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.
* * *
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.
Adam, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.
This is a wonderful post.
I couldn’t agree more with you on no.3 – staying put has a lot of benefits, travelling from one place to the next can be tiring and you never really get to truly experience what life is like in a destination if you only visit for a few hours.
I found that living or studying abroad is a lot more gratifying than travelling long term.
I would also agree that it’s important to learn from the past but to focus on the present and the future. Living in the past or trying to go back is not only crazy, but it it will cause you to miss out other great experiences.
Best of luck with your future plans.
Hi Marilia, Thanks for your wonderful comment! My whole life of travel really started with studying abroad, so I suppose it makes sense that I agree with you: living or studying abroad is such a rewarding and wonderful experience!
I am a regular backpacker traveling popular locations such as France, Denmark and Italy in Europe. But, these attractions are amazing and different. Thanks for sharing!
Another excellent and insightful post Adam! I love that you are willing to bare your personal thoughts in your posts. This topic is on my mind very often. My first ever trip was backpacking thru Europe after college in 1978- it was epic! I went alone, met lots of people, saw more than anyone I knew. When I got home, I was obsessed with it, always thought about the trip. It became the seed for a lifetime of traveling, even in the choosing of my mate. Now, all these years later, that trip was also just a trip- it doesn’t reduce its improtance in my life, but subsequent trips really stand out far more for me- because of the people I met and maintained a friendship with!
Not sure if you remember, but I was the person who thanked you for giving us information on obtaining a visa in Germany last year. On that trip, since we retired, we traveled for 6 months. It is the people we met that again define that trip- and the chocolate in Bruge:-) Keep writing! Many thanks to you!
Thank you Patrick :) I still remember how, on my big trip, I was meeting one, two, three, five, ten people a day sometimes! It was wonderful and exciting and interesting, but also at times overwhelming – but as I wrote before, it was always all about the people.
Glad to hear things are going well! Keep in touch :)
I really admire you for quiting your job and traveling. I think this is what we all want to do but few have your courage. Great article!
Thank you Martin! But I really don’t feel too special or courageous – it’s something just about anyone can do, too!
I agree, and I think we can often put so much pressure on gap years to be amazing, that we end up feeling depressed when they’re over. I think it’s more important to make a long-term commitment to travelling as much as possible. Awesome lessons!
Great idea about the long-term commitment to travel! I wasn’t so formal about it, but I know that my big trip and my semesters studying abroad have all led me to want to see more and explore more of the world.
Great going and really appreciate your courage to quit a job for pursuing your passion. Keep travelling, explore new places and keep on updating us through your blog. All the very best to you Adam.
Thank you so much Sunu for the kind words. I don’t think travel will ever end!
It’s still going (in parts) … back to Canada in the Fall, then one last big trip to take in the rest of the continents (except Antarctica, which will be a journey all by itself) sometime in 2016.
All in all, I’ve learned about income inequality ( and why it’s such a terrible thing), the joy of new cuisines, and the power of being location independent beyond just travel (spending time with family, etc)
Great! I am going to check out the article its very informative thanks to share this.
I definitely don’t feel like my round the world trip was the most important trip of my life. I actually feel like I did it all wrong. That I should’ve left things more open, that I should’ve gone to a different region of the world, that I should’ve gone at a different time in my life. But it was something I had dreamed about for so long and I had to get it out of my system, so going at the wrong time and planning too much and going to locations that maybe weren’t quite as high on my list was just how it all happened. That trip taught me a few things about myself but certainly didn’t define me. And even though sometimes I look back at it with a huge sense of “if only….” I know that I’m still traveling a lot, I’m living in a foreign country, and I still have lots of time ahead of me to see more of the world and plan for other longer trips. The sum of life is greater than any one piece on its own.
Great point Ali “The sum of life is greater than any one piece on its own.” – that’s exactly how I feel, looking back on my big trip. At the time it felt very special (but yeah, I definitely have a lot of “if only…” thoughts too), but now I really know it was just one small part of my life and it’s the fact I still travel and live abroad today that really means more to me.
I would like to do “World trip” but my work situation doesn’t allow me to have more vacations.
Looking forward to spend next year 5 weeks in Australia…
I highly recommend travelers to explore Sarajevo, marvellous beauty, very safe & affordable.
Travelling has taught me a lot of things and, sometimes, I have to learn them the hard way. Often the destination is great but somehow the whole travel experience seems of a let down. Travel companions, unexpected things that happen, the locals, and so much more, make up the whole experience, good or bad. And there are instances where my experience depended on my own disposition. Still, being on the road have opened my eyes to so many things and I’d still want to travel and see more of this world.
I can relate is some regards to your post. Although I didn’t backpack around Europe for months at a time. I have mostly stayed in hotels, hostels with my membership to hoprcoket.com. I have spent a week in places outside the US, like Singapore and Denmark/Sweden. I lived in Chile for 6 months. I do believe that a lot of your travel experience stay with you and most of all the relationships. Nothing makes me happier than making and keeping the relationships and the friends I have made traveling around. Looking back that was something I was totally unaware of when I started to travel, but I am glad I did!
Maybe I’ll try backpacking next time!
Thanks for sharing an informative travel article. These points should help on my next tour.
I so love traveling and too much loved this post. Thanks for such awesome lessons :)
Traveling is my passion. I love to explore places. Though I’ve never been outside India but yes this is my dream to explore each and every corner of world. Your post is incredible :)
I also admire your courage in tackling such an important trip. Sometimes I’d be just as fearless. Thanks for your article, very interesting and engaging.
I also admire your courage in tackling such an important trip. Sometimes I’d be just as fearless. Thanks for your article, very interesting and engaging
It is interesting how educational travel can be. You’ve certainly touched on some great lessons. I particularly agree with the last one. It is definitely all about the present. Don’t dwell on the past or wait for the future. Live how you want to right now.
Great experiences and insight shared generously. Thank you for this inspiring post Adam.
I am so happy that you had a trip like that and that you enjoyed it a lot! Like you said, you learned a lot that year and just did what you wanted to. That’s amazing and I think that everybody would learn something else about themselves and the world. Very good! Nice article man!
Well, I was too connected with this post while reading it. It’s something I can relate to myself. I also have a dream to explore new places, meet new people, gain experience, walk till my legs stop walking. Due to many reasons I couldn’t make it possible till date but I know this is not the end. I will definitely make it true and so your post provoked me more :)