BlogPosts

"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Family, Religion, & Travel - Looking Back on a Year Abroad

I left the United States of America one year ago. I wanted to try new foods, be introduced to new cultures, and learn more about the world. I quit my job and left because, honestly, I did not know what else to do.

Like many people, I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Unlike the majority of people in the world I had the luxury of being able to quit my job, unload the little responsibility I had, and take off to anywhere my heart desired.

It is easy to make a list of things you don't like to do, but knowing exactly how you want to spend your time can be difficult. When I tried figuring out what it is that I like to do my list was short — eat, learn, have adventures. I knew travel would be the best way to experience all of these things. When I began traveling I wasn’t sure how long I would be abroad. After a year, I am still happy living out of a backpack and I find it very hard to stop traveling when a new amazing place, with incredible people, is just around the corner.

During the past year, I have spent many hours on rumbling buses, stuffed vans, and three-wheeled vehicles overflowing with people. This has given me ample time to enjoy my surroundings, mingle with new friends, and think. At any given moment my mind could be anywhere, dwelling on any subject, but the majority of the time it has fallen into three subjects - family, religion, and travel.

Family

 Three generations of women of the Letu Chin in Mrauk U, Myanmar

Three generations of women of the Letu Chin in Mrauk U, Myanmar

The longer I travel the more I hear these questions:

“Don’t you miss your family?”
“Are you not homesick?
“Aren’t you tired of not having a home, a place to call your own?”

The fact is I do miss my family and friends, dearly. However, when I look back on my life in the States I realize I didn’t see them all that often. My friends and family live everywhere from Boston to Seattle (and now all around the world). We all have our own jobs and responsibilities that keep us grounded where we are. In the time that I have been away I may have seen my whole family only once or twice if I had stayed. I don't think this is even that uncommon. Reflecting on this makes me sad, and during my travels this past year the topic of family has often been on my mind. 

Throughout Asia, I have observed family to be the single most important thing in life. The biggest responsibility a child can have is to their parents. In the West, we jump at the opportunity to live away from our parents. In many places where I have visited children do not leave home at the age of 18, or even when they are married (the wife often goes to live with the family of the husband). It is common for three and sometimes four generations to all be living together. 

A primary factor in this style of living is economics. People don’t have the money to live separately. However, many of the people I have spoken with often remarked that even if they had enough money they would still choose to live with their family. For the people that do live separately in the same town, they see their family almost every day. For those who live farther away, there seems to always be a plan for when they will return home for a visit.

In the United States, I believe the foundation of how we spend time with the ones who are closest to us stems from the nature of our work. Do we work to live or live to work? Most likely it is somewhere in the middle. Sometimes our work becomes our passion and is a joyous pursuit. Other times our work is demanding and takes over more time in our life than we would hope, but the monetary return is important and often, sadly, the crux to our happiness. 

Where I come from we covet privacy and praise independence. Living with your parents is often considered a sign of being unsuccessful or dysfunctional. In order to pursue our goals, we delegate responsibilities of care for children and elderly family members to others. In many ways, this line of thought has cultivated my independent nature, making it possible for me to feel comfortable and capable of rambling the globe. It has motivated me to be self-reliant and able to support myself completely. It has also led me to prioritize my goals and dreams above spending time with my family. I cherish the support and opportunities to follow my own path and would support those around me to follow their dreams.

Perhaps it is the expectations we have for our lives, of what we could have if we worked longer and harder. Outside the States, those same expectations may not exist, and in many cases those same expectations are impossible to reach. You are more likely to live with your family, to support each other when it is the only option you have. Yet the families I have been with, who are well below what would be considered the poverty line, seem to live happier lives. The poorest families I have met exude more happiness and regularly provide unconditional hospitality beyond their means without blinking. I don't believe this is a unique observation, but why is this so? Family is basically all they have and I think it becomes the foundation of their happiness and it is a constant that they can always rely on. Being around family creates a daily level of happiness that I was able to glimpse, whereas they sit in full view of it every day.

My aim is not to criticize one way of living or place one above the other. Our lives are structured by our opportunities and those opportunities are not the same for everyone around the world. The more time I have spent abroad, the more I have realized that the most important path I want to follow when I return home is a path towards my family. I want my daily life to be filled with family. Without a plane flight or scheduled gathering, I want to have dinner with my parents, watch my nephew’s soccer game, see my sister play music at night, and laugh with my brothers.

I want a lifestyle more centralized around family. If I don’t make an effort to make this happen when I return, I am afraid it will become the biggest regret in my life. I appreciate the families abroad that have welcomed me into their homes, giving me a view into where their wealth of happiness comes from.

I know not all families are close, that many people choose to keep their families an arm’s length away or more. You need to remember that not all families are made through blood. You can define who is in your family and how to enlarge it. When I talk about my closest friends the only way I can accurately describe the level of closeness and love is by saying, “he’s like a brother to me (or sister, or mother).” Otherwise, I think the relationship isn’t understood correctly. I am not alone in describing close friends as members of my family. It is usually the highest praise someone can give another person. It shows how much we care about our own family or at least the idea of family — a sign that we all know how important family is.

We all look for what makes us happy. As I have said and experienced countless times on my travels, my best memories are not from the food (blasphemy I know) or the outdoor adventures I have had. It is the people I have met that have given me the most cherished memories I have. 

I don’t know what age you are supposed to figure out what makes you happy or if you are ever given a clue at all. I’ve realized that if I fill my life with the people I love, I know I will be happy, regardless of any challenges or problems the future brings. Realization is only the start. When the day comes and I find myself back home, I know there will be challenges to living the family lifestyle as I have described. Nonetheless, I know it is what I want, regardless of any sacrifices that may come and I am ready to make it work.

Religion

 Young monks who helped me send some special prayers from the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

Young monks who helped me send some special prayers from the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

My life in America compared to the places I have visited is incredibly secular. Without the songs of a Sunday choir at a Baptist church near my home or having a co-worker who observed the Jewish Sabbath, I could have easily imagined that I was in a world without religion. Religion played no role in how I lived my life, and I rarely saw it appear in the lives of the people around me.

When I began traveling, the first country I visited was Israel on an organized trip through Birthright. I didn’t go in order to kindle a religious flame; I went because the trip was free. I received a wonderful tour of a beautiful country, ate delicious food (hummus!), and formed new long lasting friendships.

One day during a group discussion, we were asked a question along the lines of, “What is your self-identity?” Almost everyone responded that being Jewish was a part of their identity. I felt different. Being Jewish was an activity akin to soccer, music lessons, or even playing video games. It governed a portion of my day when I was forced to go Sunday School and I learned some specific information because of it – but it was not, and is not, a part of my self-identity.

I am glad I started my trip in Israel as it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my identity and the role religion has played in my life before I visited countries heavily influenced by religion. Traveling through lands filled with Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, my thoughts on religion are evenly divided.

I can only admire what religion has brought to people to people around the world, especially those who need a light when life seems dark and hopeless. More specifically, I love the community and support it can create when it includes people of all races, gender, age, and even other religions. I previously wrote about my experience at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. Where the community of volunteers (of all backgrounds) cook and clean 100,000 meals a day. It is a place where the doors are open to everyone of the world 24/7. A person can receive food and place a to sleep. It was the best example of any religion I have ever seen playing a positive role in the world.

 The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

On the other hand, I utterly despise religion when it becomes the excuse for committing atrocities or teaches discrimination in any form. Coming from a secular background, religion seems to contribute to misery more than it helps. I know a single bad apple can give the illusion that the whole barrel is bad and that is unfortunate, especially when it leads to further discrimination and misunderstanding. 

I am not an atheist and my beliefs have no label that I know of, but it falls fairly close to what a friend described as Unitarian Universalist, who “do not share a creed but are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth.” I don't care what you believe in as long as you don't harm yourself, harm others, and respect the beliefs of others. I often find myself believing that the world would be a better place without religion.

From experiencing several different religions during the past year, my interest in the topic has grown. I hope to continue to learn more about religions in order to better understand the lives, motivations, and beliefs of the majority of the world.

What is Travel?

 Sunset flying into Vietnam from Hong Kong

Sunset flying into Vietnam from Hong Kong

It’s funny. I dreaded being considered a tourist, at least in the beginning. When I travel I consider myself different from a tourist. I am a traveler. I take pride in making local friends, learning words in the local language, eating where the locals eat, and using transport like a native. I like to travel overland, not because of budget constraints, but because you end up places where most tourists do not. I try to adapt to the culture and blend in. I don’t want to be the foreigner who is insolent, acts entitled, or is oblivious to local customs.

I would gaze upon tour groups with mild distaste, grateful for my solo traveling ways. I felt superior to tour groups and tourists who get shuttled from one attraction to another, failing to come in contact with the true essence of the place. I felt I was the real traveler, I thought I gained more from my travels than they ever would.

First, comparing yourself to other people is rarely a beneficial process (often stupid), and in this scenario it is completely ridiculous. Second, who I am to decide which form of travel is best for everyone in the world? I started to reflect on what it means to travel and the ways you can do it. The way I travel may be scary, uncomfortable, or too stressful for many people. Just because I enjoy the way I ramble the globe, it doesn’t mean it is the only way. Nor does it mean you are missing out.

Traveling is about going somewhere different. It is about learning and new experiences. It doesn’t matter if it is going to a beach in Cancun for a week or trekking through the jungles of Borneo. Who cares if you’re part of a large group, doing one touristy thing after another, as long as you are enjoying yourself and being respectful to the people around you. Of course I believe one of those options can be a better experience over the other, but at least both options bring you somewhere new or different.

One of my favorite travel quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson, the author who wrote Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He said,

"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

Simply leaving your comfort zone and moving somewhere new is a great start. I don’t care if it is all 5-star resorts and cruises. You may be indulging in luxuries that wouldn’t fit the bill of what many people call traveling, but I believe it is travel. And if that is how you want to do it, go for it. It may be a more pampered approach, but everyone can move around the world differently. 

It doesn’t matter as long as you get up and move. Even if you try to hide from new foods or smelly streets, you’ll still have the view from the airplane or remember the rocking motion of the cruise ship. I think everyone can gain so much by moving, domestically and internationally. Isn’t it funny how we often never visit the amazing places right in our back yard? I lived in Seattle for two years and never once visited the stunning Olympic National Park until I quit my job. So whether you want to visit somewhere that is 50 or 5,000 miles away, just get up and move. If you think traveling, especially abroad, is impossible and that you will never have the money to go, think again. It may not be a cruise or resort, but I believe almost everyone has the choice to travel abroad.

How You Can Travel

 My work family on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel

My work family on Kibbutz Gezer in Israel

After about three months into my travels, I began to see longing looks from fellow travelers on shorter adventures, wishing that their vacations could be longer. Many people wonder at how I could afford to travel for such a long time. My friends back home tell me how awesome my trip is and how they wish that someday they could travel as well. I know that dropping everything to go traveling was easier for me than it could be others. Too many of my friends graduated from school in debt, instantly feeling a ball and chain around their ankles. Timing can make all the difference, but there are too many people who wish to travel and never take the opportunit ies when they come.

If I traveled the conventional way I would have long ago become broke and forced home. So how do I do it?

My favorite traveling community in the world is called Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing enables you to connect with fellow travelers and people who have a passion for different cultures. People open up their homes, letting you sleep in spare bedrooms, on a couch, or floor – all for free. In return, you should save some of your time for your host to share any and all knowledge that you have. I have Couchsurfed in many places across Europe and Asia. It is an amazing way to meet locals or long-time residents who can often provide the best suggestions on what to do. When I lived in Seattle I hosted travelers when I could and when I stop traveling I will host once again.

For longer stays and forays into an area and culture, I have had great success with Workaway. Workaway is a program that connects hosts with volunteers. The work can be farming, construction, teaching English, running a hostel, babysitting, or being a bartender. In return for approximately 25 hours a week you are given accommodation and generally food as well. You can find hosts that need help for ten days or who would be extremely excited by a yearlong stay.

So far I have participated in three Workaway exchanges. My first was helping out at a small restaurant in Bangalore, India for two weeks. In Bangkok, I worked at a hostel for about three weeks. Further south on the island of Koh Tao I worked at a scuba diving shop, making sure it was clean and ready for customers every day. I also got to help whip up some fun BBQ’s as well. My Workaway experiences have been fantastic and it is a wonderful tool that anybody can use. If you have enough money for a plane ticket or a bus to your destination, you can stay for free and work in many amazing places around the world.

Sometimes you can find a wonderful opportunity by just looking around you. Through friends in Israel, I managed to find a kibbutz where I spent a month picking olives and pruning the trees. It is one of my favorite memories from Israel. Lastly, as you travel you are bound to make friends with people all over the world. Give them a visit! I’d bet money that they would be more than happy to host you in their home country.

The cost of travel can seem expensive, but in many ways it can be cheaper than you think, even cheaper than going out in your hometown on the weekends. It can sound crazy to spend your two-week vacation abroad exchanging your labor for a bed and food, but it is so much easier than you think. When you have time off from work don’t get stuck thinking, “I wish I could travel, but I just don’t have the money.” Do some research; look for ways that you can make traveling happen for you. Is there a cool volunteering opportunity in your dream destination or an awesome Couchsurfing host willing to let you crash on their couch? You’ll never know unless you try.

One Year Gone and Life Continues

I have spent the past year living exactly as I want to. Yes, sometimes things don’t go as planned, but that is part of the adventure no matter how frustrating it may be at the time. People ask me, “What is the biggest change you’ve seen in yourself?”

I don’t know.

If things have changed, they have been subtle. I feel more motivated to take the future into my hands than ever before. I will continue to travel, but I know I will be settling somewhere again in the not too distant future. I have found a few more things to add to the list of “what I want to do with my life.” I want to improve my Japanese and Spanish speaking abilities and possibly add a new language into the mix. I will definitely try my hand at glass blowing or ceramic sessions on the wheel. I want to spend more time outside. Lastly, I want to try working for myself on my own terms, even if that means failing (as it probably will). All of this breaks down into doing more things with my life. I want my daily routine to be filled with educational and outdoor pursuits — not work, eat, sleep, and repeat.

All of these thoughts were probably rattling around in my head somewhere before, but traveling has allowed them to grow and take root. I am not spending much time worrying how I will attempt to shape my life to my liking in the future. I know it will be a challenge, but I am thankful for having the time to reflect on my life through the lenses of my travel experiences.

Right now, I am living life one day at a time with no set plans or expectations. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had and I look forward to what the future brings. I hope something in this reflection has struck a chord with you. Maybe it’s time to get up and do a bit moving or finally sign up that new activity. At the very least, I am sure there is someone out there who would love to hear from you.