I know, in the Decade of Travel it seems a bit blasphemous to make a title that might advise against it, right? But I can’t help but give a slight eye roll every time I see yet another article or another Instagram post that swears that traveling the world will change-your-life (and probably give you great hair, too, it seems). Don’t get me wrong: I love to travel. In fact, as I am writing this I am sitting in an overpopulated city in Ecuador, having just celebrated receiving my permanent resident visa after almost a year of trial and tribulation. Believe me when I tell you that I definitely understand the merits of travel.
I think what is worth mentioning, though, is that traveling the world and moving to another country and living a life of freedom and mobility hasn’t been as bright and exciting as everyone on Instagram seems to push. Of course my life has benefitted tremendously from it but it has also been a real struggle. This struggle—the inner struggle of Good vs. Bad, Stay vs. Go, Open vs. Closed—has brought me to an unknown proverbial edge more times than I had anticipated, an edge that I never experienced while living my safe, 401k style life in the U.S.
Why is this? Because, as Jon Kabat-Zinn so perfectly states in one of his most famous books,
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
When I left the U.S. I was so hopeful for the transformation that was bound to happen. And a transformation has happened, indeed. My political views have shifted so drastically to the point that it brings me to tears to think that entire laws could be created to prevent a person from receiving the same benefits that I have received all my life simply because I was born in the right zip code. I have met people that have moved me so deeply that the shackles I once carried with me have fallen with a loud “thud” to the ground, never to be picked up again. I have eaten food that was so intensely delicious that it forced me to reconsider everything I knew about food and the passion and love that might go into it. It’s true what they say: travel changes you.
Travel didn’t, however, eliminate my flaws or scare away my demons. When I left the comforts of my boring (read: stable) life I thought I was essentially actively healing all of my wounds. Even so, my wounds stayed with me and only festered as I trailed farther and farther away from home. Being put into new environments and being stretched by new temptations serves as a fun distraction from those wounds and inner demons, but when you push and stretch for too long guess what has been left to grow rampantly in meantime? All those dirty wounds and vicious demons.
Without taking care to work on yourself and to address these issues head on you are putting yourself on the path to self-destruction, to be sure. Travel doesn’t cure you and it certainly doesn’t erase your past. I would argue, instead, that travel serves as a brief distraction from all the turmoil you already had before you ever left.
I remember someone had said to me before I decided to take the plunge and leave the U.S., “What makes you think this will make you happy? If you’re not happy right now, how will anything in the world ever make you truly happy?” I snickered at the jerk that said that to me and promised him that I would indeed be happy hiking through the Andes in South America.
You know what, though? He was right. I hiked the Andes, like I had planned, and I reached an intense level of happiness that only strained muscles and fresh air can truly provide. After the hike, though, and after a year of travel I found myself in an un-air-conditioned room in the hottest city of Ecuador with a deflated heart and a pathetic whimper. Immediately my conversation with my friend flooded my brain and all I could hear were his harsh words. He was right.
It was then that I decided to get myself together—my inner self—and finally address my worst demons and oldest wounds so that I could finally be happy no matter where I found myself. It’s not easy and it’s obviously a personal journey that I don’t think is unlike that of every other person on this planet, but it was this intentional decision that made all the travel and the resident visa worth it. It was not the travel, itself.
So go ahead and travel. Pack a monstrous bag and cram yourself into a chicken bus for eight hours while sweating profusely and smiling stupidly at the excitement in your life. Jump into the Caribbean Sea and hike the tallest volcano. Eat street food and drink too much tequila. Share beds with strangers and talk deeply with new soul mates. Do it all.
Travel wasn’t the answer to my life’s problems and probably won’t be yours, either. I can bet that if you make the effort to dismiss your demons right from where you currently stand then you will find the same excitement and happiness in your life that you may dream about with that one-way ticket to Whatever Country. So go and do it all. Or don’t. Travel isn’t the answer; I can promise you that from this side of the equator. I am a firm believer in travel but an even bigger advocate of self-care from no matter what corner of the world you are.