I have vomited in six different countries. That may not be the most savory statistic in the world, but when you’re huddled over a drainage ditch, spewing up what for all you know could have been sauteed rat meat, these moments have a way of staying in your mind.
I remember getting a flat tire in the Indian countryside and the locals being flabbergasted and watching as I changed it myself. I remember staying up until 4AM in a hostel arguing with a drunk English kid who thought 9/11 was a hoax and didn’t happen. I remember an old Ukrainian man got me drunk on the best vodka of my life and claimed he was stationed in a Soviet U-Boat off the coast of Mississippi in the 1970s (which is probably untrue, but who knows).
I remember climbing the Great Wall of China hungover, getting ripped off on a boat trip in Bali (spoiler alert: there was no boat), sneaking my way into a five-star resort on the Dead Sea, and the night I met my wife in a Brazilian night club.
In the Fall of 2009, I sold all of my belongings, let the lease on my apartment expire, and set out with a small suitcase to travel around the world. I had a small internet business and a blog and a dream.
At the time, I hoped to make it last for a year or two.
I ended up living abroad for seven years. In all, I visited almost 60 countries.
In most things in life, you know exactly what benefits you are going to get out of them. If I go to the gym, I know I’m going to get stronger and/or lose weight. If I hire a tutor, I know I’m going to learn more about a specific subject. If I start a new Netflix series, I know I’m not going to sleep for the next three days until I finish it.
But travel is different.
Travel will give you what you expect of it, yes. But travel, unlike anything else in life, has the beautiful ability to also give you benefits you didn’t expect. It doesn’t just teach you what you don’t know, it also teaches you what you don’t know you don’t know.
I gained a lot of amazing experiences from my travels—experiences I expected and looked for. I saw incredible sites. I learned about world history and foreign cultures. I often had more fun than I knew was possible.
But the most important effects of my years of travel are actually the benefits that I didn’t even know I would get and the memories I didn’t know I would have.
For example, I don’t know the moment I became comfortable being alone. But it happened somewhere in Europe, probably in either Germany or Holland.
When I was younger, I would consistently feel as though something was wrong with me if I was by myself for too long — “Do people not like me? Do I not have any friends?” This continued up into my early adulthood. I felt a constant need to surround myself with girlfriends and friends. To always be at parties and always be in touch. That if for some reason I wasn’t included in other people’s plans, it was a personal judgment on me and my character.
But when I returned to Boston in 2010, it had somehow stopped. I don’t know where or when. All I know is I flew home from Portugal after 8 months abroad and sat at home and felt fine.
I don’t remember where I was when I developed a sense of patience (probably somewhere in Latin America, now that I think about it). But I used to be the guy who would get angry if a bus was late, or if I missed my turn on the highway and had to loop back around. Shit like that used to drive me insane.
Then one day, it just didn’t. It became clear that my emotional energy was limited and I was better off saving it for moments that mattered.
I don’t recall when I learned how to express my feelings. But it happened somewhere in there around 2012. Probably when I was living in Colombia.
Ask any of my girlfriends pre-travels and they’ll tell you: I was a closed book. An enigma wrapped in bubble-wrap and held together by duct tape (with an extremely handsome face).
My problem was that I was afraid to offend people, to step on their toes or create an uncomfortable situation.
But now? Most people comment that I’m so blunt and open that it can be jarring. Sometimes my wife jokes that I’m too honest.
I don’t recall when I became more accepting of people of different walks of life or when I started appreciating my parents or when I learned how to communicate with someone despite neither of us speaking the same language.
But all of these happened… somewhere in the world, in some country, with somebody. I don’t have any photos of them. I just know they are there.
Looking back, I think that travel subtly, without me realizing it, taught me to not give a fuck. It taught me to not give a fuck about being alone. To not give a fuck about the bus being late. To not give a fuck about what other people’s plans are, or if I maybe create an uncomfortable situation or two.
Memories are made from what we give a fuck about. Machu Picchu. I gave a fuck about that. Got the memories. Got the pictures.
But my fucks not given? Who knows where those pictures are. Nowhere. You can’t take a picture of something you don’t give a fuck about.
I have all the usual photos from my travels. Me on the beaches. Me at Carnaval. Me with my buddy Brad surfing in Bali.
The photos are great. The memories are great.
But like anything in life, their importance fades the further removed you get from them. Just like when those moments in high school that you think are going to define your life forever cease to matter a few years into adulthood, those glorious peaks of travel experience seem to matter less as more time passes. What seemed life-changing and world-shaking at the time now simply elicits a smile, some nostalgia and maybe an excited, “Oh yeah! Wow, I was so skinny back then!”
Travel, although a great thing, is just another thing. It’s not you. It’s something you do. It’s something you experience. It’s something you savor and brag about to your friends down the street.
But it’s not you.
Yet these other qualities, memoryless qualities—the outgrown personal confidence, the comfort with myself and my failings, the greater appreciation for family and friends, the ability to rely upon myself—these are the real gifts that travel gives. These are you. And they will always be you.
And despite the fact that they produce no photos, they will stay with you forever.