Spending four months out of your element provides a refreshingly different perspective on the world. After a month back home I reflect on the trip’s influence, from minor to life-changing. Here are the results:
- more milk in my coffee – It took a month to realize that cafe con leche is often half coffee, half milk.
- dressing simpler – It is very liberating to travel with only 5 shirts and 2 pairs of pants to choose from (and that’s when they are all clean).
- more yoga – Some dancers I hung out with in Buenos Aires made me realize just how bad my posture was.
- less beer, more wine – Mostly from Mendoza
- appreciation for structure – Okay, I’m still not jumping into a 9-5 job. But when you wander aimlessly for long enough, you actually develop a desire to be productive. Instead of longing for free time you begin to drown in it. You start to appreciate that thing that forced you to wake up early, because as much as you hated getting out of bed, you liked seeing the sunrise. Weird.
- loathing grocery store produce – Produce tastes better when it is sold out of crates on the street next to the lady selling homemade stuffed peppers out of a shoebox.
- missing convenience – South American cities seemed to have a shop (or 2 or 3) with the essentials on every block.
- appreciation of alone time – You would think traveling alone would be lonely. But when you stay in hostel dorms, sometimes all you want is a minute to yourself.
- beard – Shaving was the last thing on my mind while living out of a backpack. And then one day my beard was too big for a razor. Now I’m sure there’s a white stripe under there that hasn’t seen the sun in months.
- walking is a good option, biking too
- wealth perspective – Experiencing poverty firsthand adds life to the disparity that is otherwise difficult to comprehend and inconvenient to acknowledge. World per capita income seems to vary by source, but I found it to be around $10,000-11,200. The 2011 U.S. poverty threshold for one person was about the same, at $10,890. If you earn $47,500, you might have occupied Wall Street, but you are in the top 1% of the world. What does the data tell us? It doesn’t always feel like it – we all have bills – but we are the silver spoon babies of the world.
- comparing cultural norms – For example, the concept of “work to live vs. live to work” often comes up with Australians. They generally start a job with at least 4 weeks vacation, and the culture encourages a gap year for world travel.
- most importantly, moving from the “trip of a lifetime” to a lifetime of trips – This is the third time I’ve dipped into a chunk of my savings, called it the trip of a lifetime, and promised to get a “real job” in the “real world” upon returning. At least, I reasoned, when I’m in my cubicle working for two weeks of vacation I can say “I’m glad I saw Europe / Peru / drove cross-country when I had the chance.” But what did that mindset imply? That may be the version of success that high school, guidance counselors, the SATs, college essays, Sallie Mae, resume building classes, and career centers planned for me, but is there a better way?
Living in a country that rallies around freedom, many of us at times, myself included, choose paths that seem anything but free. We work 6 months for a vacation. We cram our big plans into one week whirlwinds with no room for error. We stress out and argue and return to work unrefreshed, in need of a vacation from a vacation. We do this despite having means far greater than the majority of the world (if we could just get the boss to give us a break).
Four months in South America and a month of reflection have helped me realize that it’s time to make travel a part of my real life and design my real life accordingly. No more traveling like it’s a drug for me (save up for a trip, spend it all, and repeat). On the other hand, no more planning life based on the aspirations of my high school guidance counselor. Although I am fortunate to have options, which include a cubicle to fall back on…
We are free. We are free to explore, and we are free to help the people who truly don’t have the options that we do.
If I’m going to enter the “real world,” I’m going to be sure it’s the real, real world.