When I first set off to roam the world on my own, I expected a lot of lessons.
I was adamant that traveling would improve my language skills, my ability to understand different cultures, and my sociability. All of these things came true, but they weren’t the icing on the cake.
As I got to more and more countries and started to venture into more challenging terrain, the most valuable lessons turned out to be the least expected.
Most seasoned travelers rave about their understanding of the world’s cultural web.
After all, humans are the same. We all want a good education, quality healthcare, and a nice home for our kids. Oh yeah, the world is not all bad and the media blows events out of proportion.
Those two realizations are often cited as the “main lessons” from traveling the world. I get it. And I agree. I would, however, argue that these truisms are hardly news.
On this basis, here are my 5 unexpected lessons from solo traveling to over 50 countries. These are my own eye-openers, beyond the common “the world is good” revelation.
1. Jumping into the cold water works. If you know how to swim.
Before wandering the planet on a regular basis, I was scared. Like everyone, I dreaded the prospect of jumping into the cold water and leaving my comfort zone.
My story as a world traveler started around 8 years ago with a solo trip to Mexico. Back then, social media already existed but the grip of the whole Insta-famous influencer-hotel-promotion-booty-culture wasn’t as tight.
In short, there weren’t as many Youtubers telling you things like “just go” or “traveling will solve all of your problems”.
On this basis, nobody told me that getting out of my comfort zone was a good idea. This trend hadn’t caught on yet. And my word, am I thankful for that.
By not having the YOLO mentality ingrained into my thinking, I didn’t have the wrong expectations. And this brings me to my first travel realization.
Traveling itself — that is, going somewhere foreign — will not change your character overnight.
While traveling can have a positive influence on your personality in the long haul, you won’t be a different person after stepping off the plane.
Accordingly, if you are shy, introverted, or fearful, traveling as such will not make these traits vanish in the blink of an eye. Don’t expect traveling to solve your problems.
Even if you run away from your problems at home, they will still exist — either once you come back or even while you’re away.
So it’s all doom and gloom then? Nope, here’s the uplifting part.
If you are truly committed to improving your character and personality, traveling can speed up the process. This is what happened to me.
While the bare act of leaving my hometown didn’t solve my problems, it had a profound effect on my psyche. By leaving me no choice but to become more determined and confident, I put more effort into sharpening those character traits. And gradually, I did.
This was the real benefit of traveling alone. It forced me to do something on a daily basis. Staying in your comfort zone at home doesn’t compel you to talk to strangers or to learn a new language. Being in faraway lands, on the other hand, does.
Going back to the cold water metaphor, jumping into the cold water will help you become more resistant against icy waters, but it will not teach you how to swim. You’ll have to learn that for yourself.
In a nutshell, traveling will not develop your character for you. It will, however, give you the proper incentive and once your mindset changes, you’ll grow for yourself, regardless of whether you are traveling or at home.
2. Combining preparation and spontaneity is key to a successful trip
One of the major lessons I learned from sojourning to over 50 countries is that there is one key to successful traveling: the right balance between preparation and spontaneity.
Being unprepared will cost you heaps of time, money, and effort. Being too prepared, on the other hand, will take some of the fun out of it.
So here is what to do: focus on the essential do’s and don’ts of the country you are visiting. Inform yourself about the culture, the history, the religious background, the current political and economic situation, and so on. Learn at least a few sentences in the local language and check some of the major sensitivities.
When it comes to planning your trip, make a rudimentary daily schedule with lots of blank spaces. Make a list of the top places you want to see and take a couple of notes.
That’s it. Leave the rest to impromptu ideas and spontaneous suggestions.
Trust me, this method never fails. You’ll be prepared enough to avoid looking like an idiot anywhere in the world but you’ll still have enough space to breathe — avoiding the “organized tour” effect.
3. “Development” statistics don’t tell the whole story
In school, we are always taught about the so-called “developed countries” and the so-called “developing countries”. These standings are usually measured by various indicators such as GDP per capita, HDI, and life expectancy.
All well and good, but the bare numbers don’t tell the whole story. All through my travels, I learned that the meaning of “development” varies significantly around the world.
While most people around the world don’t question the plain numbers, they couldn’t care less about their statistical rank.
Most people have no interest in their country’s GDP per capita, they have an interest in the amount that ends up in their pockets at the end of the month.
People usually refer to “development” by looking at their own lives, not the statistics of the country they live in.
The traffic situation in Mumbai is horrendous. The average income isn’t great either and a vast proportion of the city’s inhabitants live in slums.
However, the upper-middle-class tech kid — who has a good salary and lives one subway station away from his job — might not suffer as much from Mumbai’s congestion or poverty.
In the same vein, a single mom with a low income in Singapore, a booming, rich city, might not evaluate her personal situation on a GDP per capita basis.
The overall numbers paint an overall image. Every country is, nonetheless, full of individuals and individual development is ultimately what makes people tick.
This is why merely categorizing countries by numbers will not be of much use in everyday travel situations.
Besides, there are two more problems with statistical development marks.
First, lots of governments doctor their numbers in a way that suits their current agenda. This ranges from minor embellishments to outright falsification.
Several European countries had major unemployment problems in the 2010s. This doesn’t look good if you want to consider yourself a “developed”, “industrialized” country, does it?
Some countries, including France, Belgium, and Italy, resorted to inventing new categories of people on the dole. They started to distinguish between people actively looking for a job and people in some sort of employment measure.
In reality, both are the same. But because the latter aren’t counted among the EU’s unemployment statistics, the total unemployment rate goes down. Problem solved.
The second problem is that lots of governments, as well as media outlets, tend to magnify one indicator in a positive or negative way, overshadowing all the other statistics.
Let’s take Chile as an example. Before 2019, Chile was often cited as “top of the class in Latin America” or the “model for Latin economies”. This reputation was rooted in the perpetual highlighting of two statistics: GDP per capita and national debt.
Chile excelled in both. Successive governments, including the current president, lauded Chile as an “oasis of stability” in a region of turmoil.
Chile’s positive numbers papered over the cracks. While the Andean Republic’s GDP per capita is indeed impressive, the wealth distribution is extremely unequal.
The Gini coefficient of Chile has been appalling for decades. Most media outlets and, less surprisingly, the government, happily ignored these alarming numbers.
The same goes for Chile’s low sovereign debt. Yes, the country boasts great results in terms of sovereign debt reduction. The population is, however, heavily indebted.
All of these leaky statistics explain why Chile was completely unprepared when widespread chaos erupted in the streets of Santiago at the end of 2019. The long-term impact remains to be seen.
4. The most useful lessons are the ones you don’t remember
After coming back from a long journey abroad, you always feel a change in perspectives. You realize that 100 $ is worth more in Bolivia than in Luxembourg.
These are the obvious lessons. Some of the most instructive lessons, however, are the ones you don’t remember.
I was never a patient person. I used to bicker in the supermarket if the people at the cashier’s desk weren’t quick enough.
Proudly European, I also tended to avoid unnecessary chit chat and niceties. While I was never particularly rude, I didn’t see the point of being nice just for the sake of being nice.
These things changed. After years of roaming the world, I suddenly started to smile at vendors in the supermarket.
A few funny, banal phrases became a common occurrence in everyday situations. And most importantly, my friends began referring to me as the “most patient” person in the group.
I have no idea how this happened. The only explanation I have is constant exposure to different cultures.
I guess that being smiled at and called Sir 24/7 in the Philippines made me grasp the trivial yet gratifying use of smiles in everyday life. The US’ small talk culture probably had a similar effect.
And finally, endless hours of waiting for buses, restaurant meals, and other services presumably made me a more patient person.
I wonder where this new sense of tolerance for delays managed to penetrate my mind. Probably somewhere in Latin America.
5. Kudos to our parents and grandparents — who did this without technology
I look at my smartwatch. It’s 8.30 pm.
From the balcony of my 31st-story Bangkok Airbnb, I can see the MahaNakhon, an impressive skyscraper with a pixelated design.
My iPhone beeps, signifying the imminent arrival of my Grab taxi. I quickly proceed with the online check-in for my AirAsia flight to Singapore and take the elevator down.
I use Google Translate to talk to the driver. He asks me if I want to pay the tollway charge. Go for it! 40 minutes later, I arrive at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport to continue my journey.
30 years ago, my parents did exactly the same thing. Well, sort of. They took a flight from Bangkok to Singapore, the last stop on their honeymoon.
The funny part is that out of all the things I mentioned, only Bangkok and Singapore existed 30 years ago.
Throughout all of my travels, I couldn’t help but notice the phrase “did you meet some locals?”, uttered among travelers on a frequent basis. Upon coming home, I always wondered why my parents never asked me this.
So, one day, I decided to get to the root of the enigma.
“Well, of course, you are going to meet the locals. You are traveling by yourself, how else could you survive. I mean you gotta be asking the locals for directions and help.” My dad’s response was priceless.
It turned out that 30 years ago, meeting locals everywhere was as self-evident as social media pictures are today.
When my parents visited Thailand in 1990, there was no other possibility.
If you decided to venture into the hustle and bustle of Bangkok on your own, you needed the locals.
There was no Google Maps to tell you whether you just wandered into a shantytown. No Tripadvisor to give you restaurant suggestions.
If you wanted to have an authentic experience, you had to approach people.
This is the double-edged sword of technology. Yes, it has considerably simplified basic travel struggles like accommodation and transport.
It has, however, also turned the once obligatory act of meeting locals into an option. Looking at Thailand today, this option is becoming less and less common.