(Or any age, really.)
As I sat there, staring at the date on a calendar, feeling the gravity of a supposed “big” birthday…naturally I found myself reflecting upon the many lessons I’ve learned in thirty years.
Wisdom can be encountered in a book or summarized in a quote (and believe me, I’ve enjoyed my share of those!) but more often than not, the teachings of the world must be learned and earned through life experience. Named “the hard way” by some, I spent much of my twenties seeking out words and thoughts of others’ lives well lived, all the while seeking (and unknowingly creating) a road map for myself.
I realize I’ve always been a ‘list reader.’ As much as I love long-form journalism and expert storytelling, I find myself clicking on nearly every one of the quick reads that suggest what basics I should have in my wardrobe, which ways to structure my morning routine, and most of all, things to consider in the stage of life I’m in. (Who else out there is guilty?)
What I find in these is not the pressure to conform to a set of ideas, nor any increased fear-of-missing-out. As I urge in my own published lists, I take what works for me…and discard the rest. I simply scan them for my own ideas, as I realize I’m constantly making mental and actual lists full of components for the life I want to lead.
As I looked at turning 30, I felt some sense of things I want to have or milestones I’d have liked to hit. Yet more than anything I see the lessons I’ve learned and perspective I gained. I realize that everything I’ve proud to have accumulated is the result of an experience. Life experience is what gave me those lessons and perspective, and I accelerated many of those lessons through travel.
I also discovered what was thought to be true all along: sometimes you just have to put down the map and live. While we can be told things over and over, we often have to go through something ourselves for it to really stick. (You may even find yourself knowing what to pursue or how to act based upon what you’ve internalized from all those lists you read and write!)
I present to you a collection of experiences around the world. They might be a knee-jerk catalyst to compare, or bear resemblance to a wish list to check off. Instead I ask you to consider it a manual for wisdom attained through the life experiences of one individual. These are particular to where I have gone and what I have done, which is as much the result of random chance as it was through planning or goal setting.
May they inspire you to generate ideas, identical, similar, or completely different, that will shape your own journey…to 30 and beyond.
- See world wonders, not because you want to check some box but because you know standing in front of them will change your belief in what humanity can accomplish.
For me? This was seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise (India,) climbing the Great Wall (China,) and gazing at the Pyramids (Egypt.)
2. Visit landmarks, and maybe even take your picture in front of them. Someday you’ll look back at them all and realize how many of your travel dreams came true.
For me? Seeing places like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London, Leaning Tower of Pisa, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Sydney Opera House!
3. Experience history. Seeing something ancient that has withstood the test of time proves both how short our little lives are and that humanity is capable of greatness. Now you’re aware not only of different ways of doing things in the modern world, but also perhaps pondering where those traditions or cultural patterns come from.
For me? Walk through/stand next to Petra, Acropolis, Colosseum, Chichen Itza, Hagia Sophia, Tikal, Angkor Wat…
4. Immerse yourself in nature. Standing next to a mountain, lake, river, or baby animal (yes, they’re all on par for me) astounds me. I’m not religious, but if I had a place of worship, nature would be my church. It makes me believe in something greater than myself.
For me? Some of the places that have awed me the most: the Himalayas in Nepal and India, Hawaii (active volcanoes! Na Pali Coast!,) Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, Cappadocia in Turkey, Yosemite National Park. My favorite animal encounters? Elephants in Nepal and Thailand.
5. Gain Perspective. Because you sweet little twenty-something, it’s not all about you! It’s not even all about your country. This can hit you in a number of ways, from an unexpected conversation to seeing how other people live and the daily challenges they face. Be curious, be open minded and open hearted as you seek this. And for goodness sake, be respectful. People are not spectacles. Find a way to give, whether that is of your time or your skills or simply your showing interest in other people.
For me? Volunteer abroad (mindfully.) Have open conversations practically in every place with anyone you can. Some conversations that affected me especially deeply: a driver in Burma, a child in Cambodia, a monk in Laos, a priestess in Guatemala, a cab driver in Palestine, a shop owner in Spain, the guy next to me on the beach in New Zealand, the girl next to me on an overnight bus in Turkey, a divemaster in Jordan…(Talk to everyone.)
Do things that scare you.
6. Book a ticket (and go!) to a destination that intimidates the hell out of you.
For me? I’ve both been terrified and pleasantly surprised (in India, I loved it!) and fearless and let down (in Colombia, where I was a victim of armed robbery.) Though I may wish things had happened differently, I don’t regret either decision.
7. Face a longtime fear head on.
For me? Speaking of terrified, let’s talk about a fear of heights — a rather common and relatively accessible fear to face. So I did just that: bungee jumping in New Zealand, riding in a hot air balloon high above Turkey, paragliding in Nepal. I’m still scared, but it did wonders for my confidence.
8. Learn when and how to trust strangers. (Spoiler alert: it’s more often than you’d think.)
For me? I resisted talking to a couple of Bedouin men I was sure were trying to scam us in Petra. When I finally chatted with them, they became friends — taking us to hidden parts of the area, stopping for tea everywhere and even inviting us to a wedding in their village. It’s important to stay safe, but remain open. Otherwise, we become closed to amazing cultural experiences and exchanges.
9. Backpack and live without much.
For me? Five months of continual travel through several different seasons, continents, and climates and no more than one backpack of space. It’s wonderful (and freeing!) to learn how little you really need to live happily.
10. Have your heart broken (and keep traveling anyways.)
For me? I had my heart broken by the two significant relationships I kept in my twenties. Both were after I had been traveling for an extended period of time, and the relationship did not survive. I came to understand that both times it was an extraordinary blessing. My second love, travel…only very recently let me down when a destination I hoped to showcase positively became a nightmare of my fears coming true.
Getting your heart broken is always incredibly painful, but it illuminates our inner strength and helps us grow.
Go it alone.
11. Take a solo trip (or many.)
For me? I’ll never forget my first solo trip…to Nepal. I landed amidst political chaos in Kathmandu, I was a third wheel on a Nepalese couple’s honeymoon for a day, accidentally found myself in a two hour seated meditation class….and somehow still had one of the most peaceful and fulfilling journeys of my life there.
12. Show up without plans.
For me? I’ll never forget unexpectedly needing to leave Greece. The cheapest flight out I could find was to Milan. Without knowing what I would do there, I hopped the plane (and then a train,) and ended up finding one of my favorite places on Earth (Lake Como!) completely randomly.
13. Explore on your own.
For me? I used to lean exclusively on groups, friends, boyfriends, guidebooks, and even tours to tell me what to see and where to go. I still value various kinds of travel, but I now always plan time to wander on my own as that is usually when I have the richest experiences.
14. Dine by yourself.
For me? I began dining alone because I had to as a business traveler. Over the years I learned to relish in it. There’s nothing like sitting at a cafe alone for a three hour lunch in Paris — savoring each bite, absorbing the world around you, and learning to love your own company.
15. Make friends from all over the world.
For me? Every single time (no pun intended) I traveled alone I made friends, not only in that part of the world but other travelers from all over the globe. Not only is this a lot of fun, it often leads to more travel (to visit your new friends.)
Push yourself beyond limits.
16. Get Physical: Go trekking, climb a mountain, run a (half?) marathon in a crazy place! It’s amazing what your body can do and the experiences we can have when we challenge ourselves in different terrains.
17. Get Mental: Learn a new language or words of each. Live simply. Break stereotypes. Go to museums in every city you visit. You’ll be exercising your mind just by traveling more, but it doesn’t hurt to stretch it out while you do.
18. Get Spiritual: Try reiki or meditation. See burials, temples, holy lands around the world. (Jerusalem and Varanasi were two of my favorites.) Draw from the rich perspectives of other spiritual traditions.
19. Get Cultural: Watch ceremonies, bike through the countryside (or motorbike in Vietnam!), take the train in India, go to flamenco in Spain, see a Bollywood film in Bombay. These are the moments you’ll remember most when you think back on your trips.
20. Get Sensory: go to markets, find new ingredients, try new flavors and hear new music. Extend your experiences beyond the sights, sounds, and feelings you’re used to having.
Connect with other people and places.
21. Take a girls/boys trip in your own country.
(Might I suggest New Orleans, Americans?)
22. Plan trips with friends, significant other, and family outside your country.
(Italy is a good place for all three!)
23. Stay with a friend living in a another country for an extended amount of time.
(Mine were London, Shanghai, and New Zealand!)
24. Live with a family abroad in a homestay.
(Shoutout to Barcelona and the Garcia Lopez family!)
25. Talk to someone you wouldn’t normally.
(Because that is when the magic happens.)
Seek things that make you happy.
26. Take your hobbies global.
Take cooking classes all over the world. Eat street food. Find the heart of a place through its cuisine (it will become your new favorite thing.)
Do yoga. My favorite spots so far: Bali, Tulum, India.
Not into either? Try something else. Take your passions from home and seek them out globally.
Because if not now, when? And I promise that while you might get a bit ill once or twice, it’s worth the risk.
27. Find a place (any place!) that you really love. Return over and over just because it makes you happy, and because you can.
28. Road trip through a beautiful country, region, or state.
You’ll see so much more this way. Trains are good, too. (Croatia, New Zealand, and California have been my favorites.)
29. Partake in celebrations around the world (My favorites so far: Oktoberfest in Munich, New Years in London/Sydney/Tahoe, Songkran in Thailand, St Patrick’s Day in Ireland (ok, I was 30 for this one!)
Though I’m not a sticker to bucket lists, there’s a reason why they exist. Find a couple international celebrations you feel drawn to, and book your ticket.
30. Let go a little. The best parts of any trip or any day or often unplanned, and often, a little bit silly. (It’s true.)
It was travel that made me fall in love with the world and with my true self. Looking back, these were the two things I was seeking most in my twenties.
Travel pushed me to grow, gave me self confidence. It thrilled me, milled me, drilled me, and almost killed me. I have pictures of memories that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life…and even more moments that were never captured.
Still the best part of stretching myself in foreign places was taking the experiences and lessons that shaped me back home with me (and sometimes even sharing them with you here!)
Reflecting back I realize the central theme, if you will, of my twenties has been seeking balance — feeling imbalanced, learning how to stand at first shakily and then happily on my own, and ultimately actively pursuing and understanding the importance of balance.
It is my belief the twenties is the era of our lives to take risks, to learn how to be comfortable and happy. It is also time to push yourself and grow…at home, and if we so desire, abroad.
Happy and safe travels, friends. Here’s to the next thirty…