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The Reality of Travel


I have travelled a lot. I have been to 70 countries and lived in 12 cities, (in 8 different countries). 13 if you count moving to Toronto twice. I find immense joy in planning my next adventure, updating my travel map after a journey is complete, and have thousands (I mean thousands) of photos documenting each place. Travel is my passion and my addiction. It drives me and excites me in a way nothing else does. I know I will never be able to shake this feeling, this desire to go and venture into the unknown- to discover the next place.

The Reality of Travel-1 But travel isn’t without its difficulties. People always say to me “I wish I could do that” without always understanding what “that” entails. It can be hard. It can be miserable. It can almost break you and have you wishing you had a nice little house with a steady job and a mortgage (if anyone ever really wishes they had a mortgage). So, I have tried to pull together the true lessons and realities of travelling that I have learned along the way.

1. It takes 6 months to be comfortable in a new place

The first time I moved to a new country it was for an exchange program to France during my last year of University. It was exciting and scary, but I knew I would have the support of other exchange students and the university, and that it was only for one semester. That time away extended when I wasn’t quite ready to come home and I ended up staying in Europe for almost 5 years. Each time I moved to a new country it was a new adventure but also came with new challenges: getting a Visa, moving house, new bank accounts, new bills, new health care, new friends, new job, new city, and a new country’s customs and idiosyncrasies.

Every one of the 13 moves got easier in some ways, as I now know all the things I need to cross off my “to do” list. But the pattern always repeated itself: Move to new city, be inundated with newness and be incredibly busy, find a bit of a routine and things slow down slightly, begin missing the last city and thinking the move was maybe a mistake. It is at this point when people probably start wondering if they made a bad decision, and when you talk to people back home you aren’t so sure what to report. I always tell people when they reach this point to wait until 6 months in the new city before they make that call. After 6 months, the highs and lows have leveled off, you are now used to your new home (you know how to get there without getting lost, you know where the closest grocery store is, etc), you new job isn’t as scary and overwhelming, you have met a few people and explored the local sites. You can now make a realistic appraisal of your new life.

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2. You will lose great friends

This is a hard one the first few times it happens. Maybe it’s a best friend you have known all your life that you slowly lose touch with. Maybe it is a friend you met and spent all your time with, in the last city you were living in that you just stop messaging as soon as you leave. Maybe it is an old friend you meet up with after an amazing adventure and realize that you no longer have much in common. The reality is, when you are the one that leaves, you also leave the people who stay. Most of the time the fading of a friendship isn’t intentional- everyone is busy with their jam-packed lives and when you are not physically present you are not front of mind. Maybe you are remembered, but that passing thought isn’t often enough to trigger an email or phone call. Travelling also changes you, and sometimes it changes you into a person that other people don't fully understand.

I have learned that, since I am the one that always leaves, I need to be the one to make more effort to keep relationships alive. At first I struggled with this idea (if I mean something to them, they will make the effort too), but realized that fighting it would only lead to these people no longer being part of my life. This sometimes means setting myself reminders to check in with friends every month, because if I don’t years will go by without a word. I try to find ways to connect to friend’s lives while I am absent. More recently this is through their kids, sending postcards from far away places (because nobody ever gets real mail anymore and don’t you remember how exciting it was when you were little and something came for you?).

But sometimes, you have to let the relationship go. Sometimes you need to accept that a person was a huge part of your life for a chapter of it, but they might not be in the rest of the book. And accept that this is okay. Not everyone needs to be a forever friend. You might cross paths again and its better then to nostalgically remember all the good times, instead of focusing on why you aren’t as close as you once were.

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3. You will find a new perspective

Travelling opens your eyes to a world outside of your own. When you see how people live, what they do for fun, how they make a living, you will learn to truly appreciate how good you have it. You will see what is impacting these societies and the globe itself, and you will start to understand how your actions impact them. Poverty, waste management, and the treatment of animals are just a few of the eye-opening realities you will see from a different perspective. We talk about these issues in the Western world, but the impact isn’t nearly the same as seeing it first hand.

How can we tackle the global issue of plastic when entire countries are not educated that throwing your plastic drinking bag out the window of a bus has an impact? How can we save species of Amazon animals when the local children think it is normal to take them home as pets and feed them potato chips? How can we worry so much about houses being too expensive in Canada and Australia when thousands of children sleep on the dirty streets nightly? You will likely return home to your own country and way of life, but each time you travel somewhere new you bring back a new viewpoint that will hopefully alter your reality and actions slightly for the better.

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4. You will find unexpected kinds of love

I often hear the term “find myself” when people tell me their travel story. They set off with (a probably unrealistic) expectation that travelling will determine who they are. Sometimes this can happen, and travelling does help to shape you as a person, but it is getting harder and harder to get off the tourist trail so that big "AH HA" moment of self realisation is challenging. A lot of the time people end up doing the same exact experiences that everyone else is doing, popularised by movies, travel shows and social media. It is a lot of pressure to find “yourself” when you are doing what everyone else is doing.

Rather than focusing on finding yourself, appreciate all the other things you find on your way. Take notice of the little things that are making your life better, even if they seem insignificant. This often comes as love, but not always the romantic kind. It might be the love of a new friend you meet randomly that becomes a lifelong bestie, the love of a new food you try in a certain place that you can’t fathom how you lived without, the love of a new song you keep hearing on the local radio that will forever remind you of that time and place, or the love of a new experience that really does change and shape your life from that day forward. And sometimes even love love.

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5. It is possible

Travelling is not as scary as it seems. It is possible to do it, whether “it” means quitting your job and moving to a country you have never been to or simply taking a week to see that place you have always wanted to see. People always say “I wish I could do that” and the reality is that you can. You just need to want it more than anything else and make it happen.

For a lot of people, when you weigh up going to a new place vs. enjoying the comforts of their routine (going to their favourite restaurant once a week, buying new clothes every month, drinking their daily takeaway coffee), it isn’t worth the tradeoff. For others, the desire to go is there but other obligations hold them back (that pesky mortgage, no vacation time, taking care of the kids, a sick relative, health problems, money is tight). But if you really want it, more than anything else, it is possible. You might just have to make some sacrifices.

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6. Travelling is hard work

Travelling looks sexy and fun when portrayed in the media and online, but it isn’t always glamourous. It can be really hard work, especially if you are on a budget. The reality of travelling for extensive periods of time is often eating boiled pasta at a hostel, using less-than-clean bathrooms and sitting for 16 hours bus journeys with no/too much air-conditioning. Not many people put these things on social media for their followers to see. There is nothing worse than being really sick in a country where you don’t speak the language and the environment around you is more likely to make you more ill. But, if you embrace all this as part of the experience, you will look back one day and laugh about hiking 20km in +40C heat, that terrible toilet experience and eating the same meal every day for a week. And these experiences will help to shape you into a more experienced and tenacious traveller.

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7. You don’t need “stuff"

When I started travelling, I would overpack to the extreme. Actually, the first time I took an international flight, I packed an entire separate carry-on bag full of toys to play with (albeit I was 11 and on my way to Florida to visit Disneyland). This trend continued in my early travel days, always packing a huge suitcase full of things I never once touched during the trip, all “just in case” I needed it for some obscure reason. When we left on our year-long trip, it was a huge challenge fitting everything into one large backpack, knowing that was all I would have for a year and all locations and climates. After the year, I realized that ¼ of the stuff I packed I could have gone without. This pattern continues…the more you travel, the more you realize how little stuff you need. And this doesn’t just apply to the things you pack in a suitcase, this applies to all the “stuff” in life.

When you pack up an apartment and can’t fathom where all the boxes of stuff came from. And then you visit a Grandmother’s home (aka stick mud hut) in Rwanda where she lives with her 5 young grandchildren and almost nothing else. She has no “stuff”. They use old pails to cover the mouths of their 3 goats so they don’t eat the crops in their small field. They use sticks to fashion a broom to sweep the mud floor each morning. They rejoice over the deck of cards someone once gave the children as a gift. They don’t have stuff, and yet they are the happiest people you have ever met. You don’t need stuff to fill your life and make you happy. Stuff just ties you down.

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8. Success can mean a lot of different things

When I was younger, I measured success a lot around work. Getting a job with a top company, making more money, living in “the big city”. I worked 80 hour work weeks to try to progress my career. As a female in the work place, I think I felt I had something to prove, working longer hours for less money trying to get recognized. I have always had great jobs, with a lot of fun perks (events, beer, parties) but at some point my view shifted and success in life wasn’t only about work. My mom would probably have been happy if at this point my view of success changed to settling down and having a family. But it didn’t. It shifted to the rest of the big, wide, world out there that I hadn’t yet discovered.

I quit my great job and moved to Australia, without knowing anyone there or having a job to start. I met Shane, got another great job, and lived a wonderful 2 years in Sydney. Then I quit that job too. I have been lucky that things have worked out after making these life changing decisions, but I am a firm believer that if you make a big life changing decision, things will work out. Your life may turn out differently than it would have if you stayed the course (actually, it will definitely be different), but you make these decisions for a reason. Something drives you to want change. And I do believe that, even if it terrifies you, once you make the change you will be better because of it. It may take awhile, but you will eventually look back and think about how different your life has become, and all the things that have happened, because you made that choice. Success doesn’t always have to be about work, or money. I do want to work at a great job, that I enjoy doing. I just don't want the success of my life to be measured solely on that. Figure out what gives your life purpose, and work to achieve it.

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9. You will have to repeat your travel story. A lot.

There is a set of questions that undeniably comes up while you are around other travel people, especially at hostels. “How long have you been travelling for?”, “Where are you going next?”, “Where are you from?” are all to be expected. Eventually you will create a fine-tuned narrative of your life and journey that you will recite upon meeting a new traveller. At first this conversation if fun and exciting. The 200th time you tell it, not so much. A few times I have actually gone so far as to avoid other new people, simply because I was sick of hearing myself tell the same tale. But occasionally, when you find someone who is doing something different, going to places you really want to see, or travelling for years on end, you are re-invigorated to tell your tale and learn as much as you can from your fellow traveller.

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10. You will get sad/lonely

This is a fact. There will be times when you are surrounded with new, amazing sights, people and activities, and all you want to do is climb into your own bed and be alone. You will miss the people you love and wish that you could share things with them more easily. You will miss having conversations with people who really know you and you don’t have to give your life story to, because they already know it. You will miss familiar places and things and your comfort food from back home. You will also miss your own bed. You will have sudden waves of sadness that you can’t justify to yourself because you are doing something that so many people wish they could be doing. But this is okay. You just need to embrace these feelings when they come, and remind yourself that they won’t last forever.

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11- You will learn to budget and make do with what you have

Unless you have an unlimited supply of cash, you will eventually need to make some form of travel budget. You will learn to adjust your budget quickly to a new currency and exchange rate, how to find the best deals on airfare and accommodation, and how to stretch your money for activities. For short trips, planned activities and excursions might cost more, but will allow you to see more in a limited amount of time. When you are travelling extensively, you quickly realize you can’t afford to pay for the hostel day trip, but instead can re-create the same itinerary for a lot cheaper.

I like to plan, so I used a budget tracker for every expense we had for an entire year (a fun read for anyone who has hours to spare!). If you aren’t the budget tracker type, try setting a limit for the day/week and taking out that amount of cash. It’s easier to gauge your finances when you can physically see what you have left (just make sure to keep any large amounts of money stored away safely). With some practice, you will learn what things should cost and when you are being given tourist prices. Several times I have refused a price because it was extortionate locally, only to laugh later at the real cost compared to prices back home ($3 for a pair of pants? You must be joking!).

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12- You will never be done travelling

When Shane & I set off on our around-the-world trip last year, we had a vague belief that this year of travelling was going to “get it out of our system”. We would then be free of the travel longing and be able to start “being adults”- finding a city to settle down, buy a house and a get a dog. 4 months after this year of travel ended, I find myself wondering “where could we go if we had another year” and Google Mapping the best routes.

You will never be done travelling. Once it is in your system, the desire to see more and venture to new places only grows. Ticking one place off your bucket list will lead to adding ten more places that you heard about from other travellers or saw in a list of Places to See Before You Die. The list gets longer, and the destinations get more obscure. When someone asks me now where I want to go next my mind wanders to Iran and Kazakhstan rather than the more socially conventional “push the limits” places like Costa Rica and Brazil (which are both amazing btw). You have to come to terms with the fact that you will never finish your list of places to visit, because there will always be somewhere new to go. But it sure is fun to try.
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