During the summer of 2014 I hopped a plane and left behind Quito, Ecuador; I had lived and taught English there for five years. Life had become a dull, dark, dreary (insert another word for depressing) hole and I was desperate to climb out. I broke up with my fiancé, left behind everything I owned except for a suitcase, and traveled around Europe. I visited lots of different countries, had crazy adventures, and met kindred spirits that will be friends for life.
I would like to say it was all a bit “Eat, Pray, Love” but some might say it was more “Bridget Jones.” Either way, I learned a number of lessons from all this traveling. For example, do not try to stay awake for 36 hours, because you will inevitably embarrass yourself by doing something stupid like trying to walk up the down escalator at the airport (true story). Also, in Ukraine, vodka is cheaper than water (also true).
A number of things I learned from traveling can also be used in everyday life, and these are the lessons I share with you below.
1. You cannot truly know yourself unless you spend time alone
After breaking off an extremely unhappy relationship, I was free for the first time in years. A weight the size of Donald Trump’s toupee had been lifted off my shoulders. The first questions I asked myself were:
Who am I as in individual?
What do I like to do when I’m alone?
What do I, myself, like to eat?
Who am I when talking to new people?
The great thing about traveling was being in a new country where nobody knew me and I could be whoever I wanted to be.
In Canary Islands, I lived in a small village on the water. I started doing yoga every morning on the secluded beach and sharing my thoughts with the ocean.
I started free writing daily, and enjoying getting to know myself again. During this time, I became friends with myself again, and it’s been a happy relationship ever since.
2. The best pictures you will ever take are stored in your mind as memories
Look up #travel or #wanderlust on Instagram and you will inevitably be met with photos of charming women doing marvelous things.
They’ll be standing on mountain tops in sports bras, hair billowing perfectly in the breeze. They’ll be standing on beaches with white sand and clear blue water, bikini body on full display, and possibly doing an advanced yoga pose.
While travel photos on Instagram are entertaining to look at, it’s important to enjoy them simply for their aesthetic and realize they aren’t real. What strikes me most about these photo is the amount of work it takes to get them.
There were a few months during my travels when I was obsessed with increasing my follower count. I spent more time trying to get the most perfect shot of me walking down the promenade in Nice than actually enjoying the view.
I was that girl on the beach doing yoga while in Turkey. I would sip cold hot chocolate in Ukraine after spending 30 minutes trying to get a perfect picture of my cup next to my glasses on the table.
When I got married and my husband started calling himself an “Instagram husband,” (those poor guys you see taking pictures of their wives in front of perfect brick walls) it was time to stop cold turkey. I deleted my Instagram, never to return.
Now, my travels involve being in the present moment and taking in where I am, all saved in my memories. Also, cocoa tastes better hot.
3. In general, most human beings are actually good people
I lived in Lviv, Ukraine for three months and will forever consider it one of the best periods in my life — it was a big city with the feeling of a small town community.
The second day I was there, I messaged about 10-15 people on Couch Surfing to see if they wanted to get a drink or show me around the city. I quickly received messages from just about everyone, telling me they would take me to the mall, ice skating, clubbing, to get coffee, and do everything in between.
Before going to Ukraine, I was apprehensive about it. The conflict had just started in Crimea and I didn’t know much about the country at all. But, once I got there, I realized that they were the most welcoming people, and were so happy to show a foreigner around their city.
I learned that in general, most human beings are good people, no matter where they’re from.
4. You cannot have unforgettable experiences if you aren’t willing to put yourself out there
While living in Ecuador, I did many things that were adventurous and adrenaline inducing — zip-lining, paragliding, jumping off waterfalls, accidentally stepping in quick sand in the Amazon, and taking the city bus (trust me, it was dangerous).
Every time I had to do anything that made me nervous, there was always an apprehensive voice in the back of my mind saying, “maybe you shouldn’t do that.” But, I told it to sit down and shut up.
The only things you take with you when you die are the experiences you had here on earth.
5. There are sad, lonely, dark moments — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it
Just as in life, travel is made up of all kinds of moments, including the ones you’d be happy to forget.
Not long after arriving in Europe, I was in a weird place emotionally. I was in Dijon, France and it was right before Christmas. I walked to the supermarché and burst into tears in the cereal aisle, much to my eternal embarrassment.
I wasn’t crying about my ended relationship (not at all) and I wasn’t crying out of loneliness. Honestly, looking back, I’m not 100 percent sure why my tears were falling on to a box of frosted flakes. I think everything hit me all at once. Being in a new place, having no idea what I was going to do with my life; it was somewhat of an existential crisis.
Just because I was in France didn’t mean I wouldn’t experience an upsetting moment. I’m still human, and life is not an Instagram photo.
6. There is no better way to bring your thoughts to the present moment than to put yourself in a new environment
If someone asked me what the most peaceful, content moment of my life was, I could immediately come up with an answer.
I was standing at the top of a hill, on a stone balcony in Zagreb, Croatia. I could see out over the whole city. It was Saturday, around 7am, so the city was quiet and empty. A street performer was playing a soothing song on his saxophone in the square below. I was eating a cinnamon bun. All of my senses felt the moment, and it was the most present I’ve ever been.
Being in a new environment sets your senses on fire and brings peace to your mind.
7. Forget all the “planning,” because things rarely work out how you think they will
When I lived in Ecuador, I planned on staying there permanently. I had a job teaching English, I was starting to make some friends, and I had an apartment. My life plan was set up well into the future. However, I was not happy where I was, and I needed to do something about it — but it took me five whole years to finally make that change.
The ironic part is that my “change” involved going to Europe with no plan, no house, no job, and no clue. Most of the time in life, plans never work out how you think they will, but you will end up exactly where you’re meant to be.
8. We may all be very different people and come from very different cultures, but in the end, we all just want to be happy
During my travels, I’ve met lots of different people from a number of countries. I had a friend from Austria who wanted a job in the government, and to settle down with her boyfriend. I had a friend in Ukraine who was living the single life, and was more interested in her job at a technology company than settling down.
I’ve met people with wanderlust in their blood who adore traveling and have an addiction to adrenaline. I’ve met people who loved living in one place and preferred to stay in the own community forever.
The one thing all these people had in common was their desire to be happy and achieve their life goals. We may all be from different countries, but as human beings, we’re all the same.
9. You don’t need to own as many things as you think you do, and you can fulfill yourself in other ways
I wasn’t able to carry much makeup with me, and I didn’t have any hair tools either (this meant my hair was au naturale, even in humid weather). My wardrobe consisted of two pairs of jeans, a few basic shirts, and one pair of shoes. The only souvenirs I took with me were my memories.
I learned to do other things besides shopping. I found happiness outside of accumulating possessions. I experienced a profound sense of freedom in not having all kinds of material things to worry about, and I didn’t base my worth on anything I owned.
Ironically, I met my husband while I was in my most natural state. I found confidence in myself that wasn’t based on how I looked, and allowed my inner beauty to do all the talking.
10. A smile will get you very far
You would be surprised at the ways you’ll learn to communicate when you don’t speak the language in a foreign country.
For example, the time I had to moo like a cow to buy some beef at a butcher in a small village in Bulgaria, (it was either that, or end up with something really weird, like horse liver). The lady behind the counter laughed and we both found it amusing.
What I have found most helpful in foreign countries is smiling. Most European people make fun of Americans for this, claiming we’re “too friendly.” But, smiling has always been my universal language, and it works every time.
These days, with the amount of closed-mindedness, judgement, and ignorance that has unfortunately taken over the world, it’s important to realize all we can learn from each other.
During my travels, it hasn’t been the museums, tour guides, or castles that have taught me the most. All the lessons I’ve learned have come from other people and learning about other cultures.
The world may seem like a very big place, but as I’ve made my way through it, I’ve realized it’s pretty small after all.