I’ve learned a lot from travel and living abroad. I’ve learned about my own ignorance, arrogance, and resistance, but also about kindness and compassion.
One of the most liberating lessons of being a foreigner, however, has been learning to love the feeling of anonymity that comes from hanging out in places where no one knows me.
Sure, there are times when being away from home feels lonely or frustrating. When, for example, I crave the company of a cherished friend or advisor. Or when an unfamiliar language prevents me from connecting at a deeper level. But mostly it feels like freedom.
As a traveler, by the very nature of my foreignness I am granted a reprieve from constricting social norms. And as a visitor, I am free (even expected) to spend my days playing.
There’s a quote by author William Watson Purkey that has made its way into the public lexicon: “dance like there’s nobody watching.” When I travel I get to live like there’s nobody watching.
Strangers don’t care that my Spanish isn’t perfect, that I’m curvy instead of slim, or that I’ve reached middle age without amassing a fortune. Or if they do, I’m blissfully immune to their disapproval. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. There’s no need to impress, no requirement to conform.
I need quiet to sleep well. I need high-speed Internet to work. I need to live in a natural setting to feel at peace.
Until two-and-a-half years ago I believed unequivocally in the truth of these “needs.”
At the time, I lived in a place so quiet I could hear the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of a raven’s wings. I had a well-equipped home office with a high-speed Internet connection that served as the headquarters of my freelance travel writing and photography business. And I spent my afternoons hiking in the dense ponderosa pine forests and white-barked aspen groves that blanketed the steep flanks of the southern Rocky Mountains that surrounded the six spacious acres we called home.
Today, as I write this from a rented house in Mexico with extended stays in four Latin American countries behind me, I can get a good night’s sleep amidst a cacophony of barking dogs, exploding fireworks, and blaring music.
Much of my work is spent traveling with people on vacation, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it is that travelers love to talk— talk, talk, talk.
It’s natural, of course, this inclination to verbalize the wonder and awe of being somewhere foreign, experiencing exciting adventures, and meeting new and interesting people.
I wonder, though, how much potential joy, insight and observation is lost amid the cacophony of the nonstop chatter.
I don’t consider myself a rebel. Rebels are brave and bold. They fight for social justice, world peace and environmental awareness. Rebels protest, raise money, build schools, and produce meaningful documentaries. They are charismatic leaders who make the world a better place.
Me? It’s all I can do to love and be loved; to live with courage in a world of fear.
Sure, I’ve done some brave things in my life, but this might be the boldest yet. At the age of 49, I am learning self-acceptance.
I opened my email this morning in Mexico to a blog article written by a self-described ‘award-winning’ travel writer whining about how ‘good writing’ was largely absent in travel blogs.
Next, I read a piece by a personal finance writer challenging professional travel bloggers to publish their financials and provide ‘real numbers’ for how they budget for their future, because at a certain point “they’ll have to resume a ‘normal’ life, right?.”
I’d bristled reading both and my prickly reactions prompted me to stop and think about why.
“Just be yourself,” a trusted friend once advised me. I’d been in a panic over a public appearance, caught up in a whirlwind of self-doubt, and certain of only one thing—that ‘myself’ was nowhere near good enough.
What I needed, my inner critic assured me, was a razzle-dazzle multimedia presentation to hide behind and a pedigree that I did not possess.
I had done my homework, knew my subject, and was well prepared, but I’d been lulled into believing by organizers that the event would be a low key affair. “A simple question-and-answer session with a few other media types,” they’d said. “No need for a PowerPoint or formal presentation.”
What they didn’t tell me, however, was that my fellow presenters—two impressive national magazine travel editors and a charismatic TV personality—would never dream of showing up prepared to ‘just be themselves.’ They knew better.
The magazine A-Listers had brought cutting-edge iPad presentations (well before iPads were mainstream) with professionally produced videos and storylines, and the good looking TV host had, well, TV clips.
Oh, sure: Just be myself. WHAT WAS I THINKING?
What about you? What’s your passport to wanderlust?
Everyone likes a good quote - don’t forget to share.
I struggle with this one, a lot.
Sharing is fun. Keeping in touch is nice. The ability to scan a distant friend’s Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, and know instantly what’s going on in their life, is convenient.
So why is it that social connection has started to feel more and more like social obligation? Has social technology grown so big and noisy that we can no longer really hear one another? Why am I not as eager to login into my social accounts as I once was?
There’s a certain comfort in leading an ordinary life, slipping into the cozy habits of everyday routines and donning the familiar masks of personal and professional identities.
But no matter how snug the habitual may feel, how secure the career, house, or marriage might appear, now and again life’s Big Questions (e.g. Who am I? What is my purpose?) simmer to the surface, casting a nagging net of uneasiness over my ordinary contentment.
So, with the hope of better understanding life’s deeper meanings, I open my heart and travel beyond my comfort zone in search of answers, different ways of thinking and universal truths.
The movie had faded to rolling credits. I’d barely noticed. My mind was still processing the words - the world, has changed me.
Beyond her fame, I knew little of the life of Amelia Earhart, the film’s subject. But her story, as depicted in the biographical picture, AMELIA, had ignited a longing so visceral that my heart suddenly felt heavy, tears springing to my eyes.
These emotional tsunamis always strike when I least expect it, plunging me unsuspectingly into life’s Big Questions: Why, for example, are some people beckoned to a life of exploration while others are happiest at home?
After fifteen months of living abroad in Central and South America, my husband and I are stateside for an interim and aware that we, too, have been changed by our experiences and the people we have met along the way.
I’ve been immersing myself in the essays and wisdom of Emerson lately. And, like the above quote, I’m finding that his philosophies ring true to me.
In fact, the more I read, the more Hank and I travel, the more I ponder life’s purpose, the more I believe that I carry with me all that I am and all that I have to give. And that no matter where our travels take us, my work is to discover, cultivate and share this native talent - whatever it may be.
How about you? Have you discovered your life purpose? Are you following your bliss? Where has it taken you?
Most of us don’t set off on vacation to face our fears. But if there’s one thing the past sixteen months of living abroad has taught me it is that traveling beyond our comfort zone can be a bit unnerving. It can also serve to teach, inspire and challenge us to push through and return home bolder and braver.
The next time fear strikes, learn how to put your anxiety to good use with these tips from my recent article, Conquering Fear: 5 Tips to Help Get You Through Anything
What about you? What do you do when fear threatens to ruin a vacation? Share your tips using the comments link below.