There may come a time in your life as a traveler when you realize you no longer have a firm grip on your “why.”
When we first begin a new journey, there is always an underlying “why”–in other words, a motivating factor behind our decision to leave the familiar behind.
This “why” is different for everyone–it’s complicated and nuanced and deeply personal–though for many of us, it can be boiled down to a deep-seated desire for personal growth.
Personal growth is an unavoidable consequence of travel; it happens whether the traveler intends it to or not. This, in my opinion, is one of travel’s most beautiful gifts.
It imparts us with lessons we never even knew we needed to learn, often by throwing us into situations we never expected, forcing us to develop skills we never knew we had the capacity for.
For a long time, my “why” could be summed up the very same way–I wanted to learn about the world and understand my place within it. I wanted to learn more about myself and really see what I was made of.
I wanted to experience adversity to see how I would come out the other side, what knowledge I would gain, and what I might discover about the inner workings of my mind.
I wanted to know how others lived so I could better understand my privileged position in this world. I’ve always felt privileged, really, but travel revealed to me a new depth of privilege I hadn’t yet grasped. It was horrifying. Humbling. And exactly what I needed.
Roughly eight years have elapsed between my first international flight and the present moment. In those eight years, I have indeed come to understand myself on a level I never dreamed possible.
I’ve learned that I’m an introvert.
I’ve learned that I can’t travel forever.
I’ve learned that as much as I love travel, I never want it to be my job.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that I am indeed worthy of my own love.
I may have learned many of these same lessons about myself without living and traveling abroad for all those years; then again, perhaps not.
And surely if I were to continue traveling I would, in turn, continue learning meaningful lessons and confronting my most daunting demons. As we’ve already discussed, travel teaches you things even when you’re convinced it won’t.
What happens when travel no longer feels meaningful?
After five years of continuous travel, the experience began to fall flat. On a warm summer evening in the Canary Islands, a fellow traveler posed to me what should have been the simplest question:
“What is your ‘why?'” she inquired.
As I gazed back at her, I fumbled for words; I could feel heat rushing to my face. Did I really not know why I was traveling anymore?
It became quite clear to me that night that my “why” had become obfuscated over time. I had no good explanation for my lifestyle at that point, the very same lifestyle I had been quite vocal about eventually putting an end to.
Slowly but surely, the realization settled in: I was traveling because I simply didn’t know what else to do.
Having spent most of my twenties bouncing from country to country, I knew no other way of life; and I can only assume that the word “traveler” had, at some point, become what felt like an inextricable part of my identity.
But this “why” (or lack thereof) didn’t sit well with me. It didn’t feel good or justifiable or meaningful. When I look back on that summer, I see that night so clearly as the moment I knew: My travel lifestyle had to come to an end.
For someone who had built an identity around travel, however, quitting cold turkey simply wasn’t going to happen. It would take one more lapse in judgment, one more jaunt across borders, for me to finally come to my senses.
At the start of the year, I found myself once again in Mexico. What began as a two-month trip quickly dwindled to a six-week trip and eventually ended after just five. Those five weeks will be remembered as one of the more emotionally depleting periods of my life.
My “why” was tenuous at best.
The worst part of all of it was this horrible feeling I just couldn’t shake–that I was just going through the motions, wasting what by all accounts should have been a beautiful experience.
I learned more about myself in those five weeks than I had in the last year, to be sure. Travel, ever the teacher, was not about to let me off easy this time around.
In this instance, it forced me to take a good hard look at my life and realize that my actions were not congruent with my heart’s wishes. Travel simply didn’t feel meaningful to me in the way it had all those years prior, and my heart was seeking something more.
It was time to go home. Time to put down roots. Time to find my tribe.
These lessons, hard as they were to swallow, I will be forever grateful for.
It may have taken me a few years to come around to the idea of ‘settling down’, but I’m so glad I finally listened.