2017-2018 was the first time that I seriously traveled. When digital nomad blogs told me I could have a glamorous life working remotely and building a business from exotic locations, I made the leap.
I felt both ashamed that it took me so long to dismantle my ignorance of the world and humbly privileged to do so—guilty knowing that it’s untenable for most people to travel widely, and if everyone were to spend so many days with their bodies propelled into the sky by gallons of jet fuel, the environment would be in even greater peril.
There’s some perception in the American psyche that countries outside of the United States are unsafe. I was scared to leave home and travel alone. I ran through disaster scenario after disaster scenario, trying to figure out how to prepare myself.
I traveled to relatively safe countries, but it was interesting to notice that I never felt any more unsafe than I had in the United States.
Instead of dangerous situations, I found kind and helpful people wherever I went—like the couple in Chiang Mai who returned to me the two thousand baht I had somehow overpaid for my monthly room.
Travel is a way to discover that the world is full of people you can be friends with if you take the time to get to know them. Most people are likable, clever, and have a new perspective to show you.
Another American perception is that everyone is trying to come to the United States. No. Everyone in the world is trying to find a better life, which often means going elsewhere.
European and American 20-somethings flee the cost or cold of their home cities and flood Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Lisbon, and Ho Chi Minh City. San Franciscan tech workers flock to Austin’s cheap rents. The children of rural farmers come to the cities for better jobs. The Polish come to Germany or the UK and the Ukrainians come to Poland.
And people seemingly from every European country plus 20 more come to Berlin. Nowhere is staying the same, nor has it ever stayed the same for long, depending on your perspective of time.
There’s no culture to hang onto, everything has always been changing. The only decent thing to do as a country is lead the way in helping everyone become better educated, more able to create value for others, and supported to help the next generation thrive.
Having settled in Berlin, I am so grateful for how hospitable the city is to its English-speaking immigrants. I think often about how truly challenging it would be to come to the United States without knowing English. I have the greatest respect for countries who help immigrants and refugees make a home in their lands.
Travel is a way to dispel any ignorance about there being a best city or country. Each has its own virtues and shadows. Each has its own spirit that’s so palpable those first few weeks, but after months simply becomes a part of you—the air oxygenating your blood. And I think most places can become home, if you give yourself enough time for everything to become familiar.
Slow travel is vastly better than a week-long sightseeing blur. Staying for months in one place allows your immediate perceptions to mellow and the place as it really is comes to live inside you. In some ideal life, I would love to live in one new place every year, seeing the place dressed in all its seasons.
But despite the amazingness of travel—moments like standing in Hong Kong streets gaping up at the mile-high apartment complexes, a tower of dirty AC units, thinking about all those lives and at last seeing the absurdity in your sense of significance—despite experiences like that, there’s that cliché about how changing your outer environment doesn’t make you happy.
(Apparently part of getting older is kicking yourself over the decades it took you to learn the wisdom in the clichés you’ve brushed aside all those years, arrogantly thinking you understand or that they don’t apply to you.)
As I watched the outer landscape change from city to city, sometimes getting what I wanted and sometimes not, always my mind was there, looking for problems, seeing dissatisfaction in any landscape.
The photos don’t show the exhaustion of trying to find an affordable roach-free, quiet bedroom during peak tourist season, or the gnawing anxiety of trying to figure out what it is you’re doing searching from place to place, or the feeling of homesickness that surges with every sight of a plane overhead.
And so I think it’s ideal to travel extensively both outside own’s home and inside own’s mind. Yet I also have come to appreciate not doing any of that and just treading water in the mundane. The scared animal of my being likes routine, security, a sense of purpose in a tribe.
And I find that when I have a stable home and get into a routine, I start making progress in my life, using the momentum of the days to fight my bad habits, and slowly shape the weeks and months into something that might be helpful to someone.
And I guess that’s what inner and outer exploration is about to me: gaining perspective so that you can better see reality and understand how to make use of yourself and your time here.