For me, travel has been the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. To call it a great experience is reductive — it’s FAR more than that. Returning home a new person, genuinely changed from experiencing so much of the world you’d only ever read about and seen on TV priorly, is a huge confidence booster.
At the core of it? The dawning of one simple reality: you don’t have to stay where you came from.
And this can change everything. Whether you adventure with a group of friends, a loved one, or brave the world on your own, travelling will strip you down to your authentic self. It can be the most exhilarating and existence-affirming thing you ever do, while at the same time frustrating you to tears, filling you with crushing self-doubt and, in certain situations, wearing you down with boredom.
Yet all of this is good. These new highs and lows will cultivate emotional intelligence and self-confidence, as you are truly put to the test regarding the boundaries of what you can achieve, both mentally and physically.
Here are the 5 ways that travel helps you unwind, unlearn, and undergo a personal transformation.
1) Culture Shock
Culture shock has been described as an emotional rollercoaster, and this is true, to some extent — but that monicker doesn’t capture how varied the experience can be. Some people might laugh off a few cultural differences, while others are completely paralyzed by it.
Being in a new country where things are different can be frustrating and disorienting, especially for typically ‘Type A’ personalities. To get through it, you have to let go of the illusion of control and ditch your expectations. It could be the first time in your adult life that you feel you have no volition or voice.
Dealing with a language barrier is always challenging, but what can really shake you up is the realization that things that you thought might be universal aren’t at all. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the rug being firmly pulled out from underneath you, but there’s no setting the scenario back up again. You’re here now.
The realization of this leads to a lot of small differences between home and abroad adding up quite quickly, which in turn leads to possibly the worst form of homesickness you’ve ever felt in your life. Different countries have disparate ideas about how a bathroom should be designed and what kind of food is edible, among (many, many) other things.
But there are highs to culture shock, too, like feeling real joy when things work out.
When I was in Vietnam I was constantly eating food that I wasn’t familiar with. One day, I saw that the lady I bought fruit from had red apples with “Washington” stickers on them. They were imported from the United States and really expensive compared to some of the other fruit that was there but I bought them anyway and they tasted like autumn back home in the pacific northwest. It gave me a lot of comfort and helped me to appreciate how different the tropical fruit was in Vietnam.
It’s important to take it a day at a time and not let the shock engulf you. It can be like slipping into a too-hot bath. It’s uncomfortable at first, maybe painful. But slowly you’ll get used to it and eventually you will delight in all it has to offer.
2) Find Your Calm
Unwinding while traveling can lead to a state of calmness more profound than you could hope to find at home. There’s more downtime than you might expect involved in travelling. Contrary to popular instagram feeds, travel isn’t all action all of the time. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of waiting involved — and thus, a lot of boredom.
But this downtime can be useful. It’s a great way to find out what you’re like really like once you’re outside of your home. Examining what you like to do in your free time can teach you a lot about yourself. What are you doing to dispel boredom? Are you still productive? Do you zone out alone on a beach or do you sit in a busy cafe and people-watch?
What you do in your downtime while traveling is often radically different from what you do at home, where there are different expectations of how you should spend your time. Unwinding while travelling can show you where your heart really lies and what fundamentally makes you happy.
Some traditional travel advice is do as the locals do. Following their patterns helps you adapt to their rhythm of life. If they are taking a siesta, you should have a nap too. Ingratiating yourself this way lets you try something new, and the more you try the more you’ll find what suits you. It’s such a surprise when we, as adults, learn something new about ourselves and realize that we are not, in fact, an immutable absolute. Travelling reminds us that it is our nature to be flexible, open, and ever-changing.
3) Workout For Your Ego
Everyday life while traveling is full of successes and failures. There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and a lot of ‘embarrassments‘ to be had. You have to check your ego somewhere other than where you checked your baggage, because bringing it on your trip with you is not helpful. It will hinder your ability to learn and have new experiences.
Travel opens you up. The world is so big and there are other people living lives you can’t even imagine. It’s hard to be a proud traveler. You are continually humbled and in awe. Your self-importance is regularly diminished by all you see around you.
It’s unproductive to be egotistical because you often don’t know about the place and the culture you’re visiting. Not being able to do something or find something is frustrating and it comes up again and again while traveling. These annoyances help build character and make you more grateful for what you do have and what you were able to find.
They help you take a more minimalistic approach to life. A lot of times, you have to adapt to live with minimal necessities: not having all of the amenities you normally have with you makes you more vulnerable, and thus more yourself, and less of how you contrive to be.
Before I left, I suspected that encountering cultural differences would make me less uptight, and I was right. After travelling I am more friendly, patient, kind — and remarkably slow to anger. Being an outsider and having others try to make you feel included makes you see that you should treat everyone with that same kindness.
Basically, travel strips you of your ego. It makes you realize who you really are when you’re outside of your city, your country, your continent — and the roles that you inevitably end up playing there.
Two things happen simultaneously regarding a deculturation process:
- You discard what you have from your own culture that you don’t need.
- You cherry pick what you adopt from the surrounding culture.
For example, I highly regard equality. This is a value I share with my country. So naturally, I balked at some of the patriarchal qualities of other societies. But while abroad I participated in calling out and yelling at people to get their attention in cafes, restaurants, and markets. It was wholly against my social conditioning but it while in the culture, I found it necessary. I, in essence, became one of the locals.
It’s very empowering to have this hands on experience and see how thin the veil of culture is. It gives you hope that it’s changeable for the better, and makes you proud of what you know works well (and what doesn’t) in your own culture
Travelling will humble you and teach you the true meaning of gratitude. It will make you feel rich, even as a budget traveller. All of this, and many other wonderful emotional things, will it do.
Sometimes the gratitude is something extremely simple and heartbreaking, such as: “I’m grateful that we don’t have open sewers in my country.” Other times, it’s a little more entitled, such as: “I’m grateful for safety regulations and air quality control.” The cool, fresh air of home seems a lifetime away when you’re sweating it out in humidity and heat.
All of it is very eye-opening. I never thought that I took my advantages for granted until I traveled, which spurred me to keep a journal. Surprisingly, most of my entries were food related, but there were days where I was grateful for my friends, grateful for things as simple as hot water, and even things like having a tidy house on a sunny day.