The arrival of the new year has gotten us thinking a lot about the past year of travels – in fact the past decade of our travels – and what we’ve learnt from it. We’ve come such a long way — from the early days of shoestring backpacking around Europe to now traveling full-time for a living.
Travel has played such an integral role in our lives: it’s brought us together as a couple, it led us to several lifelong friendships and it taught us many important things in life. It is how we learned about ourselves, each other and how we fit within the greater world. Most importantly, it’s a journey of personal growth.
To share this journey with us, here are 20 life lessons we’ve learned from traveling to over 80 countries in the last decade or so:
1. Travel is the best education in the world.
You can learn all about a country in geography lessons but it’s only when you visit that you actually get a true sense of the place, its people, culture and history. Travel teaches you so many things that you can’t learn from encyclopedias or documentaries.
2. The world is not such a scary place after all.
News media often make places look worse than they really are, but by visiting these forbidden lands and seeing for ourselves so we really know the truth. Our experience traveling in places perceived as unsafe – from Zimbabwe to North Korea – tells us that the story on the ground is often very different than what appears in media.
3. People are generally good and we are in essence all the same.
No matter what happens between countries and governments, at the end of each day, people are people — they are in general good and life goes on for them in many ways just like it does for you and me. We’ve met so many kind souls in various corners of the world like the kind Aussie who offered us a lift when our car broke down on the highway or the warm Chinese lady who showed me the way and bought me food when I was hungry and lost, and the Albanian who helped me find ways to call home and even lent me money when I lost my wallet.
4. What goes around comes around.
I am a strong believer of karma — when you do good unto others, you will receive the rewards in one way or another; when you do something bad, expect to be punished ten-folds.
5. Our differences are what make us unique and distinctive.
I’d be the first to admit that before traveling, I had my bit of prejudice against certain races and nationalities. Years of travel have taught me to embrace our cultural differences and learn that these are what give us our identities and make us special in our own way.
6. Don’t expect others to speak your language or follow the same habits as yours.
More often than not, many of us travel with the misconception that people in other countries should speak English. That is a ridiculous notion if you consider that English is not even the most spoken language in the world (it’s Mandarin followed by Spanish). I grew up speaking both English and Mandarin and have never thought of language barriers as a challenge. In fact, overcoming language barriers is part of the fun of travel.
7. Being friendly and opened can lead to great encounters and friendships.
I never felt the need to be sociable until my first long trip abroad. Before going on a study abroad program in Miami, I was a shy and timid girl who didn’t feel comfortable at social events. The experience changed my life completely — I realized by opening myself to people, I was giving myself the chance to have great friendships and meet people who matter to me.
8. Nothing breaks the ice better than a smile.
Smiles are a universal language. A smile is probably one of the most important tools that you can use to break language barriers and warm up to locals. We’ve encountered several instances that were tricky but were instantly solved by smiling and adopting a friendly attitude.
9. Being able to travel is a privilege.
My Singaporean passport allows me to travel almost anywhere I want, and in certain places (such as Zambia and Papua New Guinea), without the need for expensive visas due to good relations between Singapore and many countries. Many people from impoverished countries often need to jump through loops to simply get a tourist visa to enter Europe or America, while others simply don’t have the luxury to buy an air ticket. This freedom is something that I used to take for granted.
10. At the same time, traveling doesn’t have to be expensive.
Of course if you insist on staying at five-star resorts, travel can be expensive. But it is possible to travel around many parts of the world on just $10-40 per day (including accommodation, food and sightseeing). That does not even mean you need to stay in hostel dorms. In many cheap travel destinations like India and Peru, you can easily find a comfortable private room for less than US$20 per night. In addition to traveling with a budget, you can even make money while traveling by doing odd jobs like working at a hostel or teaching English.
11. Less is more.
Packing my life into a 65L backpack made me realize that I don’t need much to survive and that all the possessions I used to have home are simply superficial and not necessary. These days, I don’t buy as many things as I used to and I think hard whenever I make a purchase. I don’t own a car or pay a mortgage. The most expensive thing I have is my laptop (can’t ditch that – my livelihood depends on it).
12. We can’t be afraid to dream.
Having pursued travel writing as a career and being able to travel for a living, I’ve learned that dreams CAN become reality if you work hard enough. Dreams keep us motivated and alive, so don’t ever give up on your dreams. Even if things don’t work out, you’ll realize how much you’ve learned and grew along the way.
13. Your destiny lies in your hands.
Your limitations are not set by who you know, where you were born, what genes you have or how much money you have. Don’t leave it to fate. If you are determined enough, there are plenty of opportunities in life that are totally achievable. Go all for it NOW! You know what happens to those who wait?… Nothing.
14. Don’ let fear get in your way.
Fear is often the main thing that’s stopping people from traveling. People worry if a place is too dangerous to travel solo, if there’s a language barrier, if they will be able to find a job when they return from a long trip. We all experience fear, whether first-time travelers or experienced adventurers. See fear as an opportunity, a guidepost of sort to identify your problems and solve them efficiently.
15. You don’t have to feel guilty for leaving a life behind to travel.
Many people feel guilty after quitting their jobs to travel and face the anxiety of finding a job when they return from the trip. I felt like I was letting my parents down when I first left Singapore eight years ago to travel and move abroad. But I never let that get in my way and eventually even found my way to making a livelihood in travel. After realizing that I wasn’t going to stop traveling, my family learned to accept that this is my lifestyle and they now respect my way of life.
16. Not everyone has it figured out.
Almost everyone has problems — don’t presume they have an easier or harder life than you do. By thinking that success comes easier to certain people you’re limiting your own chances.
17. Don’t over plan and leave room for surprises.
While I think it’s wise to be prepared for a trip, some go overboard and research on every single detail of a destination. Forget about finding the most popular restaurant in town — sometimes the magic lies in discovering places and things for yourself. Go with the flow and see where it takes you — after all, isn’t that what travel is about?
18. Keep your expectations in check.
Let’s face it, we’ve all done it: we go to a undeveloped country and complain about the poor hygiene, the inefficient transportation network, and compare the country’s poor tourism infrastructure with what we have at home. Bringing our first-world expectations with us is often the biggest mistake we can make as travelers. That skews our perspective of a country and stops us from seeing beyond the superficial.
19. There is no right or wrong way to travel.
Who are we to judge whether shoestring backpacking is the right way to travel or that luxury traveling is wrong? Each of us has our individual travel style, likes and dislikes — certain style involves more adventure, others are more relaxing; that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. I wrote about this before — that I don’t believe there’s no such thing as a good or bad traveler.
20. Make mistakes – lots of them!
There’s the best way to learn.
Do you identify with any of these? What lessons have YOU learned from traveling? Share them with us here.
Photo credits: Image quotes above were kindly provided by Curated Quotes.