Travel is a good school for life, but same as all schools, you have to put in the work outside of class.
Traveling can be quite nice.
Boring. Messy. Awesome. Cute baby elephants rolling in the mud, agressive neons taking jabs at your eyes in a crowded club, monsoon rain pouring over your body and destroying your passport, some guy snoring over your shoulder on the night train, a flaming sunrise smiling at you over lush green mountains. Meeting people, nice people, boring people, assholes, lost souls. Anyone, anything and everything.
To many, it is the Holy Grail of the Soul. The key to lifelong happiness, the cure to narrow-mindedness. The brocoli soup that will soothe our pains and ease our doubts. The loving mother to give us a hug and guide us on our destined path.
It’s a hot product. An solid generator of standardized listicles. A thousand Instagram pictures with rows of jealous Likes aligning on the side.
It’s that thing that you must do otherwise you’re boring and even worse : close-minded. It is a terrible word, a sentence that one must avoid at all costs. Close-minded. NARROW-MINDED. FREAK. What are you doing in that cubicle ? When will you live, damn it, live ? Go see the cherry blossoms in Japan right now. You can’t ? You won’t ? Well aren’t you a narrow-minded uninteresting stupid person stuck in your comfort zone, dude. Damn, I feel sorry for you. Or I would if I wasn’t busy feeding that endangered Sumatra tiger while the shamans dancing in circles around us pray to the northern lights erupting in the sky.
Traveling is mainstream. So is leaving your hateful job and dull life to travel around the globe. There are entire websites and numerous guides dedicated to that. It’s not that edgy or risqué and ohmygoshyoudidnotyoucrazyfool anymore.
(Mom and Dad may be a notable exception.)
My first solo trip took place in June 2015 : three weeks in Thailand, baby, just me and the sun and my bag and my dreams and mosquitos festing on my tender flesh. Just before leaving, I had a conversation with one of my closest friends, and she said something that stuck with me.
“It’s good that you’re going to Thailand on your own. You’ll return transformed.“
Unfortunately I believed her. And several other travel bloggers with good intentions. I put pressure on myself. I thought I had to return different and new and better. I went there. I had good times, bad times, neutral times. I came back.
I looked at myself and I was still me.
It made sense.
Why should traveling transform anybody ?
Travel is a great opportunity to bust your comfort zone. But the paradox is that, if you want to kill your comfort zone, you do it every chance you get – you don’t wait for a suitable opportunity to do so.
There’s this pervasive idea that travel – that one special period of time, two months in the summer or one year backpacking through Southeast Asia – will function as a self-improvement session. A difficult but fun course that will teach us all we need to know about life and how to live it to the fullest. And that will give us our “coolness credentials” in the end, along with hundreds of Facebook selfies to make our friends jealous. Travel becomes a means to an end, the path to transformation – watch out, people, this sweet chrysalid will morph into the most badass butterfly you’ve ever seen.
Of course traveling can teach you many things. You are on the other side of the globe after all – getting to know another place, a different place, where people have a whole other mindset while still being so similar to you. You have to take care of yourself in a whole new way, and chances are you’re meeting a lot of people from diverse backgrounds. So it seems only natural that you learn valuable things in the process.
Traveling can certainly be a good school. There’s no denying that.
But in the end it’s the same with every school – if you’re not listening in class or doing your homework at home, it’s unlikely you’ll learn much.
Because in the end life is everyday. Life is a lifelong process.
You may have the time of your life and think you’ve “worked on yourself”, pushed your limits and morphed into that one special butterfly. But when you return home, it would be a mistake to think that you are transformed. The sad truth is that our brains are plastic and our minds forget everything very quickly – even our most glorious life-changing how didn’t I know this before epiphanies get lost in the tide of time and mindless Youtube viewing.
(Which is why you should never trust pieces that start with This simple quote will change your life forever. It won’t. You’ll forget it in three days.)
If you don’t put into practice what you’ve learnt, and revert back to your old habits at home, you’ll end up right back to square one waiting for next year’s summer trip to “upgrade” yourself all over again.
Travel can’t make you into anything. Self-improvement, progress, “opening your mind”, etc – it’s about mindset and continuous efforts. Even if the setting can help, it’s not the determining factor. The truth is, you could just as easily seek opportunities to expand the comfort zone at home.
So to wrap it up : travel, sister, hop onto the next ferry, gaze at Angkor, have beers at the 7/Eleven on the corner in Bangkok, make a fool of yourself trying to do a traditional Celtic dance while the locals laugh at you. I’ll be over here cheering you on with appropriate cheerleading gear. But remember living comes in many shapes and forms, and traveling is just one of them. It can teach you stuff, or not. You’ll learn from it if you learn from life on a regular basis. Practice being more autonomous and sociable and creative and whatever you want to be the rest of the time. This way, you won’t put too much pressure on that trip to India.