5 Journeys, 5 Transformative Life Lessons
In the world of travel, there are some who’ve gotten caught up with collecting passport stamps to earn jetsetter cred, traveling for the sake of filling their social media feeds with cool shots in exotic locales, or setting off for new countries for the sake of attaining bragging rights. There’s no denying the fact that travel has become a status symbol of sorts, and as a result, some are tempted to play the comparison game and feel a societal-induced pressure that in order to keep up, they have to keep exploring.
For others, like me, the pressure to keep exploring is induced by an inherent sense of wanderlust. I’ve been using my passport since I was 3-years-old, and travel is and has been innate to who I am for as long as I can remember. So it’s no wonder that I sometimes feel like something is missing from my life unless I have a new set of travel plans in the works regardless of whether it’s a long trip abroad or a quick escape from home. You see, when travel is in your blood, sitting still can feel downright daunting.
Yet, during the seasons when life requires me to stay put, I often find myself reflecting on my “why” behind my travels. I made a conscious decision years ago that I wanted my travels to count for something more beyond passport stamps and shareable Facebook updates. So to ensure that my motives stay pure and untainted by societal travel hype, my travel downtime gives me the perfect opportunity to muse over some of the journeys I’ve taken and how they’ve changed me – in ways both big and small.
Journey to: Bermuda
The life lesson: Life is beautiful and still worth living
I first traveled to Bermuda during a very dark, depressing period of my life. At the time, I was in my early 20s, and I’d moved to Chicago by myself to attend law school. During my first semester, I discovered that contrary to my undergraduate ambitions, I had zero desire to ever practice law. Knowing that, each second of each minute of each hour of each day I spent in school felt downright purposeless; I felt like all of the life and creativity was being sucked right out of me.
Looking back, I’ve since realized that I was in the midst of my quarter life crisis, and it was bad. I’d often call my mom crying and literally sobbing about my misery; I was inconsolable. Things only got worse when September 11 hit, followed by the death of my beloved grandfather nearly a month later. These events were sobering reminders that death is eventually coming to us all, and I was afraid that I’d die without fulfilling or even knowing my life’s purpose. I was struggling with depression and I felt like I had no outlets.
Worried, my parents invited me to go to Bermuda with them during spring break in hopes that an island vacation away from it all would be just the therapy I needed. And it was. Except my trip there didn’t motivate me to return to school and conform to my life as usual. Instead, my time spent exploring Bermuda’s pink sand beaches as well as its caves, savoring fish stew at Monty’s, teatime at the Fairmont, horseback riding with my dad, and marveling at the many shades of the island’s turquoise blue waters made me feel alive in a way that I never really felt until then. My trip to Bermuda helped to bring me out of my fog by reminding me that life is still worth living, and my time there inspired me to seek out and pursue my passions.
I won’t say that everything was smooth sailing once I returned to Chicago, because it definitely wasn’t; my law school journey had many twists and turns thereafter. But traveling to Bermuda helped to get me back on course, so much so that a year later, I returned with my brother and cousins and was again enraptured by the sense of being truly alive. Because of that, Bermuda will always hold a very special place in my heart.
Journey to: Rio de Janeiro
The life lesson: Travel and philanthropy are inextricably linked to my life’s purpose
Mention the word “voluntourism” to anyone who’s active in the travel community, and chances are that you’ll get an array of reactions – everything from expressions of how great voluntourism is to declarations that voluntourism often does more harm than good. Indeed, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Whenever I incorporate volunteering into my travels, I check myself to ensure my intentions are genuine, and I work collaboratively with the communities I volunteer in and let them dictate how I can be of service.
So after reaching out to a school in Rio’s Vila Canoas favela to see if we could volunteer there for one day during our 10-day trip to Brazil, we were asked to throw an American-themed party for 80 schoolchildren. We were thrilled by our assignment and spent months planning everything from entertainment, party favors, games, and lunch; we paid for everything out of our own pockets. To our delight, the party was a success as I expressed in a past post, and our time spent volunteering there really opened my eyes to the power of voluntourism.
After the party, one of the school’s staffers told us that a lot of people who’ve visited the school in the past have talked the talk about helping, but have never followed through. He expressed gratitude that we actually walked the walk, and the kids were noticeably grateful as well.
But beyond that, those of us who volunteered that day all agreed that we felt a certain anointing over the entire experience, and we all left Rio with a better understanding that regardless of what the naysayers say, travelers can make a positive impact on the communities we travel to. Although I’ve participated in short term voluntourism in other countries, it was this experience in a Brazilian favela that assured me that travel and philanthropy are my sweet spot, and that I ultimately want to dedicate my life to merging these two passions.
Journey to: Turkey
The life lesson: Black people are welcome in other parts of the world
Before going to Turkey several years ago, after sharing our travel plans with certain relatives, they warned us to be careful and to mentally prepare ourselves for mistreatment because we’re black. To a non-black reader, this warning may seem odd, but as black Americans, because we’re often so mistreated and vilified right here in our own country, we tend to set our expectations accordingly when preparing to travel abroad – especially when traveling to relatively homogenous destinations.
But once we got to Turkey, we quickly realized that we became overnight celebrities as locals excitedly approached us for pictures, conversations, and declarations of their love for black people. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Even gun-wielding police officers and soldiers wanted photos with us. It was baffling, especially since the police in the U.S. like to kill us, not pose for pictures with us.
During our travels throughout Turkey, we only encountered one racist (his racism was palpable in his attitude and mannerisms towards us as opposed to any overt expression of racism), but by and large, every local we encountered was so hospitable, warm and welcoming despite – or perhaps because of – our differences.
Now of course, perhaps our black experience in Turkey would be different if we actually lived there, but our time traveling through the country taught me that there are places in the world where black people are appreciated and welcomed, or at least more so than here in the U.S.
Journey to: France
The life lesson: I need to place more value on the quality of my life
I wouldn’t say that I’m a Francophile, but I’ve always felt an affinity for France, and during my second go-round in Paris and time spent in Provence and Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) in the South of France, I understand why.
Whenever I travel, I always try to make some local connections so I can get a better understanding of the culture, and several in depth conversations with several French citizens revealed a common truth: the French work to live, they don’t live to work like we tend to do here in the U.S.
I found the French to be masters of joie de vivre as they value enjoying life to the fullest. So much so that they’re willing to pay higher taxes to enjoy benefits like universal healthcare, extended maternity/paternity leave, and excellent unemployment benefits to name a few. But the joie de vivre mindset trickles into daily facets of French living: good food, good wine, time spent in the outdoors, quality time spent with family and friends, and enjoying life at a slower pace, are all things the French place a high value on. Even in a bustling city like Paris, it’s not uncommon to see locals enjoying picnics and leisurely conversations with friends at parks in the middle of a workday.
We Americans tend to think we have it all figured out and that our way of life is superior to others’. But in traveling to other parts of the world – particularly to France – I’ve realized that we definitely have a lot to learn in terms of what it truly means to live a quality lifestyle here in the U.S.
Journey to: Anacapa Island
The life lesson: I don’t have to travel far for my next great adventure
A few summers ago, I decided to plan an overnight group camping trip. Prior to that time, I hadn’t been camping in years, and I knew that I wanted to have an unforgettable experience in the great outdoors, so I started looking for California campsites in unique destinations that would be easy enough to get to given our limited time.
At the same time, I was also putting the finishing touches on our fall itinerary for a trip to national parks in both northern California and southern Oregon. During my research, I discovered that there’s a national park right here in southern California that I’d never even heard of – Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Oxnard about an hour or so north of L.A.
Intrigued, I dug deeper to see whether we could camp on any of the five islands that comprise the national park, and when I discovered that we could, I decided that Anacapa Island would be our best bet since it was the closest to Oxnard’s shore. Although I was able to find a boating company that could transport us to the island, there weren’t too many internet resources that offered details on what actually camping on Anacapa would be like.
We soon discovered that the island has its fair share of camping challenges. For starters, the island is a massive plateau, and we had to climb hundreds of stairs followed by hiking for over a mile carrying all of our heavy equipment to reach our campsite. Pit toilets, no access to running water, having to share the island with thousands of seabirds (do you have any idea of what that smells like?!), and wondering if the boat company would remember to pick us up the next day were other challenges we faced during our trip. While there, I found myself wondering if I chose the right camping destination, especially since two people in our group were camping newbies.
But after all was said and done, we all agreed that Anacapa was a fascinating, once in a lifetime experience, especially since it seemed like the kind of place where National Geographic would film. And who knew that such a destination was just an hour’s drive followed by an hour’s boat ride away from home? The whole experience inspired me to really challenge myself to dig deeper into my own backyard. It also reminded me that there’s so much beauty in California and I don’t have to hop on a plane or travel abroad to have my next amazing adventure.