I was halfway through my first backpacking trip when I met my first real long-term traveler, an Australian (of course). We made small talk, which started out with the usual, “How long are you traveling for?”
“A year,” he said. I was floored—I had heard of people traveling this long, but I had never actually met one of them.
“Wow,” I said. “You’re gonna be changed when it’s all over.” (Cringe.)
He shrugged. “Nah. Not really.”
The conversation ended, and I was dumbfounded. How could travel not change you? It seemed like an irrefutable fact. This guy was shitting all over my Eat, Pray, Love notion of travel and its connection with spiritual enlightenment and personal fulfillment.
That was in 2011, and I still wonder: Does travel really change you? A few trips later, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t necessarily result in a dramatic transformation, but it certainly does something. I felt more confident in social situations and striking up conversations with strangers. After months of solo travel, I became fiercely independent. I went from living paycheck to paycheck to someone who could save money fast. I could think on my feet when things went wrong.
After each trip, I came home feeling focused and clear-headed about my priorities. For a little while, I worked less and made more time for my family and friends. I signed up for language classes. I looked into volunteering and activities outside my comfort zone. I vowed to get healthier and join a gym. After the most recent trip, I even started dating again.
Except it would never last.
If you haven’t read David Wong’s article, “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” go do it right now. #1 really resonated with me: “Everything inside you will fight improvement.”
It’s really, really hard to get someone to change. We’re creatures of habit. We have a million ways to deflect criticism and defend ourselves, whether it be our choice of career path, the way we maintain our relationships, or our day-to-day decisions.
So I didn’t end up doing a lot of the things I said I was going to do. And I would backtrack from some of the progress I had already made. The extra time I used to spend with family and friends? That slowly diminished. And what was my excuse this time?
Travel. I had to work and save money for traveling.
I just came back from a third trip to Spain. When I think back on it, I feel pretty unsettled. It took me a while to admit to people, “It was less Eat, Pray, Love and more Eat, Sleep, Party.”
I don’t think I did a damn thing that was out of my comfort zone. This trip was like a rerun of my favorite hits.
In Barcelona, I walked the same loop every day. In Granada, I didn’t see La Alhambra yet again because it was my trip and I could do whatever I wanted, even if that meant reading books in the hostel tree house all day.
When people tried speaking Spanish to me, I’d automatically say, “No hablo español” in order to avoid the embarrassment of messing up. In Málaga, girls had tied a tightrope between two palm trees, and everyone dared to try it–except me.
I met some awesome people. I had a good time. My mind was cleared of all the stress I had built up back home. But that was it. The trip wasn’t as amazing as it could’ve been because of all the things I had said “no” to; I was fighting against anything that was difficult or uncomfortable, like stumbling through a Spanish conversation or potentially falling face first into the sand.
I think that guilt is why I stopped blogging for so long: I didn’t want to acknowledge it.
I still believe that travel can change you. But only if you’re open to it and actively seeking to change. Simply buying a ticket and taking the ride isn’t enough. And if you want those changes to stick, you have to be conscious of the decisions that you’re making. It’s so easy to slip back into your old routine.
I’m leaving for South America in 17 days. It’s a new continent and my longest trip yet (6+ months), and I’m starting to get scared. And it’s awesome. I haven’t felt like this since leaving for my first backpacking trip, when I was sick to my stomach. The whole purpose of this trip is to break out of my comfort zone, to change, and to gain a wealth of new experiences. So this time around, let’s see if I can get it right.