Today is my 30th birthday.
I’ve been on planet Earth for 30 years. During that time I’ve managed to visit (what I previously thought was a pretty impressive) 30 countries. But according to the Been app – which I update every time I enter a new country – those 30 countries represent just a meagre 14% of the world. So, if we go by my current rate of 30 countries in 30 years, it means I wouldn’t have even done a third of the world by the time I turn 90 (if I am lucky enough to live that long – which probably isn’t likely given the near misses I’ve experienced in the last three decades).
Travelling is not about the numbers though. It sounds wanky but I genuinely believe it’s about the journey, the discovery, the experience and the knowledge.
With that in mind I thought now was the perfect opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learnt (about myself and life) while gallivanting around the globe, particularly since upping my travelling game over the last couple of years. Because often you don’t even realise that you’re learning something new until after it’s happened. So here are five things travelling has taught me…
1. I’ve learnt that things don’t always go to plan.
“This wasn’t in my plans for the day” my 11-year-old self whinged, after slipping over in a stream on a Boxing Day walk with my family (who proceeded to pull me out of the frozen water while laughing their heads off at both the clumsiness of slipping and the melodramatic exclamation). I was wet, cold and embarrassed, and falling over wasn’t in my “plans”. But was it the end of the world? Did slipping over ruin everything for all of eternity? Back then, aged 11, yeah, it felt like it. But I got over it, eventually.
And so as I’ve grown up, whenever my life seems to be going a little off-piste, that childhood memory pops into my head, making me chuckle and reminding me that it’s ok if things don’t pan out the way you planned.
Over the last 30 years I’ve had big travel plans (and plans for life in general), but I’ve learnt that for my own happiness and sanity, it’s imperative to be flexible. Sometimes you just have to scrap your plans and go with the flow. Sometimes you have to book that impromptu trip to Cyprus or take that plunge into the unknown Mexican cenote (or frozen stream).
That’s not to say planning isn’t useful. Making plans can be very handy; making a bucket list of places you want to tick off and setting yourself goals can make travelling fun. Just be prepared to accept that at the end of the day, sometimes shit happens and things don’t work out.
2. I’ve learnt that you can’t make everyone happy all of the time.
Though I’m sure some will dispute this, I am only human. So obviously I care about the opinions of others. I don’t want to hurt peoples feelings or upset anyone through my choices or decisions. Though I’ve learnt that this isn’t always possible…
On my recent trip to Berlin, I decided to book an Airbnb for the first time. Though I’d been registered on the site since 2014, I’d never plucked up the courage to stay in another person’s home. But with funds dwindling as I tried to complete my “30 before 30” challenge, it seemed like the most economic option. So I contacted the host a few days before travelling to Germany, and booked this beauty of a room:
On my first day exploring the city, after “checking in” to my Airbnb, I met up with two amazing girls from the Girls Love Travel group on Facebook: Jessika from Canada and Michele from the US. With a mutual love of coffee, food and of course travel, we spent a day together roaming the streets of Berlin, swapping stories and learning about each other.
Unfortunately our time together as a trio was cut short, as my first day in Germany was Jessika’s last. But my new found Canadian friend and I have promised to meet up again soon (if anyone wants to book me flights to Toronto as a belated birthday present, I wouldn’t say no).
Michele and I had a few more days together in the city however, so drew up a mini Berlin bucket list, ticking off the likes of Tempelhof airfield, the DDR museum, the Berlin Zoo and the Topographie of Terrors. Despite only knowing each other for just 72 hours, we got on well. Like me, Michele works in marketing and writes a travel blog. Also like me, she’s had a bit of a rough time lately, so is taking some time out to embark on what she openly describes as a “midlife crisis tour“.
Between sightseeing and tourist attractions, taking photos and drinking coffee, Michele and I had deep conversations about the curve balls that life has thrown us. After four months on the road she felt that her trip hadn’t really been what she’d expected (see my point above about things not going to plan), and it seemed to me that instead of getting the answers she needs, she’s been left with more questions.
Unexpectedly, during one of our conversations on my last night in Berlin, Michele started to have a mini anxiety attack in the middle of Potsdamer Platz. I could see she was upset and anxious, but having never been in a situation like this before, I was confused and unsure of how I could help. We wandered the streets aimlessly, but I felt like I needed to keep Michele walking and talking to calm her down. As it began to get dark though, I was very conscious of the time: I had told my Airbnb host that I would be back to her apartment to collect my bag at 9pm.
Bearing in mind that Michele and I had only known each other for a total of three days, I was faced with two choices: 1) to be a good friend and stay with her, calm her down and make sure she was ok (thus not collecting my stuff from the Airbnb on time), or 2) to be a good Airbnb guest and hurry off to collect my stuff (thus leaving Michele alone in the centre of Berlin on a busy Saturday night, where anything could have happened)…
At the risk of upsetting the Airbnb host, I went with the latter option. I wouldn’t feel happy just leaving Michele alone like that, and didn’t want to part ways with her until I knew that she was happy (or at least happier) and safe.
Unfortunately, as expected, my choice not to pick up my belongings from the apartment at 9pm resulted in some angry messages from the disgruntled Airbnb host. I tried to explain the situation, but she wasn’t happy, which showed in her two-worded online feedback of me as a guest. While the feedback wasn’t negative, it didn’t mention anything about me being a clean, quiet or polite guest, which would obviously look better to prospective Airbnb hosts if I were applying to stay in their homes.
Receiving negative feedback was something that I worried about as I travelled to Budapest. In fact, I worried about it so much that it deflated my feelings of accomplishing my “30 before 30” goal, when I finally reached Hungary the following morning. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t make everyone happy, so chose the route that would make me happiest.
Looking back now, the whole experience has taught me that being a people pleaser could in turn make yourself unhappy, as you could make decisions or choices you’re not comfortable with. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be kind or considerate. And of course, I’m not saying that you should be selfish – but it’s important to find a happy medium.
3. I’ve learnt who my true friends are.
Unlike many women I know, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never really been a girly girl, and as such have never really had a big group of girlfriends. That is I’ve never had a group of girls that are all friends with each other, having sleepovers and “girls nights out” and the such.
Instead I have a small pool of very close individual friends, both male and female, spread all over the UK (and further afield). Many of these friends have never met each other but – through my tales – know enough about one another to not be strangers should they ever meet. These are friends I’ve met in social situations, through work and through friends of friends.
Before I left for Yorkshire last year, I was worried that my friendships with these people would wane. Would out of sight mean out of mind? And, more importantly, would out of mind mean I would be forgotten completely?
One of my favourite travel bloggers, Nomadic Matt, wrote an article about Travel and the Art of Losing Friends. He openly states: “Going away didn’t lose me friends; it had shown me who my true friends were.” After everything that’s happened in my life over the last 12 months, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Although I didn’t “travel” per se, I was away from my friends for an extended period.
But despite having not spoken every day (admittedly due to my bouts of radio silence) or seeing each other for months, my true friends were there to support me when I needed them. And they have welcomed me back down south when everything went tits up, helping me get back to some sort of normality. For that I will be eternally grateful – I know that these people are special and will be in my life for a long, long time.
4. I’ve learnt how to make new friends while travelling.
As well as realising who my true friends from home are, travelling (especially when solo) has helped me develop many unexpected friendships, too. Many of these are people who are in different age groups, speak different languages and come from completely different backgrounds. Would we be friends if we’d met in normal circumstances in the UK, at say work or in the pub? Probably not, because our paths would probably never have crossed.
I’ve made friendships with people from all over the world, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. As well as Jessika and Michele mentioned above, there’s Manchester Eddy, who I met in Colombia then travelled to Istanbul with:
There are Ian and (the very beautiful) Lisa, an Irish couple living in Vancouver who Emma and I met at Tulum beach. They kindly lent us their snorkels so we could swim with the turtles:
There is Ahmed, my unplanned driver and tour guide in Amman; he was a complete stranger who helped me realise that I really am able to “always carry on”, despite what life throws at me:
Then there are Fab and Thais, the Brazilian babes who I bonded with on a crappy boat trip in Cartagena (“plastic, everything is just so plastic“):
There’s Leia, the crazy Australian chick who had me and my buddy Emma in fits of giggles while exploring Chichen Itza:
There’s Zak, who whizzed me around Marrakesh on the back of a motorbike, giving me a whirlwind tour of the city:
And there’s Nate and Gaith, my Petra heroes who saved me from a creepy Jordanian guy who wouldn’t stop hassling:
With 30 countries now under my belt, I could go on and on…
It’s important to remember that although I might not see these friends in daily life, I know I will always be welcome in their homes around the world, and vice versa. And no matter whether our time spent together was a few hours or a few days, I know we’ve always got our shared memories.
5. I’ve learnt that I am privileged to be able to travel.
There are so many people – bloggers, Instagrammers, YouTubers – who proclaim that “everybody can travel”, and that it’s just the small matter of chasing your dreams, saving money and quitting your job. Wake up and smell the coffee guys: the number of people who are genuinely able to do this probably accounts for less than 0.0000001% of the world’s entire population (maybe even fewer). And I’m sure there are millions who can’t even see your social media posts, on account of them not evening having fresh water, let alone electricity, a phone and a Facebook account to follow you on.
Through my travels I’ve met people in Tunisia who dream of leaving their country, yet can’t afford a passport. I’ve met seriously clever people in Gambia who just want to study abroad, but can’t afford it. And, most recently, I’ve met a Syrian girl who travelled to Jordan, though not because she wanted to, not because she wanted to “broaden her horizons” – because she had to, for hers and her children’s safety.
These examples may seem extreme, but they have certainly opened my eyes and made me realise how lucky I am to own a passport, now full of stamps of all the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. It really is a privilege for anybody to travel, and that’s a lesson we should all learn.
I’m not saying that if you are travelling or doing something else amazing, that you shouldn’t be proud of what you’ve achieved. All I am saying is that we shouldn’t forget that it really isn’t possible for everyone.
These are five things I’ve learnt from travelling. I could probably extend this list to include a whole bunch of other things I’ve realised over the last 30 years, but these were the things that popped in my mind immediately as I was writing this (long – well done you if you’ve made it to the end) post. So I think that’s an indication that these the most important lessons I’ve been taught.
Obviously everyone’s travelling experiences are different, so therefore what you learn when travelling will be personal to you. And while I do strongly believe that travelling teaches you a lot about life and about yourself, I by no means now know the “secret to life” because of my travels. I know that if I hadn’t been bitten by the travel bug and had spent my time (and a lot of money) pursuing something else, I would’ve still learnt so many lessons, albeit different ones. And, I know that there are so many things still to learn, so I can’t wait to see what life will bring me over the next 30 years.