Traveling is every free spirit’s wet dream, and one I’ve been pursuing for a long time, way before I hit the road for my RTW trip in early 2009.
18 months and 4 continents later, I’m back in peaceful Melbourne for the Australian summer, reflecting on what quickly became one of my biggest adventures.
Traveling Vs. Vacationing
For me, traveling is not a vacation activity - I had many of those while studying and working in Australia.
Rather, I see traveling as an opportunity to experience new areas and environments outside of my comfort zone, all of which excites me.
I see it as a profoundly soul-enriching experience, an ongoing process of growth and self-expression.
Perhaps more than anything, traveling for me is about holding less tightly my so-called certainties and re-evaluating my assumptions about the world.
For this trip, I wanted to experience freedom on a whole new level, freedom which seems more difficult and rare to attain these days. I purposefully did not set an ending date and traveled on one-way tickets, which meant that I stayed in places as long as I wanted and moved to wherever I felt like going.
The wealth of time and the richness of places provided me with a unique opportunity to look deeper and gain broader insights into traveling in particular and life in general.
One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is related to the number of countries I’ve visited. I think the number is hovering around 20 (half during my European trip), but if you asked me this today, I’d add that the number is fairly meaningless to me.
Allowing enough time in one place, appreciating its richness, instead of rushing from city to city, is true quality. There is a chance to get a real sense of our destination by pausing, looking, listening, even smelling. A place is experienced in a totally different way when we walk than when we speed by in trains, buses, or cars. The number of stamps on my passport acquired in a hurried trip is less valuable than the slow,immersive experience of one single place.
I could get to famous Machu Picchu in a short train ride or, instead, I could trek 4 days via the dense, jungle Inca Trail, with massive waterfalls, picturesque mountains, long bridges, amazing sunsets, and a feeling of accomplishment at the top of the hill.
Inca Trail was only one example for me in a long list of learning experiences, and after speeding across Europe, I really slowed down. I spent more than a month in Buenos Aires, learning Spanish, meeting locals, sensing the rhythm of Argentinean people, feeling the vibe of the city, and the dark smoke of thousands of city buses in my lungs.
But, you see, traveling is not just about enjoying the beauty of a place; it’s also about bearing its ugliness. When you slow down, you gain a real picture of a place, rather than a superficial Photoshop image of a travel agency poster.
And isn’t this true for all walks of life?
Taking the time for really getting to know people, eating slowly, really tasting each mouthful, or even thinking slowly, allowing the mind to focus on one thing at a time, not only during travels, but also in day-to-day life.
I recently took a very slow stroll through Melbourne’s botanical gardens – a place I had visited many times in the past – feeling more invigorated and inspired than ever, and maybe really seeing it for the first time.
Being fully present
Email, Facebook, and text messaging around the clock, perhaps the new 21st century epidemic, crept into our lives and got us all addicted, contributing to our already growing attention deficit. I think internet addiction medications will be soon available, if not already…
I remember trekking to Everest base camp at the beginning of my trip, passing remote mountain villages, with very little utilities, but with big signs announcing “Internet access.” One time, I stopped to check emails and started responding to a business matter, thinking to myself, “Just this one and I’m out of here.”
I did keep my promise and responded to only one email, but my mind was elsewhere for the next hour or so, thinking of business matters rather than delighting in the magnificent mountain views.
While being connected – and especially in a foreign country — has its benefits, the downside side is that we’re not fully engaged in where we are and in what we’re doing.
Focused attention is quality. The more focus we bring to something, the fuller our experience will be.
This is also true with intentions: the more focus you give to your desires, the more energy will be directed towards their manifestation.
I think my biggest challenge in that sense came during my Vipassana experience, when I had to focus on the air coming out of my nostrils for 2 days straight.
Quite extreme, but it helped me to appreciate presence and, at some point in my trip, I decided to turn off both my mobile and internet – and they’re still off as I write this.
The marketing of 21st century tourism leads us to believe that traveling is all about visiting popular sites, staying in comfortable hotels, doing the same activities we do at home, or more precisely, consuming the same things they tell us we need.
Perhaps that’s the way for vacation travel, but it’s a different story when we travel long term. The RTW trip by its very nature demands simplicity. You carry your whole world in a backpack and get to meet locals who never had the “privilege” of consuming so much. After a while, you start realizing how much you enjoy feeling independence from your possessions.
When I trekked Nepal, the happiest people I met by far were the ones living in the mountains; they who didn’t have much in terms of possessions, but they had a joyous spark in their eyes. They appreciated the simple things that we tend to take for granted. They saw the beauty in nature: the rising and setting of the sun, the spectrum of colors in a rainbow, the essence of a rare flower.
They lived a humble life within their means, and had something most of the western world desperately craves: wealth of time.
At age 21, I wanted a high-paying job so that I could buy all the expensive stuff I saw around me. When I was 24, I wanted even more, so I worked harder, earned more, and spent more. When I was 27, I did get my high-paying job and got to own lots of other expensive stuff, but it came with a price; I had no free time and I was exhausted from running around. I started craving less. I do so to this day.
Embracing the unknown
When I did my first long trip after the army, my idea of adventurous travel was to take on activities such as a level 5 rafting trip, bungee jumping, or skydiving out of a plane. I did them all in less than a week in New Zealand, and they were exciting; but as I grew up, I learned that adventure is not necessarily the physical activity itself, but rather the unfamiliarity component of it. It can simply be not knowing where you’re going, or who you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to experience next.
We all want an exciting adventure on a trip, but at the same time, we also want to know what’s going to happen. Well, one comes at the expense of the other: the more we know about a place, the less adventure we experience.
So, at some stage of my trip, I threw away my Lonely Planet and traveled without a guide. It was much more exciting to get advice from locals or other travelers than to find them in a book. It also meant that I was off the beaten track and away from the popular and busy tourist destinations.
Sometimes, the best things happen on the way to our dream place – on the plane, on the train, or after a random encounter.
The most enjoyable part of my trip to India, for example, wasn’t being herded along with the other thousands of tourists at the Taj Mahal’s courtyard, but spending the day with some brilliant people whom I met along the way.
The same thing happened during my Italian adventure; I traveled all the way to Pisa to see the famous leaning tower, just to take a photo and tick another box in my list. Far from exciting!
In sharp contrast, some of the greatest adventures of my trip happened when, instead of me finding and planning it, I let the adventure find me, like building a house in Peru, or going into the wild in Patagonia, or even getting engaged in Canada.
This is true in life as well; if we truly want our life to be an exciting adventure, we might want to stop forcing experiences and start embracing the unknown.
The journey is always more important than the destination. Always.
Live Out The Dream!