Right now, I’m sitting in a repurposed school bus going from Boquete to David, Panama. Last night I slept in a Panamanian family’s home and was awoken by the sounds of them screaming at each other about what they should eat for breakfast while their dog barked uncontrollably.
Two nights ago, I went skinny dipping in the Caribbean Ocean with a group of people I’d just met. I’ve slept on park benches in Paris and on 100-foot cliffs in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I’ve sat cross-legged and eaten live shrimp out of a bucket in Thailand, drank snake blood in a dingy bar in Indonesia, and chewed on Romanian Mario mushrooms with some unexpected hallucinogenic properties. And, for better or worse, every single one of these experiences has broadened my perspective on the world and changed me internally.
For a lot of people, the purpose of this type of travel and exploration is incomprehensible. Why would you choose to sleep on the floor of a stranger’s house in Malaysia when you have a perfectly comfortable bedroom with central air back home in the United States? Why would you spend countless hours on cramped buses (especially when you’re 6’5″) to get to places that you know nothing about?
For these people, the comforts of home are perfectly sufficient, and their daily routines provide a much-needed sense of security. For others, like me, these routines and comforts will simply never be enough, and the allure of the unknown is simply too enticing to resist.
This wanderlust (at the expense of sounding cliché) is both invigorating and stifling. When we’re on the road, it gives us a sense of purpose and exhilaration. When we’re at home, it scratches at the back of our brains until we step foot on the next flight or embark on our next bus journey.
I can’t lie, I’ve been in critical danger during my travels. I’ve gotten myself into situations where my life felt threatened. There have also been quite a few times where my health or my sleep cycle have had to take a beating as a result of my penchant for exploration. But would I trade those times for a warm bed and a feeling of absolute security? Hell no.
I’m not advocating for anyone to get themselves into life-threatening situations, but stripping away your comforts, being forced to trust your instincts, and being rewarded with new and revelatory experiences is what it truly means to be alive, in my opinion.
Many of my non-traveling friends ask me why I travel, and it’s often very hard to articulate, especially when speaking with someone who’s themselves never considered a vagabond lifestyle. So, here it is: my best attempt at describing the exhilaration, purpose, and passion that I feel from traveling.
A Rising Feeling
A common theme that I’ve noticed among most of the other travelers that I’ve encountered is a general dissatisfaction with what many refer to as “normal life.” Of course, no one’s life is entirely normal, everyone has their own struggles and quirks and eccentricities.
However, those who feel the call of the road are generally those who find it difficult to find happiness in routine and repetition. Personally, routines have never suited me. A part of me wishes they did. I look around at friends that are able to be genuinely happy doing the same things over and over again every single day and I, admittedly, feel a tinge of envy.
But I wouldn’t change that part of myself. That inability to cope with repetition has driven me to have the invaluable experiences that I’ve had traveling the world, and I believe it’s a similar story for most people who pick up a backpack and decide to leave home.
For those afflicted and fulfilled by wanderlust, it’s the new that they crave. What exactly this new thing is is hardly the point. Even though that fried cricket looks absolutely unappetizing, they’re going to eat it anyway. Why? Because they’ve never eaten a cricket before.
For a traveler, there’s no bad place to go. There’s no point on a map that doesn’t beg the question: what is there to be discovered there? Every experience, good or bad, is an opportunity to expand one’s perspective, knowledge, and wealth of experiences. Plus, it’s the roughest experiences that make for the best campfire stories.
When I return to my hometown and tell stories about my travels, my friends are typically interested for all of about five minutes and then they cease to care whatsoever. Why should they care? These stories, which are filled with such vivid and emotionally charged images in my own mind, are nothing but meaningless blurs when I relay them to someone who has no point of reference for them. It’s like trying to explain the taste of chicken to someone who has been a vegetarian their entire life. Until you’ve tasted it, it’s more or less impossible to understand.
However, when you sit around with others that have been backpacking for a significant amount of time, or at least have an interest in exploring the unknown, travel tales tend to evoke memories of epic journeys and mind-blowing experiences in others and, thus, the stories continue to flow (as does the beer, usually).
The stories that you tell in a group of travelers are received with interest and fervor, and the stories that you hear from others make your heart beat faster and inspire you to continue exploring this strange and amazing planet.
There is truly something special in meeting other people who share your same inclinations, frustrations, and beliefs. Every traveler is somewhat of a philosopher. Why else would you go backpacking around the world (an activity that has no “practical” purpose) other than to follow some sort of ideal?
While meeting other travelers is certainly one of the greatest rewards of the road, it’s certainly rivaled by the experience of connecting with people whose “normal” mode of life is radically different from the “normal” mode of life in your hometown.
The fact that I (who grew up in the shadow of New York City skyscrapers) have been able to find friends in people who live in windowless houses in the Panamanian countryside and thatched-roof huts in the mountains of Indonesia is truly astounding and has reinvigorated my love of the human spirit. To get even more cliché on you, people truly are the same everywhere and love and compassion are truly a universal language.
Through all of the experiences that you have as a traveler, you not only learn about the world around you, but you also end up discovering quite a bit about yourself as well. I’ve discovered that relating to others is one of my greatest strengths as a human being.
Indeed, I’ve never had much trouble finding companions. But, when you’re in a country where you can’t speak a lick of the local language and you struggle to understand the culture, it really puts your friend-making chops to the test.
I’ve also learned that I’m extremely resilient. For instance, after being barred from the United Kingdom, stuck in a holding cell at the immigration checkpoint for over 12 hours, and then sleeping on a beach in the rain for several nights in France, I was still able to walk around with a smile on my face and enjoy the ride. These are things I’m very proud of.
But traveling will also bring to light certain things about yourself that need improvement. As I mentioned before, I’ve gotten myself into some not-so-safe situations (sorry, mom and dad). It’s become quite clear that I can be overly impulsive and perhaps I should develop a healthier level of fear for consequences. I’m working on it. I also have a tendency to be dismissive towards those who I perceive as ignorant or small-minded, and that’s pretty douchey and counterproductive. I’m working on that, too.
I think that beyond any of these lessons, though, the most important thing that traveling teaches us is acceptance. Exposing oneself to all kinds of different people forces you to strip away your judgments and learn to love your fellow human being for their little quirks, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections. And, naturally, you learn to love yourself more for your own.
I used to wonder why I struggled to be happy in the repetition and routines of “normal” life. Why can’t I just suck it up and get a 9-to-5 job, live in the city, and be happy like everyone else? I wondered. Now, I’m in the process of accepting this part of myself, understanding what I need to do to feel fulfilled, and trying to let any and all judgment pass over me as I pursue my own peace of mind.
The experience of traveling has renewed my lust for life, taught me more than I ever expected to know, and has connected me with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Thank you, world.