It’s easy being in your home country. You get it.
You know the system. You know how to get help. You know where the hospital is. You know how the postal system works. And, if pushed, you know where you can get a can of WD-40.
Life ‘at home’ is pretty easy.
Of course it comes with the inevitable challenges of being a human in your society and those challenges help shape who you are and teach you how to deal with Life.
But they don’t do so in the mad, intense, fly by the seat of your pants kinda way that travel does.
I’m going to find myself
I’ve always disliked this phrase for several reasons.
Firstly, look in a mirror. Boom, there you are.
Secondly, you are an ever-evolving person whose mood, habits and strengths change in short amounts of time.
Thirdly, going to an impoverished nation to take pictures of yourself drinking from a coconut is not finding who you are.
That said. Travel, particularly long-term travel (but not necessarily), is a pretty good way of finding out what you are capable of.
You don’t need a personality test to tell you whether you’re level-headed or introverted or a problem-solver. You just need to hit the road and see what happens.
Because my god, the things that will happen.
How do I deal with this one then eh?
When you travel, you’re continually forced into situations in which you would either not normally encounter or that you would not normally deem a ‘situation’ if you were at home.
The simple act of getting from the airport to the hostel could well be a significantly difficult process — entirely unlike flying home to London, hopping on the tube and then catching a train. I could do that blindfolded. In another country? Not so much.
With language barriers, different customs and unfamiliar infrastructure, everything is harder.
I was in Panama when I needed, very urgently, a specific part for the boat. This part certainly did not exist in Panama, possibly not in the US either. So we had it shipped from England.
Except Panama’s postal system is…well…it’s not the Royal Mail. We asked around and were met with, ‘if you post it here, it won’t arrive, not a chance.’
So we spent a few days working out the logistics. We ended up shipping it to the US from the UK and then onto a private mail company with an outlet near us. It took weeks. But it did arrive.
It’s a far cry from me ordering something on Amazon right now and it being delivered to my door tomorrow.
When you travel abroad, you have to work out how to do even the most basic things all over again.
You have to work out whether you are safe. You have to work out how to deal with everything from getting from A to B, to not accidentally breaking the law (for the British, jaywalking is a good example).
It’s not that you can’t ever relax when in an unfamiliar land, it’s that your brain functions on a different level.
You cannot run on autopilot because you have no presets for navigating either the abstract nor the concrete. The closest autopilot you could use is to smile at everyone but in some places that would be a rudely overfamiliar greeting.
In Bali, you mustn’t show the soles of your feet to the tiny banana leaf offerings placed lovingly on pavements or greet someone with your left hand. Pointing with your finger is rude even when pointing at something rather than someone and don’t be offended when the Balinese ask blunt questions, that’s just how they do things.
When in foreign cultures, you walk around with your eyes open, your senses heightened and your observation skills more acute. You notice things you wouldn’t back home, you look around more and even the most mundane things are fascinating.
You’re in an unfamiliar place and your brain is gathering as much information as physically possible to work out what’s going on.
In contrast, I walked down the road near my house the other day and saw a building I had never seen before.
I walk down this road all the time. It’s lined by typical Victorian terraced houses and then, suddenly, in the middle is an extraordinary house that is unlike any other. Each floor is at a different angle, it’s narrow and jutting, like the architect was given free rein for this one building in their career and by god were they going to make it count.
How could I never have seen it before?
Simply, because I’ve never looked. I’ve somehow recognised that this road has Victorian houses and never looked closer. I’m focused on the pavement, crossing at the lights, heading to the supermarket. I’ve never taken anything else in. I’ve always been on autopilot.
Solution based living
The wider variety of problems you solve increases your ability to solve future issues. It stands to reason that the more experience you have problem-solving — from directions to fixing broken things — the better you will be at doing it again, even if it’s a totally different problem.
It’s an attitude as much as an ability.
It’s a way of living that stops you from just thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do that so I can’t,’ and helps you think, ‘I don’t know how to do that, I’d better work out how to.’
And this is what travel does for you.
It takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you in positions where your brain has to continually work out how to solve small and large problems.
It puts you in positions where you must stretch yourself, usually to discover that you are capable of much more than what you might think.
It teaches you to be resourceful. To communicate across language and cultural barriers. To make do and mend. To live without home comforts. To create meals from new ingredients. To take into account the beliefs and lifestyles of other people. Offend someone in Britain and you’ll get a filthy look, offend someone in some other countries and you could end up in jail.
The clarity of home
So when you return home from travels, you haven’t found yourself. You’re not a different person. But you have found that you’re capable of much more than you might previously have known.
Situations that once might’ve thrown you now merely need mulling over. You’ve gained perspective.
If you can travel across the Indonesian archipelago, you can work out how to get home when the trains are cancelled. If you can navigate the bureaucracy of the hospital system in Chile, you can call up your mobile phone company at home and negotiate a better deal.
If you can do that, you can do this. And that. And that. Life isn’t necessarily easier, but issues are now problems to be solved thoughtfully, not ignored and allowed to become huge obstacles.
And when you know that you can solve the majority of problems that might arise, you gain confidence in your own abilities.
So if you find yourself standing a little taller after travelling, it’s not that you’ve found yourself — it’s that you trust yourself.
Kitiara Pascoe is a ghostwriter and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon in the UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk