I have been traveling full time for the past two months and part-time for seven months before that. Within these nine months, I felt like I was let into a secret society of travelers, those who possess insatiable curiosity, something that they try to satisfy by exploring every possible inch of the planet. As an honour to the travelers that I have learnt so much from, this piece is for you.
The multitude of options I have in life
Traveling and meeting people from diverse backgrounds made me realize that there is simply no one way to live your life. I have met people who started a business selling love advice on the internet and became yet another e-commerce success story, to people who choose to abandon their high-qualified jobs to travel the world by bicycle. Traveling opens up your eyes to how the definition of success varies so greatly across the globe.
This discovery was a breath of fresh air; particularly because I have been a university student for the past six years and it seemed like my whole existence revolved around it. University has narrowed down my definition of success to finding a job in the field I studied in - chemical engineering / business. During my university years, it was unfathomable for me to find a job that is outside the scope of my studies, let alone comprehend that not finding a "conventional" job is also an option.
What fulfills and brings me happiness
So now that I have realised the options in this world are endless, it made me think… What actually brings me happiness? I want to find out so I can do it, pronto!
As part of my graduation trip, I stayed with a Spanish family in Jaén, Southern Spain for a language exchange month. It was such a sweet gig, not only was I able to improve my Spanish, I went on a full Andalusian cultural immersion - from stuffing my face with tapas y vino rojo to lazing around the pool all day every day. I swear, that month in Jaén has given me a tan that can last me a lifetime.
Spending a month with them has been nothing short of enlightening – it was then I noticed how people define happiness differs so much across the world. What do I mean by that? For simplicity's sake, below I have two sets of typical answers to the question; How do you define a happy life? Out of the two, which set describes you best?
I want a life surrounded by the people I love - my family and friends.
Loyalty to my family/friends/work is a core value I subscribe to.
I want a life of freedom to choose and lead the life I believe to be right.
Independence and self-reliance are core values I subscribe to.
If Set 1 seems to hit all the spots, consider yourself largely influenced by a collectivist culture. Defined as one of the most collectivist cultures in Europe, Spanish people find happiness in building close relationships and in maintaining loyalty to the group. Other prominent collectivist cultures are Asian and Latin American cultures.
If you find yourself relating more to Set 2, chances are you originate from an individualist culture or is somehow influenced heavily by an individualist culture. Countries such as Australia, North America and the UK are prime examples of such cultures.
Author's note : My observations are prone to stereotyping as it attempts to put large groups of people in boxes, so please take caution upon applying it to other areas.
The extent of human kindness
Probably one of my favourite lessons through traveling is realizing how humans are innately kind creatures. Before I started traveling solo, I was always quite reluctant to ask people for something as simple as directions. Somehow I assumed that I will either bother them or creep them out. Quite the contrary, psychological studies have even shown that people actually like to help other people!
There was a time when I went on a 25km cycling trip in Ponte de Lima, Portugal with a friend. Barely an hour into our cycling trip, a large animal jumped out of the bushes and hit my feet. I lifted my legs upon reflex, and then I heard a voice screaming from the back;
Oh my God! Don't stop, don't stop! Keep cycling!
Why, what was it? What did you see?!
It was a massive snake! Did it bite you?! Are you okay?
*too stunned to speak*
As if Murphy hasn't had enough fun with us after a whole day of hurdles, I got a flat tire in the last few kilometers. By this point I was too tired to make a fuss out of it, so I decided to just walk the rest of the way. But hell no, my friend ain't going to take me slowing him down. Wanting to reach our destination as fast as possible, yet too intimidated to ask for help, he was torn.
Eventually, he gritted his teeth and asked the next professional-looking cyclist for help. The cyclist, soon realizing that we were not from around the area after our attempt in broken Portuguese, immediately conversed with us in perfect English. For once, luck was on our side that day. The cyclist happened to be carrying a bicycle pump with him, checked the condition of my tire, offered to pump it and gave us directions back to civilization. Thanks to that kind soul, we were out of the woods and back to safety within no time.
Fear is the mistake
Often people stop themselves from doing something because of a fear – fear that something will go wrong, fear of judgement from others, fear of going out of the comfort zone, fear from making a mistake…
But through traveling, I have come to realise that fear itself is the mistake.
My rule of thumb is usually,
“Will I learn anything from it?” - If yes, proceed to the next question
“Can I die from it?” - If no, then it has passed the test. Go right ahead!
Life is too short for you to be worried about all possible things that could go wrong, sometimes you have to just go for it. Like that time I met a man in Madrid for one night and decided to travel around North of Portugal with him for an entire week. As per usual, I mull over the two questions in my head;
"Will I learn anything from it?" - For sure, he is one of the most interesting people I've ever met.
"Can I die from it?" - Possibly, if the man turns out to be a serial murderer / rapist / kidnapper.
Nonetheless, my risk-taking self took over and I decided to just go for it. I won’t lie; initially I had constant “worst-case-scenario” moments playing in my head – poisoned by all those Hollywood thrillers I gorge on. All of my doubts and fears were of no basis, of course. I had one of the best weeks of my travels, filled with adventures, intellectual discussions and so much laughter. Safe to say that my gut feeling has yet again saved the day ;)
The most memorable moments of my travels always revolve around the interesting people that I've met. The stories that they eagerly share made me realize that, in life....
All knowledge is good knowledge
Often times us humans like to bignote our passions and consider the passion of others to be of less importance. Sure, we might not say it out loud, but when your friend is telling you about her bird-watching weekend, you secretly wonder why anyone would spend an entire weekend stalking birds.
See, the thing about traveling is that it humbles you, it makes you realize how big the world actually is and how little you know about it. Traveling makes you more modest because you see what tiny space you occupy in this world. There is nothing more eye opening than taking a casual stroll across a completely foreign land; the architectural wonders you see, the noises you hear, the food you smell - it has that magical power of putting your petty problems into perspective. Every place I went to offered a lesson to be learnt; the only trick is knowing where to find them.
In Auschwitz, Poland was where I learnt how cruel human beings could be.
In Andalusia, Spain was where I learnt how the Spanish take their siesta very seriously.
Getting close to these two girls was when I learnt about the joys of meeting like-minded independent and ambitious girls keen to change the world.
To put it simply, the more I travel, the more my feet are on the ground.
So fellow readers, empower yourself, take that plunge, leave your comfort zone, trust that you yourself is enough. Because as Mark Twain said,
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover."