What have you learned….? In Santiago? In Melbourne? in Mexico? All over your trip…?
It is one of these questions people will undoubtedly ask at one point when talking about my trip around the world.
I can’t really tell (yet) for sure – some things I realised early on, some are evident, some only materialize later.
Here’s a short overview of the things I think I have learned – or am in the process of understanding and applying to my life…
A few things in this list are dead-on, simple things. Spanish. Driving on the left.
Most of them though are on a bigger, more general level. I didn’t travel to learn how to sail, surf or cook an Indian curry.
They are more like lessons life tries to teach you.
* * *
Listen to your own voice, do what you feel like doing, don’t listen to others saying you ‘have to’ see this, you ‘should not’ to go there or how crazy you are for not going to see this absolutely amaaaazing sight.
I had a gut feeling I’d love Sao Paulo, and wanted to skip Rio over it. I split up my time between both cities. Result: as beautiful as Rio is, I loved Sao Paulo, and I didn’t have enough time there.
Stay open to suggestions, but be aware of people trying to impose their view on you.
It’s your journey. Your voice to follow. You’re the boss of this trip, and you’re the boss of your life.
* * *
Go with the flow
I tried to read heaps of guide books on every possible destination on the trip – and on the ones that ultimately fell off the itinerary. If I had done so I would still be reading, and I would not have left yet.
I decided for Japan and against Korea in a split-second – simply because the flight was direct and had a free seat.
I hadn’t done any research on either of those countries.
Don’t plan too many side trips ahead of arrival (which you’d have to do, if you want somewhat affordable prices).
The risk is that you plan a trip to Cancún, Easter Island or Tasmania right on a weekend where your new friends want to take you to this little known wine festival somewhere in the mountains….
Forget your sightseeing shopping list.
* * *
Travel (and live) light
I left with four pairs of shoes, two long pants, 25 shirts, tons of paper guide books, small loud-speakers for the phone, tons of medication….
I left with a 23-kilo suitcase and easily over 10 kilo of hand luggage, plus the backpack with the electronics and my camera bag.
I returned with just over 20 kilo’s in my suitcase (still some 20 T-shirts but hey, I like to change them often) and one small backpack with the electronics and cables.
In the long run, living out of one suitcase for 18 months taught me how little I need, in general. I have a feeling I won’t go back to mindless Saturday shopping sprees, ever.
What you actually need is very little.
* * *
Along this trip: if something new presented itself, if someone I trusted made a suggestion, I (mostly) just said yes. Hop along. Go for it.
You might have an amazing time for wherever they will take you, be it to an Argentinian Rock Festival or a hidden roof top bar.
Be flexible and change your plans, don’t stick slavishly to what you thought you wanted to do.
Sometimes life knows better what you want.
* * *
Trust people, but trust your gut, too
Generally, humans are kind, welcoming, and open. Give them the benefit of the doubt, we mostly always mean well.
I’m not necessarily talking about dangerous situations here (and who knows how many times someone might have already had an eye on me, my bag, my phone or else….).
But if something seems off, or you’re not comfortable with the person you’re with, you don’t have to bear it out of falsely understood friendliness.
Sometimes, that first coffee should be the last. And that’s ok, too.
* * *
I learned Spanish. Thanks to so many new friends who, despite their very good English, insisted talking Spanish to me and encouraged me to respond, even if the conversations with me might have been simple and slow and full of hair-raising mistakes.
Along the way, I learned Spanish – with some Argentinian pronunciations or some Chilean slang words. But what was at best a stutter for a beer in a bar developed into long, complicated conversations in this beautiful language.
Sure, I still cannot conjugate most verbs correctly, I have no idea about the future tense and can only form a few verbs in past tense. But I was understood.
* * *
Driving on the left side
Being a reluctant driver – I will never own a car – and only being used to drive some deserted US highway through a national park at maximum 65 miles an hour, I was freaked out by the prospect of driving on the left side of the road.
Overcome your fear! I chose Hobart to be my experimental driving grounds, and it took about one minute to find the situation controllable, and maybe ten minutes to be halfway at ease with it.
Sure, I cannot park a car on the left side. But I cannot even do that on the right side, here.
It went so far that after four months on the left in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, traffic on the right at home freaked me out!
* * *
Handling my camera
I used it in automatic mode for a lot, but then what’s the point of having that camera when you can’t remember what all the non-automotive settings were…?
So I went on this camera walking tour, I bought a guide book and I learned how to handle it… somewhat. Progress is slow….
One day, I’d like to study photography. Full-on.
* * *
Communication doesn’t depend on language
While I did learn some Spanish on this trip – Japanese or Chinese was out of reach.
However, it was amazing to see how much you can communicate without understanding a word of the other’s language. Even complicated things.
“Your metro card is malfunctioning. You have a Tokyo metro card from the Japanese Rail Service. I cannot help you, I’m working for the Osaka metro. Please go to the Japanese Rail Station across the street and have them check your card.”
Said, done! Card working.
OK, and sometimes, communication was a total fail. But it was never boring!
* * *
Until I was in Brazil, and I ate more fresh food than I ever knew existed.
Most of them still don’t have a name, I couldn’t remember it all.
But I will always remember that perfectly sweet pine apple that outright melted in my mouth in the Mercado Central in Sao Paulo.
I’ve become pretty much intolerant to bullshit, and the bullshitters. I felt like my time is too precious to waste it.
So for whenever I felt like I wasn’t on the same wavelength with someone, or felt like I was being manipulated into something, or the whole situation was just plain crap, I walked away.
Sometimes rather abruptly, without many explanations. But who was I to lecture anyone anyway about his or her behavior, and that I wouldn’t take it… I guess I left a few people wondering.
But it felt liberating, to be able to do this, and go my own way.
You can never do the same thing twice
I’ve written a whole blog post about this, when I was coming back to Melbourne, Santiago and Buenos Aires at the end of the trip. Hoping for another amazing experience – which it was – but also fearing I would expect too much.
And indeed, you can never repeat something. Things evolve, cities change, people move on, away or change, too.
I had a couple of slight disappointments when coming back, people who I’d been in touch with not answering anymore, plans falling through.
Though it was a good lesson to learn (or to try learning, because I know I will never really master that one).
Some people you’ll have to leave behind
When you leave for such a long time, you know you’ll leave some people behind, and probably never reconnect, even when you return. You know that, but you cannot guess which ones.
Some will surprise you, for they stay in touch. An unexpected gift.
Some you’d swear you’d be best friends with forever, and somehow your friendship won’t survive your journey, for whatever reason. Some might not like to see you go, some have different expectations, some just fade away.
It’s all good, you can’t hold on to them frantically. Those too, you have to let go, and wish them well. Maybe one day, when you’re back or later in life, you’ll reconnect.
Just keep the door open.
I like clean slates, normally. Knowing what I can count on, and whom.
It’s a challenge to leave doors open, even just a little bit, for who knows when.
* * *
I can sleep anywhere
By now, I sleep anywhere.
I don’t care about the layout of the apartment anymore, doors, bathrooms, I will find them at night, without light, blindly.
Having stayed in 68 different places in 18 months, I am pretty much undisturbed by finding my way in yet another unfamiliar place.
* * *
I can improvise
As much as I like to plan, and execute it, having organized this whole trip in excel spreadsheets and having total control…
Well, I simply changed locations, it cost me maybe a day in total, but then I was nicely settled in another place, on the nicer (and safer) side of town.
No reason to fret long about it, not even a big disappointment.
Take the new circumstances, adapt and work with it. Improvise. I can rebound.
Just play a different tune, and I dance along.
* * *
All will be well
I freaked out early in the trip if two, even three months ahead I hadn’t really booked my accommodation. It was a real moment of stress for me. I learned to let go, and trust that I would find something good and affordable.
Even in Hong Kong, when I realized I would not make it to China and I needed accommodation fast, it all worked out well.
It’s a fundamentally important trait of character, or call it a belief if you will, to trust that all will be fine.
* * *
The universe will provide
I know I sound somewhat California-hippie now, but the universe does, indeed, provide.
Just when I started to become really nervous looking for a place in Hong Kong for the next days, Henri’s Airbnb add appeared. Affordable. In my dream area. A whole apartment. We settled the deal within 30 minutes.
When I needed to start looking for accommodation back in Brussels. Kevin’s tenant gave notice. A furnished place. Affordable. Central. Walking distance to work. Free exactly the moment I came back.
It was as if things were being handed to me on a silver plate.
The lesson is to realize these things are happening. And have been happening all through life. You just don’t see them or acknowledge them, maybe take them for granted.
The lesson of this trip was probably more to sharpen my senses for these things, when, indeed, life provides a solution, and the bridge appears out of nowhere.
* * *
Some things are not meant to be
Some things are just not meant to be. I could not get a Chinese visa, as I had washed my passport and I ran out of time and money to speed up the process.
I stayed in Hongkong instead, saw Macao, and had two additional weeks to discover this city, and make friends there.
And just as other things on this trip that did not work out as planned, from the cockroaches in Cape Town to the nightly attacks in Istanbul…. The lesson is to reassemble, check options and move on.
Never look back, it’s a waste of time.
It’s about people, not sights
Looking back on all the places I’ve been to in this year and a half, all the restaurants and bars, the sights big and small, in the end, I realize, it’s not about the sights or the places you’ve been to.
It’s about the human connections, the friends I’ve made, the stories and plans for re-unions.
All the sights in each city are just a – sometimes fabulous – backdrop for the connections I’ve made.
I’m OK being by myself
This was the biggest experiment on this trip, and the part that could have gone wrong. I had travelled alone before, for up to two weeks, but a year and a half is a totally different dimension.
And true, some weekend evenings, especially in a new city, could feel lonely, or when plans fell through at the last moment and I had no back-up plan or back-up network.
It’s a contradiction: on the one hand I feel like I have become even more of an introvert, having travelled that long by myself. I sometimes talked to myself.
And at the same time I have become more open, approachable, by putting myself in that situation over and over again, of being the new kid on the block who doesn’t know anyone.
It’s something I keep on doing, now back in Brussels. It’s like keeping an open door, you never know who’s gonna walk through it and turn the day upside down.
Running a blog
I actually learned how to install a blog and improve and keep it running. Considering I had next-to-nothing experience with IT and the structures of a website, I’m pretty proud of it.
And it got some visitors, more than expected.
I am still learning, and improving, and thinking further already….
Time is relative
Even in Europe there are already significant differences, but on a global scale, this was aggravated.
It can be a tough lesson to learn when you’re traveling alone and others just don’t function that way.
It was not meant in a mean way, and I had to learn not to interpret it as a voluntary act to neglect, or worse, hurt me. It just functioned on a whole different level.
To this day, I have not grasped it.
Forget your expectations
Try not to have any expectations. Each time I realize I am getting my hopes up about this and that, I try to bring them down. Call it a protective mechanism, to spare you a disappointment.
One example was my brief and ill-timed stop at Hot Water Beach in New Zealand, where I arrived at high tide and only could stick my feet in the warm sand, instead of soaking in a hot sand hole (with a few hundred tourists).
Instead, I was rewarded with one of the most amazing nights of my life – the empty beach under a silver full moon at night, when all tourists were sleeping in their huts.
It’s a memory I’ll have, if I die a 100 year’s old.
No one is responsible for your happiness but yourself