I stepped onto my first solo flight to visit one of my best friends in Reno, Nevada when I was 18. Although I had been traveling around the country with my family nearly my entire life, this trip was different. I was going to spend five days in the west on a trip I had planned and packed for myself, which was blatantly obvious with my two FULL checked bags, one giant carry on “purse,” and an arm full of metal bangles because I was cool like that. When my stepmother asked me why in the hell I was packing so much, I replied with, “I get to be anyone I want to be.” By God, I packed enough to be seven different people every single day. She just shook her head and laughed, and rightfully so.
That trip was a learning experience. I quickly learned how ridiculous it was to pack so damn much, and how dumb it was to wear so much metal jewelry through a US airport circa 2001. I’d go into more detail about this, but it’s one of those life lessons you won’t fully comprehend until you experience it for yourself. Godspeed.
Despite looking like a jackass to veteran travelers around me, it was a wonderful trip. I got to experience a new city and state without the influence of my parents or other adults, went to my first gay pride festival (an eye-opening and enthralling experience for a kid from the Bible Belt) and met some incredible and eccentric folks, got a little too drunk with a couple of friends and regretted it for the two days following, and hitch-hiked after a wonderfully exhausting day at Lake Tahoe.
Now, I understand that for my fellow Bible-Belters that this may seem like rebellious or extreme behavior, but trust me, it could be a lot worse and there were no life-altering consequences. I did, however, gain a more realistic sense on just how easy it is to travel (and how to do it a bit more efficiently), how different cultures could be within one country, and an even bigger urge to explore than I already had.
My trip to Reno was the kickstart to six years of endless exploration, and if I can promise you one thing, it’s that I will be a traveler until I am physically incapable. I could provide you with dozens of reasons to start traveling as a young adult, but for now, I’ll start with these five:
1. You don’t even know yourself yet. Seriously. I hadn’t the slightest clue of who I was out from under my parents’ wings, away from the comfort of the Bluegrass that I knew and *did not* love at the time. I meant it when I said “I can be anyone I want to be.” Although the trip to Reno didn’t leave me with a new found sense of who KaSandra Ruth Mitchell really was, it did make me yearn for more self-discovery and exploration, and every single excursion I’ve been on since has aided in the development of the character that I am in this chapter of life.
You simply can’t know certain things about yourself until you are put in situations that test your true character and ability. For example, if strangers offer you a ride up a mountain after a long, exhausting day and your arms are full, are you going to take them up on their offer or are you going to choose the safer option and respectfully decline? Or maybe you’ll get stuck with a sketchy cab driver in a foreign country where there is a frustrating language barrier, and they are clearly taking advantage of you by overcharging and taking the longest route possible. You might think you know what your reaction will be and how you will handle the situation, but I can speak from experience that sometimes the most calm and collected people can freak out in an instant, and sometimes the nut case on the trip can be your saving grace at the most unexpected times.
Again, these are all things we learn through experience. More often than not you will surprise yourself, for better and for worse.
2. You will gain self-confidence and self-respect that only comes with experience. To build on #1, throwing yourself into new experiences (especially in unknown territories) will give you confidence in areas of life that you don’t even think about. After traveling to a country where you only speak enough of their language to greet people, thank them, pay for things, and find a toilet, suddenly speaking in front of 30 people or asking someone on a date doesn’t seem so intimidating. *Shout out to the ladies with the gumption to ask someone on a date! This is 2016. If you want something, freaking go for it.*
And about the whole “finding out certain things about yourself” thing, sometimes you will learn things about yourself that make you proud of the human you are. Like your ability to navigate a foreign city in the dark, or when you don’t pee your pants in front of 13 people in the jungle when your friend finds a snake under a rock. Proud moments.
3. You will quickly learn to make smart financial decisions. As a young adult with little responsibility and virtually no real bills, it is SO easy to toss your after school and summer money at anything if you have it in your pocket to spend. Well, what if you only brought cash with you on a two week excursion in Central America and you have to make it last? Yeah. You start to pay a little closer attention to what you’re spending your free-flowing cash on, and your priorities become much clearer as you are trying to decide if you should buy that sick *insert cool souvenir here* or if you should have the ability to eat the last three days of your trip.
This carries over when you get home and realize how badly you want to travel again and that you want to do it as quickly as possible. You start cutting back on those $4 coffees and nights out on the town where you throw $50-60 down the tubes, trying to be the big dog at the bar buying rounds for your homies. You may even start to work a couple extra shifts a week and watching your savings account grow as you hunt for affordable flights to anywhere.
These beautiful little adult habits carry over into your post-graduation life making you feel like you almost have your stuff together. Who would have thought that at 23, you can support yourself and still make legitimate plans to travel to a new country at least once a year? Pfft.
4. You will instantly become more marketable professionally and personally. The first category you will see on my resume is “International Experience.” I’m NOT bragging, but I can honestly say that since doing this, my resume hasn’t been passed over when hiring managers are looking for applicants. You can carry on a 4.0 throughout your college career and have a cookie-cutter resume, but guess what…lots of people can. When an employer sees that you have traveled outside of your country’s boarders, they are immediately curious. It speaks volumes when a person is willing to take risks and go on adventures. It also says “I can think outside of the box and bring a new perspective to the table,” without actually having to list that under your “Skills” section.
As for your personal life, traveling suddenly makes you interesting, I suppose. It excites people. It motivates them. And if you’ve been non-creepily stalking someone on Instagram for months and you see that they’ve just gone on a trip themselves, you can comment on their photos and say something like, “This reminds me of the time I went to XYZ!” Conversation strikes up, you make plans to hang out, bada-bing bada-boom, you’ve got yourself a date! Magic. *Note, I am not suggesting you travel as a means to meet a new love interest. If it happens, that’s just a bonus.*
5. You will form meaningful and lasting relationships with people you actually like. When you throw yourself into an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar people, you quickly learn how to attract people that are like-minded and interesting to you, and for your own good, I hope you learn how to reject the people who give you negative vibes even quicker. When you are in the same environment for a long time, you tend to find yourself surrounded by a few people you don’t particularly care for, or people that don’t really challenge you, let alone people that light your soul on fire. However, when you find yourself somewhere new, you almost always find yourself in stimulating conversation. I live for these moments. Nothing excites me more.
When you allow yourself to dive into situations and conversations like this, you learn more about people and places than you could ever imagine. If you’re thoughtful and intentional, these conversations can lead to some of the best relationships you can dream of. Despite time and distance, these relationships are the ones that will last, because they will change you in some way. You will tuck them away in a special place, where the memories only become more fond with time.
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Kalu Ndukwe Kalu
The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.