After years of dreaming, I finally did it. I bought a one-way ticket to Asia with vague plans for 6 months: rock climbing in Thailand, yoga teacher training and exploring in India, trekking in Nepal, and volunteering with Conscious Impact. Once I finished my initial plans, I went on to learn, work, teach, and climb in 9 countries over 1.5 years.
Throughout my time in Asia, I journaled and reflected on these new experiences. Some of the lessons learned were deeply personal, others global. But it took returning home and processing to understand how the lessons learned from travel will continue to inform the way I conduct my life.
Here are just a few of the most transformative ways my perspective has shifted after traveling across the world (and back):
1. Taking Big Risks
They say that everything you’ve ever wanted lies just on the other side of your comfort zone. My comfort zone is the things I’m good at. I’ve always been averse to failure. But travel introduced me completely new situations and challenged my ego to accept the fact that I WILL fail… and that’s OK.
Some of my most path-directing experiences have come from times that I took on a risk, or just went for something I thought I could never do. To make my travel dream a reality, I had to leave my comfort zone. So I took a few initial Big Risks: Quitting my jobs. selling most of my possessions. Leaving friends and family behind and buying a one-way ticket to Asia. Signing up for a yoga teacher training intensive in India…and then, even more challenging, mustering the courage to teach afterward.
Soon, I was taking on projects and challenges I never imagined I’d have the skills or strength to do: Working outdoor education and travel guiding jobs (even though I’d never worked with kids and never been a tour guide). Building an outdoor shower for a work-trade agreement in Cambodia. Trekking over the highest mountain pass in the world. Lead climbing, and getting back on the wall over and over again even when I felt scared, frustrated or hopeless. Trusting enough in the strength of my partnership to take jobs that separated us for weeks or months at a time.
I’m no better at stepping outside of my comfort zone than anyone else, but taking that first Big Risk of leaving the country thrust me into a place in my life in which I felt inspired to allow my heart to guide me more than my fear. Thanks to those experiences, I realize that I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for. Now, I understand on an intrinsic level the rewards that can come when we do things that scare us.
2. What I “Need”
Living out of a backpack is one surefire way to discover what we do and don’t need. Because I had nowhere to store anything, I couldn’t buy things along the way. And anyway, I realized that I actually didn’t need most of what I had with me… I just liked having it. Now that I’ve lived so simply for so long, I realize the luxury of what I’d normally take for granted, like showers (especially hot ones), comfy beds, air conditioning, living in a house, and internet access. My experiences living without many of the things we consider “necessities” has shifted my perspective on what I require to feel happy and comfortable.
I used to be more stringent about what food I allowed into my body, thinking I must avoid certain ingredients at all costs in order to be healthy. Now that I’ve spent a lot of time eating the same simple meals over and over again, sometimes even eating ingredients that were previously on my blacklist (sometimes, that was all that was available), I realize how privileged I am to simply have healthy options available to me at all. I still love and prefer healthy food, but I no longer feel anxiety when those options aren’t available to me.
So then, what do I really NEED? Materially, it turns out, very little. But the biggest thing I missed while traveling? The close, intimate connections of family and close friends. Of course, I met incredible people in Asia who became dear friends, but after a while, I craved the deeper relationships I share with my friends and family back home. Now, when I think of my needs, I think less about things and more about connection.
3. Right and Wrong
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
I love this quote but, as someone with a strong sense of morality, I’ve always struggled to understand it. Yet slowly, especially through my travels, I’m beginning to discover that, actually… there is no such thing as right or wrong.
Hear me out. Over and over again, I met people with wildly different belief systems than mine. Beliefs that sometimes seemed to pit against my core values. But what makes me so enlightened to say that I’m right and they’re wrong?
My moral values were turned upside down when I was invited to stay in a conservative Muslim household in India. The first time we left the house together, I watched in shock as the women put on their burqas, covering their bodies from head to toe with only the eyes showing. These poor women, I thought, are living in a culture that tells them their bodies are shameful. This is extreme sexism and oppression of women!
As a Western feminist, if something looks like it’s forcing people to conform to a predetermined standard or disempowers a group of people, I consider it bad or backward. Essentially, “wrong.” But how do I know that’s what’s really happening? Who am I to look at a culture I’m not a part of and think I know what’s best for others?
And then, I realized that even though I’d never met a burqa-wearing Muslim before, I’d made assumptions about Muslim women and the meaning of the burqa. The women I met made a conscious, free choice to wear the burqa when they went out. Who was I to impose my own sense of morality upon them? I had to step outside of the bubble of my own beliefs to consider that we are each a product of our own life experiences and culture. I may disagree, but to say that my perspective is objectively correct and another is wrong is elitist, ignores context, and prevents true connection with others.
On Being US-born
Middle-class Americans often call out our country’s 1 percent but, in reality, we ARE the 1%. That’s right… if you earn more than $32,000 per year, you are among the wealthiest one percent in the world. (According to statistics from 2008-2012. Find out where you stand at Global Rich List). Are we more wealthy because we work harder than people in other countries? Of course not! As U.S. citizens, we have the unearned privilege of being born into the U.S. economy.
Being born white and in the USA comes with other privileges. Without doing anything to deserve it, as a U.S. passport holder I can easily visit 183 countries. I made many friends throughout Asia that want to travel to the United States, but cannot due to high prices and ridiculous visa application processes.
Since English is my native language, I can travel to almost any country and interact with people or even get a job. No joke, I was approached on the street to teach English about once per week when I was living in China. Traveling or getting a job in the international community is significantly more challenging for those that don’t learn English from a young age.
On Gender Equality
One of my coworkers, the only female in her country’s chapter, was constantly treated as less-than by her male peers even though she was more experienced than nearly all of them. She’s also not legally allowed to marry the woman she loves. To get to where she’s at professionally, she has had to put up with belittlement and even physical abuse from her male coworkers, plus work many times harder than they do to receive an ounce of the recognition and pay. Of course, gender equality has a long way to go in my country, and we should always be striving to do better, but I feel privileged for the rights and freedoms I have as a woman in the U.S.
On Being the Majority Demographic
After witnessing discrimination again and again I believe that no matter where you are in the world, minority groups face discrimination and challenges that the majority group will never know or understand.
In several countries now, I’ve witnessed people blind or apathetic to injustices happening right before their eyes. I met, for example, Burmese that believe Rohingyas in their country are “illegal” (even though they’ve lived there for literal centuries) and even support their ethnic cleansing. And Chinese who are unaware that, in their own country, Uighurs and other minority groups are being sent to concentration camps, forced to give up their own language, customs, culture, and religion and become “re-educated” to be more like the majority Han Chinese.
It’s mind-blowing to me how easily governments can “other” entire groups of people in a way that the general public is unaware of or unconcerned by, and I feel horrified to see some of the same mindsets in my own country. I do not want to be like other majority-demographic people oblivious to their own privilege and unconcerned with the suffering of others. Or worse, like those scapegoating entire groups of people for their country’s problems.
After my experiences abroad, I understand that most people will never see the injustices happening in their own countries that don’t affect them. And that’s why minority groups stay oppressed… most people in the majority are either blissfully ignorant, refuse to believe it’s happening, or don’t care enough to take a stand. Therefore, I feel a heightened sense of duty to speak up for oppressed groups in my own country. To help refugees find a safe place to live. To welcome and assist immigrants in my country the way that people so generously helped and welcomed me. Because if I don’t do it, then whom else can I expect to take action?
Subjecting myself to new places, challenges, experiences, and people helped me leave my comfort zone, transformed my perspective on what I need, opened my mind to different perspectives, and nuanced my opinion on privilege. Of course, travel is no prerequisite for (and certainly doesn’t guarantee) growth or change. There are infinite avenues for personal development. The effectiveness of any journey to invoke change hinges on the explorer’s willingness to leap into the unknown and lean into discomfort, be it unexplored corners of the world or uncharted corners of the mind. That’s why I believe conscious, long-term travel can be a powerful tool for catalyzing deep reflection and invaluably enhancing the life of the daring spirit.