Thoughts on a Life Well Lived


Transformations and Lessons from Three Months of Travel

Today marks three months since I left home. I can't believe its has been that long. In many ways I feel as though I was CA so recently. Yet looking back at all of the experiences I realize how much has happened in my life. Travel has a way of stretching time. Freedom and living in the moment allow you to truly observe and learn from everything that happens, internally and externally.

I've put together some reflections and lessons from the last three months. It has been quite a ride. Enjoy.

Do travel your own way

There exists no proper way to see the world. There exists no list of must-sees or must-dos in any city or country. Do not attach any stress to planning your days, weeks, months. Do not sacrifice important aspects of your life to see and do more. The "mores" you should focus on are more fun, more enjoyment, more fulfillment, more enrichment. None of these depend on more places, more sights, or more tours.

All the sights and experiences available can easily sweep us away. So easily we can fill our days, see tons of sights, take tons of pictures, and eat tons of great meals. None of these are negative or to be avoided, but it is easy to let them take over, not allowing anytime to rest, breath, relax, and take it all in. After all, isn't the reason we choose to travel to give ourselves freedom? Give ourselves a break from the hustle and bustle? Open up our schedule to rejoice in the free time rather than feeling a need to fill every minute.

Overly packed schedules and whirlwind experiences characterize vacation mentality. Nothing wrong with vacations but travel is different. Travel exists in the in-between experiences. Getting lost, making discoveries. Its about that time I had walk home in the middle of the night, for three hours, because you didn't realize the Tube closed at midnight. Its about making the transition in the minds of the locals from foreigner to Justin, that white kid from CA they know by name and buys groceries here a few time a week. Travel is about rejoicing in the people and culture and lifestyle, rather than the sights.

I love this quote from Lola Akinmade Akerstrom in an interview with Chris Guillebeau.

So as a traveler, this is what naturally makes me want to invest in the people and places I visit. For lack of an original metaphor: travel continuously weaves me into the fabric of each culture, which in turn continually opens up my mind, and the minds of others I meet.

If I’m still struggling to hear a place’s voice and heartbeat, I’m willing to go back and back and back again until I hear it loud and clear, chucking out any bucket lists I’d initially followed. For me, where I’ve been isn’t as important as remembering human experiences and connections that I’ve made in those places.

Stay long enough that you soak into a place and let its culture and people soak into you. This is the best reward in travel.

Don't Take Theft Personally, Even When It Is

You will have items stolen while traveling.

Take every precaution to avoid it but recognize the inevitability. Hope that these crimes are benign (as thanksfully mine have been thus far) but be prepared just the same.

The combined value of everything I have lost to theft remains under $100, but the violation hurts just the same. The most painful loss I've suffered felt almost personal. I spent two nights in a hostel in Gothenburg, Sweden. I shared a 4-person dorm with the same three guys for both nights. We hadn't become close friends but had all spoken quite a bit the past several days. Relating stories and notes from the road. Talking about our respective next steps. Typical hostel talk. We developed a certain camaraderie.

Many of us planned to leave the same morning. We were all up early, chatting as a we hurriedly packed to make the 10am check out time. I left the room to use the bathroom. Upon returning, not 5 minutes later, I discovered that one of the guys had just left, taking my towel (left drying on my bunk) with him. Ouch. We had been having a friendly conversation only minutes earlier. 

This same morning I discovered that someone had eaten the eggs I intended to be my final Swedish breakfast. Double ouch.

What Few Boundaries and Reservations I Had Are Now Gone

I never carried a large amount of shame or embarrassment to stand out in public. Not that I like putting on a show but I have never really been easily embarrassed. Now, its nearly impossible. 

Perhaps this developed because for the past 3 months I have stood out regardless. Maybe I'm just developing as person. Who knows?

Most of my moments of would-be public embarrassment come in trying to maintain my fitness while traveling. Squeezing my routines into the gaps in my transit schedule.

I've been that guy doing yoga while waiting for the bus, opening my eyes for the first time in 3 or 4 minutes to find the once empty bus stop filled with 10 plus people, all keeping their distance. The strange look most wore on their faces was no doubt in admiration for my deep lunge not in judgment of the crazy foreigner.

I've been that guy who finds a corner in the airport to do a little workout. Barefoot, panting, sweating, cranking out squats while bear-hugging my luggage.

I've been that guy doing backpack Turkish get-ups and handstands in a public park, discovering this a far better means of attraction attention than any raving vagrant.

Slow the F*** Down

This goes hand-in-hand with first lesson to travel your own way. Do not move to quickly or try to see too much. I traveled over-land from Sofia, Bulgaria to Copenhagen, Denmark in 10 days. Friends schedules at either end of the journey dedicated the time line. I choose to travel overland so I could "see as much as possible" along the way. I stopped in five cities, never staying longer than 2 nights. I had a wonderful time and saw many wonderful places, but I did myself a huge disservice in setting this schedule. It would been much better to select 2 places and stay 4 or 5 nights each.

Allow yourself to settle down and remove the sense of urgency. This type of schedule even allows for "down days" should you choose them. Remember you are not on vacation. You can maintain the whirlwind schedule on a finite and limited trip. Long-term travel is different. Take your down days. Do some laundry. Take a short walk. Workout. Meditate. Read a book. Stretch. Relax.

A full schedules bring stress, regardless how they are filled. It takes it's toll whether filled with wonderful travel experiences or the daily grind. You need some time off.

You Need Far Less Than You Think

To prepare for this trip, I did as any sane person does these days, consult the infinite wisdom of the Internet. I found tons of blogs and websites glorifying the benefits about ultralight and minimalistic packing. This seems a fitting philosophy as I had already come to embrace minimalism in my regular life. I also required no persuasion of the benefits of a small bag that I would never need to check. Many travelers offer rules about how they pack, how they decide which items to bring, and advice on which which bag to use. I find one simple maxim to be the most apt: 

Let the size of the bag be the determining factor.

Select the size bag you want to lug around. Buy it. Pack it to 90% to leave room for things you acquire along the way. Trust that however you fill it, you have everything you need.

I think of packing a bag like trying to contain a gas. Remember science class, when you learned that gases expand to fill the vessel that contains them. Your packing habits will be the same. Regardless the size bag you choose, you will fill it. Regardless how small, it will be able to fully contain your needs.

I left with the intention to only have one bag and never check it. This has not come true. Having a separate backpack to serve as a day bag proves absolutely invaluable. I also choose to travel with a skateboard. Skateboards exceed the carry-on requirements and are not allowed in the cabin anyway (I supposed it could be a dangerous weapon when wielded properly).

Fellow travelers constantly express disbelief that I exist with so little, yet I have never used many of the "essentials" that I chose to fill my small bag with. I'm stopping through CA for 10 days before the next phase of my trip. I have a long list of the items to shed before this next leg. I'm looking forward to going even more minimal.

Being Homesick Doesn't Mean You Should Go Home...Yet

I feel homesick. I feel homesick nearly everyday. I also rejoice in my solitude.

Feeling homesick is normal. It is important to realize this but also not succumb to it. Expect to feel homesick but seek to understand the source of this longing. Why are you uncomfortable being alone for so long?

Solitude allows us to dig deeper into who we are. Are you uncomfortable with what you find? I believe this discomfort to be the driving force for homesickness. 

Human are social beings. We seek the companionship, love, and security of those closest. No doubt. Appreciate though, the healthy discomfort we feel when distanced from this security and love. I believe that being surrounded by loved ones is the most important aspect of a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life. But our loved ones can often serve as a distraction from the work that we need to do within ourselves. Periods removed from their influence force us to dwell on our personal thoughts, values, goals, strengths, and shortcomings. An uncomfortable process yet an invaluable opportunity.

The strength of a community stands much greater than the sum of its parts. We need each other. But strong communities are built on a base of strong individuals. Removing yourself, for a time, from the dependence of the those around you can have only strengthening benefits. It may be a battle at first but think of the person that emerges from the other side.

Develop comfort and security from within so you can better share them with others. To be the best parent, partner, friend, or sibling seek first to be the best version of yourself.

There are many ways to develop personal strength. Not everyone needs to strike out on a bold solo journey or even spend a week or two alone. However, next time you feel homesick celebrate the opportunity for growth rather than succumb to your feelings of isolation.

Home is Where Your People Are

I believe this now more than ever, yet I stand by the previous section. I have loved the opportunities for growth and reflection that come with solitude, but ultimately every experience is better shared with others. 

Those who travel indefinitely or long-term constantly form bonds with locals and fellow travelers along the way. Quite often they form into small groups that move together.

I left knowing that I would miss my family, friends, and loved ones. I also felt secure in the fact that I would be fine without them. My thinking has shifted. I still feel that I would be OK without my loved ones, but I realize more than ever what an amazing blessing they are in my life.

After about 6 to 8 weeks on the road the extreme sense of adventure faded to be replaced with longings for home. Each day still brought excitement and discovery but as I settled into a bit of a travel rhythm, the newly-freed mental energy drifted inevitably toward my people.

I have turned a critical corner. I have balanced the scales. At the beginning, the scales inevitably tipped toward the excitement of each day. After about 2 months (a commonly reported time for homesickness to set in) the balance swings back toward thoughts of home and the people left behind. I've reached a wonderful balance. Able to live each day here and now. Able to miss my friends and family without attaching any negative emotion to this longing.

I've made new connections and developed new patterns. Shifted past vacation mode and into travel mode. Developed a new lifestyle, rather than feeling like I'm taking a break from the old one.

All of this said, I still plan to return. In fact, I feel even more longing for my people than when I was homesick. Time spent free from their company taught me how much more enriched my life is when I have them near.