"Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts; it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."—Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
Travel provides you with a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in a different environment, meet people from other cultures, and possibly even learn a new language. The exposure you’ll get to different ways of life can make you more empathetic towards others, and more appreciative of what you have back home. Simply put, it’s an opportunity to grow. But if you’re imagining an air-conditioned tour bus with museum visits and a stop for lunch, you can stop right here. If you want to feel the change and growth that travel can offer, you have to engage. Plan your own itinerary; take charge of your own transportation. Ask the locals for recommendations. Experiencing a city from behind tinted glass isn’t going to cut it.
Travel shakes things up – but in a good way
When you travel, you disrupt your routine and force yourself to learn new things. The learning begins before you board the plane. Pouring over guidebooks to figure out which places you want to visit is great, but don’t forget to read up on the local culture and customs; committing a faux-pas in another country can be costly and dangerous. But once you’re there, you’ll have to think on your feet and problem solve, which is not only highly stimulating mentally, it has actually been shown to improve cognition, reactivate the reward circuits in the brain, and enhance creativity. Moreover, these effects outlast the duration of the trip.
You get comfortable with discomfort
“It is valuable to recognize that much of your education did not teach you to deal with uncertainty. Exam questions often had one answer. Assignments had clear grading criteria. Teachers helped you to make steady progress toward the completion of projects.”—Art Markman, The Benefits of Being Comfortable with Uncertainty
Spending time abroad also helps you realize just how adaptable you really are. The at times drastic differences in climate and standard of living, accommodation or food in a foreign country are not for the squeamish. A trip to Peru will change your perception of guinea pigs from pets to delicacies when they are cooked and served to you whole, with the head, teeth, ears, and other parts left intact. Going into a washroom stall in the airport in Dubai only to find a basin resembling a urinal set on its back and embedded into the floor in place of a toilet forces you to either figure it out, or work your bladder muscles. The occasional spider you find in your bathtub is nothing compared to the variety and abundance of creepy crawlies you can encounter on foreign shores. And it won’t take long before checking your shoes for scorpions every morning becomes a habit. But when you wake up to find a baby gecko, no more than a couple of inches long, sleeping peacefully on your bathroom counter in the Caribbean, you’ll smile—and try not to disturb him.
The best laid plans often go awry
Trying to plan every minute of a trip with military precision is to be avoided at all costs. Not only is it the on-ramp to certain disappointment, you’ll be missing out on one of the great benefits of venturing abroad: it increases your tolerance for uncertainty. The concept of time and adherence to schedules that we take for granted here in Canada is much more fluid in other parts of the world. You’ve heard the stereotyped expression “being on island time”, haven’t you? Well, it transcends the islands, manifesting itself in completely unscheduled transportation, long waits for simple services, and businesses whose opening hours coincide with whenever the clerk or owner arrives with the keys. You may as well swallow your frustration and adjust your expectations because the locals will be perplexed and even slightly amused by your hyped sense of urgency. After all, the mountains, oceans, artifacts, and wonders of the world aren’t going anywhere. So what’s your hurry?
The intangible souvenirs
Spending a few weeks relying on your wits and initiative can be daunting at times, but it can also be fun and empowering. It’s not often that we get the chance to really chart our own course, so don’t hand someone else the map. When you return home, having successfully navigated another country while managing to make yourself understood in a foreign language, you won’t be quite the same person you were when you left. Assuming the trip wasn’t a complete bust (think natural disaster, health crisis, or political coup), you’ll have stories to tell. But you’ll also have a glimmer of confidence that will make you feel ready to take on new challenges in other areas of your life and, more importantly, ready to plan your next adventure.