After traveling the world for 13 months, I’m often asked the same old question: “What was your favorite part?”. This question is logical but also often loaded. Most people I speak with aren’t actually interested in the answer. They are usually interested in seeing if one of my highlights matches up with their near term travel plans. So, when someone asks me “What was your favorite part?”, I have three possible answers which I call, “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly”.
The “good” answer is to feed them a softball answer like “I loved Italy”. This is a great answer because you’ll never find someone that hasn’t wanted to travel to Italy. Everyone wants to travel to Italy. This answer immediately prompts a discussion about food, wine, sunsets, romance and so forth. It’s an easy conversation to feed into and keeps people happy. They can relate to your time in Rome. They’ve seen some of the art from Florence. It’s a soft answer that’s only partly accurate from my perspective. But it gives common ground.
If I’m less inclined to be nice and think the other person is willing to take more risks in the conversation, then I’ll tell them some bigger truth like “I loved traveling through Colombia” or “The Okavango delta in Botswana is incredible”. These answers are a lot more intimidating because most people are afraid to travel to Colombia and couldn’t pick out Botswana on a map if their lives depended on it. It gives little ground for common conversation and you’ll usually kill a conversation pretty quickly with that answer for most people. But some will run with it and want to dig in more. Most wont which means I’ve kind of set them up for a failed conversation.
If I’m even less inclined to be nice and really want to challenge the question head on, then I’ll give my “ugly” answer. This answer provides basically zero ground for conversation with most people since pretty much no one I talk to on a daily basis will have traveled for a serious chunk of time. In some ways this answer is mean spirited because I know that the person asking likely wants to hear the “good” answer. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. The answer? “Learning what it means to be free”
Bam. That’s a conversation killer right there. It’s nothing like what the asker was seeking and, ironically, it’s the single most truthful answer I have to the question. It’s also the single most important thing I learned from traveling the world.
You are born free. You die free. But between those two moments, most people never really feel free. They pay their bills. They go to school. They raise their kids. They watch their TV. They either do what they want, are expected to do, or some combination of the two. But mostly, people live their lives on cruise control and are happy to follow the script as it’s been written for them.
Which is completely fine and something I am not exactly unfamiliar with myself.
Prior to leaving on our trip, I would describe my life as being a well crafted plot which followed the usual arc. I went to a good school, got good marks, married a good girl, got a good job and then…left it all behind. We stopped following the script abruptly and pivoted in a much different direction. We sold everything. We packed our bags with as little as we could. And in a very real way, we went about learning what it meant to be free. Free from obligations. Free from expectations. Free from time. Just plain free.
A moment sticks out in my head that illustrate this perfectly. We had been in Sydney for perhaps three or four days when I was walking past a young drunk man in the park. He stumbled along and, looking at me, asked, “Dude, you know what day it is?”. From outside appearances, if you were to pick between me or the drunk student as to who would know which day of the week it was, the smart money would have been on me. But the smart money would be wrong. I didn’t have a clue. I told him it was either monday or thursday. I couldn’t be certain. The previous day I had slept on a lawn in a park in downtown Sydney, soaking in the sun. I knew that much. But the day of the week was such a foreign concept to me I might as well have been as drunk as the young man.
I didn’t know what day of the month it was. The day of the week. Sometimes during my travels, I honestly would forget what country I was in. I floated along in a void of concern and basked in the freedom of it all.
As I traveled, I also learned how to live with less. To free yourself from the trappings of money and possessions that keep you from true freedom. You think you own your TV but really, your TV owns you. It owns your freedom with every dollar that it took which prevented you from following other paths. It owns your time by taking up the space you could be spending in other ways. The same is true for your car, your job, your fancy clothes. All of it. You think you own it but the truth is the exact opposite.
True freedom can’t be bought. It’s learned.
You are born free to choose whatever path you want in life. Some choices will likely cause you much grief in the short term or may feel difficult or impossible to make. But they are still choices you are free to make with sufficient will to see them through. Most people mistake difficult choices from having no choice at all. “I’d love to travel like you did but I [insert difficult choice here]” is a phrase I hear a lot of. Which is completely fine. But the most important thing to realize is that your choices are exactly that. Yours to make, difficult or otherwise. But they are choices.
You don’t have to follow any script. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s plans. You are free to do as you wish no matter how difficult it may seem.
By casting off our traditional plot for something else, travel taught me what it meant to be free. It’s not easy. It’s not without it’s price and often the price is steep. But it’s freedom none the less, in all it’s glory.
Learning – nay, embracing – the fact that your life is your own and you can lead it however you wish is the single greatest lesson I learned from traveling and it’s one that so difficult to share with others.