48 Lessons I Learned While Traveling Across The World

Tim Gouw

I landed in JFK, in the darkness, watching the end of La La Land and crying, with exaggerated tears that the movie, I was convinced, pilfered from me. Of course I don’t cry during movies like this, I cry when the plane that carried me from worlds away touches down and abandons me on New York concrete, before embarking on its next adventure to somewhere amazing.

I sauntered in a daze through immigration and waited for ages to get my bag, which, after 45 minutes, I was convinced had gotten lost in transit. I waited for customs, walked outside the airport, and stood at the arrivals pick-up in my sweatshirt and flip flops, in the freezing cold, staring down at my bare, pedicure hungry toes.

The silver Tahoe pulled up (a car that I forgot we owned), I threw my bag and myself into the back seat and, before the door could even close, the car was driving away from the madness of the airport. Angela asked how the flight was and Mom said she would have gotten out to hug me if JFK wasn’t such a madhouse. No sentimental hellos here. And just like that, weather talk commenced and the eerie feeling that no time had passed since I was last here consumed me.

But time had passed, a substantial amount of time. Half a year, six months and a week, 190 days spent in Southeast Asia, the faraway Eastern world so completely different from ours. Half a year mostly spent embarking on adventures you couldn’t have predicted the day before, eating cheap and questionable street food, sleeping in beds that you pray aren’t infested with bed bugs surrounded by people you hope won’t snore or steal your things, deciding if you should splurge the extra dollar for air-conditioned dorms, hunting down the cheapest beer options, having diarrhea at the most inconvenient hours.

Six months spent chasing sunsets and sleeping through sunrises, trying new things, learning and discovering new ways of life, meeting people who you’ll never forget, not giving a damn about what clothes you wear, leaving your makeup bag stuffed in the bottom of your backpack, trudging through the tough times and laughing at them a few hours later.

I had so many ideas for my last blog while traveling, notes scrawled into my phone on long bus rides, all the prolific thoughts and earned wisdom I would share from my well-traveled head onto published paper.

Yet, for the two weeks that I’ve been back, I’ve avoided sitting down to do this, completely unable to draw any conclusions I feel worthy of writing, everything I once thought I would write feeling trite or insubstantial. I can’t summarize my time away, a time filled with so many emotions and experiences, in a strong, concise manner.

I can’t express how it’s changed me, simply because I don’t yet know how it has truly changed me. Sure, it’s made me more open, more understanding, more “worldly”, whatever the hell that means, more rugged, easier going.

I like to think it’s made me less fearful, yet the one feeling that overwhelms me now that I’m home is fear. Fear that the things that changed me, that chipped away at me, that filled in the holes, that became part of me, won’t last.

That I’ll somehow go through retrograde and come back as the exact person I was before getting on that first flight—a fine person, but not necessarily the person that I wish to be. I don’t think that anyone that uplifts their life to travel simply wants the romantic notion of seeing the whole world. If we were fully content with our lives, we wouldn’t throw a stone and shatter its perfect equilibrium, toss the pieces into the air, catch a few good ones in a backpack and carry it across the world.

We are all running away from something. For some, that something is obvious, for others, like myself, we may have an idea, but we spend our time figuring it out, through others, through places, through conversation, through silence.

Already I slowly feel myself falling into the all too familiar patterns, the all-consuming, unnecessary worries. Worries about my future, my income, what kind of life I will have, where I should live, a respectable career path – things that will take time, things that won’t come easy, and things that someone who just got back from Asia certainly does not need to worry about just yet. Worst of all, I worry what others will think of me now that I’m back, unemployed, and living at home with a handful of days until I turn 25, an age that for some reason feels old to me.

While I was gone, my age didn’t matter, my background didn’t matter, my education didn’t matter, my previous job didn’t matter and the amount of money I had certainly didn’t matter.

My personality mattered, my sense of adventure, my ability to hold a fascinating conversation, to listen to people, to talk candidly about myself and my experiences. While I’ll never be like some of the more radical backpackers I met, those living out of a backpack until they spend their very last penny, I have to be able to find a happy balance, a job and a lifestyle that suits me, whatever that may be. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that happiness, and conscious appreciation for the moments that make us feel like were truly living, count for a whole fucking lot. And while I used to think swimming pools of money and a perfect NYC life could breed happiness, I’m no longer sure that’s what would do it for me. If it turns out that does make me happy, that’s great, but if it’s a secluded home on a farm in Ireland, that’s great too.

While you’ll probably find me somewhere in between, the point remains, if I’m doing something that I myself respect and have enough money to live the way that I wish to live, then I’m doing alright.

I’m sure this all reads like a mess of unsettled thoughts, which is fine because that’s what I have. Simply stated, I went to Asia and it changed my life and my outlook on living. I’m so incredibly grateful for my experience and for doing something that not many around me are willing to do. I’ll leave this with a list of lessons learned, observations made, and quotes read while making my way across eight countries. It doesn’t cover everything, but that would be impossible anyway.

1. Time grows short, take advantage of it.

2. On another note, don’t fear downtime. That shits important too.

3. You’ll have the opportunity to get your abs back, but may not have the opportunity to eat that deep-fried, authentic and soul-warming street food again.

4. Most people are good people.

5. Discomfort should be welcomed from time to time.

6. Gut feelings should not be ignored—if you have a bad feeling about something, you’re probably right.

7. Practice riding a semi-automatic motorbike for more than one minute before going on a 40 kilometer ride. Practice may not make perfect, but it’s pretty fucking important.

8. Deep thoughts, mundane details, it doesn’t matter. Just write. You’ll thank yourself later.

9. The world doesn’t stop while you’re gone and carefree. Read the news.

10. However, sometimes a little bit of separation from the happenings of the world is a good thing.

11. While some stories may be more interesting or more enlightening than others, everyone has one to tell.

12. You can learn something from everyone, regardless of language. Learn from their actions and expressions.

13. There’s no correct way to live your life. Some people want to settle down and have five kids. Some want to travel until the day they die. Some want a lot, some want very little. There’s no right answer.

14. Worry about yourself and let others make their own decisions and mistakes.

15. “If I’ve learned anything in my travels it’s that a person can get used to anything.” Junot Díaz, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao’

16. “Fear is the mind killer.” Junot Díaz, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

17. Whether you think you believe in God or not, you’ll find yourself praying to Him before every bus, train, motorbike or taxi ride.

18. “The book is blank.” Junot Díaz, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

19. Enjoy your destiny as it comes.

20. You will meet people you don’t like. Give them a chance and if that feeling remains simply dismiss yourself from their presence. There are too many amazing people you can be sharing your experiences with.

21. Once one person opens up about their bowel movements, everyone will and great friendships will come from it.

22. “I am a slow walker but I never walk backwards.” Abe Lincoln

23. Good Wi-Fi is a gift that should never be taken for granted.

24. The ability to seize the day while battling diarrhea is perhaps the most sincere form of resiliency.

25. Full days in bed with Netflix are therapeutic, especially snuggled up with a great crew.

26. Sometimes you have to eat fast food and shamelessly surrender to your western spirit.

27. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Jack Kerouac, ‘On the Road

28. Fall in love with someone; fall in love with some place.

29. Don’t take your life for granted.

30. “Sometimes it feels as if there is no motion at all.” Colum McCann, ‘Transatlantic

31. “She could see an orchestra in him, a whole range of instruments and sound.” Colum McCann, ‘Transatlantic

33. Jellyfish stings hurt, but they don’t hurt as much as missing out on what lies under the surface.

34. Instagram likes feel good no matter what the haters say. Celebrate your likes, because why not.

35. American rest stop bathrooms are beautifully clean sanctuaries once you’ve squatted over a hole in a dark, moist, “water closet”.

36. Patience is the most important of virtues and can best be worked on while trying to take Southeast Asian transportation.

37. The smile you receive after greeting and thanking someone in their own language will always make you feel good.

38. Smiles are a language of their own. Smile at everyone. I’ve seen some smiles in the most unsuspecting of places that have nearly brought me to tears.

39. There is so much beauty in tradition and ceremony, focus on the small things people do.

40. Watch people cook.

41. “Life is what happens. Just fly.” – Kumar

42. When something big or exciting is happening, make yourself small. Step back, look around, and study others. Realize how truly special these moments are.

43. Sometimes no Wi-Fi is a good thing. Read a book. Write a list. Listen to music and focus on what you’re listening to. Look out the window and observe. Talk to the person next to you.

44. Say yes to experiences.

45. Travel the local way. Buses can be chaotic and jam-packed, but you’ll find yourself squished next to an old smiling lady or a small child who wraps her hand around your finger and stares into your eyes. Its human connection at its purest.

46. Discuss how you feel about social guilt, the fact that you have the ability to leave somewhere so rich with opportunity and enter these communities where opportunity is an imaginary construct. Allow yourself these guilt-stricken and heart heavy moments. Greatly respect the people whose home you’re entering and never forget how very lucky you are.

47. Life will not and should not be easy or adventurous at every moment, but we owe it to ourselves to sprinkle it with moments of spontaneity and truly exciting experience.

48. “If it helps, consider how people used to think the world was flat. Two-dimensional. They only believed in the part they could see, until somebody invented the ships and brave sailed off to find the rest of the earth.” Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Rant‘. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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