The summer after I graduated college, I packed up a pickup truck with all my belongings, dropped them off in Chicago, and then headed west for a month-long road trip. I drove from Chicago southwest to the California-Mexico border, up the west coast to Vancouver, and then back across Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. In those weeks, I conquered highways, slept under stars, and explored cities. I found myself as utterly alone and deeply connected as I had ever felt.
Since that trip, I’ve gone on many other adventures. A week in Peru. Another in Berlin. Paris for three months. Weekend journeys all over the US. I make it work on a meager grad-student budget and a whole lot of luck/privilege, because travel is one of my top priorities.
As I’ve traveled, I’ve gleaned a few important lessons about how to make the most of my time away, particularly how to learn the most about myself while I’m gone. Here are a few of those key ideas.
It's important to travel alone.
Traveling with friends and family and whoever else can be wonderful, but there’s nothing like waking up in a brand new place entirely alone and deciding how you want to spend your days/weeks/months there.
Traveling alone has taught me how much I enjoy walking when I have the time (e.g. I once walked six miles across Los Angeles for no apparent reason), how important good coffee in the morning is to me (e.g. my three-month hunt for decent drip coffee in Paris), and, on the opposite spectrum, how lazy I can be when I’m jet-lagged and not sure what to do in a new place (e.g. rapidly moving through my Netflix queue on my first two nights in Berlin last month).
By traveling alone, I face my strengths, weaknesses, and boundaries, in ways that you don’t discover when you’re also negotiating other peoples’ needs and interests.
It's important to try new things while traveling.
This one may seem obvious, but it’s easy to take for granted that a new city will bring new things to you, rather than acknowledging that you can sink into old habits most anywhere.
After visiting at least a few dozen US and European cities, I realized that I had gotten into a standard “bookstore - coffee shop - art museum” routine that wasn’t helping me get the most out of each place I visited. I needed to seek out unique experiences that helped me make new sense of myself in a new place.
When I went to Peru last summer, I stumbled upon a yoga studio tucked into a back alley in the hills of Cusco. I am no yogi(even a simple downward dog often intimidates me), but something about the place stuck in my head, and I made myself attend a 90-minute vinyasa class the next day. It was mostly in Spanish, and I was by far the least experienced student there, but it was wonderful. On that trip, I hiked Mount Machu Picchu, ate cuy seaside, and made bffs with an alpaca, but that yoga class is what stands out in my mind more than anything else, because I not only traveled to a new place, I also pushed past my personal boundaries.
It's important to distinguish between travel and vacation.
Some trips are ripe for activity. You’ll visit museums, hike mountains, practice languages, and learn by doing. Other trips are better for rest. You sit quietly, think deeply, meditate, and learn by reflecting. I like the call the former trips travel and the latter vacation, but it’s important to note that both are valuable.
I used to think that traveling was all about activity, but I’ve come to realize that you can discover a lot about yourself by resting in a different space and place, as well. Travel requires energy, planning, and excitement, while vacation entails introspection, calm, and purpose. What’s most important, I think, is to set the right intentions and expectations before you leave, so as to prepare yourself for maximum personal growth.
It's important to travel at home.
I’ve spent my past four summers largely away from home, off exploring new countries, cities, and continents. I’ve relished in being away from myself and my life and my everyday expectations for all the reasons I just cited.
But one of my favorite feminist writers, Maria Lugones, talks about how women (especially women of color) are inherently world-travelers, because they are always traveling between different identities that place them in different worlds even if they don’t change locations. World-traveling can happen two blocks from your apartment as well as it can two thousand miles from there. It’s a matter of shifting your perspective and being willing to loosen the boundaries of your identity so that new encounters can emerge.
So this summer, I’m staying home from June to August. I want to become a local in my neighborhood and see new corners of the city. I want to “travel” close to home and see what selves I discover here. Every journey outside your door is a powerful one if taken in the right direction.
Image by Vandejong Creative Agency