In my personal opinion, there is nothing that has the potential to be as life altering as a remarkable travel experience. While we may learn and grow on every trip we take, once in a while there is a special experience, a unique travel moment that changes a seemingly simple vacation into a life event. They’re rare, no doubt about that, but when they happen are amongst the most special events of our lives. That is the power of travel, and it’s to capture those special moments that ultimately drives me to seek new experiences in different parts of the world. These moments can take many forms and have any number of effects on us as people. Some open our eyes to a new world-view, others are much more personal and offer a true chance at self-reflection and emotional evolution. Other times, they are just fun, but on a level not normal for a simple trip. No matter when or where they happen or what they mean to us as people, we all have them and we’ve all been forever changed by them. I spent some time thinking back through my lifetime of travel, and decided to share what I think are 10 of the many transformative travel moments that have been life changing in one way or another.
1986 – Epcot, Walt Disney World
As a kid, my family didn’t really travel that much, even though from the youngest age it was my greatest wish. Yearly vacations were usually just visiting my grandparents in Maine except for one year when I was 10 that we did something completely different. That summer we drove down to Walk Disney World where I was able to live out my young wanderlust at Epcot. It may sound hokey to some, but it was important to me. I have always had a fierce love of all things foreign and I couldn’t learn enough about other countries and cultures. I was born to be a traveler, and was sincerely frustrated that I wasn’t able to travel as a kid. But Epcot helped satiate those feelings, at least for a while, and walking around the country pavilions it was energizing to hear people speaking German or Japanese, and to buy things that actually came from other countries, a novelty that excited me beyond belief. It was a good first foray into international travel, even though I never left my own country.
1993 – Paris
In high school, I was lucky enough to be an exchange student for a month in Paris. It was my first time crossing an ocean and was an adventure I couldn’t wait to take. Until I got there. For the first half of my time in Paris, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like my host family, I was having a hard time with the language and the city seemed bewildering to me. Plus I was homesick. I had never been away from home that long and it was taking its toll. Then I decided one Saturday afternoon to explore on my own, away from friends and teachers. I found a riverside cafe, ordered lunch and watched as hundreds of people walked by on a beautiful early summer’s day. A mental switch went off, and I fell into the scene, no longer an observer of what Paris should be, but a participant. Lunch that afternoon changed forever my thoughts about Paris, it instilled in me a deep love for the city that persists still to this day. Looking back, it was a crucial moment in my life. I was beginning to doubt if my long supposed love of travel and seeing the world had been incorrect. I was worried that like Don Quixote I was tilting at windmills, chasing a dream that was just that, a dream. That afternoon though saved the trip, and in the process saved me. It was a beacon, showing me the path I needed to follow in my life, telling me that my gut was right after all.
1998 – England & Scotland
When I was 22, newly graduated from college, I used all of my meager savings and spent a month backpacking around the UK – England and Scotland to be more specific. I’d never done anything like that before. It was my first time backpacking, traveling internationally alone and while I was scared out of my mind, I had never been more excited. It was a lonely month, 30 days with my thoughts as my only companion. Sure, I met folks in hostels and on the road, but I was mostly alone and that was fine with me. I was at a personal crossroads, about to enter graduate school and uncertain about my own future. I also hadn’t come out of the closet yet, and was dealing with that mental torture simultaneously. But the UK cleared my mind. Gone were the thoughts of exams and family woes and in their place a certain mental freshness, a reawakening that I so desperately needed. There’s a lot to be said for solo travel, and that experience forever changed my life.
2007 – Thailand
I love traveling in Asia more than I ever thought I would. From the chaotic streets of Bangkok to the well-organized chaos of Tokyo, the diversity of the region is shocking at times. Rather than a deep and meaningful conversation, or interactions with locals, my favorite moment is one that means something only to me. My partner and I were in Bangkok celebrating his completion of law school and taking the bar exam. It was my first time in that part of the world, and while it was overwhelming at times it was also mesmerizing. One day we were exploring the temple Wat Arun when a sudden downpour erupted, not an odd occurrence in this part of the world. We sought cover under the awning of a side building, waiting for the shower to end. Looking at him there I couldn’t help but smile. There I was, in Bangkok with my partner, enjoying life and having adventures I never thought possible. That may have been one of the first times I understood how very lucky I was, not just for the ability to travel, but for having such special people in my life.
2010 – Galapagos
A trip to the Galapagos 6 years ago had the unintended consequence of forever changing my life. I had won a sweepstakes, the grand prize a Lindblad Expeditions cruise adventure along the Galapagos archipelago. For an animal lover like myself, it was the experience of a lifetime. There is nothing quite like walking through a field dotted with giant tortoises, or swimming practically nose-to-nose with playful sea lions. When I returned home a new spirit of wanderlust was reawakened, I realized how much I enjoyed adventure travel and wanted to share my experiences with as many people as I could. A few months later I started this web site; I firmly believe that trip to the Galapagos was the intellectual impetus for LandLopers. Without it, I still might be stuck in a cubicle not living the life I was meant to live.
2011, 2014, 2015 – Australia
It’s hard not to love Australia. It’s everything we want in a destination; it’s fun, quirky, diverse and adventurous. This massive country is the stuff of daydreams and with good reason. Although I’ve only visited a few times, I quickly developed a deep and unbaiting love for the country and the fantastically odd people who call it home. It’s also a place that lends itself to meaningful travel experiences. It’s hard not to be reflective when gazing at the foundations of life on planet Earth in Shark Bay or learning about Aboriginal culture that predates all others in the world. For me though, that meaningful moment came during the drive from Alice Springs to Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock. My partner and I were in a 4×4, delicately navigating corrugated dirt roads and stretches made treacherous by shifting sands. One day while driving in the early morning hours, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Like dolphins flying through the water, kangaroos were jumping alongside the truck, hidden in the tall grasses of the Outback. It was a scene plucked from a tourism commercial and I nearly veered off the road into those beautiful creatures from the shock. They soon left our company, but it was then that I properly understood the global addiction to all things Australian. It’s a remarkable continent inherently prone to equally remarkable experiences.
2012 – France
Standing on the banks of the Charente River in southwestern France on a drizzly May 2012 afternoon, I tried to concentrate as my tour guide explained the architectural marvels of the Rochefort-Martrou Transporter Bridge that loomed high above my head. But I was barely listening. All I could think about was the phone call I’d just received.
Five minutes earlier, my boss had told me he thought I was on the wrong track in life; that being a Washington DC lobbyist probably wasn’t the best use of my skills. Standing there, as a light mist fell from French skies, I agreed to resign from my job. Still numb, I made some excuse to leave the tour group, sat in my rental car and sobbed. What had just happened?
It was a life changing moment in every sense of the word and although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the firm closure of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a very exciting new one.
2012 – South Africa
This is another continent that surprised me. I always expected special moments of personal growth in South Africa, but what I didn’t anticipate was falling so deeply in love with what is a fundamentally misunderstood part of the world. My heart though belongs to South Africa, a massive country that delights the senses with its beauty, but also warms the soul with its kindness. My moment came while biking around a township near Cape Town. Townships are holdovers from the apartheid era, communities that tend to be poorer and still separated by race. It’s tempting to engage in poverty tourism when visiting, but I learned it’s even more important to leave one’s own mental prejudices behind and instead really look at the communities with eyes wide open. While playing with some kids in a local nursery I realized that while I may have more money and opportunities than they will ever enjoy, they were kids. They were happy and frankly they acted just like kids act in any part of the world. They scrambled and played, cried and laughed – nothing abnormal or odd about them. They weren’t characters out of a Dickens novel, poor orphans begging for porridge. No, they were great kids who just wanted to have a good time. That day taught me that I tend to think from an imperialist point of view. That anyone who doesn’t enjoy a similar background to mine must be suffering in some way. That’s not necessarily true and that travel moment in South Africa taught me the importance of stepping out of my own skin, to ignore my prejudices and really look at new places with eyes wide open.
2013 – Taiwan
Visiting Taiwan was a special experience, not only for the beautiful landscapes, dynamic cities and welcoming people, but for the milestone it marked in my professional life. While I tend not to do a lot of travel writing for publications other than my own site, I do some and I took this photo on an assignment with AFAR Magazine. I was in in Taiwan with some other folks, tasked with co-writing an advertorial for their print magazine. While it’s not up there with the heroes of the travel writing world, it was (and is) a big deal to me and helped validate that I was indeed on the right path.
2013 – Antarctica
If any continent lures travelers with the promise of special moments, it’s Antarctica. Hard to reach, hard to travel around it’s one of the last few truly adventurous trips still available to us in the modern era. And my own trip to Antarctica did indeed deliver those unique moments in spades. Aside from the impossibly cute (and slightly dirty) penguins though, it’s the seemingly impenetrable landscapes that impressed me the most. After hiking up a snowy switchback path to the top of a hill, I was met with one of the most impressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The icy waters extended into the horizon and all I could see were vast quantities of rock, ice and water. It seemed to go on forever and I have never felt smaller in my entire life. Standing there on the bottom of the world, it was an important moment to help quantify the immensity of the planet. It’s a fact that we modern travelers tend to forget. In an age when I can hop on a nonstop flight and be in Hong Kong tomorrow, it seems as if the world has never been smaller. But we forget just how massive this beautiful planet is and how many unique experiences there are to be had. We forget about the small inlets and villages nearly lost to time. It was an important moment as it put into context what I do now for a living and how it isn’t just part of my life – it IS my life. This quest to seek new answers and discover new things will never end, just as that horizon in Antarctica seemed to have no boundaries.
What are some of your important travel moments?
4 thoughts on “10 of My Favorite Life Changing Travel Moments”
What a wonderful piece. I had a similar experience in Africa. I went on a safari in Tanzania in December. I, too, was a little ambivalent about going to Africa. I certainly loved the scenery and the animals but was completely overwhelmed by the people. They had such open hearts and generous spirits. The life changing moment……we saw some children outside Tarangire Park on Christmas day. I asked our guide if it would be ok for me to give them some candy and got his go ahead. When I opened my backpack I realized I only had one granola bar and no candy. The guide told me it would be fine as the children would share. Sure enough, as we drove away I saw the oldest child breaking this small granola bar into 4 small pieces. The guide told us the children will always share as would their families. I was amazed and touched. Not what I would have thought from a “third world” country. I left a piece of my heart in Africa.
I really enjoyed this – and I identified with a lot of similar experiences. Epcot is on my list as well – in 1984, as well as Expo ’86 in Vancouver two years later, which was also my first trip outside the US. I have few regrets, but one of them was not participating in one of my college’s many study aboard options during our annual January term. As a result, it wasn’t until I was 31 in 2005 before I visited a country outside North America, but my first trip to London that year was very meaningful because it was fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing the world beyond our own continent.
Since then, two trips really stand out are two South Africa, Zambia, and Namibia in 2011 – for all of the reasons stated above, and India this past September/October. I guess I could also throw our return to Africa in 2013, mostly to Tanzania, in there as well, but having previously spent time in Africa, it didn’t have quite the impact the initial trip there did. India stands out because it threw my partner and I further out of our comfort zone than ever before, and while we had been exposed to extreme poverty before, India takes that to an entirely different level. That trip challenged us on so many levels, and was one of the few where I was really ready to come home at the end. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it – I absolutely loved India – but it also exhausted me in ways no travel ever has. Yet, looking back on it almost six months later, and while editing my photos from it, I realize the impact it had on me was quite positive. I know I’m a more understanding person because of my travels, and spending time in places like Africa, Turkey, Jordan, and India is a big part of that.
Great post ! yes we all have our own life changing travel experiences which have changed us for ever.
Mine was when i travelled to australia as a teen-ager to study in brisbane.Instantly fell in love with the place and the people.
so much of diversity in terms of both people and landscape.
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