Lessons, Lesions: traveling both makes and breaks a person.

Walking in the door last night to where I started several months ago brought a massive wave of relief, accomplishment and joy over my tired shoulders and dirty blue backpack. Somehow, through everything, I had my arms, legs and spirits fully intact. Today, I marvel at also having a bug bite collection that is uniquely my own — a souvenir you can’t buy.

Island camping — a place you can collect many unique bug bites. Palawan, Philippines

There were times I thought that maybe I should quit traveling (okay well no, but it sucked) like when I was robbed in Cambodia, or when I came down with a sinus infection and hellish fever while laying on a hot bamboo floor in a noisy village, hacking up whatever had been ailing me for four weeks.

Living on a budget and out of a backpack for months at a time takes a toll on one’s health. Especially when you’re one who has trouble exchanging sleep for excitement. I’ve shared my impressive archive of ailments below. Unfortunately, Medium hasn’t yet written code for venn diagrams, so I can’t convey when certain ailments took place at the same time (hint: it was enough for me to want a venn diagram).

It all started with:

  • A swollen knee salsa dancing in Mexico
  • Then a UTI in Seattle
  • A weird bug bite…
  • …that turned armpit sore which hung around for 4 weeks
  • The creepiest, flakiest cold sore manifestation I’ve ever experienced
  • Foot fungus
  • Tuberculosis (just kidding, but I was coughing for six weeks)
  • A sinus infection
  • Conjunctivitis sort of
  • A 48-hour-fever
  • Traveler’s diarrhea
  • A sprained foot
  • Hangovers
  • Violent food poisoning
  • A cold
  • Dozens of jellyfish stings
  • Bruised bottoms of feet (from climbing)
  • A mysterious two-week toothache (from God knows)
  • Flesh wounds (at various points)

Seeing as I’m in good health and whatever the opposite of a hypochondriac is called, this is a pretty impressive list of ailments. I’ll go ahead and store this under a previously existing list: Reasons I Don’t Want to Save Traveling for Retirement.

For the moment, however, I am well. And my microbiome is dancing with enough colorfully exotic bacteria to be mistaken for Rio De Janeiro at Carnival. Groove on, microbes. We’ve made it!

Carnival of a different kind: Ati Atihan in the Philippines

Living and laughing to remember the bacteria, hellish roads, Vietnamese pot holes, language barriers, sweltering heat, blistering cold, Tibetan altitude, Chinese toilets, theft, motorbike accidents, road blocks, layovers, fermented fish paste, mosquito bites, reef cuts, sunburns, pollution, sleep deprivation and every other moment of struggle, joy, confusion and desperate need for inner peace and resourcefulness has made me feel like I’ve accomplished perhaps my greatest life achievement yet. And the craziest realization for me is that I’m not even done.

This is technically my first break (a ‘break’ being a time in which one can sleep in the same bed for more than two weeks) from the road since I sold my car more than six months ago.

While the sixth month mark makes this my third half-year trip abroad, this is the first which has been spent primarily on the road, primarily alone. The thing about traveling alone is, you’re rarely, truly alone. Company has a way of finding you — whether in the form of a friendly Filipino jeepney driver or a former Tibetan prisoner, there will always be someone to share a laugh with and catch a cold from. Plus, friends come visit once they realize you’re never coming home…

Sitting shotgun in the jeepney. Manila, Philippines

I can’t say all that I’ve learned. Partly because I just don’t know yet and partly because it would bore readers. But there are some things on the tips of my fingers.


I’ve learned that kindness is the quickest way to get what you need, and impatience is the quickest way to lose it.

..that a smile knows no color, class or language.

..that the best place to be one of the locals is on public transit, and the best place to get ripped off is in a taxi.

..that happy dogs come from developed countries.

..that suffering is relative for all beings in all places. Children, men, women, puppies, pigs, cats, roosters and goldfish all seem to suffer more in poor countries than they do in rich ones.

..that wearing holes into my shoes makes me feel accomplished, and that the pancho covered in Diego Rivera murals I bought in Mexico was a shockingly wise travel purchase.

Shirt, dress, temple wear, beach wear, pajama wear, sleeping mask: the pancho. Quy Nhon, Vietnam

..that people are willing to share their home with those open enough to enter it.

..that Couchsurfing is quite possibly the greatest and most rewarding advent to modern travel that I can think of.

Mexico City

..that I can’t exempt myself from my own advice to others to face their fears.

..that if you don’t got a full-face helmet in Vietnam, you don’t got shit.

..that extreme income disparity is particularly heartbreaking when you see it affect someone you’ve come to know as a friend and intellectual equal.

..that religion and tradition are beautiful, yet partially to blame for global poverty and a myriad of other social problems.

..that you don’t, for any reason, need a smart phone to travel.

..that not having a smart phone makes you more resourceful, better at navigating and better at asking questions.

..that a pocket spiral bound notebook is timeless and essential.

..that the opportunity to have had the most basic levels of education should really not be taken for granted.

..that making jokes with yourself makes food poisoning less painful.

..that having a guide is sometimes a complete waste of an experience, other times it means not falling off of a cliff.

..that the line between being adventurous and being cocky is sometimes fine.

..that haggling over the difference of a dollar with your impoverished rickshaw driver makes you little different from a CEO who cringes over giving his entry-level employee a 1% raise.

..that the feeling of being price gouged based on a perceived ability to pay more will still drive you to haggle over a dollar, even if it’s with a guy who just wants to buy rice for his kids.

..(per above) that business can be cruel on even the most primitive of levels.

..that finding the balance between being a smart traveler and being an asshole is sometimes difficult.

..that traveling brings you the best of what humanity has to offer.

..that aside from thinking you’re crazy, local people everywhere seem to respect you for traveling alone as a female.

..that most people, after learning you’re traveling alone as a female, go out of their way to answer your questions and help you reach your destination, making solo travel for women ironically a lot easier, and perhaps in some cases, a lot safer.

..and finally, that if most people in most places were indeed rapists, murderers or thieves, societies would crumble and the entire world would be at war with itself. And because that’s not the case (at least for now), fearing horrible outcomes from chance encounters with such people is really irrational, and should never discourage someone from traveling more than it discourages them from getting on the freeway.

Toothbrush Tales. Ha Giang, Vietnam

Ultimately, I’m left with more questions than answers, of course. Perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “ultimately,” because nothing is over. Unanswered questions are what continue to make life more interesting with each whim. I look forward to the road again in coming months, to discovering more questions I never thought to ask.


“It’s worth remembering that the act of discovery does not require that you understand, either in advance or after the fact, what you’ve discovered.”
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Space Chronicles
Tropang Sas, Cambodia
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jillian J. Stenzel’s story.