Awakening Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling Abroad

Adventure has always been a constant theme in my life. With the exception of one eight year stint, I’ve never lived anywhere for more than four years at any given time. I shocked myself when one day I decided to sit down and actually count how many different places I’ve lived, which ends up being 26 different residences in 18 different cities and 6 different states. I’ve had people ask quite a few times if I’m from a military family. Nope. This has simply been the life I’ve known ever since I can remember. There have been many places I’ve called home.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling Abroad

This life comes with it’s fair share of curiosities. Sometimes I have to remind myself that most people are born and raised in one place their entire lives, many times occupying the same home and attending the same school district for their entire childhood, and oftentimes make their adult homes here as well. I think, nowadays it’s getting a bit more common for career oriented families to move around much more than when we were growing up, back then it really was mostly families in the military.

People have asked me whether it’s been difficult to move away from family or friends each time. And of course it has, but at the same time it’s taught me a lot too. I have learned how to really appreciate all the relationships created in a deeply fulfilling light while seeking out new friendships along the way, some of the most fulfilling ones have been formed in my adult years in particular.

Nothing compares to being in the space of knowing who you are and attracting those who enrich your life, fuel growth, and support you in positive ways, and vice versa. You learn that the universe purposefully allows every moment and every individual to enter your life, whether for a positive or negative outcome, a brief encounter or long term, the universe is enriching and fueling your growth – in this way you can learn a great deal about yourself, what it is you really want, and what you have to offer to others.

It’s a great life lesson in gratitude, being in the moment, and letting go. Life experiences really are our greatest teachers, and it’s awesome to be connected to people that feel it too.

Many people think you have to go to another country for cultural experiences but in my experience, so many different cultural experiences are just a city, state, burough or province away. The culture varies greatly amongst them all. I’ve always loved learning new things, and am grateful for being exposed to different cultures to help further develop my inquisitive nature. Sadly, adults tend to lose their inquisitive nature passing it off as childlike behavior, which closes us off to so many opportunities – the journey of learning and growing is meant to last forever, it is the root of internal fulfillment.

I’ve also written about how nature sparks soul-searching and helps us discover ourselves and our path.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling-Adventure

So I’d been around a bit in the states, and vacationed once in the Bahamas, but other than that the thought of traveling outside the country never really occurred to me, until one day, at the age of 26. One of those life changing people I spoke of earlier, entered my life. At the time, I was waiting tables in California and met a co-worker from Uruguay currently living locally, had traveled abroad to other countries, and even lived in France at one point. A world traveler, fluent in Spanish, English, and French I was fascinated to hear of her life experiences. Little did I know, at the time that a casual friendship as co-workers would turn into a deep, soulful bond that would carry us through challenges and experiences of a lifetime.

A year later I found myself facing a pivotal moment in my life. I was struggling to find my way in a marriage of ten years (yes, I married young), my ex-husband’s career had him traveling a lot, keeping him away from home three weeks every month. This went on for the last five years of our marriage, and despite trying really hard to stay connected long distance, emotionally we continued to grow apart. The one week we were able to share each month turned into a week full of pressure to “catch up” on our lives and just try to stay connected. We were sinking. The stress was eating us both alive, and as he continued to be driven by his career and “things” I began resenting his career and could care less about the “things.” We began contemplating whether or not this was healthy long term for either of us….enter the big D word.

When you never would have thought divorce was ever an option and suddenly it becomes a looming reality you’re world literally starts turning upside down, in all kinds of crazy ways – but that’s a whole other topic.

The worst of all, he didn’t want a divorce. So here I was, 27 years old, faced with one of the hardest decisions of my life, deep down I knew the answer but I just couldn’t muster up the strength, I had the courage of a mouse and certainly not an ounce of guts to shoot an arrow straight through this guys heart. Eat Pray Love and Elizabeth Gilbert, where were you when I needed you most?

It Was Time for Some Serious Soul-Searching

Most of us experience growth spurts during certain periods of life which encourage us to dig a little deeper within. 27 was without a doubt one of those times for me. I was exploring many things having to do with Eastern Philosophy, had begun a regular yoga and meditation practice, and was going to school for massage therapy. At the same time I was learning about all the life experiences of my new friend and inspired by another co-worker who was about to give up all material possessions to embark on a travel adventure through Thailand, and become a monk. Thailand? Wow, that sounds so cool, I thought. 

It didn’t take long at all for wanderlust to set in. Southeast Asia would fit in quite nicely and naturally with the direction my life was headed, I furiously started my quest and began researching everything I could about Thailand. I fell absolutely head over heels with what I was learning about this country, most of all the culture – the ancient temples, Buddhism, Thai massage, and the people. This was the place for my soul-searching journey. Stepping outside my current situation would be the catalyst for clarity on whether or not I would choose to stay in my marriage.

Little did I know that it would be the catalyst for so much more than I ever bargained for.

Let the Journey Begin

Now I was ready to travel, I just had to find the right person to take the journey with. Someone I could trust, someone that would have my back, someone world-wise….wait! Of course, I knew exactly who….so I presented my crazy idea, of which she accepted (thank god you’re a gypsy – always at heart, girl), and with a little planning and saving up, a few months later there we were. Two women with backpacks, passports, two trusty guidebooks, no reservations other than flights, standing in the airport, anxiously awaiting to embark on a new adventure.

Interestingly enough, during our journey light was shed that soul searching was also in the cards for my friend, involving a long term on and off long distance relationship. A pivotal moment for both of us.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling-Friends

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling

I would classify traveling as either a vacation or what I call an “immersion journey.” People usually either go on a vacation to simply relax and escape the stress of their job and everyday life, or travel for the experience of learning about themselves and others by immersing themselves in the culture. The latter, although totally rewarding certainly doesn’t come without it’s fair share of challenges, many really tough at times. This type of traveling doesn’t appeal to everyone, but one things for sure, it will open your eyes to things you never knew existed, and stretch and grow you in ways you never knew possible. I truly believe that world travel is one of the best educations you can get.

I always crack up when people mention how lucky I was that I could afford to travel. People have this idea that you’re staying at four star resorts, eating in all these nice restaurants, and seeing all the sights. Remember those old guidebooks travel on a shoestring budget? That was a clearer picture of how we traveled. We walked to any destinations we could, took budget transportation, stayed in the cheapest hostels and guest houses, ate street food, skipped all the tourist attractions, and at two different points during the trip were able to save on accommodations by graciously being put up by locals (a friend and a cousin of the friend I was traveling with). And this was 2002, neither of us had a smart phone, device, or any type of cell phone at all.

The lessons I learned while traveling in other countries for three months were absolutely transformative experiences – life changing. You ever want to gain perspective on life, go travel. Here are just a few life lessons I learned while traveling, spending a month exploring Thailand (a tiny portion of that in Malaysia), and 2 months traveling to various places throughout Europe.

1 ~ How to Face Life Independently, Fearlessly and Head On

Stepping foot inside a new country for the first time there are usually several different things going on in your mind at once. Between the flood of excitement, adrenaline rush, and sheer elation you realize, okay reality check – I can say hello, excuse me, please and thank you and that’s about it, I’m standing here with absolutely no plan or idea of where to go, including where to stay, and instantly you’re ripped right out of your nice little cozy safety zone and bonked on the head with a huge reality check. Remember, no cell phone or device – just a guidebook – completely unplugged – old school baby.

Sometimes the smallest things like making through customs, getting to your next destination, or finding a place to sleep can turn into a major process, involving complications. Learning to make decisions in the moment and execute your plan teaches you how to be independent, and face life fearlessly and head on.

2 ~  Learning to Communicate Without Words

In most places, it’s amazing how a few pleasantries can get you pretty far, but communicating without words, using body language like hand gestures, facial expressions, or objects can get you even further when it comes to understanding one another. Sometimes a simple game of charades can be a life saver.

It teaches you how to move past impatience and frustration and to relax and find humor in challenging situations. Even if I felt awkward and thought I was pronouncing things funny, I still tried, I found most locals to be appreciative of the effort plus it makes for some good laughs, you even learn to laugh at yourself and quit being so hard on yourself. To this day, I look back upon and smile about the exchanges of locals teaching us some of their words and we teaching them some of ours, it was a fun way to connect.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling-Backpacking

3 ~ Learning Not to Take Things for Granted

You learn to go without make-up and hair products, everyday things you’re used to back home suddenly become luxuries you a) can’t afford and b) add excess weight to your pack that will kill your back when traveling for hours at a time. Thinking I had packed super light, part way through my pack still wasn’t light enough, so I had to unload some stuff and ship it home. The major ordeal, loaded with complications I went through to ship it home was a hard lesson learned in itself, it’s not as easy to just take it to the post office and mail it to the states from a small village in Thailand.

In poverty stricken countries, access to basic things we take for granted at home like clean water, safe food and shelter, if even available, are slim and complete luxuries most locals won’t ever experience in their lifetime. You come home feeling extremely fortunate, and feeling like these things should be available to everyone everywhere.

4 ~ Teaches You Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Being on the move constantly with no set reservations, plans, or destinations is a special sort of dichotomy – on one hand it’s pure freedom and on the other it can be quite scary. Not being tied to a schedule is freeing but sitting in limbo can be awfully nerve wracking too. One thing I learned is while traveling is awesome, it’s not sunshine, roses and unicorns all the time – most things will not go as planned, sometimes they will go entirely wrong, but they always seem to have a way of working themselves out nicely.

It’s easy to lose track of things when you’re living out of a backpack, reservations and belongings get misplaced, communications get crossed, transportation gets delayed or cancelled, you get lost, and taxi drivers rip you off. It’s when we learn to let go of control and learn that we’re capable of problem solving in any situation that arises, we learn not to sweat the small stuff.

5 ~ Teaches You to Make the Most Out of  Every Experience

Carpe Diem. Visiting a place, or trying new food for the first time and knowing that you are being given this one shot makes you realize that you only have one chance to sieze the moment. You learn to take advantage of every possible opportunity or experience before it passes you by, and really soak it up.

Suddenly you see little things in moments that you’ve never seen before, consciousness and awareness are suddenly heightened like never before. You become more aware that the world is a such a big place yet so small at the same time, and most of all you realize just how small we are as human beings and how, at the core, we’re all really the same no matter where we live in this wide world.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling-Appreciate

6 ~ How to Have Humility and Respect for Other Cultures

I had heard the stories of locals in many countries disliking tourists, especially “obnoxious Americans” (ahem) and to tell you the truth after seeing some of this in action while traveling I can see their point. You wouldn’t enter a strangers home and attempt to take it over as if it were your own. When we enter a country we are entering peoples homeland. Every culture is different, has their own customs and ways of doing things. Certain things that are acceptable in our country may be considered rude or offensive in another country. And our expectations may be totally out of line with their way of living.

Do your research and be mindful of this. Traveling teaches you to humble yourself, set aside any preconceived notions and learn to respect each cultures way of life. For instance, in Thailand it’s customary for women to have their shoulders covered when entering temples, so if not wearing a tank top on that day, or taking your shoes off before entering buildings, pointing your feet away from status of Buddha, etc., keeps the peace, these are all small things for us that make a big difference to them.

Taking the time to learn why they do these things, the meaning behind them, these are missed opportunities while traveling that make for a much more satisfying experience. If you remember this, make an effort with pleasantries in each language, have patience, and be polite you will be welcomed and help to break the stereotypes. Respect goes a long, long way.

And for goodness sake, please don’t assume people in non-English speaking countries must speak some English since it’s supposedly the “universal language”, we’re in their country – how do you feel if someone visits your country and assumes you speak their language? And if you ask, do so with a polite unassuming tone, not like you’re expecting it, or inconvenienced by it, people pick up on that. The more respectful you are, the better you will be received.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.

James Michener

7 ~ Learning About Yourself

At one point during the journey my friend had to fly home to South America, so I was on my own, travel-buddy-less, which at first scared me to death, but on I went, hopping a train from France to Germany. Carpe Diem right? It’s one of my most cherished accomplishments to this day. Solo travel. From never traveling abroad to this – a lot can happen in two months. This was a monumental step for me.

It ended up being so worth it, I learned even more about myself, had a few close calls like keeping my belongings safe in a ten bunk hostel where another traveler had his camera stolen (my travel smarts paid off – top bunk with my leg through the strap of my pack under the blanket) while we were all sleeping, and a few others I won’t mention, but in the end all was well. The travel gods were on my side. From there I met some great fellow travelers with whom I continued the journey through Germany, Prague, Amsterdam, and London with.

Life Lessons I Learned While Traveling-Journey into Yourself

Out of all of these lessons came the greatest gift of all, the original purpose of my three month journey and the ultimate fruition – a soul-searching journey. Traveling stretched me in so many ways, strengthening my belief in myself, giving me courage I never knew I had, and the clarity and strength I needed to face one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make so we could both move on with our lives. It also gave my travel buddy and I the chance to share and experience the most raw parts of one another’s beings, and an inspirational adventure of a lifetime. A bond that continues to last a lifetime.

So when I think about how unconventional my life has been, I sit back, take a nice long inhale and reflect on the awesome adventure filled life I’ve been blessed to have lived so far and exhale thinking about the opportunities for endless life lessons to be learned from traveling to many more experiential places in the future. To all the wanderers at heart…may you get to wander freely and often.

Love to hear your travel adventures! Share them in the comments below!

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