A person susceptible to “wanderlust” is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation ~ Pico Iyer
I love to travel, and yet I often find the act of traveling to be extremely uncomfortable – which is probably, in the end, why I love it so much. What seems delightfully charming and exotic prior to leaving home is often (in reality) strange and unfathomable and sometimes even downright unpleasant. Traveling hurls you out of your comfort zone – and yet you gladly pay for the privilege.
I grew up moving around the country with my family (both coasts and the middle), but my first real travel adventure was as an exchange student in Australia. I cried for most of the first three months, even though I loved my host family. And then I cried about the same amount of time when I returned home. That year opened my mind to the realization that there are many different and equally viable ways to do… everything. My family and country represented just one of those ways.
After that, I was hooked. I went to London to work as a nanny for a summer when I was 19, practically paralyzed with fear on the flight over. I traveled Europe alone for six months later in my twenties, experienced adventures on six continents, crisscrossed the US several times on mammoth road trips and lived in Germany for eight years. I traveled in planes, trains, cars, boats and on foot.
And every trip I took turned out to be some combination of the sublime and the wretched. That’s what makes travel so addictive. That’s why people buy travel memoirs called Worst Trips Ever. Once you get through the rough spots (assuming that you do) they always make the best stories. Experiencing the challenges and discomforts of exploring a totally new corner of the world – which you can do in Chinatown as well as in China – is what makes travel so transformative.
At home, we set things up, as much as possible, for our own comfort. We know which restaurants we like and what to order there, the best way to get to work, and where to buy whatever we need. We can ask for directions or help in the unlikely event that we get lost or accidentally leave our ID in a taxi. Traveling, on the other hand, can make even the most accomplished and successful adult feel like a child – and that’s good for the ego every now and then.
Traveling is often an exercise in patience. Unless you have enough money to ensure a five-star experience everywhere you go (which somewhat defeats the purpose) things are often not at the level of comfort or convenience, you might wish for. A lot of traveling is downright boring too: waiting for planes, looking for something to eat, deciding what to do in an unfamiliar town that shuts down unexpectedly for several hours in the middle of the day. The only way to really travel happily, I’ve found, is to suspend all expectations and allow yourself to be delighted when things do turn out well.
With all of that, I sometimes wonder why I keep on traveling, especially when I’m in the midst of one of those uncomfortable experiences. Robert Louis Stevenson said that to travel was to feel the “needs and hitches” of life more clearly, to “come down off the featherbed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot.”
Travel keeps me growing: I learn about myself while I’m learning about the world. Traveling forces me to question what’s normal, and makes me feel more alive and awake. It’s much easier to be mindful in a place where everything looks, sounds and tastes new and different. And I keep those fresh eyes for a while even after I return home. The toothpaste or shampoo I bought in another country reminds me for a while that there are other languages besides English.
And when I gradually start sinking back into my comfortable routines, it’s time to start dreaming about another trip!