10 Things I’ve Learned From Life And Travel

I was born to gypsies, gestating on Lago de Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala, making my appearance in the forests of Ontario, Canada at the other end of the continent. My path has wound it’s way across many continents and countries in my short 39 years, and now there is a parade of little feet walking behind me as I have become a gypsy mama myself. I can’t imagine any other life.

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I’m thankful for so many aspects of the freedom of my life and the ability to travel far and wide, but the things I’m most thankful for are the lessons my nomadic path is teaching me as I continue to put one foot in front of the other, on desert paths and jungle tracks, lonely beaches, and high mountain passes. What is this life, if not the culmination of the lessons we’ve learned? Here are a few of mine…

This is your life

Stuck in the suburbs? Knee deep in debt or diapers? Freezing cold camped on a mountain face? Drowning in the monsoon rains of Southeast Asia? Barefoot on a beach at sunset?

This. Is. Your. Life. Live it. Don’t waste it. There is nothing else. This is it. Make it epic.

This is your life. This. Right now. This breath. When the last breath is gone, you can’t get it back. The next breath, as out of reach as the moon. The only moment you have is the one you’re in. Take the breath. Live the breath. It’s all part of the path: the joy, the pain, the preparation, the suffering, the happiness, the things that suck, the things that bless your socks off.

This. Is. Your. Life.

Live it. Don’t waste it. Be in your life, don’t wish it away. Change the things you don’t like. Set your own sails toward the destiny you design for yourself. Chase hard after your dreams. Very little is truly out of reach. But whatever you do, wherever you are, don’t miss the lesson in it. Don’t miss the moment by pining for something else. There is nothing else. This is it. Make it epic.

There are no experts. Do it YOUR way.

Rara Lake

If there is one downside to the internet era it is the throng of voices continually shouting about life: yours, mine, theirs. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is selling you something, even if it’s just an idea. Even me. The internet is a wonderful resource for expanding your mind, growing your passions, discovering new ideas, and gathering dreams. It’s also a terrible place for miring yourself in the myriad of choices and drowning in the sea of indecision created by the conflicting voices.

Just because someone has a blog doesn’t make them an expert. Just because someone is an expert doesn’t make them right. Just because someone is right doesn’t mean you have to do it their way.

The question, at the end of the 80-year long haul will be: how do you feel about how you spent your parade of days?

Life is like a coin: you can spend it any way you like, but you may only spend it once.

Why would you spend it on anything other than what pleases you most?

Your parents spent their coin their way. Your friends have their own coins in their own pockets. The people you admire are spending on their dreams, and that’s what you love about them. Don’t waste your coin trying to replicate someone else’s purchase.

You get to do your life, your way. It doesn’t have to look like mine. I don’t even have to like, or appreciate, or approve of your life. The question, at the end of the 80-year long haul will be: how do you feel about how you spent your parade of days?

Don’t waste it. Do it your way.

Apply strategy

Why do people give up so easily? Most people don’t succeed wildly at the life of their dreams; why is that? My Dad would tell you that almost any problem can be solved, almost any obstacle overcome if you will only, “Apply strategy to the situation.” Those words ring out of my childhood, which was one long lesson in taking what was at hand and solving the problem.

Hate your job? Change your career. Wish you were traveling? Take a leap and book a plane ticket. Book it for a year from now to give you time and impetus to put the necessary things in order. Struggling with a disability of some sort? There are ways around most. Does that sound harsh coming from someone without one? The man who taught me to “apply strategy” has the use of only one arm, and he taught me to build log cabins, build sailboats and sail them, travel the world, speak multiple languages, and get by when none of them applied – hunt, fish, can my own food, drive, light a one match fire, skim a snowmobile over the stretch of open water between ice and shoreline, skin and cook a shark, and use a speargun. Every morning I’d button the cuff of his shirt for him. My dad isn’t disabled, he simply has to apply strategy to the situation.

Stop making excuses for failure and apply strategy to your situation.

We know single parents, families with kids in wheel chairs, families with eight kids, people who are all on their own, highly intelligent university educated folks, and people who are so dyslexic they can barely read the cereal box, people with careers, and people who busk for a living who are all out there doing the thing they dream of. How do they do it? There’s no formula, but what they all have in common: my dad’s lesson:

Stop making excuses for failure and apply strategy to your situation.

Keep your stick on the ice

Another of my Dad’s sage one liners, with which he ends most emails to me, knowing well my tendency toward skating wildly in many directions.

In short, don’t lose your fracking head and blow your whole life. Plan. Execute. Enjoy. It’s hard to keep your focus over the long haul of a lifetime; I’m noticing that as I slide into middle age. There are moments when it seems completely rational to piss it all away. Don’t do it. Step back from the cliff. Think carefully. Proceed intentionally and with caution.

Epic lives are built as a series of well prepared, calculated risks taken with care to minimize the potential for disaster.

Epic lives may look like they are lived as a series of wild leaps into the unknown by courageous individuals. They are not. Epic lives are built as a series of well prepared, calculated risks taken with care to minimize the potential for disaster.

Keep your stick on the ice. Be responsible for yourself and others. Do the right thing. Man up. Stay the course. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Play the game and play it hard, to win.

It turns out, often, we do reap what we sow.

Pick up strays

People, not pets. “Don’t talk to strangers,” has to be the single worst piece of cultural brainwashing done to my generation. For starters, the people (statistically) most likely to hurt you are friends and family, and secondly, all of the best people are strangers.

My kids don’t go to school. I actively employ strangers to teach them. We talk to strangers daily. We invite them for dinner at least three times a week Yes, complete strangers, even the unwashed hippie variety. Especially the unwashed hippie variety. We trade them a meal for lessons. They tell us stories, share music or art; we learn.

Short list of lessons learned from strangers over dinner:

  • The fine art of swinging poi balls
  • Irish guitar instruction
  • Jazz guitar instruction
  • Celtic fiddle instruction
  • The finer points of Mennonite theology
  • What it’s like, first hand, to sit in the cockpit of an Israeli fighter jet over Palestine
  • What it was like, first hand, to grow up in Harlem during the 40’s
  • How to do string tricks
  • How to weave with a back strap loom
  • That it’s all fun and games until you’re decked by a big Swede
  • The difference, by smell, between pot and hash
  • That clothing really is optional
  • How to launch a paraglider

That’s the short list. I could go on.

Do yourself a favor, talk to strangers and start picking up strays.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Life. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Every runner knows you’re going to hit the wall and die by the trail if you hit it, full on, out of the gate. You have to pace yourself. You have to train properly. You have to plan your attack. Don’t make a fool of yourself by running like a bull on the loose in Pamplona the moment you break free. Take a longer view.

Too many folks launch out of high school into college and out of college into a career, full steam ahead, without thought to where the path is taking them and whether or not it’s even somewhere they want to go. They hit the ground running hard with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, an education in a field you can’t get a job in, add a house, a car, and a soccer mom, and pretty soon you look up and realize you’ve hit that wall.

Too many folks launch out of high school into college and out of college into a career, full steam ahead, without thought to where the path is taking them and whether or not it’s even somewhere they want to go.

Someone should discuss these things with young people, before they’re “stuck” in the system. Someone should give young people a year to travel and open their minds and explore their own persons enough to know who they are and what they want so that they can see their race clearly, mark the path, and run deliberately. We could do that for the young people in our lives, couldn’t we? By sharing what we’ve learned. By allowing them the freedom to run their own races without impunity, social or otherwise?

Set your eyes on the goal, find your passion, and chase hard after it with the dogged consistency of an Iron Man triathlete.

The tortoise is right: Slow and steady wins the race.

Dream: Always dream

It is my theory that there is no life without a dream, only existence. To be truly alive, we must dream, and we must feed our dreams. For me, travel is both dream and dream food. Outside of my comfort zone I see most clearly.  Doors open, obstacles become challenges to overcome, and I realize that virtually anything is within my reach if I will put my mind to it.

One dream will lead to another. They grow in scope and sequence. Before you know it you’ll be leading one of those epic lives you envy.

Start small. The dream to have one child leads to four. The dream bicycle Maritime Canada leads to a year of cycling in Europe & Africa, which in turn leads to four and a half years of non-stop travel and a complete career makeover. The important thing is to have a dream, to be working solidly at it and achieving it by degrees. One dream will lead to another. They grow in scope and sequence. Before you know it you’ll be leading one of those epic lives you envy.

Dream big dreams.

Time carries us away from all things

This is a lesson hard won, for me. It has been earth shaking in it’s depth, both the good and the bad. The Buddhists have a teaching that compares life to a river that is relentlessly flowing. It appears to be constant, but that is an illusion. You can’t step into the same river twice. The same is true with life, yours and that of others. Change is the only constant in the universe, and we’re spinning away from one side of the sun as surely as we’re spinning towards the other.

There are going to be epic highs and bone crushing lows. There will be great loves and devastating heartbreaks. There will be moments of insane wealth and abject poverty, in one sense or another. You’ll be surrounded by friends and also by enemies. You’ll walk continents in storybook adventure style and you’ll return home like a lonely pilgrim. The only thing those moments have in common is that they are passing. The beautiful as surely as the horrific.

Another pearl from my Daddy’s wisdom file: “If you can just keep breathing, sister, time will carry you away from all things.”

It’s not a contest

Life isn’t. Travel isn’t either. So why do we insist on continuous comparison? How I spend my coin has no bearing on how you spend yours. The number of flags I collect isn’t what makes my journey worthwhile.

A few years ago in Thailand, we sat on the beach, watching a ruby sunset melt into the Andaman Sea, celebrating with new friends (some of the strangers I referenced above). It was a perfectly lovely evening with shrimp on the BBQ, local rum in the coconuts, and guitar music floating over the crash of the waves. It was almost a perfect evening, except for the big blond American guy and the young Aussie who insisted on spending the whole evening in a member-measuring contest over their kite-surfing adventures.

If you’re at the stage of life where engaging in the comparison game seems hard to resist, let me offer you a piece of advice: don’t.

Our friends Chris and Thomas, kite-surfing instructors extraordinaire just sat back and enjoyed the show, no pressure to engage the two loud blow hards. When they wandered off to smoke a joint on the beach I whispered to my husband, “Why is everything a pissing contest with the kite surfing crowd?” Chris and Thomas chuckled, poured another drink, and we mellowed into the buttery moon rising beyond the palm trees. When the guys returned, still blustering loudly about wind and their conquests my daughter leaned in and whispered, with a wink: “I wonder who won… you know… the contest!” Indeed.

If you’re at the stage of life where engaging in the comparison game seems hard to resist, let me offer you a piece of advice: don’t. There are always people who have done more than you and always folks who have done less. In one group, you look like a failure, in the other, a wild success. In reality, you’re neither, you’re just spending your coin, like everyone else. If you have the least bit of sense you’ll be spending it on the things that fuel your dreams and make you happy and not on keeping up with our curly haired kite surfing dude.

If all else fails, take a walk

An extraordinarily long one if you can, the longer the better. A year long walk is a good start.

Travel won’t help you escape your problems, but it has a way of giving you the time to see more clearly, to focus on what matters most to you for a little while, and perhaps to reinvent yourself.

Travel is healing in ways that little else is, and you wouldn’t be the first person to recover from a train wreck (emotionally, physically, or financially) by hitting the road. If you’ve hit the wall, if your career is in shambles, if the economy has failed you, if your marriage has disintegrated, if a death has left you bereft, if winter is just looking too long and too cold to bear this year: Take a walk.

Travel won’t help you escape your problems, but it has a way of giving you the time to see more clearly, to focus on what matters most to you for a little while, and perhaps to reinvent yourself.

I was born because my parents decided to take a walk.

Life is full of lessons, these are just a few, and they’re mine. What are yours? What is the world teaching you as you live and breathe and walk the paths across continents?

To read more inspirational stories and advice, check out the following articles and resources:

Photo credits: matthewvenn, jdnx, Evelyn Simak, Yftaheco, Quinn Ryan Mattingly, formato digital, all other photos courtesy of Tony Miller and may not be used without permission.





Leave a Comment

  • Sarita Bhatia said at 2014-05-01T12:38:05+0000: makes one think definitely...i have to think then spend my coin ..whatever is left of it
  • Deborah Fortuna said at 2014-02-20T17:41:58+0000: Good articles and inspiration. Getting away affords one the opportunity to look at life in a different way. It's not about who or what is best. It's about just doing and see who else shares this planet with you.
  • Kathleen Packard said at 2014-01-03T16:03:15+0000: This so well worth the read, so many tidbits of wisdom,,...love how you are choosing to spend your coin!!
  • The Travel Liz said at 2013-12-17T22:05:18+0000: Refreshing to read - especially the part about how there are actually no experts and therefore one should do it in one's own way.I feel inspired ( :
  • Peeyush Gupta said at 2013-12-17T16:30:55+0000: Very Inspirational. Thanks for sharing.
  • Helder Simões Dos Santos said at 2012-12-07T13:16:26+0000: Great travel article by Jenn Miller. As she so bluntly puts it: "“Don’t talk to strangers,” has to be the single worst piece of cultural brainwashing..." "...the people most likely to hurt you are friends and family [...] all of the best people are strangers."
  • Terri MacKenzie said at 2012-10-26T21:21:25+0000: I absolutely love this...really well written. I love the bit about people are just spending their coins and not to compare how people are spending theirs, I'm going to try and do that and hope that others can do the same for me!
  • Oliver Green said at 2012-11-07T21:42:39+0000: Wow... what a read. One of the best in a very, very long time. It has filled me with inspiration, thank you!
  • Jennifer Miller said at 2012-11-01T12:47:51+0000: Thanks so much for the positive feedback and the encouragement. We are all on journeys that teach us things and it's inspiring to share the path with so many fantastic folks. Keep traveling!
  • Carol Lindequist said at 2012-10-29T23:45:09+0000: thank you for taking time to spend some coin with us. inspiring :)
  • Peter Mak said at 2012-10-24T21:34:13+0000: I like the idea of buying a plane ticket somewhere a year in advance and then working towards taking that trip. Great article.
  • Cindy Wu said at 2012-10-24T15:32:54+0000: This is such a great article about travel, life, and everything. Thank you so much.
  • Ish Gagno said at 2012-10-24T14:57:16+0000: One of the best travel pieces I've read in a long time. Kudos! :)