice: Count to 10 when you’re frustrated.

Traveling in developing regions of the world could try the patience of a saint. There’s the constant bargaining. The swarm of people who surround you when you leave a train stations. The touts and tuk-tuks vying for your attention. It’s overwhelming if it’s you’re not accustomed to the chaos. There are moments when I desperately need space and I feel like everyone’s ripping me off. This is when it’s time to count to 10 and take a deep breath. Learning how to control yourself in the most stressful of situations. Step away from the situation and gain a little head space to take stock of the situation. Find a bench, find a bathroom, find some way to back off from the overwhelm and find some perspective. You are in a new, foreign culture and that takes adjustment. It’s not your place to yell and create a scene, it’s your place to find the way to progress forward in a way that respects the local culture while keeping yourself safe.

16. Spend money when it’s warranted.

While there are times to be frugal and keep to a budget, a once-in-a-lifetime trip should be memorable. Always convert local currencies back into the US dollar before you nix a new experience. It’s easy to freak out over that 120,000 kip day-trip in Laos, but it’s really only $15 USD and that’s not quite so alarming a figure, is it? This is also true when it means splurging on a central guesthouse, or taking the taxi home if it’s safer or if it’ll make your life a bit easier. As with everything, keep perspective. It’s also more polite and respectful of the local culture to maintain perspective that haggling vendors down to their last nickel discount makes little difference in your travel budget, but is a huge difference in local salaries. Travel is only humbling and perspective-shifting when you make a conscious effort to make informed choices and learn from each new experience.

17. Never leave your luggage unattended.

Airports make the luggage announcement every 15 minutes. Never leave your luggage unattended. It’s wise advice when you’re about to face TSA, and it’s also sage travel advice. In many places, take your hand off your purse and it may be the last time you see that purse. Be conscious of your belongings when you’re in public, and spread your valuables among your bags. To whip out another cliche, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Maintain a consciousness of your possessions at all times, this is one of those “hard-learned” lessons every traveler learns at some point.

18. Pack light, you really can it buy it there.

When I sat in that airport terminal five years ago, I had completely over-packed. I ditched heaps of the things that I thought I would need. And I also lugged a year’s-worth of some items that were easily replaceable. You really can find: tampons, shampoo, new clothes, safety pins, and all the other myriad things you think you might not exist outside the US. The one thing you can’t find? Solid deodorant. I don’t like roll-on deodorant, and it’s difficult to find solid deodorant in many places. Now, I pack my Diva Cup, I replace shampoo in each new place, and I pack an extra stick of solid deodorant. For all things non-deodorant related, however, you can likely find it there.

19. Great things lie on the other side of fear.

The idea of traveling solo terrified me when I first left. Over the years though, it’s at the very moment that I am most afraid to move forward with an idea — when fears paralyze me — that I know I need to push through. I don’t mean fears like a physical danger, but rather the fears that box us in and prevent us from reaching our goals. Travel taught me that when you feel resistance, it’s that very thing that you will like find most rewarding on the other side. Understand yourself first and foremost so that you can make know how to make the big choices that best reflect your life goals and aspirations.

20. Smile often. :-)

Smiling is a gift that transcends cultures. It is the universal communicator. You should learn the basic “thank yous” and “hellos” in the local language too. But smiling replaces either of these gestures, and it should always accompany them. Not only can you express gratitude with a smile, but a simple smile has been the start of many amazing conversations over the years. Only take caution in parts of the world where a smile from a woman is seen as forward or promiscuous. In the bulk of the world, however, one small gesture of curiosity and kindness from me opened the door to reciprocal offers of kindness. Smiling makes you approachable to foreigners and locals alike. Really, you can’t go wrong if you approach your travels with smiles, patience, and gratitude.

It’s been a wild ride these past five years. I had no idea I would find a way to continue working from the road and traveling this great big planet. I have the deepest thanks and gratitude for the support of my readers. Throughout this journey, connecting with A Little Adrift readers has long been one of the best parts. If I can ever help you shoot me an email. If you’re keen to meetup, sign up for event notifications on the Facebook page, and safe travels wherever you next find yourself!

~Shannon

This post was last modified on December 11, 2016, 11:55 am