What have I learned in five months of travelling "unleashed"?
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Two stern-looking policemen were manning the checkpoint at the border crossing. It was raining slightly, and dusk was slowly setting in. As I was walking towards them, they scanned me with an inquisitive, suspicious look. I was wearing a pair of dark army-style pants and I had a black softshell jacket with a hood over my head to shield me from the rain. I was wearing a surgical protective mask (it was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), which only revealed my eyes and forehead. My skin was dark, too - tanned from months spent under the equatorial sun. I was carrying a backpack and dragging a heavy bag behind me, which was making a steady rumbling noise as I trod on the highway. Occasional heavy truck or a car drove past with complete disregard, as I approached the checkpoint. I could not blame the policemen for their suspicious gaze - in that situation, I must have looked very alien. To make it even stranger, I was crossing a highway border crossing, on foot. An immigrant who has lost his way, perhaps. An interloper, his intentions unknown.
They eased up their stance and realized I was actually a national of Slovenia, when I presented them with my passport and greeted them in our language. I explained I am coming home from a long journey and that I've just arrived from Vienna by train. After jotting down my name and surname, they let me pass. Ensuing 5 months of traveling through Southeast Asia and a long, tiresome journey home which included 1 boat, 2 buses, 3 airplanes, 2 trains, and a few taxis, I crossed the borders of my home country again.
It is a strange feeling, coming back to "normal" life. What is "normal" anyway? It's not like I have never been absent from home before. When I was undertaking my masters in Amsterdam, I was away for almost a year. But coming back from travelling is very different than coming back from studying or working abroad. When you are studying or working abroad, or even when travelling for work, you are still encapsulated in a system. Like a part of a machine. This system may be a university, a company, an organization, association, etc. - they all have a framework of rules and schedules you abide by. You go to work, you visit classes, you have meetings - your life revolves within the framework of the system. Yes, you are not at home (unless you have made it your home), but your life is predictable more or less to the same degree. You have routines and obligations to adhere to. You have errands to do and tasks to accomplish. You have a schedule dictated by others. It is very similar to either working or studying back home - you changed your location, but not your everyday modus operandi. One machinery instead of a different one. But traveling "unleashed" (i.e. for pure pleasure) is different.
When you travel unleashed, especially if you travel solo, you are free.
No routines, no schedules imposed by others, no obligations. You depend on yourself alone, and safety nets are scarce. No two days are the same - unless you want them to be. Life is unpredictable. You are not anchored to one place; you drift with the flow, not knowing what the next corner might bring. You are released from the bonds of the system and the shackles of daily errands. You learn not to take anything for granted. Coming back home from this way of life is strange, and somewhat intimidating. It feels uneasy at first, like the old burdens of everyday life are slowly leaning back against your back in a huge pile, threatening to crush you. Like a boulder high up on the mountain, which slowly rips itself out of a rocky outcrop, before the pull of gravity sends it hurtling down into the valley, obliterating everything in its path.
Travelling is life - simplifying. Travelling is simple (which does not mean it is easy). Some people think solo travelling is difficult and lonely, and well, yes, sometimes it is. But life back home is sometimes difficult and lonely too. I believe travelling is actually easier than navigating through life at home, where you are laden on a daily basis with a thousand things, people, tasks, and errands. Travelling is simple and much less stressful. It makes you wonderfully focused on one thing at a time. Like a mountaineer high up on the face of a mountain, negotiating a tricky part of a steep, vertical wall. Battered by the winds and exposed to constant danger, he thinks only where to put his foot; then where to swing his ice axe; then where to set up a piton or a belay. One move at a time. Overcoming one obstacle at a time. Focused. Definitely not easy. But simple.
Travelling is a bit similar to that. It changes your perception of the world, of your life, and of yourself. It alters your perception of time. You see things and people around you differently. When travelling, you cannot set your life on autopilot and just watch the world go by. You have to be active, or you will be overwhelmed. This instills in you a sense of living and a sense of gratitude, matched by few other things in life.
Living in the moment
We often hear or read about how important it is to be able to live for (or in) the moment. To savour the instance; to relish the moment. Needless to say, some degree of planning ahead and learning from the past is absolutely useful and necessary. We learn from our past failures, so we don't repeat them. But if you spend too much of your time in useless contemplation of the past or the future, you lose the chance to enjoy what is here and now.
In that respect, I think travelling "unleashed" makes you more aware of the "here and now". It makes you realize, feel, and cherish the present. When you travel, you truly live for the moment. You cannot be certain about the future, and since things are unfolding so fast, you cannot afford to dwell on the past too much either. This is why travelling unleashed provides such a wonderful sense of freedom and thus the reason why it is so appealing to many people. You are experiencing each day to the fullest. Each day brings new excitements, new inspirations. You omit your expectations, drop your assumptions, and let the flow take you with it. Taking in whatever comes to you, with full attention and interest. Whatever comes, good or bad, you learn from it and carry on.
The absence of stuffobesity
Traveling unleashed gives you a better sense of what possessions you really "need" to live, and makes you realize how much unnecessary shit you own. You become aware of the ridiculous amount of clothes and shoes you have, and how much stuff you keep at home that you will likely never use again. Coming back from extended travelling is a good time to make a cleaning sweep of your stuff and get rid of the unnecessary, because at the moment of return, you are less emotionally attached to it. A good rule of thumb is: if you're sure you'll need it, keep it. If you think you might need it, you won't need it. We are a generation which, ever since childhood, lives in an abundance of material things which was unbeknownst to previous generations. Consequently, we are much more prone to amassing piles of stuff we don't really need. Think about it, then toss with a generous hand. After the initial shock, you'll be happy you did.
A different perception
I know this has been said many times before. But at the risk of sounding like a Spotify playlist on repeat, I will say it: travelling affects your perception of wealth and happiness. That applies especially if you are traveling through undeveloped countries of the third world. Now, SE Asia is not the poorest place in the world, but nonetheless, the gap between Europe and SE Asia is fucking big. It is sobering and sometimes shocking to see how little people have and how generous they still remain. How content, proud, and happy they are despite their modest material possessions. It instills in you a sense of humility, and immense gratitude for the things you have, and especially for the experiences you can afford to have. You talk to people who have never set foot on an airplane or left their country in their life; who don't even have a passport; who never owned a car; who have never seen a white sandy beach with palm trees swaying in the wind, or a mighty glacier covered in glittering snow and ice. And yet they seem to radiate peace and happiness. A strange sensation comes over you. You realize what an amazing privilege it is to be able to travel the world; or to go kitesurfing; or to hang out with friends at the beach, sipping cocktails while lounging in a hammock; not to mention partying and spending a shit ton of money on booze and festivities; and so on. So many things we take for granted are completely out of reach for countless millions of people. Some of these people are simply happy when a traveler from the other side of the planet, passes by their village, purchases a refreshment from their "bar" and chats with them while relaxing on their modest porch.
Does travelling make you a "better" person? I don't know. But it certainly changes the way you see things, the way you think and the way you act. Going far away from home in space also makes it easier to distance yourself in the mind. Travelling provides an opportunity to look at your life from further away and obtain a different perspective, thus making it easier to recalibrate your mind; rethink your life and re-evaluate your values. It broadens your horizons, and by doing so it makes you more instinctively aware of the things that are right in front of your nose but that you never noticed before. It makes you know yourself better. It makes you more in-sync with the feeling of living for the moment. It makes you a more stringent judge of what is relevant in your life and what is not, and thus you are more willing to discard things (and sometimes people) in your life that are not aligned with you and your values.
Most of all, it makes you appreciate life more. It makes you more aware of how you are living it - and the fact that you are living it, which we seem to forget more and more often.
After all, is this not what it is all about?