In 2017 my girlfriend (spoiler alert: she’s now my wife!) wanted to do a three month round the world trip visiting the seven modern wonders of the world. She wanted to go without me. I encouraged her to go.
At the time I had some friends who could not understand why I would let her travel by herself, let alone encourage her to do it. I found this response fascinating. I thought the benefit of travel was obvious to everyone. Maybe the part they could not understand was why I did not go with her.
I have not travelled much myself. But I have migrated from my country of birth when I was 17 years old. I also moved to a new state by myself when I started my first full time job. These experiences are similar to extended travel in many ways. Extended travel has many benefits, but there were two benefits in particular that I had in mind when I encouraged my girlfriend to travel: self awareness and cultural awareness.
When you travel or relocate you have an opportunity to turn a new leaf. No one knows you. You can be whoever you want to be. No one knows your history and people carry no expectations or preconceptions about you based on your past. How people perceive you is determined only by how you carry yourself from this point forward.
What I find most striking about this experience is not how differently I behave but how much I stay the same. The way I act when I am not trying to live up to other people’s expectations gives me an insight into who I really am. When I’m surrounded by my friends, family and colleagues I will act in ways to fit in. Extracting myself from this environment (or the social bubble, as I like to call it) allows me to see how much of my identity is tied up in trying to fit in and how much is really me.
At the time my girlfriend was asking all the important questions a young adult asks of themselves: who am I? Where do I fit in? What do I contribute to the world? Becoming more self-aware makes it easier to answer all those questions. That is one of the reasons I wanted her to have this experience.
They say painters can’t smell the paint. They’re around the paint all day and they get so accustomed to the smell that they eventually can’t smell it at all. Tonight I cooked a curry. An hour after dinner I took out the trash. When I came back into the kitchen I could not believe how much the kitchen still smelt like curry – and I had not noticed the smell at all before! Culture works the same way. We don’t notice how pervasive and influential it is on us until we step out of it for a while.
Extended travel gives us that opportunity. We are not only removed from the culture of our country and our social bubble, but we are challenged with new values and norms through the culture we enter into. Learning and appreciating new cultures is a way to expand our worldview and to develop empathy and humility.
When you get back from extended travel you will be shocked to discover how your values have changed. Reverse culture shock is real. Especially if you’ve been travelling to less developed countries you will be incredulous at how silly the things are that you used to value. Your views on body image will be different. The status symbols you were chasing will seem arbitrary. It really is amazing how much of our values are influenced by our culture and the media we are exposed to in that culture.
Recognising the impact of culture on your values further builds on your self-awareness and how important the people are that you choose to surround yourself with.
What people could not understand
Most people understand the benefits of travel but what they could not understand was why I encouraged my girlfriend to travel alone. They seemed to project many of their own fears onto me. Fears related to trust, distance and safety.
The main reason I encouraged my girlfriend to travel alone was because it would force her to meet people, make connections and submerse herself in the culture. Most people who travel on holiday for a few weeks do not get the benefits I touched on related to self-awareness or cultural awareness because they don’t actually leave their bubble. They take their bubble with them. They stay in hotels and resorts that are far removed from the reality most people live in. They take their family and friends with them and spend time deepening these relationships instead of making new ones. Holidays are great but this was not the intent of my girlfriend’s trip. I did not want to be the bubble that stole the benefits of self-awareness and cultural awareness from her experience.
Was I afraid? Of course. I loved her. I did not want anything to happen to her and I did not want our relationship to end. But I knew that the surest way to kill the relationship was to let my fears and insecurities get the better of me. I constantly reminded myself of a lesson my mum taught me years earlier: if you hold onto someone tightly all they want to do is escape; the more freedom you give them the more they want to be around you. I had this opportunity to decide whether I wanted to make our relationship a cage or a perch to return to. I chose the latter.
Saying it like that makes me sound confident and sure of myself. Yes, I made the decision to encourage my girlfriend to travel but there were many bumps along the way. Yes, I did get insecure and jealous when she met people in her travels and when she did not have time to talk to me. I am just so relieved that I did not hold onto these feelings (for too long) because they would surely have destroyed our relationship.
Surprisingly, the distance brought us closer. We realised how much we meant to each other while we were separated. We each grew as individuals during this time and instead of growing apart we actually grew more aligned in our values. The more freedom and trust we extended to each other, the more we cherished each other. My girlfriend’s trip was the best thing for her and it was also the best thing for our relationship. I am so glad that I did not stand in the way.