Today is my 26th birthday. Today, I leave my “early 20s” and cross over into my “late 20s.” It's weird, in a way, because I feel like I barely got used to telling people I was 25, and now suddenly I'm a year older. Time certainly does fly when you're having fun — and I've definitely had my fair share of fun this past year!
Since I'm turning over another year today, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at my life and travel and the things I've learned. I haven't been traveling for 26 years, but I'll still share 26 things travel has taught me thus far:
1. The world is not as scary as the media would lead you to believe
If you're like most people and get your opinion of the world from the news and movies, you probably view it as a dangerous, scary place. A place where terrorism is widespread, people kidnap tourists, and the likelihood of being robbed, maimed, or otherwise harmed is high. The reality, of course, is that the world is not actually scary at all, so long as you keep your wits about you.
2. A country's past should not decide its future
Certain parts of the world have particularly dark pasts — war, genocide, communism, terrorism… But the truth is, NO country can boast a completely peaceful history. Instead of judging a place by its past (and perhaps avoiding it because of that past), it's better to look at a country as it is right now. Don't write a destination off just because of something that happened there 10, 20, 50 years ago. You aren't the same person you were 10 years ago — so why shouldn't it be true of destinations, too?
3. We are not so different
At the end of the day, things like language, skin color, religion, and culture differentiate us much less than we think. No matter where you go in the world, people still strive for the same things: to care for their families. To be successful. To be happy. Keep this in mind whenever you start thinking “us” and “them” thoughts. Because, at the end of the day, our dreams and goals are not that different.
4. I am incredibly lucky to have the passport that I do
There's no doubt about it: my American passport is a very, very valuable thing. With it, I am able to travel virtually anywhere in the world; there are very few barriers for me to overcome. I realize how lucky I am to have been born in the United States and have all the rights and freedoms associated with my citizenship.
5. Being an American does not have to be a negative thing
I know some Americans who are ashamed of where they come from — especially when they travel. They say they're Canadian, or simply don't say where they're from at all. This is silly. Most people I've encountered around the world love Americans. They don't necessarily love our government or world policies, but they love us and are open to learning more about us.
6. Having an open mind will take you far
Other people keep open minds when meeting me; it's only fair that I do the same. Traveling with an open mind will allow you to have amazing, unforgettable experiences. Forget what you think you know, and life will be much more rewarding.
7. You cannot judge a culture that you know nothing about
Having an open mind will help you realize that stereotypes never represent everyone. You cannot judge a culture if you do not understand it — and basing your understanding on a stereotype does not equal understanding. Before you pass judgment on traditions or beliefs, take some time to get to know the culture you are judging first.
8. I'm more capable of solo travel that I once thought
I used to think that solo travel wasn't for me. I didn't think I could enjoy it. I didn't think I could handle it, to be honest. But I underestimated myself. Now, it's hard to imagine traveling any way other than on my own.
9. The world is big, and I will never see it all
With each new country I visit, I become acutely aware of how many there are left for me to see. The world is a big, amazing place, and I will likely never run out of places that I want to explore. It's like Socrates said: “The more you know, the more you realize you know nothing.” This is true of travel, too — the more you see, the more you realize you've seen nothing.
10. It's OK to keep returning to a place you love
Even though the world is huge with endless places to discover, I've realized that some places will keep pulling you back. You will leave bits of your heart in different corners of the globe, and those places will call to you periodically. And this is OK. You don't have to always go somewhere different to be a “traveler.”
11. My own country is incredible
I love traveling abroad, don't get me wrong. But I've learned that my own country is pretty damn special, too. It's huge and diverse and very, very beautiful. From New York City to the Florida Everglades to the Grand Canyon to San Francisco, this country has SO much to offer. And so much to love.
12. No one cares about my eating/drinking habits
I've never been a very adventurous eater, and I don't drink alcohol. I always figured people would judge me for this. But I've learned over the past few years that trying weird new foods can be fun. And funny. And I've learned that most people accept that I don't drink, and don't try to guilt me into it.
13. Your travel style shouldn't be compared to anyone else's
Don't listen to anyone who tells you that they know the “right” way to travel. There is no “right way.” There's only the way that works for YOU. Whether you're a budget backpacker or a luxury seeker, just travel the way that you want to and ignore everyone else. In the end, you will be a much happier traveler.
14. A travel style can change
Just as there's no one travel style that works for everyone, there may not even be one travel style that works for you all the time. As you grow and age and gain travel experience, your style may well change. And there's nothing wrong with that. A backpacker can stay in a luxury hotel, just as a comfort-seeking traveler can rough it in the bush.
15. Hostels are a great invention, even if I don't love them
I've never been the biggest fan of hostels (though they definitely are growing on me), but I have come to acknowledge how brilliant an invention they are. They are affordable, usually centrally located, and allow you to easily meet other travelers wherever you are. Forget what you know about them from the movies — they are actually great.
16. Technology has changed the way we travel
As I've traveled around the world and grown this blog from the ground up, I've become very aware of the effect technology has had on all of it. These days, I can book a hotel, a plane ticket, and a car all in a few clicks. I can get great travel tips from strangers on Twitter. I can instantly share photos with my friends on Facebook in real-time. And I can keep in touch with just about anyone, no matter where they are in the world. Technology has made the world smaller.
17. Being able to read a map is crucial
Despite smartphones and Google Maps and all that, being able to read an old-fashioned paper map is still a great skill to have. I've learned that I am actually a pretty good navigator once I get a real map in my hands.
18. Getting lost can sometimes be a blessing in disguise
Sometimes, though, losing the map and just allowing yourself to get lost can be a great thing. As long as you don't find yourself lost in a bad neighborhood or otherwise dangerous situation, being lost can help you discover a place in a unique way that you just can't do by following a map or a guidebook's suggestions. You'll stumble across tucked-away restaurants, funny street art, and scenes most people probably don't see. You may even be forced to talk to some locals!
19. You really can make lifelong friends while traveling
Yes, it's true that traveling long-term often means having to say a lot of goodbyes. Frequently. But it also allows you to meet a ton of amazing people who love traveling just as much as you do. Occasionally, you'll form bonds so strong that things like distance and time won't matter. With technology today, maintaining international friendships is easy. And having friends all over the world is never a bad thing.
20. You and your excuses are the only things holding you back
I can't tell you how often people tell me that they wish they could do what I'm doing. Well guess what? They can. So can you. If you want to travel but currently aren't, it's probably because you're hiding behind excuses. Time. Money. Responsibility. Fear. They are all excuses, and YOU are the only thing truly holding yourself back. You can make time by prioritizing and planning ahead. You can save money by staying in hostels and flying budget airlines. You can manage the responsibility smartly. And you can overcome the fear.
21. Being nervous is natural
Fear and being nervous are natural when it comes to traveling. I'm not any braver than you are (no matter what you tell me). There have been several times when I've seriously considered canceling a trip at the last minute because I was scared. Scared of the unknown, mostly, because travel is full of unknowns. It's pushing through this fear and nervousness that really make you brave.
22. When the universe sends you signs, pay attention
Over the past few months, I feel like I've been getting a lot of signs from the Universe, pointing me down this path of travel. And, finally, I'm starting to pay attention. Whether it's related to travel or not, if Fate or God or the Universe or whatever is sending you signs, you'd better be listening.
23. Every destination has something to offer — you just have to find it
Maybe I'm just an overly positive person, but it's my belief that every destination — no matter where — has something interesting to discover about it. I try my best to uncover these redeeming qualities wherever I travel, and I think it helps me enjoy the whole travel process more.
24. It's OK to not love a place
#23 being said, of course, you don't have to love every place you travel. Destinations are like potential partners, I think — sometimes you just don't mesh well together, and the relationship doesn't work out. This is OK. As positive as I am about new places, there have still been destinations that just haven't wowed me. Like this one. And this one.
25. People back home may never understand
As much as I've tried to convince myself otherwise, the reality is that, sometimes, you are the only one who can truly appreciate your travels. When you return home from a trip and have all these amazing memories and experiences buzzing around in your head, chances are your friends and family back home won't be nearly as interested to hear about your adventures as you'd like them to be. While you were off traversing the world, they were carrying on with their normal lives. They might be jealous of you. Or they just may have no sense of how amazing traveling is. They may never understand, and I've learned that you just have to come to terms with this.
26. Travel WILL change your life
Lastly, I've learned that travel — no matter how, where, or how often you do it — truly can change your life. Maybe travel will inspire a huge change, like convincing you to quit your job or move abroad. Maybe it will just inspire a little change, like opening your mind up to new foods and cultures. But I have no doubt that travel IS life-changing.
I know it sure has changed mine.
Do you agree with these lessons? Share your thoughts in the comments below.