When I was 22 and a senior in college, I worked 5 part-time jobs for the entire academic year. I sold wine at a local winery, made phone calls to raise money for the school and assisted in the language lab among other chores. I wasn’t trying to pay for school, loans took care of that, instead I had a goal firmly set in my sights; a goal I had dreamt of for years. My dream was to visit the United Kingdom and see as much of it as I could or as long as my money held out.
It wasn’t easy making those sacrifices, saving every cent I had instead of going out with friends or heading down to the beach with my fraternity. But I knew those short term sacrifices would pay off in the long term; I just never realized how long term those benefits would end up being.
It’s the 15th anniversary of that trip (wow I’m old) and I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Thinking about how it changed me but how I ignored those changes for a long time. I think of the mistakes I have made over the last decade and a half and all of the intense challenges I have had to face. Death, disease, loss have all been focal points of my life, but so have moments of pure joy, exploration and wonder. That’s life though, the yin and yang without which our existence on this planet wouldn’t be very interesting. The same holds true for the travel experience, no matter how often travel magazines and blogs (including my own) sometimes ignore the negative.
I was killing time on Twitter recently when I saw someone write something to the effect of: “Be honest with your readers, they know life isn’t always perfect so tell them that.” And that’s true, life isn’t perfect. I’ve written how much I truly enjoyed visiting some parts of the world and sometimes I talk about the negative, but not always. The reason for that isn’t to hide facts or to paint a false picture. The reason is twofold. One, I realize that travel is subjective and while I may have hated an experience, I know many others would really enjoy it. So I tend to be more balanced. Second, I don’t want to come across as an over-privileged jerk. If I read an account of someone going on safari in Africa and it was laced with complaints, I would be annoyed. I’d think he was self-involved and not at all grateful. That’s something I always want to avoid because for every unique experience I am fortunate enough to enjoy I am truly humbled by it and intensely grateful.
But I now realize that this may have in effect made it seem as if bad things don’t happen when one travels, and they most certainly do. Travel can be frustrating, annoying, depressing and downright awful. At times. Nothing in life is static, we are all dynamic beings as is the world and while I may be upset I hopped on a train heading towards Italy instead of Switzerland, shit happens. Travel is not a perfect experience, no matter how much those lovely National Geographic images pretend that it is. But just as I haven’t tried to mislead, neither has National Geographic, or AFAR or any travel magazine. It’s because we see past a lot of these hardships (even if it pisses us off at the time) to look at the bigger picture. It’s a skill set I’m adept at when it comes to travel, but certainly not in my private life. At the end of the day I don’t remember as vividly the annoying people trying to constantly sell me rugs on the streets of Istanbul. The richest memories are instead of the Bosporus twinkling in the afternoon sun and of hearing the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque.
So you see, I never have tried to pretend that travel is a piece of cake, that nothing bad ever happens. It’s just that I don’t think these moments of anger and confusion are bad things at all. They are part and parcel of the overall experience and it is ultimately because of them that the experience is as transformational as it is.
I will try in the coming months to share the daily heartaches when I am on the road, just promise you won’t think I’m a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn’t realize how lucky he is. Believe me, I wake up every day wondering what I did to deserve this rich and full life.