When the global economy collapsed in 2008, I had just graduated from college. Suddenly all the loans I took out to pay for that small piece of paper with my diploma printed on it seemed like a cruel joke. My friends and I all feared we’d have to move back in with our parents. So instead of pursuing work in film and television, the profession I’d gone to college for in the first place, I decided to play it safe with a full-time job as an audio visual technician at a different university.
It was supposed to be a temporary detour, something to hold me over until the economy improved. But, three years later, I was still there and tired from being overworked.
Sometime during 2010, I began dreaming of quitting my job and traveling through Southeast Asia for three months. This idea eventually turned into plans for a year-long break. The whole concept was crazy: I had only traveled outside the United States for twice - to the Bahamas and Paris. I was totally clueless. I knew nothing about backpacking or taking a gap year and I had no idea certain countries required visas to be visited. But I went ahead with the plan anyway.
For nearly a year, I saved up money by moving out of my apartment and sleeping at friends’ places. At one point, I even discreetly moved into the building where I was working at the time and slept there. I sold much of what I owned and took on additional hours at work. On Sept 21st 2011, I got on a plane.
I went to South America and trekked through Patagonia. In Zimbabwe, hippos, lions, and elephants roamed through our camping ground. When I got to South Korea, my relatives treated me as one of their own, despite having last seen them 18 years prior.
It was in China, the third country of my trip, when I realized that what I was doing wasn’t totally crazy. I had already met a multitude of other backpackers taking extended trips ranging from several months to four years. Young people from abroad were prioritizing travel over hurrying into careers.
A long vacation may sound glamorous, but budget backpacking across the world can really be a huge pain in the ass. Much of your time is spent finding the cheapest prices for accommodation, transportation, and handling other nuisances while carrying 20kg of luggage over your back in all sorts of weather conditions. To keep costs down I hitchhiked and took 30 hour train rides throughout countries like China and India. I slept in airports, camped, and Couchsurfed.
And the highs were also met with the lows. I caught food poisoning several times, was robbed of everything in Chile, and nearly died when my car flipped over in the deserts of Namibia.
Yet, traveling in this manner is really an educational experience and an investment in yourself. You get to see how other people live and how they view life. You also get time to reflect on your own issues from an altogether different perspective. In the end you may just come out wiser, more confident, and laid back. Then there’s the interaction with people vastly different from you who time after time are willing and eager to accommodate complete strangers, yet expecting nothing in return. The whole experience is incredibly humbling and urges you to give back in the same way.
I’ve been incredibly lucky having done all this but I’ve fallen victim to the worst of the travel bug. At certain points along the way, I thought I would reach some epiphany, but there didn’t need to be one. Sometimes I felt I was on a grand adventure and needed to extol the virtues of travel to all that passed by. But it’s really nothing you can’t figure out for yourself. People right outside your doorstep can teach you kindness and compassion. Personal growth happens by simply pushing yourself into a variety of new and challenging situations. You don’t need travel for any of this.
Traveling is necessary because at the very core it’s a reality check for those who travel and those receiving the traveler. You can see others with different eyes and the receiving party can see you with new eyes as well. Travel keeps us alert and prevents us from taking the easy close-minded way out. It’s the only way we can really mark off certain items on what David Brooks calls, our moral bucket list.
Sadly, many Americans are missing the opportunity to explore outside of our country at a young age. Though 38% of Americans now hold passports in 2015, we’re still behind significantly compared to other countries — Canadians (60%) and citizens of the UK (76%). Perhaps it’s the media that fuels the fear to venture beyond our borders, or perhaps it’s our comparatively short vacation time and our relentless drive to work. What can and should change is how younger generations view traveling. I always thought globetrotting was only possible for the rich and adventurous, but this isn’t true. Traveling around the world with nothing but a backpack can be done with less money than you think and becomes easier everyday through online traveling tools. But traveling for an extended period is mainly an option when we’re younger, with more energy and curiosity, and less obligations . We shouldn’t let this time go to waste.
Growing up, we’re told to take the well-worn path from high school to college and then straight to work. Deviations from this route are often viewed with skepticism. At the moment only 10% of American college students study abroad for a semester and there’s hardly any mention of gap years. If many of us are going to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a degree and get mired in debt, then at the very least we need to provide incentives for young Americans to study abroad, or defer their college enrollment for a gap year. As globalization races forward, perhaps we need to rethink how young Americans are being prepared for their futures. An extended backpacking trip may not be for everyone, but at the very least it should be given some consideration as a real option.
After college I took two completely different routes. One, working at a job I was unhappy with that hurt my confidence in pursuing a meaningful career of my choice. The other, venturing across the world, which restored that confidence. In the end, both were unsustainable. Now that I’m out of travel mode I’m not sure of the next step. But with these experiences under my belt I think I’m better prepared to handle what lies ahead.