There seems to be an idea floating around out there that I find preposterous. If you are stuck in life and need to gain a better understanding of yourself, you should travel. Where does it come from? I’m not quite sure. However, movies that are ‘based on a true story’ seem to encourage the theme regularly. After quitting my job, I took a year off, and the number one suggestion that I heard was “you should backpack Europe” or a close derivative. I ignored this advice every time I received it. Instead did something immensely different. Now that I’m looking back I find that I now have more realistic expectations of adventure and travel.
Europe is Uncreative and Wildly Illogical
Everyone comes up with this idea. It goes like this: travel and you will come back with a greater understanding of your world at home. The way I see it: run away from your problems and then come back to them with less money. At the time I considered myself pretty experienced in the realm of running away from problems! After all, I had just quit my engineering career hoping never to need to return.
My Response and Alternative
“Europe is expensive guys, and I don’t think I would get much out of it” was my usual reply. If I felt especially annoyed, I would say “Yeah maybe.” The truth was I didn’t think I would get much if anything out it. Instead, I went to China.
Yeah, I know “What the fuck?” I just turned down everyone’s advice to go to one of the most popular tourist places in the world. Instead, I was going to a communist country where I spoke none of the languages. Additionally, I didn’t know their history, culture, or geography. The worst part of it all was I didn’t even have a desire to learn it. Surprisingly, that changed soon after I arrived.
Six Weeks as a Buddhist Monk
Why did I go? Because after quitting my job I wrote a list of ‘Adventures’ I would like to take. “Become a Buddhist monk” was the first item on the list, and the last one I thought I would achieve. I came across a program that offered just that. I could temporarily live in a monastery and practice Buddhism next to real monks for six weeks. Bravely I applied out of curiosity, assuming it was either a scam or a passing interest, thinking “I will never actually follow through on it.”
I followed through on it, and luckily it wasn’t a scam. If there was ever going to be a time in my life to experience living monastically in China, this year-long sabbatical was it. Additionally, My mother told me that she is not an adventurous person and looking back she wished she had left her comfort zone more often. This statement pushed me over the edge and inspired me to go. Thanks, Mom!
The Adventure Begins
As soon as I landed, I faced the challenge of not knowing how to get to my hostel in Shanghai, next I faced not knowing where to eat and not knowing anyone in the city. I paid WAY too much getting to the hostel. Then I met three German strangers and ate dinner with them. These experiences happened on day one! For the next 55 days, I consistently faced new challenges. These experiences were bullshit that I enjoyed dealing with!
On top of being presented with a daily challenge from the beautiful country of China, I also met awesome people. These people were amazing for two reasons. One, they had all achieved or wanted to accomplish great things in their life. Second, none of them gawked at me when they heard I quit my job because I didn’t like it and I wanted to change career paths. To them this was normal! Most of them responded with “right on man!” or “I did the same thing.”
It has been a while since I have been back from China. I didn’t return with self-enlightenment or a clear path to take in life. My souvenirs were a dozen new avenues I could pursue, on top of the few that existed before I left. Along with the confidence that I can solve problems that arise in my life. Another memento was a healthy desire to be outside of my comfort zone. Lastly, I came back with a handful of good friends from my travels. They are supportive of my path and also want to do something great.
These are the realistic expectations of travel. They are just as valuable, potentially more valuable, than any grand enlightenment. I returned with skills that I now can use in my everyday life.
Future Realistic Expectations of Travel
I wouldn’t have gotten the same thing out of a touristy trip to Europe. Europe could never have provided me with the same number of challenges China did. If you have the opportunity and money to travel, do it! However, you should have realistic expectations for them. You won’t return from your travels like a wise yogi descending a mountain top. You will come back with self-reliance, inspiration, and a head full of new ideas. In my mind, that is much more valuable. Have you ever taken a vacation you thought you would get a lot out of but didn’t? Or vice versa?