*Follow this journey on my former (now inactive) blog: Europe 2010
My memory is hazy since my departure for Europe ten years ago (to the day). I can’t remember all the sensations of saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, laden with my brand new North Face 60 liter backpack, stuffed to the breaking point (I’d really test the limit before the end of my trip by adding several antique books I found at a shop in England) with one pair of jeans, a rain jacket, one fleece shirt, one flannel shirt, a long sleeve body thermal shirt, a pair of thermal leggings, a pair of shorts, a few t-shirts, socks, a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner (just an extra layer between me and the sometimes not-so-thoroughly-washed linens of hostel beds, a suggestion from an REI employee), my toiletry kit which included Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 hemp soap, a journal, a Bible, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I hadn’t finished the last book). The rest of my travel gear was worn on my body.
I can’t really recall what was on my mind when I boarded the flight. I don’t remember feeling particularly scared. I think maybe it felt surreal, an opportunity I never imagined as a freshly minted 22-year-old college graduate. I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventuresome. My first time out of the country had only been less than four years prior, and my list of foreign travels included only Costa Rica and Mexico (for no more than one week). I just decided to go. At one point in college I had somewhat of an internal crisis which caused me to re-examine my college experience. Was I really taking advantage of that stage in my life? I felt like the answer was no, so I made plans to study abroad, something I had never previously envisioned in my life. However, when my “best laid plans” fell through, at the suggestion of a friend, I just took all the money I had been saving for studying abroad and decided to go abroad anyway.
I spent three and a half months backpacking around by myself. Today I would say that experience is unusual but by no means unique, especially when you consider the travel habits of other nationalities. I have talked to so many individuals and couples who were spending a year or more backpacking around the world. So in the game of comparisons, my little adventure wasn’t so noteworthy. And yet, if you’ve spent any amount of time around me, you’ve probably heard me mention that experience several times (perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at me; maybe I sound like I’m trying too hard to impress by name-dropping these random travel experiences). I promise, I’m not trying to be pretentious. It’s just that to this day, despite the myriads of adventures I’ve been on since, that trip was one of the most transformative for me as a person.
I left on January 14, 2010. I had no smartphone (or regular phone for that matter), tablet, or computer while I was there; these forms of technology–though growing–were not as ubiquitous as they are now. I occasionally posted travel updates via archaic hostel computers or (now nearly obsolete) internet cafes. While staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts (no, not Airbnb), and people’s homes (and once on the streets), I was not able to distract myself with Netflix or social media. I was forced to spend time with fellow travelers or read a book (I read LOTS of books). I was forced to spend time in my own head. I went on walks. I sat on trains and stared at the stunning scenery outside my window. I filled multiple journals with musings and stories that I began writing, my imagination exploding with life and vigor. Occasionally, if I wanted to “check out,” I could plug in to my 3rd generation iPod Nano. I remember listening primarily to Switchfoot’s “Hello Hurricane” album and a playlist that a friend made for me before I left (to this day I can’t listen to the “Hello Hurricane” album without being transported back to those endless train rides).
In the course of three and a half months I visited Ireland, Norway, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy, and then back to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales, and England before heading home. For two of those months I had a two-month Eurail pass, hopping on trains as often as I wanted and only paying nominal seat reservation fees here and there. I saw the world in a new way.
Most importantly–and the point I’m trying to make–my eyes were opened. I met new people, new ideologies, new lifestyles, new beliefs, new perspectives. I got a taste (of course hopping city to city for three and half months could only provide a taste) of new cultures: new languages, foods, and traditions. I grew as an individual, accepting silence and solitude and personal companionship where before I was very uncomfortable being by myself. I developed new habits of voracious reading and writing and deep reflection. I learned to take even more risks and continue to seek new experiences when I can (side note: I might never have met my amazing wife in El Salvador if it hadn’t been for this initial experience). In short, my bubble burst. My myopic and limited view of the world had broken, and there was no way to stuff my old way of seeing the world back inside the box I had been living in.
I recognize that the opportunity to travel as much as I have demonstrates the incredible privilege I was born into. It’s easy to judge others who have limited travel experiences, but the majority of the world simply does not have the means or the opportunities that I have had (even if I have worked hard to realize those opportunities). HOWEVER, almost everyone can do something. While living in El Salvador, I had friends who couldn’t afford to travel as I have but who had been on trips to Honduras or Nicaragua. Even in their own capacity they had ventured outside their comfort zone to know new places, people, and cultures (yes, the language is basically the same, but if you know much about Spanish, the variation from one country to the next can be extensive both in accent and in local vocabulary). So the challenge I want to make still stands: POKE THE BOX.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, poke the box of nominalism. Step outside your comfort zone. Do something new. Spend time with someone different than you.
If you have the means, travel. If the timing’s okay, try traveling solo. (All of my solo traveling took place while single; I’m not advocating shirking family ties to travel. Instead, bring your family along!)
Bring a journal with you. Bring some thoughtful reading material, too.
Try to unplug when you go (I’ve gotten worse at this since that first trip).
Perhaps the quote is overused, but let me leave you with this:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad