November 6th, 2017

6 Things I’ve Learned in 6 Months of Travel

I left New York on April 29; this month in Chiang Mai is my seventh on the road. I’m not quite halfway through—currently planning to head back sometime in June probably—but it seems like a good moment to pause and take stock.

I was feeling a bit melancholy in September, thinking about how I don’t feel like I’ve changed much on this trip. Prior to this adventure, the most extended time I’ve spent away was a seven-week study abroad program in college. That was my first time leaving the country (apart from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, which hardly counts), and I grew so much. During my last week, navigating the streets of London alone—and pre-Google maps, for the record—I had an epiphany: that I didn’t want to keep heading down the road to early marriage with my small-town boyfriend, that I wanted to see more of the world, and I wanted to see much of it alone. 

Well…mission accomplished, 20-year-old Jennifer. She might have revised her wish slightly had she known just how far the scales would tip away from love and marriage, but that’s a topic for a different day. To today’s point, I think that with such a grand experience, I was expecting this journey to be similarly revelatory. But six months in, I’m still epiphany-less. To be fair, I’m in my thirties now. I’ve lived in five different cities, moving from coast to coast, worked numerous jobs in three different industries, and dated…quite a few men. I may be past the epiphany stage. Still, I am growing a bit, pushing my boundaries and learning new things—here are six of them.

1. I can go anywhere.

Before this trip, I’d traveled solo more than most people I know, but there were places I felt hesitant to go and things I wasn’t sure I could do. My solo travels were limited to Europe, the Caribbean, and one trip to Buenos Aires. I wasn’t sure I could navigate Asia alone. I’d never rented a car in a foreign country. I had a strange aversion to buses. 

Now I’m spending my birthday alone in Bangkok this week, I’ve rented cars in Germany and Croatia and just mapped out a road trip through both New Zealand islands, and I’m about to book a bus to Chiang Rai. There are still a few places in the world I’d choose not to go (I have a lot of Feelings about the harassment of women in many parts of the Middle East, for instance), but I feel completely confident that wherever I want to go, whatever I want to do, I can figure it out. 

2. I still have so much to learn about the world. 

A couple months ago, someone messaged me on OkCupid and asked whether I was traveling to learn more about the world or myself. Though that’s somewhat oversimplified—you’ll always be doing a bit of both—it made me realize that perhaps the reason I don’t feel like I’ve changed a great deal on this trip is because I’ve already invested a lot of time into self-growth over the years. I’m looking to discover the world, rather than find myself. 

The first couple months I was just spinning with all the changes, but starting in Berlin, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn more about the places I’m visiting—not just where the best restaurants are, but a bit about the history, culture, and current political climate. I’m trying to read at least one work of fiction and one of nonfiction each month and to read the local news. It’s highlighted how little I learned in school, where history classes generally stopped with World War II. Even in a relatively familiar country like Germany, I realized I knew almost nothing about the Cold War and how it still affects Berlin. With a place like Thailand, I’m a blank slate. It’s all connected, though, especially in our rapidly shrinking society, and I feel like I understand the world a bit better than I did a few months ago.

3. Where I am has a huge effect on how I feel.

When I decided to move to NYC from Houston about five years ago, my dad was not pleased, to put it mildly. We were talking about it over dinner, and he said, “I don’t understand why you can’t stay here. Some people are just happy wherever they are.” 

I could only reply, “Okay…but I’m not one of them.”

I’ve really always known that about myself (oh, how I itched to leave Oklahoma growing up), but this trip has made it even more clear. I’ve felt at home in about half the cities I’ve visited. In Barcelona, Berlin, Belgrade, and now Chiang Mai, I’ve been markedly more cheerful and productive. In Prague, Split, and Seoul, I watched more TV, ate nutritionally worse food, and left the apartment less often. For my own wellbeing, I need to be somewhere that energizes me.

What’s interesting is that this trip is changing my idea of where that might be. Before I would have told you that I need to be somewhere with a million things to do, a big city with lots of culture. But there’s loads to do in Seoul and very little in Belgrade and Chiang Mai. This is going to sound so simple and silly, but I think what makes me feel most content is having several good restaurants and coffee shops, places at which I enjoy hanging out, within walking distance. If it takes too much effort to get somewhere, I wind up staying home.

4. I actually like being alone.

I’m clearly comfortable being alone, or I wouldn’t have named my blog Girl Flies Solo. But for some time now, I’ve had this question in the back of my mind: do I really enjoy being alone, or have I just become comfortable with it out of necessity? The past six months have confirmed that yes, I actually do appreciate spending time by myself. I’m not a hermit; I need regular socialization as well. But I get cranky if I don’t have enough quiet time alone.

And on the flip side of this, I am finally ready to give up trying to be a group person. For much of my life, I’ve felt bad about not being adept in a group setting. I’ve been awkward and uncomfortable on the cheer squad, in a sorority, as a member of Junior League. And while there have been numerous benefits to traveling with We Roam, there have also been many times in which being part of a group has made my experience worse. I’d rather focus more on the places I’m in than the people I’m with…and that’s okay. 

5. The more I see, the more I want to see.

I’ve added more places to my list than I’ve checked off this year: Northern Croatia has a truffle festival in the fall. How have I not yet been to Seville and Granada? And those are just the places I haven’t visited at all; there are many more where I’m desperate to spend more time: That day trip to Timisoara, Romania was not enough. I need at least three months (a year? a lifetime?) in Berlin…but maybe a winter home in Chiang Mai. 

Many travelers keep track of the number of countries they’ve been to, which is fine; I do it, too (loosely…I think I’m somewhere in the low 30s at the moment). But I feel certain I could visit every country in the world and still not be finished traveling. Each place I’ve been has inspired me to explore further and more deeply.

6. I can travel as much as I want…but I don’t want to travel full time. 

I think the greatest gift We Roam has given me is the knowledge that I can travel long-term and work on the road. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, it just never occurred to me. I had a remote job and a desire to travel more, and I was still sitting in my apartment in New York, planning a one-week vacation here and a two-week trip there. Ridiculous! I love spending a month in a destination—it’s enough time to feel like you understand a place, to see a bit of the surrounding area, to know if you want to spend more time there, and to get your work done in the process. I’m definitely going to continue traveling this way in the future.

But this trip has also made me realize that I don’t enjoy being on the road semi-permanently. I like having a home; I miss my bed and bookshelves and closet. I haven’t become one of those nomads posting a photo of myself on a mountaintop with a long explanation about how I’ve left everything behind and now I feel so freeeeee! This lifestyle has some amazing benefits, but like everything else, it has its drawbacks, too. I think my ideal going forward will be having a base in the States and taking around two extended trips a year. But we’ll see what unfolds.

 

For now, as ever, onwards. I can’t wait to see what I discover in the next part of my journey. 

 

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