Travel to Find Your Place in the World
This is a letter to anyone who hasn’t considered traveling — especially 20-somethings. Or, maybe, you considered it, and then let all of the possible risks turn you away. I wrote this to change your mind.
Procrastination is the death of experience. Instead of saying yes or no, we tell ourselves “I’ll get to it later,” or “In a few years when the bills are paid.” This is often the case with travel. In the event that we do get around to traveling, we end up on a beach looking at the insides of our sunglasses, instead of truly seeing the world. Thoreau said it best when he observed, “Spending the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.” We wait until the conditions are perfect to do what is important to us, but reality is that, as you grow older, you are even less likely to do the things you said you would do “later on.” In the case of travel, it would often behoove you to act now, rather than later.
Your 20’s are the time of your life that are uniquely yours, when you are old enough to make your own decisions, and allowed to not be anchored to one place. Travel the world alone during your 20’s to obtain the perspective and the skills you need to set out on a meaningful course of life. Use your freedom as an opportunity to explore and advance during this crucial development stage, rather than treating it as a free-for-all.
The 20’s are a pivotal decade. You are deciding who you want to be, whom you want to marry, and where you want to live. You adopt or maintain habits of either laziness or productivity. You take what you have learned and either become a go-getter, or ride along on the minimum required effort. If you have not ventured from your environment, you will make these decisions based upon what you know. It only seems logical – you should take the time to understand the world before you find your place in it. Otherwise, how will you really know where you stand?
Travel to change your perspective, and subsequently your life. Rolf Potts describes the travel experience as “A value adjustment from which action naturally follows.” Living out of a backpack shows you how little you need to survive, and depending on where you travel to, you will see people who manage with even less. When you really look around, you begin to realize just how much you have at your disposal back home. Travel also forces you to adapt to change. Things inevitably go wrong, and you have no choice but to create solutions for your own survival. Travel teaches you the invaluable life skill of making the best of bad situations.
Travel is beneficial not only to your personal life, but to your professional life as well. Travel teaches you business skills such as negotiation, budgeting, communication, and critical problem solving – skills that are in high demand in the work place today. If you are looking to add more technical skills to your resume, there are many opportunities to volunteer or work abroad. ”Many of these experiences, if described in a professional manner, will make you stand out from other candidates,” says travel writer Matthew Kepnes (NomadicMatt.com). You can teach English, work in a hostel, volunteer on a farm, or work as an au pair, among other options. There are dozens of organizations such as WOOFING, WorkaWay, or TEFL that make it easy to get paid to travel.
As scary as it sounds, travel alone. Traveling alone allows you the freedom to choose all of your activities and to meet new people. You are seen as more approachable when you are traveling alone, and are more likely to end up in conversation with locals or other travelers. The locals are a huge part of the travel experience – they fill in the gaps of the story that the architecture and monuments are telling you. You are missing something valuable if you are only taking pictures in front of tourist traps and missing the people.
Do not worry about being lonely when traveling alone. There are dozens of other solo-travelers, with just as many resources for finding them. Hostels, walking tours, public transportation, and sites such as MeetUp or EatWith make it easy to find other travelers in your area. Don’t be nervous about eating alone, either. You can cook meals in a hostel kitchen with other travelers if you prefer, or take in the experience of dining out alone. This gives you a distraction-free chance to analyze the unique cuisine and appreciate the cultural nuances surrounding meal times. Ask your server for help ordering in another language, or for menu suggestions- often they are a fantastic resource for learning more about the place you are exploring.
Stay in hostels when you travel. It is often outside of your comfort zone, but ends up being a great experience, and saves you money. Hostels are essentially dorm rooms for travelers, and they allow you to save on the cost of lodging by renting out only a bed space in a room. Hostels are no longer viewed as just an affordable bed – they are a fantastic resource for really immersing yourself in the place you are staying and meeting other travelers. Hostels are designed as a hub for exploring, and provide maps, tours, local discounts, and assistance in booking tickets for attractions or transport. The price usually includes breakfast, use of a kitchen, towels, bedding, and other amenities.
Americans are often under the misconception that hostels are dirty and unsafe – a stigma that you won’t find in the rest of the world. The horror movie “Hostel,” has only encouraged this unfair stereotype. Hostels are on the rise as an affordable (and even preferable) option for solo backpackers, families, and elderly travelers. Hostels are often equipped with security systems and also provide storage space and lockers for your belongings. You can even choose room sizes and gender-specific rooms to ease you into the hostel experience. Hostelworld.com is the leading hostel booking website, and provides detailed information about the amenities included in the hostel, as well as reviews by other travelers.
Do not be afraid of the risks associated with travel. The potential for harm is an inherent part of life, but can be minimized through careful planning and common sense. Recent terrorist attacks have caused nervous travelers to cancel their plans, but staying in the United States does not magically protect you from misfortune. We are nervous of traveling because of the unfamiliar environment, yet we are surrounded by risks such as car crashes, diseases, and gun violence every day at home. You can always check the US travel alerts with the State Department and avoid those regions, but do not put off travel as a whole because of bad events.
There are many easy precautions to take when traveling in order to stay safe. Bring a book with emergency contact numbers in it, and the phone numbers and addresses of the places that you are staying. Check your itinerary and make travel plans so that you are not arriving in any new places when it is dark out. Have backup options for transportation and lodging in case weather or other events disrupt your schedule. Research ahead and pack clothes that help you blend in with the culture around you – I have even worn a fake wedding ring in certain cultures to keep myself below the radar.
Pickpocketing is another deterrent to would-be travelers, but it does not have to be. Pickpockets look for easy targets that are careless with their belongings. Be smart about where you keep your money, and bring photocopies of any important documents to keep in separate bags in case you lose one. ATMs are often the sight of pickpocketing, so withdraw cash only from those located in banks – not on the street, and especially not at night. Public transportation is a place to be extra vigilant, but if you look confident and carry your belongings safely concealed under your clothing, you do not have a reason to stay home.
Traveling is so much more accessible and affordable than we realize. All it takes is the decision to go, and the commitment to do the research and planning. Travel will open your eyes to issues that are bigger than you, and change your priorities for the better. Climb to the tops of the Swiss Alps, watch the sun set around the pyramids of Egypt, and drink wine under the stars of Paris. See things that break your heart and drive you to be someone who makes a difference. Talk to people who know a life completely different than yours, even though you live on the same planet. Invest in your life in the form of travel and learn to look at the world around you with a sense of wonder– and do it now, instead of later.