“When you’re traveling on your own, you don’t know what’s going to happen. All you have is yourself to count on and you’re the one who has to figure things out. You put yourself to the test and challenge yourself and when things work out you go ‘oh shit, go me, I can do this.’”
Note from author: this interview took place right before COVID-19 started to turn the world upside down. I hope this piece can serve as a reminder of what waits for us when things draw closer to normal.
Travel has become more accessible today than it ever has been in the past. With a few taps of your fingers, Google Flights can present you with the cheapest tickets going anywhere in the world.
Your email is full of travel promotions. Your feed is full of outrageously beautiful photography calling for you to take an adventure. Your head is full of dreams.
But how does one bridge the chasm between the dreamy imagery filling Instagram and the reality of buying a plane ticket and doing that awfully exciting and yet oh-so-elusive thing, traveling the planet?
Say Hello to Tarran
Tarran called me from a small cafe somewhere in New Zealand. She had finished her work for the day — cleaning small houses at a meditation retreat center on the coast — just in time to chat with me.
Right away, I heard a smile in her voice and recognized a thoughtfulness to her answers that struck me as different compared to the busy world of the San Francisco Bay Area.
We dove straight into her travels. When I asked how the trip was going in relation to her pre-departure expectations, the first relatable truth smacked me in the face.
“I have these dreams or goals like publishing something someday, playing with monkeys, haha, shit like that. But I think ‘oh that’s such a distant thing. How will I accomplish something like that?’ There are just times when I don’t think I’d be able to do the things I want to do. But it all starts with how I think about myself. Because if I think that I can’t do something, then, of course, I won’t be able to do that thing because I won’t take the actions necessary to accomplish it.”
For Tarran, this trip is a version of that struggle. From the inception of her idea to purchase a one-way flight to New Zealand, to the moment she bought that ticket, a part of her knew that things would work out — that it would all be more than OK. Yet, even after hitting purchase on her airfare, she still felt overwhelmed.
The decision to believe in herself made all the difference: it enabled her to overcome the part of herself that overshadowed her dreams and aspirations.
“Then I just said fuck it, let’s do this.”
The Limbo Period
“I feel like life is freaky and weird until you actually make a decision about something.”
Ready for relatable truth #2? After graduating from college, Tarran hit that wall familiar to many of us. For the majority of her life, she knew what she was doing, and for the most part, where she was going. Traditionally, we aim to do well in high school and then apply for good colleges. We choose a major, work our butts off to do well in that major while also figuring out what it means to have responsibility and independence. We nail down internships (if we’re lucky), graduate, and start working our first job (or we order up those GRE/LSAT/MCAT/GMAT textbooks and start studying for grad school).
“You know your identity in college, you know what you’re supposed to do, you know your steps and path, but once you graduate, you realize OK, I am no longer a student. I’ve basically been doing that my whole life. Then you don’t know what you’re doing.”
This put her in a “limbo” period where her firm, uncomplicated identity of a college student was behind her. But the “next thing,” the next identity, was still in the future. Limbo.
“I remember this pivotal moment. I told a friend about how I felt weird and all over the place. We talked about how it was necessary to be in the ‘in-between’ before we make and execute upon a decision. But no one ever talks about that.”
That conversation may have helped Tarran begin to learn how to operate in that “in-between” space. But her travels have made that lesson a part of her life every day.
“With traveling, you don’t know what you’re doing two days from now, but things end up working out if you get more comfortable operating in that in-between space. Back home, we spend so much time needing to know everything, how to label people, what jobs people have, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow. There is all this discomfort around not knowing something.”
Just before Tarran made the above statement I had checked my watch to make sure I was on track to make it to whatever my next planned item of the day was…her words hit home.
The way Tarran is traveling is different than the average vacation: her intention is not to pre-plan her time down to the minute. Some people check local weather and plan their trip accordingly. They buy the tickets, work out the transportation from the airport to the Airbnb and they make sure the grocery store is within walking distance. Once they arrive, they sit in their room on Yelp to understand which is the best restaurant and then order an Uber or taxi to arrive precisely at that restaurant. After dinner, they go home early because the next morning they have a sunrise kayaking trip and an afternoon guided painting session followed by an evening wine tasting…Tarran is speaking about an experiential value that comes only when one allows the unknown to sit much closer than what is comfortable in everyday life.
The thought went even deeper. She reflected on how we tend to plan our lives from waking in the morning to laying down to sleep at night. Every detail is in place if we can manage. Now that she has chosen to put herself in an uncertain and unknown situation — spending her days without scheduled wine tastings and guided painting — she can’t help but see how planning out the entirety of our lives might contribute to our inability to sit alone with and trust our selves.
“I feel like we plan our schedules down to the minute and that distracts from being with yourself and being able to chill out and not have outside distractions. That goes hand-in-hand with the idea of sitting with the unknown ahead. You don’t know what you’re doing. That’s you and nothing else. That’s when things get put to the test.”
“You have to be with yourself and trust yourself and then make a decision.”
Opening Your Eyes
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of traveling is that it forces us to re-examine how we believed the world to be by showing us the many different ways that people live their lives within it.
We cannot realize how deeply we are products of our respective environments until we depart from the familiar and immerse ourselves in the experience and culture of others.
Consider one of the most obvious examples — language. The world as you know it through your native language is not the same as the world of someone with a different native tongue. The sounds, interpretations, meanings, and history behind the noises coming out of someone else’s mouth act as a window through which you can glimpse the stark difference between your world and theirs.
And yet, in all that diversity, in all that difference, we share a common humanity. they are still speaking with emotions that you yourself feel, they still eat and sleep and feel loss, love, pain, joy.
Exposing yourself to other worlds of relatable diversity forces you to reconsider things that you thought were just “true.”
“I feel like whether people realize it or not, they have some idea of how things will go. Like, ‘eventually I will have a house and spouse and kids and a job.’ It’s like this ladder of ways that we do life. But I don’t know, it’s just weird to think that there are so many other ways that life can go.”
Again and again, Tarran has come face to face with people going about lives so completely different from her own. She can’t help but consider alternate ways of living, of being in the world. Why must the way we live conform to a local norm when it is so clear that other people, in other communities and environments, live well and yet not the same way we would have expected “well” to be lived.
“I’ve met so many people here in New Zealand who are traveling all over the place. I’ve been thinking about how it would be cool to do this and that…and then I think about how I want to be raising my kids by a certain time but then I think….DO I?!”
It’s unsettling to consider that “the ways things are supposed to go” may not actually be the way things are supposed to go. Maybe there isn’t “a way things are supposed to go.” This line of thought becomes unsettling because it undermines the neat, understandable way in which the world is presented to us– when in reality, it is no such thing.
It takes a certain bravery and open-mindedness to confront this thought and its implications. Tarran is doing this.
Perhaps my favorite thing that Tarran shared was that she is starting to see a world where she can take more control of the good she wants to do in life without having to first trade time and money for credentials and only then begin to exercise positive impact on the world around her.
“Traveling is awesome, it’s so great how many different people you meet and how they see the world differently. It’s eye-opening and makes you question things, which I love. But I don’t just want it to be me kayaking and seeing fun things. I want it to be meaningful. I want to help people grow and in that way have meaningful travel.”
“All you have to do is take one step in a certain direction, and if you like it, keep taking steps. If you don’t like it, change directions.”
Tarran has started taking steps in a new direction and is so excited for what is it come now that she is welcoming the unknown that comes with travel, opening her eyes to the different ways to live this life, and growing as a product of challenging herself and seeing how she can overcome what life puts in front of her.