In the midst of Covid-19, many of us are taking stock of what’s important to us in life. Like many of you, I have awakened to the unsettling reality that I have taken a lot of things for granted each day. We don’t know the number of days we have in life, and that’s why it’s important to make each season and year count. When everything is taken away from you, that’s when you are thankful for what you have or had.
No matter how much money or wealth we possess, we only have one lifetime on this rock called Earth and a limited number of hitchhiking trips around the Sun. What a waste it would be to not be able to explore and appreciate what our unique, exciting and beautiful planet has to offer.
If you ask any young person what their three biggest passions are in life, I can almost guarantee you that 90 percent will say travel is one of them. How do I know this? It’s ubiquitous to any online dating profile.
I have been extremely fortunate to extensively tour the world during the last 25 years across all seven continents. It hasn’t been cheap and almost every bit of it has been self-funded. However, I am glad to have taken advantage of our golden age of affordable travel. Before low-cost airline fares and cheap lodging, you had to be very wealthy to do everything that I have done over the last couple of decades. And as most of you know, I am not a millionaire. However, I have lived a life full of millionaire experiences. I am also keenly aware that I have done adventurous things I probably won’t be able to do as I become older: from ultralight flying over Victoria Falls, to partying the nights away in Brazil and Thailand, to trekking in the Andes, to walking in cages with tigers in Southeast Asia. In fact, some of these I probably won’t have the stomach to try when I am older. In many cases it was the freedom of being single, having no kids and being able to live in the moment. It was the adventure of knowing anything was possible and I wasn’t afraid of what could happen.
It’s difficult to predict what will happen to the travel industry in the wake of the coronavirus, but it’s very possible that airfares will become much more expensive, many hotels will shut down and countries will become less open. For example, United Airlines has already announced it will emerge as a much smaller airline. Even if you emerge from this crisis with a job that provides you with the means to travel in the future, it likely will become much more expensive.
With so many great memories today, I have been reflecting on what I have learned during the last 25 years of traveling. I might be poorer in my banking account, but I am much richer in the memory bank. What did I gain from all of these experiences?
I have learned some valuable lessons, with even more colorful backstories — some shareable and others that probably will never be. I am not talking about bad food hygiene, or the best seat in a certain transport option, or how to deal with a scam taxi, or always carrying an extra $100 bill hidden in your boot. I am talking about some really priceless lessons that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Here are the golden dozen lessons I have learned through my travels. I hope some of these resonate with you. Please share some of your comments at the end of this story. I would love to hear about some of your experiences.
- So many people travel to other countries, but very few live there. The things you learn, the experiences you have and the friendships you make when living in a foreign location are entirely different and can change the way you view life. Thank you London for the days in your museums, afternoons in your parks, evenings in your theatres and late nights in your pubs. Thank you Madrid for the days in your priceless art galleries, lessons in how to not get lost on the Metro and the extensive Spanish lessons with a distinctive castellano accent.
- Don’t believe what you hear or see on the local news about a particular place being overtly dangerous. Don’t assume that a nation with a few terrorist attacks is a “no-go” country. We have terrorists attacks in the U.S. and Canada. Don’t assume that a country is dangerous because they have shootings each week. If that were the case, no one would want to visit America either. If I had listened to the doom and gloom on the local news, I never would have visited Ukraine, Jordan, Cambodia, Zambia, Tanzania or Turkey. I have met so many amazing people and experienced so many beautiful moments in these countries. I am not advocating for booking a holiday in Afghanistan, but learn the real facts on the ground. Dig in and really learn what the situation is like for visitors and how you can travel safely there. If traveling safely in a particularly location is not possible, then you can decide not to visit.
- Finding love in another country is usually exciting, but it’s not always a good idea. But then again, it could be a great idea. Know what you are getting yourself into and use the kind of judgement you would use back home. Or for some of you, don’t use the the same judgement you would use back home. What am I saying exactly? Just use common sense and question people’s motives. But also don’t let that stop you from having a good time. Just don’t make any crazy decisions or commitments. I am just going to leave this one here.
- The news tells us that certain people in specific parts of the world hate us, but it turns out they are actually pretty nice people. Thanks Zimbabwe and Palestine for the hospitality and sharing your culture with me. I haven’t felt that welcome in some Western countries.
- The best things are not in a guidebook or on a map. I have learned this countless times, from a secret beach on Kauai, to a quiet hike in Slovenia to a forgotten temple in southern Thailand. Talk to locals and learn what they like and where they go. Be willing to improvise on everything from transportation to food to your schedule. Sometimes it might not pan out, but other times you will never forget the memories you made.
- The people you meet are usually more memorable than the places you visit. Thanks Vitaliya for sharing the Ukrainian sleeper car with my brother and me to Uzhhorod in Zakarpattia Oblast. Thanks Huw for the crazy RAF stories during the long-day rides through the Tanzanian bush. Thank you Halvorsen family for the Christmas hospitality and stories of Patagonia legends during the stay at your estancia near El Chaltén. Thanks Noah for the never-ending education about penguins on a Russian ship off the coast of Antarctica. Thanks Jon for reminding me that the craziest goals — such as wakeboarding in Antarctica — are achievable. Thank you Johanna for the photography lessons at Foz do Iguaçu and reminding me not to be careful not to step on poisonous snakes. Thanks Alisha for accompanying me on a whirlwind, 24-hour tour of Kuala Lumpur while educating me about Hinduism at the Batu Caves.
- The way we do things may not the best way. In Tanzania, I saw unfinished small businesses without roofs after construction had been abandoned. I learned that most Tanzanians don’t have credit and only spend cash on what they can afford. When the cash runs out they stop building and the restart building when they have cash. In the West, many of us go into debt and live beyond our means. Thank you Norway for showing me how living green is better, cheaper long-term and preserves our natural resources. Thanks to Frankfurt-am-Main for showing me how moral countries take care of immigrants instead of treating them as burdens.
- Everyone thinks their religion is the way: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Thanks to the people I have met who have educated me about their beliefs without preaching to me that their way is the true way.
- Traveling cheap is the best way to travel more often unless you are wealthy or have a trust fund. I have had delicious food, met nicer people and received some of the best service from staying at budget hotels and eating at local dives. I have seen jaws drop when I talked to others — some who who had stayed at a Hilton, Radisson or Ritz — about the prices I paid. And Google Flights is the ultimate resource for saving money of flights. It has saved me thousands of dollars because I was flexible.
- Kindness and hatred are universal, and you choose which you want to be. Some of the kindest people are people I never thought would possibly help me. Chapeau to the Brazilian man who held on to my debit card, waited around the ATM for 15 minutes and then graciously gave it back to me when I returned to the ATM after I stupidly left my card in the machine. A big salute to the bus driver in Italy, who after his shift, drove me across the border to my hotel in Slovenia because taxis were not running that time of night. On the other side of the coin, some of the supposedly nicest or most tolerant people are sometimes the most hateful. I was hugely disappointed by some hateful Spaniards who harassed my roommate and me on the metro in tolerant Madrid because they thought we were gay (we aren’t, and what if we were?). Then there was the drunkard who hurled insults at my friend in nice Nashville because he thought she was Jewish (she wasn’t, and what if she were?).
- Some of the most educational and surprising experiences in life are the most unexpected. There was the time that I toured a mine in Poland and learned how salt built an empire. There was the time I talked to a Jordanian about Islam, and he shocked me by telling me how terrorists killed his cousin in a cage and how it galvanized the entire nation against ISIS. There was the time we stopped at a gas station in Patagonia and learned that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out just down the road for several years in Argentina. I could go on and on. You don’t find this knowledge on a travel show or Instagram. People keep some of these stories quiet for a reason.
- The most hyped places/destinations are often the most disappointing. I am talking about you, Venezia, Coachella, Copacabana Beach, Times Square and Universal Studios. I never thought I would be saying this during our coronavirus-starved longing for human connection, but too many people and overhype can ruin a destination.
All of these lessons are simply ones that I was reflecting back on tonight in isolation as I am under a stay-at-home coronavirus advisory in Phoenix. I am plotting a future of more travels, so let’s hope the world returns back to normal soon.
If you have not had the opportunity to explore your world, I hope you make the sacrifices to make it happen and become more self-aware of what a wonderful world we live in. Stay safe everyone until we meet through travel again.