About a year ago today, I was on the beaches of Bali, 8,699 miles away from home. I had traveled more than 13,000 miles through Europe to get to Southeast Asia and I still had another 12,000 or so miles left in my journey. At the age of 19, I was doing what many others have only dreamt of doing, spoken of doing, “planned” on doing. I took 3 months off to travel through Europe and Asia. As a tl;dr, I’ll say that deciding to take the summer off and backpack the world was the most exciting, thrilling, and enlightening experience of my life.
At the time, I was a sophomore at MIT. Against advice and norms, I had declined my summer internship offers and spontaneously decided to take a solo backpacking trip. I bought a one-way ticket to Madrid early May and set out for my adventures two and a half weeks later.
Now, I’ll save the trekking stories for another time, however I do want to briefly express what I learned from my experience as a solo backpacker.
Traveling alone has taught me more about myself than I ever knew. I learned about what I was capable of, what I valued, what I truly wanted in life, both short-term and long-term.
Traveling alone has sparked creativity that I would have never had. Group think is a very real phenomenon, and when you live in a comfortable city filled with an abundance of constants and the notion of “because everyone else is doing it,” you lose a large amount of creativity that is characteristic of individual thought. Ignoring the norm is more than just a hipster trait; it’s a way for your id to express your own personality, not someone else’s.
Traveling alone has shown me a world I’ve “seen” but didn’t know. Pictures may be a thousand words, and videos may be a couple thousand words per second, but nothing can replace the experiences of reality — of being at the place in person, in real time. Seeing the different lifestyles from people all over Europe and Asia gave me a perspective on globalism that I never could have read about.
Traveling alone has given me navigational skills like no other. I didn’t have a phone for most of my trip, so I resorted to old school techniques like paper maps. All I’ve got to say is: the sun was my best friend throughout the entire trip (Sorry Fernando! You’re a close 2nd!).
Fernando — Bali, Indonesia Traveling alone has forced me to seek more, with less. By not depending on any one group of people, I had learned to be extremely resourceful with what little belongings I had. This relates back to the creativity I mentioned before; strict constraints foster creativity in the most unique ways.
Me, John, and Vivien at the Grand Palace — Bangkok, Thailand Traveling alone has forged worldwide friendships that would’ve taken years to establish. When you meet other travelers, you quickly bond over the fact that out of the entire world, you guys happen to just cross paths right there and then. And once you start exploring the city with each other, hiking through the jungle with each other, having late night drinks at the local bars with each other, you eventually share details about yourselves that not even your closest friends would know. You exchange questions about your reasons for traveling, your aspirations, your dreams, your hopes and plans. And these casual chats are very real; they’re independent from the world you came from. You don’t have your friend groups expecting a certain answer or influencing what you say; it’s just you. And you have no reason to lie to these people. You don’t have to give them some default answer you crafted a few years ago as your go-to answer. You give them what you actually feel, what you know, at that moment.
Traveling alone has continued to provide me with insight still relevant to this day. I often find myself recounting the experiences I’ve had while traveling and even drawing lessons from them now. There were definitely mistakes I had made, or fortunate circumstances I had found myself in, and the lessons I’ve learned have since come back more often then not to help in even the most unexpected of ways.
I’ll never forget the diverse friends I’ve made. The friendly locals I’ve hung out with. The surreal landscapes I’ve seen.
More importantly, I won’t ever forget the mouth-watering meals I’ve eaten. The near-death experiences I’ve had. The rundown, yet lively streets (or even lack thereof) that I’ve walked. The impoverished lifestyles I’ve witnessed.
And more vividly, the subtle moments of serenity, of solitude, of reflection.
The world is vast, and the lessons to be learned from it are even more so.
For anyone out there reading — for those who haven’t yet taken the leap to do what you’ve always dreamed of — I can’t urge you enough to go out and experience the scenes that can’t be described by words. Meet the people who you don’t know exist. Explore the world you don’t live in.