This Too Shall Pass: Learning Life’s Lessons Through Travel
In this post Teresa Schumacher gives an insight into how challenges faced while travelling have taught her some of the most important lessons in life.
Lessons Learned Through Travel
It was an unseasonably cold day. The wind weaved fiercely through the heavily blossomed trees, causing little flurries of pink petals to scatter on the wet pavement as the rain fell like iced teardrops from a solemn gray sky. The Eiffel Tower stood before me in a cloud of fog, its austere scaffolding fading into the dreariness of the day. I shivered under a thin cardigan, glancing over at the nearby cafes where people sat sipping warm beverages and admiring the weather from a safe distance. A taxi rushed by, splashing water over the curb. As I lowered my gaze to my sodden feet, I suddenly began to cry.
I had been in Paris for approximately four and a half minutes, and it wasn’t going well. After sacrificing a night of sleep to catch the red eye from New York, I arrived at the little Orly airport groggy and disheveled. I could find no one who spoke English, and what French I had learned in high school had promptly abandoned me as I searched in vain for a bus to get me to the city. It took me two hours to purchase a ticket, another half hour spent searching for the right bus station. Yet another hour standing in the crowded bus, listening to the cadence of a language I couldn’t comprehend through a fog of fatigue and hunger. At last I was deposited unceremoniously in front of Champs de Mars, where I stumbled into the soggy streets, feeling like an imposter in this city of legendary beauty.
It wasn’t until I reached down to grab my phone and request an Uber that I realized I’d just left all of my belongings on that bus. Purse, suitcase, phone. Everything I had brought with me to Paris, now gone.
I had absolutely no idea what to do next.
(See also: Swapping Solo Travel for Group Tour)
Moments of Crisis
I call them Moments of Crisis. Those times during a trip when you can’t possibly imagine how you’re going to navigate your way through a situation. And I promise you that every journey, even the most thoroughly planned out vacation, has at least one. If you travel at all, you will at one point or another inevitably find yourself facing some insurmountable task, or perhaps a fear you didn’t know you had. I can offer countless personal examples. One time I got so lost driving through the hills of Tuscany that I thought I would never find my way out. No cell service, no GPS, no map or person to point me in the right direction. Just the beautiful countryside fading into the black of night as I drove around and around in endless circles, slowly running out of gas both literally and figuratively.
Another time I got stranded in a kayak on the Atlantic Ocean and thought I might be living out the sequel to Life of Pi. The tide was strong that morning, pushing me quickly out to sea while I naively sat back and admired the sunrise. A wave of sea sickness hit just as I realized how far I’d strayed from shore, and I spent the next two hours paddling with every ounce of strength I had, stopping only to throw up over the side of the kayak, then panicking when I thought my sickness might attract sharks from the murky waters. When I finally reached the beach and dragged my kayak the mile back up the shoreline to where I’d started, I collapsed in the sand and thought surely I’m dying.
(See also: Discovering Solo Female Travel in My 30s)
Nothing, however, compares to the the time my mother and I got stuck in a sketchy hostel room in Mendoza, Argentina. The doorknob fell off in my hand, leaving us trapped in the tiny, stiflingly hot room with no food or water. No access to a toilet. There weren’t even bedsheets to cover the stains on the mattresses. I stuck my head out the window and yelled “Help Me!” to an empty street, my voice instantly drowned out by a raging party going on upstairs. A giant rat paused to glare at me before slinking into a deserted alleyway. It was clear there would be no one helping us that night. My mother turned to me then and said “I’ll go, you have more life ahead of you.” She then stepped out the window, scaled the narrow third story window ledge, and broke into the adjacent room to free us from our prison.
One thing all of these moments have in common is that they all, eventually, came to an end. I found my way out of Tuscany. I recovered from my kayaking debacle. My mother and I escaped the horrendous situation in Mendoza. I even navigated my way out of that mess in Paris and recovered my lost belongings. My mother, that crazy lady who once scaled a window ledge to save me, is very fond of saying “this too shall pass.” And its a phrase that comes to mind often when I travel. I have learned that losing my luggage or getting lost is not the end of the world. I have realized that I’m capable of facing fears and rationally getting myself out of less than ideal situations. I now know that every challenge I encounter is just another tool in my belt, helping me to adapt and persevere when times get tough.
A Path to Personal Growth
Traveling doesn’t have to be rife with disaster and chaos to allow for personal growth. Travel – real, immersive travel – can also provide a window into the experiences of others, a way to learn from the people we meet and the stories we hear along the way. I once drove through Medellin, Colombia with a retired police officer who described to me in grisly detail the horrors he experienced while fighting against Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel. A story often romanticized in the entertainment industry (think Netflix’s Narcos series), the truth is deeply unsettling and far from entertaining. Carlos witnessed the death of countless comrades, lived in fear for his life, and faced impossibly difficult situations throughout his career. But his smile was genuine as he drove me around his neighborhood, the pride in his voice palpable as he described how he fought to save this city – his home. Our last stop for the day was the previous site of the infamous Monaco building, Escobar’s home in the city. The building was recently demolished, and in its place a memorial was erected to honor the city’s many victims of narcoterrorism. As Carlos pointed out the names of victims listed on the side of a large stone monument, I noticed tears in his eyes. These names belonged to his friends, his comrades. But Carlos smiled then – a fierce, sad smile.
“We have finally taken back our city.” he said.
Sometimes hearing about the trials and triumphs of others allows us to gain perspective in our own lives. Carlos’ experiences certainly made my own pitfalls seem small, even petty in comparison. Other times, witnessing the very livelihood of others can remind us of what we have and what truly matters. Last year I hiked through the mountains of northern Vietnam to visit a tiny village nestled between rice paddies and bamboo forests, just a stone’s throw from China. To get there we navigated twelve kilometers of twisting, winding paths through the hills, the footing rocky, the incline steep. At last, sore, exhausted, and starving, we arrived at the village where we were to stay for the night. When I made a comment about the intensity of the hike, our host smiled and shrugged.
“We walk that path every day to get to work and school” was her reply.
There was no running water or electricity in the little homestead. The cool night air wafted through the cracks in the walls and a coat of dust covered the floor. A tiny, ancient woman with a raspy cough puttered about, muttering under her breath about foreigners coming to eat all of her rice. The family laughed and promised us that they had enough to feed everyone. We gathered that night around a warm hearth, ate fresh food, and basked in the enjoyment of good company. After dinner we bathed in barrels, our host heating the water over the open fire and taking multiple trips to fill our baths so that we could soak our weary muscles. When I finally curled up in my bed, warm and cozy under a handmade quilt, my hair smelling faintly of rose water and my belly full of fresh, home-cooked food, I thought of my fast-paced life back home and all of its amenities- central heating, fast food, paved roads and cars. All those things I just take for granted, when some people have to walk twelve kilometers just to get to work each day.
This Too Shall Pass
In the past few months, as a global pandemic has effectively brought the world of travel to a grinding halt, we have all had to adapt in ways we never imagined. I was driving home from work in the middle of March when my state’s initial shut-down began. It was like something out of a movie. The roads were unsettlingly quiet. A vague feeling of apprehension hung in the still frigid spring air. When I turned into town and passed a large road sign, flashing “Stay At Home Order In Place,” I pulled over and sat for a moment, acknowledging the silence, appreciating the change in the air. I took a deep breath, and thought to myself “this too shall pass.” In the months that followed I cancelled trips. I de-cluttered my house. I grew a garden. I went for walks and wrote handwritten letters to friends. I assuaged my wanderlust by reading books about far off places. I worked on projects that had long been gathering dust in the recesses of my mind. Most of all, I sat back and reflected. I thought ahead to a new world, a new reality, and ways I would need to adapt. And I thought back to my experiences traveling, and how, in an ironic twist, they prepared me the most for these unprecedented times where I was forced to stay home.
(See also: Solo Travel vs Group Travel)
The future of travel is still so uncertain, and life may never go back to the way it was before. But I’m confident that we, as a community of travelers, will figure this out. Travel companies will find new, innovative ways to stay afloat. Travelers will think of creative, safer ways to explore. We will all continue to adapt, we will grow, and we will get through these turbulent times one way or another.
Finding Your Way
On my last international trip, just two months before COVID turned the world upside down, I had a mental breakdown. I was on a little boat, just off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. It was a cloudless, gorgeous day. I was surrounded by good company and a lovely ocean breeze. We spent the day island hopping, swimming in the crystal waters, sipping coconut water from the husk, laughing and dancing. As we turned back toward the mainland at the end of the day, the wind picked up and the water suddenly became extremely choppy. I let out a nervous laugh the first time I was jostled from my seat. But when the next big wave hit, it was like a switch went off in my brain. I dove under a table where I lay in a fetal position, sobbing. The boat flew threw the air, hit a wave, and with each impact my stomach rolled over, threatening sickness. At one point I seriously contemplated jumping overboard, if only for a moment’s reprieve. I vaguely remember a friend holding me, trying to calm me down. The journey to shore lasted a thousand years. I was certain I was going to die. But this crisis, like all the others, did eventually come to an end. We returned to the mainland and I felt solid ground beneath my feet. The sea sickness faded, the fear subsided. By nightfall my friends and I were laughing at the spectacle I had caused.
Would I get on that boat again? You bet I would. Because if travel has taught me anything, its that sometimes you have to work your way through the turbulent times to experience the best moments in life. As a traveler you will come up against an impenetrable wall – again and again – and you will find a way to the other side. If you’re afraid of heights, you will end up scaling a precarious rock because you’ve been told the view from the top is nothing short of spectacular. If crowds make you anxious, I guarantee you’ll one day be stuck somewhere with a large group of people and no exit in sight. You might get lost one day. Utterly, irreversibly, impossibly lost.
But you’ll find your way. We all will find our way.
Because that’s what we, as travelers, do best.
(Read also: Group Travel in Your 30s & 40s)