9 Life Lessons I Learned After One Year of Traveling

Yep, it’s been one year. One crazy year. I left Latin America. I’m back home in France. And I’m thinking about 9 things I didn’t know this time last year.

1. Long-term travel is not long-term vacation

I spent the first 3 months of my trip arriving each week in a new town with my shiny backpack, smiling to everyone and taking pictures of old churches. Like a tourist. But I was no tourist. Hell no. I was a traveler. I hitchhiked, I tried to talk to people in their language, I hanged out with locals.

Then I met travelers. Real ones. Hardcore travelers. And I understood I was no traveler. Compared to them, I was just a long-term tourist moving around on low budget trying to blend into the local culture. But I also understood what a traveler really was.

It’s a mindset.

I left San Francisco for this Latin America trip with this idea in mind: I have one year. I’ll reach the southernmost tip of South America in one year, then I’ll go back home to my real life to finish my studies.

And that’s a tourist mindset. After those 3 months I started questioning myself about that “real” life. Was I obligated to go back? Does “go back” even make any sense? I like my current lifestyle on the road, could that actually be my “real” life?

And things started to change. I stopped traveling for the sole purpose of traveling – discovering new places, meeting interesting people, having new experiences. I stopped thinking that I was actually traveling. I was just living my life. Yours is settled with a 9-5 job in a fixed city, mine is nomadic with mountains and beaches.

And that’s the traveler mindset. Your new lifestyle is called the road, and you embrace it.

2. It’s all about the people you meet

I’ll never forget the view I got waking up after a stormy night camping alone in the Northern Mexican mountains. I’ll never forget how hard my heart bumped when I touched a shark for the first time while scuba diving. But if you ask me about my dearest memories during this trip, the first things that come up are the people I met.

During this year of travel I’ve met a lot of people, to be honest only one particular type of people, called strangers, but a whole bunch of them. And I discovered that with these people, it’s either there or it’s not, whatever “it” is.

And when it’s there, it’s momentary and magical, it’s impossible to explain, but you both just know. It’s a hug that lasts longer than it should. It’s a 4-second eye contact. It’s a conversation that flows easily and naturally. It just happens.

We have friends who remain, friends who come in our lives but then leave and friends who just pass by our daily lives. I recently read a quote that went something like “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” Sometimes we are welcomed by friendships that aren’t meant to last forever. We know you won’t see some of them again forever. It’s sad, but it’s just life. Appreciate the magical moment you had with this friend, and keep the special memory of it in your mind.

3. It’s not scary out there

Kids. They’re always the best.

I went to a fair amount of dangerous shit holes in Central America. And what I found out is that the majority of people are good people, even in the most dangerous places. Most of the people I’ve met are extremely polite and helpful. They are generally interested in why I chose to visit their home. They are eager to assist if it’s obvious I’m lost or in trouble. They’ll go out of their way to try to make sure I have a good stay in their country.

So go out, travel, and talk to people. Ask them questions like a 4-year-old would, get to know them. Everybody has a path, a story to tell, a beautiful smile to offer, an emotional moment to share. Open your mind and get ready to receive it. There’s little to no downside and can have huge impacts for the rest of your life.

4. The world doesn’t care about you

When you live your daily routine, you get the unrealistic impression that all of the little things matter. If you accidentally piss off a coworker, you’ll be nervous each time you see him, and it’ll be awkward.

But when you travel, you can’t avoid embarrassing yourself. I once told my French friend that our Mexican Couchsurfer host’s house didn’t smell good, when our host suddenly said that he spoke French too. Oops.

These things happen. But the world moves on. What may seem like a suicide-inducing embarrassment for you is nothing but a non-relevant incident for the people around you. Or as David Foster Wallace put it, “You’ll stop worrying what others think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn sitting comfortably at home, and spending your life shuttling between the same three or four locations every day.

And this is extremely liberating. It means you don’t need to be afraid to do something you think will seem stupid, because people forgive and people forget. It means that there’s absolutely no reason to not be the person that you want to be. There is no one to please. There is no one to impress. There is no one to be afraid of. Most of the time, it’s just you, yourself and the stories you invent in your mind.

5. Sometimes it’s a good thing to be unproductive

Our society is pretty into the words “To-Do”. They indicate action and an end goal. They indicate we get shit done. Even while traveling, we talk about our “bucket list”: doing the Great Wall, finishing that book, getting the stamp in the passport… It’s a never-ending list to To-Dos. And we think we are productive like this.

Well, I learned how to be unproductive. I learned how to spend time not “doing something”, but simply “being”. I once traveled with this Mexican hippie dude, and, even though we weren’t stressed or anything, we meditated every single night, just sitting there and trying to feel all we can around us with our 5 senses. The last time before this trip I drew something was at age 14, and this time I bought a drawing book and sketched many times without purpose. I spent a lot of time in nature.

And I tried to find a balance between being and doing. Ironically, I’ve never accomplished more in my life.

Credits Friedrich Kunath: You Owe Me a Feeling

6. Change is good

Before I started traveling, I was a picky eater. My mom would tell me I was too meticulous and I wouldn’t care. Anytime someone asked me to give something a shot, I would tell them “No, I don’t like that”, even though I had never tried it.

I went out on this trip with this too famous “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” quote in mind. I was up to try just about anything. I experimented with living in new places, hanging out with new people, imbibing new substances, and playing with new people’s orifices.

And today, I wouldn’t mind eating any kind of food. According to my mom, that’s the biggest change she sees in me after one year traveling.

I also changed my opinion about bisexuality, the Russian government and my career. I changed my lifestyle (see point #7). I changed the way I think about Latin people. I changed a couple of other things.

And there’s no good or bad in the changes I made. It’s not worse before and better now. It’s just different. The only good thing happening is the change itself. Change breeds critical thinking, it breeds openness, and it breeds non-judgment. It helps you to grow and evolve.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. –Winston Churchill

7. The Art of Non-Conformity^[Read this blog, the guy’s not dumb.]

Go to school, get a job, meet your future partner, get a dog, get married, buy a house, and have a baby or three. That’s all you need to do in order to lead a happy and successful life.

Good thing is nobody believes this shit. Bad thing is everyone is living it. Yeah, including you. Which step are you at?

Conformists are brought up by conformists who were brought up by conformists. If you dare to stray off that path and start your own trail, people will question you frowning their eyebrows: “Are you sure you want to invest all your time and money to build a startup? Are you crazy to go travel the world?”

Once you start going down that trail, you’ll meet other non-conformists. In essence, they’re just like you. Working, living their little life. They are happy and successful, but based upon their own definition, not the one I gave 3 paragraphs above.

Being a non-conformist doesn’t mean you can’t have a 9-5 job, a cute little garden and a family of 5, and this message isn’t intended to encourage you to stop working and rebel against a life which you may consider to be normal. It’s about venturing off the trail, taking risks, and going against what everybody expects from you, in hopes of finding that life of yours that you’ve been dreaming of.

So decide for yourself what you want to get out of life. Because if you don’t decide for yourself, someone else will end up deciding for you.

Okay, chances are you might not know exactly what you want in life. In this case,

8. Long-term traveling will teach you things about yourself

This blog post is about things long-term traveling taught me. Well, one of these things is that long-term traveling teaches you things.

Mine taught me the 9 points on this list. You may or may not agree with what I say, I don’t mind. I’m only telling you that you will have your own list of 9 life lessons.

Because traveling gives you a higher perspective on life. You ask things about yourself. You discover things about yourself. You realize things about yourself.

And that’s priceless.

That’s why I would advice anyone who’s asking herself what she should do with her life to take the plunge and go traveling, especially if she’s still young and lack the major responsibilities that come along with life. Go do that 4-month humanitarian project in Nepal you’ve always kept in a corner of your head. Buy a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro, settle yourself there and see how you turn out after 3 months. Buy a van and make a road trip across Australia.

At the end of the day, what’s the worst that can happen? You don’t like it? No problem, just come home knowing that you gave it a shot.

Or you love it. You discover things about yourself. You realize things about yourself. And you’re forever changed.

Take that risk.

9. Everything’s changed

You wouldn’t believe it, but out of all challenges I’ve encountered on the road, the most difficult one was the fact I was coming home. Not because it represents an end to all fun and freedom, not because I’m leaving the Latin America I fell in love with. It’s a weird and unsettling sensation. It looks like nothing’s changed, but it feels like everything’s changed.

On the road I discovered and rediscovered different parts of myself. But once I came home, the same process started all over again… Read more about that in this full article.