For a 15-month period in 2010-2011, I backpacked my way around the world. At the time, it felt like the most important thing in my life. Even today, already five years later, it still feels strangely important. And yet, I’m not so sure it was. Sure, that trip changed my life. There’s no question about that. It forced me to make a lot of decisions about who I was and who I wanted to be.
That trip got me to think more—not just about myself, but (importantly) about others, too. During my backpacking trip, there was this though, this feeling—that this trip would somehow always be with me. Yes, it’s true that I probably remember more of my trip around the world then I do all of the weekend city breaks around Europe I’ve had in the past few years. I can barely remember which cities I’ve visited since January. But those two weeks I spent on Palolem Beach in Goa, India, I can remember the strangest details: the conditioned internet café, the woman I spoke to everyday on the beach who tried to sell me jewelry, the path up to the silent disco club, the woman who sold me samosas each afternoon… Hindsight is a funny thing and memory is even funnier.
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My 5-year anniversary of that round-the-world trip was last month, and I initially thought I needed to mark the occasion somehow. I didn’t, of course, because…well I don’t know. I guess I was too busy (I probably wasn’t), because I forgot (kind of, but not really), because I didn’t want to mark something that seemed both important and trivial at the same time. I don’t know.
From speaking with other people who’ve taken gap years, especially other Americans, it seems that the trip will always hold a special place throughout your life. In a way, it’s probably true. Growing up as a kid, I remember my Dad’s stories from his own two-year adventure around the world. I always remembered it as a defining moment of his life, which I suppose it was. But five years on from my own trip and I can’t help but wonder: does it really mean that much to me?
Nowadays, travel has become infinitely more accessible. Gap years are less and less frequently seen as a crazy way to escape reality. Instead—these sabbaticals, these gap years, these big trips—they can actually, allegedly, become an asset for one’s career. And while I know my big trip was a special one. I also know that it wasn’t *that* special. Anyone could’ve done what I did. (Well, not anyone, but that’s a whole different story about privilege, borders and economic classes.)
Besides the fact that travel has become more accessible, I think we also live in a world today where the present and the future is infinitely more important than the past. Maybe that’s always been the case throughout history, but today it feels even more so. Listen, don’t get me wrong: I think history is important, and it can have repercussions on everything, obviously. But in a world as stressed as ours is today—fraught with a hundred million different crises from the economy and the environment to politics and war—life is really about the present. We just don’t have as much time to look back on the past. I’m too busy worrying about tomorrow, let alone ten years from now.
And yet, while my trip felt like a big deal at the time, and still stands strong in my own personal history, it’s more the experience that I’m left with that’s had an impact on who I am. It’s those little life lessons I learned from the experience of world travel which have shaped me and continue to shape me.
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5 Things I Learned After Traveling Around the World
I learned a lot during my year of travel. But it’s what I’ve learned five years later which I think is most important. Looking back, this is what I know now:
1. My big trip wasn’t the most important trip of my life.
This has been a tough thing to learn because I guess I always expected my yearlong adventure to be one of those things that would always affect me. And while taking that trip around the world did indeed change my life, it also feels like it was just a trip. Every holiday I go on now, I can’t help but think it’s just as important as the last. Nowhere is more important than somewhere else, though of course enjoyment levels vary. I guess what I’m trying to say is: while my big trip was important in creating who I am today, it doesn’t actually define who I am. My life does not revolve on the fact that I took that trip. It was a big part of me for a big part of two years, but today is today. And that’s just how it is.
2. The luxury of being able to spend your money on anything, at anytime is truly incredible.
I never thought I could learn so much by the total freedom (and sometimes frivolity) of spending money. Sometimes I was reckless, plenty of times I was wasteful, but all of the times: it made me happy. The luxury of taking my own money and spending it on whatever damn well I wanted, that was one of the most exhilarating and liberating parts of my trip. Five years later and I still find it important to splurge on the things that will make me happy.
3. Experiences are important, but so are things.
While I did sell and get rid of many of my possessions so that I could take that big trip, I have since collected plenty more. I loved traveling relatively aimlessly during that year. I’d show up in a destination and if I didn’t enjoy it, I could just pick up and go. But after doing that for months on end, I realized I did actually enjoy staying put. I enjoy having friends and a local bar to go to. I like having an apartment I can decorate with my souvenirs, a kitchen for cooking my favorite international recipes. I need space for my stuff, because while experiences are important, life is also made up of things and tangible memories.
4. But people are the most important things.
This was something I quickly learned during my big trip—it was all about the people. The fast friends I’d make in hostels, that couple I met on a train in India, the guy on the beach in Thailand. My world travels meant nothing without the people I met along the way. Today, it’s still about the people. While traveling, I learned how to open up to strangers, and with those experiences (and that first summer in Berlin), I’ve learned how to make deeper connections and maintain those special relationships.
5. It’s all about the present.
My year of traveling around the world was, without question, one of the most hedonistic experiences of my life. And, after years of being able to reflect on the good and the bad decisions I made that year, I’m certain I did the right thing. It was a year of “living in the moment”—something I’ve been able to apply to my life today. What makes me happiest is what I’m doing now. And if that isn’t true in a particular moment, I know something has to change.
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I took a chance on myself five years ago when I quit my job and decided to travel around the world. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I had no idea what the hell I was doing when I left the USA at 25. But I made do. I figured things out. I survived. It was one of the best years of my life—an unforgettable one, for sure. But I’m actually more excited about what I’m doing today. And whatever I might be doing tomorrow.
If you’ve taken a trip around the world — let me know in the comments what you learned after your own big trip.