When I landed in the Netherlands I knew I would be landing in my 60th country.
While country counting is not important to me, I can also recognise that this is an achievement and great privilege for someone that holds the passport I hold and looks like me.
When I took my first international trip (to visit family in Chicago, USA) as an 11 year old, I was in awe of the process of travel. The novelty of getting on a plane, watching the world from above, exploring airports you can’t leave and then discovering a new country left me in awe.
It was the musings of a child that made me wonder if I could continue to do this for the rest of my life. But it’s my reflection as an adult that makes me realise that I have been able to make travel an integral part of my life; an activity that’s had such a profound effect that it continues to shape me into the person I am.
When we think about people who have travelled extensively, there’s always an element of wonder and envy; imagining that they have access to funds, tips, time and information we don’t. And while money and time management are a huge part of my travels, there are actually more important things that play a huge role in whether we travel, how we travel and why we travel at all. After 60 countries I want to reflect and share with you the unlikely things that have kept me going on this journey of worldwide exploration:
1. Believing that I can do it
The MOST important thing that I started doing right from trip number one was telling myself that I will be successful and I can do it. I know it seems like a small thing but it’s honestly what’s kept me going. So many people hear about my travels and respond with, “I don’t know how you do it; I could never!”
They don’t realise that they’re limiting themselves simply by verbalising that kind of statement. Yes it’s a cliché but believing we can do something is the first step to accomplishing something successfully.
Something we hardly mention is how it’s the small things that are the scariest. Getting on the plane is far less scary than navigating the public transportation. ‘Do I have to open the door of this train? Can I sit anywhere? What does that announcement mean? Do I tap in and out or just once?’ These small things- that people confidently do on a daily basis- trip me up all the time. I feel anxiety getting on a metro or bus for the first time, still unsure of whether I’m heading in the right direction despite checking the map 7 times. But no matter what- I convince myself that I will be able to do it. I tell myself that I can ask for help and as intimidating as that concept is, I do approach strangers and ask them my questions.
If I have a certain budget which doesn’t work for the type of holiday or destination I want to experience, I don’t cancel the whole trip. I change the place and save up for the more expensive destination. Perhaps I cannot do it NOW but I can do it at some point.
Yes things might not go as planned or happen in the timeline I envision but I still believe that I can make it work.
2. Being extremely selective of the people I surround myself with
If you know me in real life, you’ll know that my social circle is extremely small. I don’t consort with extended family, I don’t attend every social event I’m invited to. I have no interest in being friends with everyone I meet and no desire to be liked by all.
My reasoning here is the people I surround myself with have to be supportive of my life choices. That means distancing myself from people who make disparaging remarks about meme frequent travels making proclamations about “settling down” and “being wise with money”.
I remember having an experience whether I had just returned from a trip to Mauritius and got together with two friends for dinner. They didn’t ask me about my trip and when I tried to speak about it, they laughed at me, dismissing my desire to share my experience. It was our last dinner together.
My current friends are not all frequent travellers; but they are extremely supportive, read my blog posts, ask me about my travels and encourage me to keep doing what I love.
And this goes for being in a romantic relationship too. It’s critical to find a partner who is not just supportive of your travels but actually encourages you to go without them. It’s ok if your partner doesn’t love travel the way you do or can’t accompany you on all trips. What’s important is that they support you doing something you love. Being with someone who makes you feel guilty and questions why you need to travel, breeds resentment. Through guilt tactics like, “I’ll be so lonely without you” and “I don’t understand why you need to be away from me” can make you feel like you’re doing the wrong thing- even if you’re doing nothing wrong.
Conversations right at the outset of any relationship about what the expectations are surrounding future travels are so important. I can attribute a large part of my willingness to travel because I know I don’t need to feel wary of Polar’s judgment or have to ask him for permission. He will support me wherever I go, whenever I want to- whether I’m going alone, with family/friends or with him.
I’ll always count my blessings with my friends and family, we are a close unit with little distinction between the 2 categories. Everyone from the parental pandas right down to my colleagues-turned-friends plays a part. I could no doubt travel with any one of them, they would test me (and have done) but they are all good to have around and are extremely supportive.
3. Not letting the bad experiences defeat me
While I don’t like to recall bad travel experiences, they do happen and I have to find a way to learn from them.
Racism, profiling and prejudice goes hand in hand with adventure and discovery when I go on a trip.
From the time I was told on a London bus to “Go back to Pakistan” to interrogations at Indian passport control to being detained at Moscow airport to being accused of stealing money from an old lady in Slovenia, I could write a book about all the times people have judged me poorly based on my appearance.
Of course it irritates me to hear “Wow your English is so good!”, when I teach English everyday (and grew up speaking it at home) but I grit my teeth and smile. Yes I feel frustration when I’m asked to open my bags for additional inspections on my travels but I shrug it off. If I let every bad encounter and poor experience stop me from travelling, I wouldn’t leave my house. I am always taken aback by people who have one or two bad experiences and then refuse to leave their country. Do you know how big the world is? If one place doesn’t work out for you, you can travel to over 100 more… literally!
The truth is that if I stop travelling, I let “them” win; the racists, the bigots, the micro-aggressors; because what they want is not to see people like me having access to the privileges they and their ancestors have enjoyed. So I continue to show up, survive and thrive in spaces designed to keep me out because my presence encourages others like me to do the same and well, if all of us band together, whether “they” like it or not, we become a regular part of life.
4. Accepting mistakes and growing from them
Not every trip is a resounding success. I think it’s important for me to admit that because so few people will. Sometimes you plan things a certain way but life gets in the way or you’re pushed to the end of your tether and the consequences are upsetting. It’s ok to not love every place and every trip is not dreamy.
I’m not proud of yelling at staff at a hotel in Uganda- I was stretched thin at the end of an exhausting trip where everything that could go wrong did go wrong and the last thing I needed was people who couldn’t accomplish their jobs competently. Being stuck in quarantine in Rwanda wasn’t how I envisioned my trip and neither was being harassed by the police in Egypt. Getting stuck in a safari vehicle in the middle of a game reserve in Kenya with wildlife roaming around was less than ideal as was getting my money stolen by an errant driver in Sri Lanka.
But from each experience and each trip, I learnt about what triggers me, how to calm myself when I can’t control a situation and how I need to deal with those situations in the future. As I continue to travel I know I’ll have to learn more patience and have more empathy as crises always tend to occur!
5. Opening up myself to new experiences and new connections
I would classify myself as a fairly boring person; on a daily basis I’m a homebody that has a set routine which I rarely deviate from without good reason. I take enjoyment in knowing exactly how my day will unfold when I wake up at the same time everyday and feel satisfied when it does go to plan when I slip into bed at the same time everyday.
But when I travel, I’ve learnt to embrace the unknown and I’ve become open to meeting new people and making friends with strangers.
The concept of being somewhere different makes me into a different person. And I’m grateful for that. Because I know I wouldn’t have had the unexpected rewarding encounters and created surprisingly strong friendships if I didn’t stray out of my comfort zone.
Each new person I have met offered a fascinating story, a nugget of wisdom, or a nuance of the local culture. Through these conversations I learned a great respect for how different our lives can be, but even more the shared common elements.
I love that moment where a stranger becomes a friend, brought together by the novel experience of being foreigners in a strange land. I love finding a new place to explore even when it wasn’t in my original plan; the idea that even in this age of endless information, I can still find new places, brings me joy. Above all, I’m grateful that travel has made me open to these instances.
Today brings me to here in Antwerp, Belgium, where I have set foot in country number 61. I am writing this blog post in a hotel room, marveling at the fact that I can write about my travels to over 60 countries. Unlike others who have travel goals like 30 before 30 and similar sentiments, I have never planned or worked towards a travel goal or a ticked off bucket list. I have simply gone where I could and made the most out of opportunities. Hence, I NEVER imagined this day would come.
I always say that people should start travelling as young as possible, so you have time to learn what you love the most. That way, as life goes on, you can return to the places you love to see how they’ve changed and how you’ve changed as well.
I also reflect on the fact that what one traveller loves, another might find dreadful. By traveling all these years, I learned that museums are not my thing, but I am happy to dedicate a day to hiking and being outdoors.
As I bring this post to an end I think about a recent travel experience I had- travelling through some remote villages in the northern regions of Pakistan. There was a point in the 15 hour road journey where I needed a restroom URGENTLY. We stopped in a random village at 10pm at night where my driver explained to a man outside his house that I needed to use his facilities. The man was absolutely fine to let this strange woman into his home to relieve herself and even though his bathroom was very basic (hole in the ground), I was still incredibly grateful. My point is that travel allows you to experience being in situations that you never thought you would find yourself in. But you will. And you enjoy them even more than you thought you would.
Travel is truly one of life’s greatest teachers.
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What keeps you going on your quest to travel the world? Are any of these travel reflections relatable, or do they change the way you think about travel? What have you learned during your travels? Leave a comment below!