When I decided to leave a great job and a wonderful San Francisco apartment last year to travel solo around the world, the first reaction I got from most people was “wow, you are courageous.” I think this was actually a polite way of saying “wow, you are a little crazy.”
And I maybe I am. Hopefully, we are all a little crazy when it comes to what we love — whether it is our kids or our dogs or mountain climbing or playing the guitar.
I did leave behind a lot of security and familiarity and close companionship. But my travels didn’t require much courage and here is why traveling by myself is not anywhere on my list of the scary things that have happened to me in my life.
People everywhere in the world are a lot like you. Indians smell like curry. Americans smell like beef fat. Jordanian Muslims have the call to prayer. American Catholics have church bells. We may have different styles and traditions but most people in the 196 countries of the world want pretty much the same things: good health, safety, and love, and they especially want those things for their children. Most people want to be appreciated and to feel connected. When you focus on what we all have in common, you become a part of a very big family, and you can go from there to understanding what the heck happened in North Korea. Everywhere I have visited, people have been friendly and many go out of their way to be helpful.
English-speaking travelers are especially lucky because English has become a second language in most corners of the world. And people everywhere seem to love Americans (….and our money. Social justice moment: you would drive a hard bargain with a tourist if it meant your family could eat more than rice this week. I have learned to stop worrying about getting “ripped off” three dollars by a cab driver and focus my anger instead on the oil company that trashed his family’s land).
Travel has gotten easier. Many travel books and essays tell stories about people who suffered for 16 hours on a crowded bus with bald tires to get to a temple. And then ate cockroaches and slept on flea-infested straw in sweltering heat until the bus returned for the grueling trip back. Although there are a million opportunities for adventures like that, the infrastructure for travelers has changed a lot in recent years. Many places that were offbeat ten years ago are accessible by plane or an air conditioned bus. Only two years ago, I researched hotels in Burma and the choices were pretty grim. Today, there are tons of lodging options in many parts of the country. (This change has brought problems as well but that’s part of a different story….) The internet has also drastically improved international travel — it’s easy to find last minute lodging, ideas for special experiences and weather reports to keep you out of ice storms and monsoon rains. Keep in mind that you don’t want things to be too easy: when you travel like a wealthy tourist, you miss a lot. But it is good to know you can take a break from the intensity of travel almost anywhere in the world.
Most of the world is as safe as where you live. Americans are inundated with news about horrible things going on in the world, which colors our view of international travel. But imagine French tourists avoiding the Bay Area because of a media story about a drug war in a corner of East Piedmont. Incidents and pockets of trouble do not define countries or cultures. The crime rates in most places are significantly lower than those in the United States and locals seem to kinda watch out for visitors. I take normal precautions. I ask questions. I don’t go to war zones. The worst crime that happened to me in my travels to 30 countries — including places on the State Department’s “travel warning” list like Jamaica, El Salvador and Nepal — was to have my camera and ipod stolen from my hotel room in Scotland. The worst hazard involved a near-miss head-on because I drove my rental car around a corner into the wrong lane. In Scotland.
Inspiration Is Empowering. When you are excited about something, you can put up with a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. When I travel, I am motivated knowing that every day can and probably will bring joy, surprises, sadness, art, history, natural beauty and people with amazing stories and a lot more courage than it takes to travel around the world with a First World income. During the times I felt unsure of what I was doing — and there were many — I reminded myself of the richness of my adventure to keep me going.
The idea of dropping everything to travel seems to require courage because it involves the unknown. But The Unknown is the only reason to travel — to find novelty and different ways of seeing the world and a deeper context for our lives. When I travel, no matter how much becomes wonderfully familiar, the unknown that I love remains around every corner. And challenging yourself is affirming. I am planning to ride in a hot air balloon over the temples in Burma next month, which will not be easy for me because of my weird inner ear thing. But I want to do it because, if I survive, I will be a better and happier person. (I admit that I was privately thrilled in Goa, India when the wind was too strong to go parasailing after I promised Melissa I would join her. We ate Italian food instead, which was less challenging.)
Everyone has the courage to drop everything and travel for more than a two week vacation, but there are surely a a dozen reasons you can’t do that. But if you want to do it, you can. You can take your kids. You can find another job when you return. You can do it no matter or how old you are or how much money you have. Traveling the world makes you young and rich. And thin.