Now this was a tough article to write. To be accurate writing it was pretty easy, publishing it turned out to be more difficult. You know this one is typically the kind of post you write telling people what great lessons you have learned from your amazing experiences around the world and well they just… hate you. However, a new year is starting and it is time to sit down and reflect about the year that has past, and for me… well it has been a hell of a year! And as this blog is about sharing the life questions of a thirty-year-old I guess it was an editorial duty (that sounded pretentious) to write about how the road has taught me a thing or two (or ten) about life. Things that have considerably improved my quality of life and have without a doubt made me a happier person. Ready to hate me? Good.
Lesson 1 – My mind and body are much stronger than what I thought.
You are in a hotel and suddenly you see this couple at the reception wearing hiking shoes and pants and carrying a lot of “adventurous” gear in a very colorful waterproof backpack with hundreds of pockets and an integrated water bottle (which I found out later is called a “camelback”). There is a strong possibility here that you are thinking “no wayyyyy I am doing that”, believing that you are incapable of surviving the first 10 minutes of the kind of activities these guys are heading to and that sunbathing next to the pool seems a much wiser (and safer) choice. Good news for you: if I can do it, so can you! I am the one now with hiking pants and hiking shoes and all of the “adventurous” gear which includes head lamp, swiss knife (thanks sis, best gift ever), camping biodegradable toilet paper (don’t laugh), a spork (if you don’t have one google it now!), a foldable silicon glass, etc… And I actually love it! So how did that happen? Well, it starts with one breathtaking hike (Freycinet National Park in Tasmania in case you were wondering), surviving the hike, trying a harder one, surviving that one too, getting back home in one piece, looking at the mirror (when nobody is watching) and doing a celebration dance. If you decide to follow my steps, you can skip the celebration dance naturally. The point is that I have learned that physically my body can take me to places that only my mind was stopping me from going. Because my mind was thinking “oh I’m not strong enough, I’m too tired, I want to go home, why on earth am I doing this again?”. Now I keep in mind that in “being able” there are 2 things that get into account: my physical state and my will to engage in an activity. The more complicated part is to control the mind. It will give up before your body does. People always say that you can push your limits much further than what you thought. I used to think “ummmhummm”. Now I have to admit that… they were right.
Lesson 2 – “Hello… Houston? Anyone there?” That’s my body trying to talk to me.
You have been partying for New Year’s right? You really enjoyed that rosé champagne and took that extra glass you shouldn’t. Oh and you definitely shouldn’t have eaten so many nachos. You wake up, take a look at your room, feel your headache and conclude that last night you must have been into a serious fight with either Godzilla or King Kong. Now imagine that you have to get up because a 16h bus ride awaits (and that happens all the time) that will cross a mountain range through winding roads. Oh and you have to carry your 18kg backpack all the way to the bus station that is 10 blocks away from your bed. See the picture? Well to be able to survive these constant trips, you cannot afford to be sick, or hangover, or simply tired. Your body is your best travel buddy. So when it is tired, I have learned to put it to bed because tomorrow I have a big day. I consider carefully what I eat. Let’s say that before that 16h bus trip with no stops I am most definitely trying to avoid that street sea food that looks yummy. My body and I have reached a new level in our relationship: the communication step. In my “previous life” my body had to follow my wishes, whatever they were. Now I have to listen to its needs (even if in front of a good burger and fries I tend to quickly ignore them… you know what they say: “leopards don’t change their spots…”).
Lesson 3 – Me, afraid? Nahhhhhhhhhh – Discovering fears and facing them.
As you clearly understood I love hiking. Especially in the mountains. And what do we have in mountains? Steep cliffs! Yay! Now the funny thing (not so funny) that I have learned on the road is that I am afraid of heights (see? I told you you learn a lot about yourself…), a fear I could only discover traveling because Paris is not really known for its “city cliffs”. I had 2 options: stop hiking or keep on hiking. Well, I obviously have chosen to keep on hiking so I have also been compelled to learn how to face and master my fears. After 9 months I still am afraid of cliffs but I have been hiking next to so many I lost count. And to be honest, I have even engaged in activities that can trigger even more the fear, like rock climbing for example. Brave? No. Crazy? Perhaps, but not completely. The real reason is that when one is put into a situation that triggers fear, one has to find a way out. My way out is to keep on walking. The other option would be letting my fears decide what I can or can’t do and that is not an option. I won’t lose my fears, they are always there with me, but this trip has been teaching me how to stop them from incapacitating me from doing what I want and discovering new amazing things.
Lesson 4 – Choosing, deciding, enjoying. Forget the cost of opportunity.
I am sure you know someone (and that might be yourself) who is never satisfied with the choices made and keeps wondering how things would have been if you have made a different choice. “I wanted to see this” or “I wanted to try that dish” or “I wish we could have gone rafting”. When I was in my economics class in college, I had a particular class that I have never forgotten, because contrarily to others, this one made actually sense in my everyday life. The concept was the “cost of opportunity” and it is quite simple: if you choose A, then you are not choosing B. When you make a decision you have to consider what will be the cost for you of not choosing B, or in other words, what benefits you will not be making. A trip around the world requires a TON of everyday decision-making, even if I have to admit that I have been saving a lot of that as to what clothes to wear (let’s see jeans or hiking pants, hiking pants or jean?), how to do my hair (pony tail or bun, bun or pony tail) or make-up (no make-up or no make-up?). Back to our cost of opportunity, it also means that by choosing a lot of As, we do not choose a lot of Bs and we often ask ourselves “shouldn’t I have chosen B instead?”. Learning to accept that the B option is already behind you and it is a closed subject is a tough learning. It is learning to live without the “what if?” and commit to our choices. There are thousands of amazing places to visit in Chile yet I only had time to visit 8 of them. There are hundreds of great places to eat in Portland, yet I only had time and budget to go to one. Learning to accept that is making sure the meal you have chosen will taste much better 😉
Lesson 5 – Yes, we are talking about how to find happiness… I know. It’s boring but keep reading!
Some people (including myself) are looking for happiness with the big H. The one you find in happy endings in American movies. This trip was in part a search for the big H, obviously. If you asked me how happy I was traveling, well I was prettttttty happy (now you can start hating me if you haven’t before). Imagine a day like this: I am in a cabin in the woods in Chile, the weather is amazing and I am writing an article when I should be getting ready to go on a rafting session in the mountains. Wow that looks almost perfect right? A real happy day with a big H right? Yes. But what made it happy? The fact that in a cabin in the woods there is no noise so you sleep perfectly well and you wake up in a great mood. The fact that you manage to light the chimney and that its flames are slightly warming up the place. The fact that you cooked a home-made melted cheese sandwich for breakfast and had a coffee with milk (which you haven’t had for over a week). What makes it a happy day is the fact that each one of these activities create a happy feeling. When you add a lot of them then you are having a tremendous day. I thought that I would feel super happy by traveling to places like Machu Picchu or seeing the Sydney Opera. Don’t get me wrong, they are awesome. But what really made me happy were small things that happened everyday and that I wouldn’t have noticed if I weren’t on the road. Like sending and receiving funny messages to your best friends. Like talking for 5 minutes with your family. Like enjoying a good cup of latte (seriously, you have no idea how rare it is and how delicious it tastes when you are backpacking). Like having a really good night of sleep. Like having a strong hot shower. Like finding out that the hostel actually has a breakfast. With cheese! Like finding a cheap airplane ticket that will save you 30h in a bus. Like finding a 3 star hotel for half the price. Like walking for 2 hours in the woods whenever you want to free your mind. We all know the saying: “happiness is in the little things”. I think happiness is the little things that happen to you, we just need to turn on our happy-moments radar and be aware that they are happening to us.
Lesson 6 – Patience my friend, patience. Everything is gonna be alright…
For those who know me don’t laugh! The thing is that I am not particularly known for my “hakuna matata attitude”. So this is a huge learning for me. When you travel, you KNOW you will have ups and downs. Days where everything will work out. And days where everything will go wrong. Like a huge storm in Texas delaying your flight by one full day when friends are expecting you there. Like when you finally get there and your luggage is lost. Like when you call your insurance, and you find out you are not covered for that. Those kind of days. I am sure you know what I am talking about. You have two ways to react to it. Getting really mad and inpatient (which might actually make you feel better for a couple of minutes after your outburst of rage) or stay cool (because there isn’t much you can do about it). Being on the road facing a lot of uncontrollable situations everyday has tought me to deal with things with a cooler mind. Which is clearly easier now because I don’t have any kind of accumulated stress from a work week or a stressful city life I need to get rid of… But I found out that being patient not only feels nice but it might help me to actually live longer. The secret to it? Evaluating what is really at stake here and what consequences the “problem” can have. More often than not, I have come to realize that it is rarely a big issue. Have I become a zen guru? For sure not! But hey… Learning is an ever-going process and you have to start somewhere right?
Lesson 7 – Living one day at a time
How often do we really appreciate a simple day? A random Tuesday for example? When you are traveling, there are 2 traps that are waiting for you and are both threatening to how your trip will go. The first one is called the future and it will drain out a lot of energy from you. First it occupies “mental time” as you are always thinking of what you should do in the days/weeks/months to come and getting ready for it. When you are traveling, tomorrow you are always somewhere else and you will always need to prepare something. If you start worrying about it, then you worry everyday about tomorrow and forget about enjoying your journey. The other trap is called “past”. Past means looking back. Looking back means getting sometimes stuck in a place it is hard to get out of which is called “Memory Lane”. The Memory Lane makes you miss things from a past reality and gives you a feeling of emptiness that what’s happening in the present cannot fill. If you fall into one of these traps for too long you will never be able to fully enjoy a trip like that. So this is something I have been working on: learning to live the present moment. When I was a teenager I had Carpe Diem (“seize the day” in latin) written everywhere but I had never understood its true meaning. I think I am closer to understand it now: enjoy everything that is happening to me everyday, worry less about tomorrow and give less importance to yesterday. A lesson that I have tried to maintain now that I am back to a more “normal routine”.
Lesson 8 – I am not my CV, I am the ever-going sum of my life experiences
You are in a party right? You meet new people, friends from friends probably. After how long will these people ask you: “what do you do for a living?”. Look around you, how many people have the same professional or educational background as you do? A lot right?
Well, we have traveled for 11 months, have met a lot of fellow travelers at ho(s)tels, during hikes or activities and they usually had jobs very different from ours. That one was an ER doctor, the other one was a social helper, he worked as a marine policeman, she was a teacher… The question about our professional lives never came before at least one hour of conversation and when it did it rarely concerned our “title” or the prestige of our company/organisation. They usually revolved around: “do you like your job, how is your work and life balance? do you see yourself evolving in that professional environment?” But they would also be asking you: “where are you from, how did you ended up here, what do you like to cook, what is happening in your home country?”. What you do is just another layer of information to help better profiling you. This has been a big lesson for me. I truly believed that to exist in society I needed to go up on the professional ladder, work for prestigious companies and you know… “be someone” as people say. I realized that I am someone, but much more than what the first line of “Work Experience” on my CV says.
Lesson 9 – The road doesn’t really change you, it just adds new layers to your YOU
The most important point for me is probably this one. It’s no big news that there are groups within a society. Not as cliché as in the American high school movies but still… The sporty ones, the more fashion ones, the classic ones… As you know by now, I wasn’t much the trekking-pants-hiking-boots kind of girl. With my Parisian city look most of the backpackers we met would never have talked to me, because I was not part of the “backpacking world”. But when you travel, your habits change and you dress in a more comfortable way. And you realize that soon people treat you differently because of the way you look. You receive messages from people telling you how great it is that you are camping or sleeping in a refuge in the mountains. I like to think it is because I am living a new experience and not because I have “changed” to something considered “better”. It is not the clothes you wear, the places you sleep in, or the food you eat that make you someone better. It is how open you are to listening, to understanding, to learning that makes you a better person. I have learnt that I haven’t really changed. My previous me is still here. But to that ME I have ADDED new layers, new coats of learnings, dreams, beliefs and needs that I had no idea were there.
Lesson 10 – There will be lessons 11, 12, 13, 14, 15!
I have written this post to tell you that traveling the world is so much worth it. For obvious reasons, like not going to work, seeing amazing things around the globe, trying different foods… but that is not really the main thing. The main thing is that you are faced with so many new realities, new ways of life, new types of people you would have never met otherwise. You put yourself into situations you would never been engaged in, if wasn’t by traveling. And your mind is open to get lessons from life. There is almost no stress in it, nobody is judging you, and you are willing to accept you were wrong about a lot of things and that there might be other ways to live your life. I was scared to stop traveling not because of the end of the trip. At one point I had to go back home to the ones I love. But I was scared that this never-stopping learning process I had experienced might stop as soon as I got back to my normal life. My big challenge for 2016? Keeping my eyes, ears and heart open to lessons 11, 12, 13, 14, 15… from the best teacher ever: Life.
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin