The following post is written by me and brought to you by Abbott, who I’ve teamed up with to talk about living your best life.
Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. readers. I’m downright obsessed with holidays and all their opportunities for crafting, dressing with flair, and gathering loved ones to create new traditions and honor old ones. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though if I were, Thanksgiving would likely linger towards the top. While today, I’m a world away from the beautiful rituals and familiar warmth of the Thanksgivings of my childhood in Upstate New York, I’m trading cranberries for coconuts and finding a way to celebrate all my own here in Thailand.
Tonight, I’ll gather with friends to spiff up, eat a hard-sourced once-a-year turkey, regale each other with dramatic readings from Thanksgiving at the Tappletons, and of course, count our blessings ‘round a less-than-traditional table (most likely a long wooden picnic one set under a banyan tree).
But I’ve got so many blessings to count, and know how important it is to tally them. Travel in particular is a bountiful source. My years on the road have given me so many gifts, I’m overflowing with gratitude at all the ways travel has shaped me — and since I’ve partnered with Abbott to reflect on how I live a full life, here are a few I’m reflecting on today.
Reflections from the road in Greece
1 // Confidence
Hands down — the greatest gift that travel, specifically solo travel, has given me is the gift of confidence. There is a special kind of pride that swells up in you the first time you get on a plane by yourself, the first time you walk through immigration solo, and the first time you take a deep breath and navigate the public transportation system in an unfamiliar new city. Why is this so important? I know far too many amazing people whose number one issue is they don’t realize how awesome they are.
My advice to them is to take that trip they’ve always dreamed of. “I could never do that by myself.” How many times have I heard others say that about my own travels? Yes you can! I was beside myself with nerves for my first big solo backpacking trip six years ago. I practically crawled to my departure gate, so doubled over with anxiety was I. But let me tell ya, two months later I sauntered back off that plane with the swagger of a girl who’d ridden on the back of a motorcycle for the first time, who’d conquered her fears to learn how to scuba dive, who’d successfully navigated the Malaysian public bus system, and who’d, after many failed attempts, more or less mastered the use of squat toilets.
Hitching a ride while traveling solo in the Philippines
But you don’t have to go alone. Ease into it with a study abroad program or a group trip. The point is, the reward for walking through something intimidating to get to somewhere you want to be is worth it. One of my favorite lines in one of my favorite songs goes, “The fear has gripped me but, here I go.” I’ve sung it to myself many times when I’m trying to talk myself into something that scares me.
Confident people don’t go traveling, traveling people go confident. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I encourage others to just go for it. Fake it until you make it, because that pride I talked about? It crystalizes into a confidence that no one can ever take away from you, a confidence that bleeds into every aspect of your life — and that’s the greatest souvenir.
Passport stamps in Peru, also a great souvenir
2 // Curiosity – and Cynicism
Equal parts of each. Despite what Instagram might have you believe, travel isn’t all mouthgasm street food experiences and encounters with kind and benevolent (not to mention photogenic) strangers. Sometimes it’s burnout, and dodging trouble, and feeling jaded, and rolling your eyes so hard you fear they may dislodge from your skull.
Years of hyper-vigilance as I’ve attempted to avoid scams and other travel heartaches have hardened into a healthy skepticism that has protected me from many of the pitfalls of long-term travel. For the most part, it’s been successful – I’ve ran into few swindlers, put myself in a scarce few scary situations and mostly allowed my intuition to guide me to safety.
Yet, if left unchecked, a healthy dose of cynicism can mutate into exasperation and apathy for what might at times seem like a cruel world full of wide-eyed idiots. (If you’ve never had to sit in a hostel bar and overhear a first-time gap year backpacker turned Christopher Columbus of Budget Travel espouse tired clichés as if they were the most original thoughts to ever be formed by a human brain, you might not yet know that there is a travel experience more painful than an eighteen hour bus ride with food poisoning and no bathrooms.) It’s enough to make anyone teeter on the edge of jaded.
Soaking it all in in Turkey
Thankfully, travel still fuels me to still look at the world with a great sense of curiosity. And that’s what keeps pushing me out the door time and time again. What hue of turquoise is the water in the Philippines? What does it really feel like to do yoga in Bali? What does the air smell like in Iceland? And then I remember that those excited new fellow travelers I’m feeling smug while overhearing are high on that same sense of awe, and I remind myself to be a little softer. After all, those clichés they’re waxing on about? They’re clichés because they’re true.
Sometimes my sense of wonder seems to have no off switch, sometimes I fall backwards into a pit of eye rolls. But they balance each other. My cynicism protects me from letting the outside world get the best of me, and the curiosity protects me from letting me get the best of myself.
A cliché worthy beach in Indonesia
3 // Communication
Specifically, the non-verbal kind. This summer, I was getting my nails done while visiting my hometown of Albany and I overheard an awkward non-conversation between the Asian manicurist and her client. The manicurist’s English was heavily accented and far from perfect (but still impressive considering it was at least her second language), and the client was clearly uncomfortable and unable to understand what was being said to her. The interesting part? I could follow with complete clarity exactly what the manicurist was conveying, to the point that I had to restrain myself from jumping in as an impromptu translator. As my own salon guru and I chatted away about her son, her love for Upstate New York and my travels in her homeland of Vietnam, I felt so grateful for all the times travel has forced me to find a creative way to communicate with someone with whom I didn’t speak the same first language.
Excited to butcher Spanish in Ecuador
This is one of the number one questions I get from people I know in real life (other than, “who pays for all this?” to which my answer is always, “myself!”): What about all the countries in which you don’t speak the language?! Obviously, speaking the local language helps. I love traveling in countries where I can flex my Spanish skills, and it makes it much easier to haggle, to take local transportation, and to feel confident.
But a smile, a few memorized phrases and a willingness to use body language goes a long way. I don’t want to sugarcoat things – there are days in Thailand that I want to cry after getting off what should be a simple phone call, and there are times I’m ashamed to say I’ve lost my patience with repeating myself when I’m a guest in someone else’s country. Communication can indeed be a challenge. But today, some of my closest friends in the world are ones who were raised speaking a different language than the one I spoke my first words in. And I never let a language barrier stop me from seeing the world. The more you travel, the more you’ll find yourself responding with a knowing nod to a few syllables and a wild gesticulation of the arms.
Deep trekking in the Philippines
4 // Comfort with Discomfort
Travel has taught me to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and discomfort in my life. There’s no sink in the bathroom of the apartment I rented in Gili Trawangan? No problem, I’ll brush my teeth in the shower. Gecko takeover in the house in Grand Cayman? Free pets! Crowded dorm in Nicaragua? Give me a minute to grab my earplugs and tuck up my sarong into a makeshift privacy shield. Accidentally bought the third class train ticket in Bangkok and have to spend the next few hours sitting on a wooden bench? Ha ha! Think of the story.
Thanking my lucky stars in Bonaire
Travel has taught me that the greatest destinations mountains often lie at the end of a slightly unpleasant journey, that the most beautiful islands often come with a paradise tax of basic-at-best amenities, and that I’m happy to sleep in hostels if it means I can splurge on experiences. While my tolerance for eighteen hour bus rides ebbs and flows and I’m grateful that an increasingly secure financial situation means I can often buy myself a few more degrees of comfort these days (no cheaplympics here!), I’m so glad that I never let a lack of them hold me back from seizing every opportunity I had to see the world.
Being comfortable with discomfort is another trait that seeps into every aspect of your existence, making it easier to roll with whatever punch life might dole out next. While I wouldn’t quite say I’m unflappable – insert hilarious anecdote about a time I lost it over something trivial here — travel has definitely made me harder to flap.
The 8×8 bungalow I called home for six weeks in Indonesia
5 // Clarity
There’s nothing like stepping outside your bubble to make you realize what’s truly important, and where your priorities really lie.
Seeing communities where the family unit is utmost, where religion is an enormous part of daily existence or where materialism is a luxury that most can’t afford has opened my eyes to worlds other than the one I was raised in. Being exposed to cultures with different priorities continually prods me to reassess my own. Sometimes I adopt what I’ve seen and felt and been exposed to on my travels, and sometimes I find myself grateful for the default settings on the life I fell into.
For example, while I don’t associate with a religion, spending time in communities that do leaves me with respect for those that have faith, and happiness for the quiet joy and ritual it brings to so many lives. Visiting countries where journalists are suppressed has made me grateful to be from a land of free speech. And living out of a backpack and in a beach hut has taught me in a very clear way that physical things rarely bring me the joy that my experiences do.
Jumping for joy in Thailand
Being away from the temptations of materialism in remote regions where “Amazon Prime” refers to the a great spot in the jungle and not an overnight delivery system makes living simply, well, simple, but I do believe that my years of travel have fundamentally changed my priorities, regardless of location. I may still wrestle with a lust for all kinds of frivolous stuff when I’m stateside, but I have the core understanding that those things won’t make me happy, and will in fact likely bring more stress and mental weight into my life. This is probably the discovery that has had the most revolutionary effect on who I am as a person – so far. Who knows what the next epiphany will be.
Travel has the power to be transformative, and I look at this list and I’m so thankful for all the ways it has changed me for the better. No matter where you’re from or where in the world you are, I’m wishing you a day full of gratitude.
What are you thankful for today? How has travel changed your life for the better?
I’ve partnered with Abbott to talk about the different ways I live fully. Missed my first post on what that means to me? Read it here – and look out for future features from this series.
Abbott knows that people all over the world have their own unique ideas on what living fully looks and feels like, and they even have a quiz to help you figure it out. Take the quiz—and then tell me what YOU live for using #fullosophy on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
Hi Alex, I live in London and have been reading your blog for a few months now,
I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post and completely agree with your points about confidence, I went to Australia on my own when i was 18 and crawling to the departure gate with nerves was exactly what i did too! I didn’t look back though and it was the best experience of my life!
Enjoy your next few months in Thailand – I am visiting over New Years so look forward to some more recommendations 🙂
I think many travelers can relate to that feeling! It’s amazing how much confidence travel can give a person — I can’t imagine who I’d be had I never taken that first big trip.
This is amazing!! If i can think one gift if travel is give me is the fact that travel make me happy and teach me how to live life
Travel is amazingly transformative. Glad to hear how it has changed your life for the better! <3
Very well-written. Gorgeous post! I completely agree with all the points you raised in this article!
Thanks Dominique! It was a fun list to put together!
Love and agree with all of these. I’m thankful for the ability to travel far away and learn so much, but also for being able to come back to my hometown to be with family and old friends.
That is a good one — and something I am beyond thankful for as well! Thanks for sharing, Mary!
It’s amazing how at the time you have no idea it’s happening, yet when you look back you can see how much you’ve grown. Happy thanksgiving Alex, hope you have a good one xo
I can barely remember who I was before the first time I went traveling. I wish I had kept a diary or something prior to this blog — would love to go back and look at my thoughts in that mysterious time 🙂
Great post Alex! I can totally relate to all of the points made. I think for me, travel has also helped put history/culture/art/architecture etc into context. It’s brought to life things that I was taught at school, and also highlighted the (sometimes shameful) omissions! I guess I am a super ‘hands on learner’! 😉
That is SO true, Caity. I know that a lot of world history has really only come alive for me as I’m physically in the places where it happened. Geography too! I wish I could go back and ace all those high school tests today…
Thank you for this post, Alex!! I have only just begun my solo travel journey, but can already relate to everything you said. Also, you should write a post (or maybe you have already?) about getting all those amazing travel photos with you in them! Idk if you’re just really good at the travel selfie or what, but I’m super impressed! Happy Thanksgiving!
I think I’m just really lucky to sometimes travel with people who are good photographers! My mom took the one in Turkey, an old boyfriend took the one in Ecuador, a fellow blogger took the one in Bonaire, etc. I do get very specific when I’m setting up a shot and telling someone what I want, too 🙂
This post is so spot on! As much as I love and cherish my memories of visiting certain places, I am even more thankful for the personal growth I experienced whilst traveling without even realizing it!
Thanks for sharing and Happy Thanksgiving!
It’s the greatest souvenir 🙂 Thanks for reading, Allison!
I love this! Confidence was also on my list of things I thank travel for. Granted, my confidence still isn’t great but it’s so much better than it was before I ever traveled.
It will keep coming 🙂 I love that some of these points are so universal!
A really beautiful post. I think there are so many things travel can teach us and I’ve only just started to experience them.
I definitely know what you mean about the whole confidence thing. I recently just left for 15 months and I was a bundle of nerves, anxiety, tears and excitement. It’s not easy. It’s bloody scary. But overcoming it is a great lesson.
Indeed. You might not recognize the girl who returns from the arrival gate!
Happy Holiday chica!
Thank you, Maria!
Love this! In fact, I think my mom needs to read it. I’ve been brainstorming a post for awhile now of all the ways travel has changed me for the better, and it would sound very similar to this. The confidence part, especially! 🙂
Is she giving you a hard time about leaving again? 🙂 I don’t blame her for wanting to keep ya around! But yes — travel is the greatest school I’ve ever attended.
Such a great post!
Solid insight to how truly committing to traveling and experiencing the authenticity of new people and places can elevate one to a more confident and mindful being.
Thanks for sharing!
Thanks Kellie! What an eloquent way of summing up this post. Thank you!
I absolutely agree. Travel has definitely taught me all of these things – I totally agree that confidence is number one – it sounds so trite but travelling really has made me believe I can do *anything*! Great post.
It’s an amazing gift to feel that way, isn’t it! I wish that confidence and calmness for all the people I love.
travelling keeps me sane! i must say i am not interested in corporate world anymore. it kind of kills my soul. hope to find a better workplace to settle in next year.
Wishing you great luck with that, Julia! A positive work environment can change everything 🙂
Love all of this but especially your comment on the “first-time gap year backpacker turned Christopher Columbus of Budget Travel.” I definitely let my eyes roll out of my head every time those conversations happens!
Haha, it’s a pretty frequent occurrence unfortunately, isn’t it! Someday they’ll be cringing in the corner listening to someone else do it, though 😉
I love this post, Alex! I wholeheartedly agree with every point you made, but number 5 resonated with me especially. I love how travel constantly challenges me to re-evaluate my priorities, and has helped me to become less materialistic.
Absolutely. And I want to push it even further! I’m constantly challenging myself to have less. Every summer when I go back to my childhood home my mission is to rehome as many of my physical things as possible 🙂
I recognize a lot of it! The most important lessons in life I learnt while I’m travelling. Love this post!
It’s the greatest school on earth 🙂 Thanks Jessica!
I love this! You see so many cliched lists on how ‘travelling has changed me blah blah blah’ but this one was a joy to read and totally relatable. Super jealous of your long stretch of Thailand time at the moment!
Yeah, I see those all the time and hoped I could put a fresh twist on things. Appreciate you saying I did!
Nailed it! I was talking to someone two days ago telling them how important it is to travel and not live a small life and your post has summed it up so beautifully Alex. So much love to you!
Thanks girl, right back at ya! Maybe send that person this post 🙂
I love your list! I definitely think Confidence would be at the top of mine as well. It’s amazing how much you learn when you’re totally dependent on yourself. I also like that you included Comfort with Discomfort. One of my favorite things in life is to step outside my comfort zone. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons I love to travel. Great post-thanks for sharing!
I do think it’s important to do one thing everyday that scares you 🙂
Love this post & that you started every piece with a C, how clever of you 😉
Have a great day & thanks for sharing!
I adore me some alliteration 😉
Loved reading this article! I’m planning an open ended trip next year and I hope I get as much out of it as you have!
I’m sure you will! Best of luck on your travels!
I just love love love this post! I think these are all so true, and so insightful, and they’re things we can all try to teach ourselves/find in our daily lives regardless of where that may occur (for those of us not as travel-y right now…) Especially that last bit. That part struck home. 🙂
Glad to hear it! I really enjoyed writing this post, and reading all the comments <3