Honestly, it’s the conversation I most dread in a hostel common room. It always starts innocently enough; someone asks where you’ve been, where you’re going, and proceeds to enthusiastic recommendations of what someone loved in a particular place and why you must not miss a specific lesser known gem.
Then, he enters the fray. The big blow-hard with curly blonde hair and a road worn look who feels the need to make a point of the fact that he’s traveled further, and wider, and deeper than any of the newbies in the room, and he basks in the awed admiration of the poor guy who made the mistake of being really excited that he’d just entered (only) his sixth month on the road, thinking that gave him some bragging rights.
Then, he enters the fray. The big blow-hard with curly blonde hair and a road worn look who feels the need to make a point of the fact that he’s traveled further, and wider, and deeper than any of the newbies in the room.
This is the guy who just sucks the wind right out of everyone’s sails and steps up onto a podium of his own imagining. I can’t stand this guy. I want to shout at him, “SHUT UP!! You’re ruining everything! That girl was just about to say something important, she was getting ready to tell us how having tea with that local lady who was selling weavings in the market yesterday changed her whole life and perspective on needs vs. wants! NOBODY CARES that you’ve done it bigger, better or longer. Just shush.”
And now, I make a confession: Sometimes I say that. Sometimes I’m even ruder than he is, and I come to the aid of the demoralized, and I just ream him for a minute, briefly opening a can of “mama” and reminding him that there are other people in the world who have done more and are more attractive for saying less about it. It’s not nice. I know this. Sometimes I cannot help it. Because I really want to hear her story.
It’s not nice. I know this. Sometimes I cannot help it.
I really want to hear about the moment that brought you to tears of transformation. I really want to hear about how getting smacked in the face with real, true, destitute poverty was the moment in life when you decided to live differently and to adopt generosity as a primary virtue. I really want to hear about what you overcame walking the Pacific Crest Trail alone. I will hang on every word of how an encounter in a Mexican jail changed the course of your life towards serving kids without a fair shake in life.
I suppose there are people who travel longer term simply because they want to check stuff off of their lists. They want to be able to fill out those “how many places have you been?” quizzes on social media and come out on top every time. They want to have a flag from every country. They want to have been more places, “done” more things, and have bragging rights for life because of their amazing capacity for going everywhere while learning nothing. I would like to hope that they get past that point eventually, but if they don’t, well, they’re welcome to those titles, while I busy myself interviewing the little guy who has just had his mind blown for the first, or the fiftieth time.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Travel is not a contest. It’s not a party trick you pull out to increase your winsomeness on a Friday evening in a roomful of strangers. You might have been two years on the road across four continents, and if you haven’t learned a damned thing from it then your story matters less than the seventeen-year-old kid who is one week into her first three week sojourn but who has just had her world rocked forever. Stop cutting notches into your belt and open your eyes.
Stop cutting notches into your belt and open your eyes.
Travel. Real, deep, honest to goodness, intentional, independent, passionate wandering, is about learning. It’s about experiencing the world, stretching our boundaries and comfort zones, and recognizing that there is more to life than the sum total of our own experience.
It’s about learning to shut up and listen. It’s about the discovery that ours is only one way to do things. It’s about acknowledging that we don’t know it all. In fact, maybe we know very little. Actually, maybe even the little we do know will be called into question. It’s about the most private of transformations, in which we look very much the same on the outside but return with entirely different hearts and minds.
Travel. Real, deep, honest to goodness, intentional, independent, passionate wandering, is about learning.
I have a suspicion about the blow-hards, having spent too many evenings watching them over a lukewarm drink on rooftop terraces in pick-a-place. I suspect that they are so loud, and proud, and self-important because they are afraid. It’s easier to blow everyone out of the water with what you’ve done externally than it is to talk about what brought you to your knees. It’s easier to be the hero in the room than it is to be the girl who can’t quite articulate why her heart was completely wrung out by the children. It’s easier to run your mouth than it is to open your ears, check your pride at the door, and admit that you don’t know and you’re here to learn.
And yes, I realize that the longer you’ve traveled, the easier it is to feel like you have two cents to add to every conversation. The easier it gets to rattle of the laundry list of places and adventures. The greater the temptation to become jaded. The shorter that three month RTW the newbie is on seems. I get it.
But the longer you’ve traveled and the more you’ve seen, the less excuse you have for not “getting it,” for not listening, for not valuing the tiny moments, for acting like you’re the center of the universe, when the primary lesson travel should be teaching you is that you’re the furthest thing from it.
It’s easier to blow everyone out of the water with what you’ve done externally than it is to talk about what brought you to your knees.
The longer we travel, the deeper this personal transformation should be taking us. The more value we will begin to place on that process within ourselves and others. It’s not always pleasant, but the results are like molten gold after the dross has been skimmed.
It increases our value in the world in terms of our ability to understand, empathize, and serve in ways that will change the world in big and small ways. The changes may or may not be things you can articulate to others, but that’s a secondary concern, they have occurred, because of what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, the things you’ve experienced. They have become part of your soul in a way that will change the course of history in your life, in the life of your family, and in untold ways for generations. How cool is that?
So take your trip. Ignore the blow-hards and stay focused on the lessons the world is teaching you.
Private transformation is the souvenir of a lifetime.
How has travel transformed you? Let us know below.
Read more about how travel is not a contest:
- Stupid Travel Arguments We Should Stop Having
- Long-Term Travel as Education
- Travel Is Not a Contest (And Other Reasons to Embrace Slow Travel)
- Making Meaningful Connections (and Other Indie Travel Values We Love)