Lessons from Traveling Around the World: Reflections After Seven Years on the Road
Seven years ago today I strapped on a backpack and boarded a plane for six months of traveling around the world. I was exhausted from months of planning, but bursting with excitement that I was finally headed out to see the world. I was also terrified. Though I had traveled considerably in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, my overseas experience was limited to a few Caribbean jaunts, one trip to Thailand, and another to Spain. This time I would visit 15 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and Oceana. At age 54, all alone, I set out with a laptop and a camera, determined to recreate myself as a travel writer and photographer.
This was not a new dream for me. My passion for photography began at age 11, when my uncle gave me an old Leica camera. Not long afterward, someone gifted my father with a subscription to National Geographic. He never threw a single issue away; they mushroomed into teetering stacks in our front hall, where I sat cross-legged on the floor after school, devouring every word and imagining myself in the exotic places so vividly displayed in photos.
But life had other plans for me. As a 17-year old college dropout, I was desperate to leave my parents’ home. Faced with the necessity of earning a living, I accepted the first job offered to me, selling advertising at the Chicago Sun-Times. It paid well and started me on a long climb up the corporate ladder that would eventually lead to management positions in sales, marketing, real estate, and public relations. Though I enjoyed great success in my career, I was miserably unhappy and after more than three decades of corporate politics and stress, my health began to deteriorate. My bones ached from the inside out and my knees and hips screamed in protest whenever I climbed steps. Most frightening, I developed dyslexia and short term memory loss. Doctors were unable to find any specific cause, yet I grew weaker and more exhausted with every passing month.
Finally, five years after the onset of my symptoms, I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and put on massive doses of doxycycline, as I was allergic to all the other antibiotics normally used to treat Lyme. More than the disease itself, the medicine put me down. Bedridden for part of each week, I shuffled between bedroom and bathroom, avoiding the mirror that reflected a drawn, ashen gray face. I made an occasional appearance at work, where shocked looks on the faces of my co-workers confirmed how terrible I looked. Terrified that I would die before doing all the things I had dreamed of, I promised myself that, if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue my true passions: travel, writing, and photography. A year later I kept that promise.
Though I had spent months researching and planning for traveling around the world, reality didn’t set in until I was sitting in Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Coffee turned to battery acid in my stomach as I pondered whether I had made the right decision. My family certainly didn’t think so, nor did most of my friends. I was abandoning a successful career and walking away from everything I had struggled to acquire – a beautiful waterfront home, new car, nice clothes, and a comfortable lifestyle – to wander the world, staying in hostels and budget guest houses. And why, oh why, had I decided to start the trip in Vietnam, a totally unfamiliar country where English was not widely spoken and Americans had only recently been welcome? I came of age during the Vietnam War and was vehemently opposed to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Those were the years of flower power and Haight Asbury and marches on Washington D.C. Of flag burning and mind-enhancing drugs and free love. We were going to save the world. Except we didn’t. Like most of my friends, I sold out for the allure of money and material things. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to begin this cathartic journey with a pilgrimage to the place that had shaped so much of my character and beliefs.
Gulping down the bile rising to my Adam’s apple, I boarded the plane and hoped for the best. It was not smooth sailing. The first night I checked into my guest house and then went in search of an Internet cafe, eager to publish a story on my blog. By the time I returned some hours later, a metal door had been rolled down over the entrance. Panicked, I scanned the dark street that had earlier been a sea of teeming bodies; at this hour only a few suspicious-looking characters lurked in the shadows. Be calm, I said under my breath. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll have to rent a room at another hotel and retrieve my belongings in the morning. Just as I was about to turn away, the owner of a tiny shop next door stepped out to close up for the night. Seeing my predicament, he hammered on the tinny door until the night watchman was roused and let me in.
In the popular Vietnamese seaside resort town of Nha Trang, I stayed at a more upscale hotel. The bus for my next destination left at 8 p.m. so on the day of departure I stored my luggage at the hotel and took a motorcycle tour. When I returned, all the unlocked compartments of my luggage had been rifled and my backup photo DVD’s stolen. Following uneventful visits to Hue, Hoi An, and Danang, I boarded a night bus for Hanoi that had no bathroom. Rather than stopping at a gas station or restaurant, the driver pulled over to the side of the road twice during the 12-hour drive. Men casually unzipped and urinated at the back of the bus while women wandered off into pitch black fields, lifted their skirts, and squatted to pee. I was wearing long trousers and I couldn’t shake the fear that a cobra might sink its fangs into my bare butt. I did not avail myself of the bathroom facilities that night. We rolled into Hanoi before dawn and rather than take us to the bus station, the driver stopped in the outskirts of town, where a horde of corrupt taxi drivers demanded exorbitant rates to take us the rest of the way into the city.
Hanoi was the most intimidating of all. Compared to vibrant, energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the capital city felt sinister. Men in black pajamas sat languidly on street corners, glaring at tourists. My hotel warned of youths on motorcycles who snatch phones from hands and backpacks off shoulders. I was repeatedly warned not to walk alone at night. Even during daylight hours, I felt I needed eyes in the back of my head. Still, I would not be thwarted. I set off on my own to visit the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious prison where Senator John McCain had been imprisoned. Deep within the old stone building I paused to read a signboard containing information in English. The display, titled “The American War,” stopped me in my tracks.
It should not have surprised me that Vietnamese do not refer to it as the Vietnam War, but that small fact set me reeling. In that instant, I understood that so much of who we are as a society is defined by our cultural frame of reference. I also intuitively realized that fearing others who we believe to be ‘different’ is a road map to misunderstanding, violence, and war. Our best potential for peace lies in getting to know one another as human beings. After all these years, Vietnam still held me in its magnetic sway. It had formed me as a teenager and now it would establish the raison d’etre for my blog. Since then, I have immersed into the cultures of 50 countries on six continents (Antarctica awaits), testing my theory that people the world over are more alike than different. My belief has only grown stronger. We may wear different clothes, eat different foods, practice different religions, and speak different languages, but at our core we all want the same things: a safe place to live, food on the table, clothes to wear, freedom, and a better life for our children.
My lessons from traveling around the world have been numerous and richly rewarding. I have learned that I am incredibly strong, flexible, and capable. No longer rattled when things go awry, I simply change directions and go with the flow. Though there are some countries that I would not visit at present (Afghanistan, Syria, parts of central Africa), I now know beyond a doubt that travel is not a dangerous profession. In retrospect, my discomfort in Vietnam seems foolish, as I recognize it was a function of utter unfamiliarity rather than jeopardy. Absolute strangers have helped me countless times, restoring my faith in humanity.
Perhaps most importantly, I have come to believe that we in the Western world are too attached to material things. I must admit that after spending extended time in third world countries I always return to the U.S. filled with gratitude. Compared to emerging countries, the U.S. suffers precious little corruption and is blessed with untold freedoms. Our cities are clean and relatively safe. Our infrastructure is among the best in the world. I have wept over being able to flush toilet paper rather than dispose of it in a trash bin.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that our values have gone slightly astray. I was filled with shame recently when I overheard a woman in Chicago berate a grocery store clerk because her particular brand of cereal was out of stock. She had 100 others to choose from; people in most countries are lucky if they have two. We want big houses, shiny new cars, and overpriced brand-name clothing. But demanding the best of everything comes with a price: long work hours, high stress, short vacations, and ever-diminishing family time. I was as guilty as anyone. I had the big house and all the rest of it. Looking back, I now realize just how unimportant those things were. What matters, what truly matters, is our relationships with the people we love. On the occasion of my seven year anniversary of traveling, more than anything, I am grateful to have learned this lesson. And I thank each and every one of you for being with me on this journey of discovery.