Hello, world! For those who don’t know me personally yet, let me date this blog and myself! I’m 20 years young. My name is Demetri Savas. I’m American, I’m California born and raised, cheesecake is my religion, my favorite color is tiffany blue, and I’m a university student, young professional, photographer, traveller, blogger, and life enthusiast.
I spent this past summer in China living out my dream of beginning my travels throughout the greater Asian continent, adventuring, working, and connecting with people from all around the world. I had a lot of fun times, saw a lot of neat things, and visited some truly incredible places. Through my travels, I picked up a few life lessons along the way that I want to pass on to you with the hope that it adds value to your life and inspires personal growth, a spirit of adventure, and a desire to continue improving the world we live in. Without further ado, here are 40 things I’ve learned while living abroad!
1. Appreciating your own heartbeat
First things first. Be grateful for your own heartbeat! Just for a moment, physically put both your hands on your chest and feel your heart. Breathe deep. Feel the strength and beauty and power of it. Breathe into it. Feel the blood flow, feel the oxygen. I’ve learned that before anything, you have to be grateful for your own heartbeat. It’s an astronomical miracle. As long as this heart beats, you have a gift and you live. It beats 100,000 times a day, it pumps blood through 60,000 miles of vessels, and if you took them all out, they would wrap around Earth’s equator twice and then some.You didn’t do anything to earn your heart, you were granted a golden privilege that all the billions of people who have never been born yet have not received. Use this privilege well, it’s a beautiful thing.
2. Get out of your comfort zone
Life begins the moment you step out of your comfort zone. It’s true that great things lie on the other side of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. The idea of traveling solo terrified me when I first left. I’ve learned though, it’s at the very moment that I am most afraid to move forward with something—when fears paralyze me—that I know I need to push through and that it’s worth doing. All it takes is one throw of the dart to start a plentiful chain of events that expands your horizons and provides you with endless stories to bring home (if you ever decide to head home). When you take step out of your comfort zone, it’s often a risk, and when taking calculated risk in life, it’s good to be aware of the dangers that accompany them and how they affect others, but more so, it’s crucial that you offer your self-doubt/self-critic/self-awareness no allowance to evolve into a coup of fear or anxiety, because that’s where you will run into problems. There’s no doubt about it, stepping out of your comfort zone to travel and live in a completely foreign and developing country where little English is spoken can put you in some of the scariest and most trying stressful times of your life. But it’s important to recognize that more often than not, you are the one who put yourself in the exciting position you are in, and you really only have one option: enjoy the ride, cherish the fact that you’re outside of your comfort zone adventuring, and adapt to your new environment to the best of your ability. So go for it! Step out of your comfort zone! Just do it! Shia Labeouf puts it best (aka my favorite video ever).
3. Practicing patience
Living in China and backpacking across the country this summer was nothing short of a beautiful and exhilarating experience full of good and memorable times, but it pushed me to my limits mentally and physically a few times per week (at least). I came to view the experience as an intensive basic training course of sorts for practicing patience, and it was. Living abroad in a developing country, let alone China, could try the patience of a saint. Though advertisements and Instagram accounts paint travel as an adventure full of mojitos (can I get another), beaches, and blissful days full of relaxation and smiles, it can also be a time full of mosquitoes, missed trains, delays, annoying cultural differences, language barriers, bad weather, and about a million other inconveniences that can slowly build on one another to become pretty stressful if you aren’t proactive in minimizing them and curbing them when they happen (because they will). If things always went smoothly, the adventure wouldn’t exist. Patience is truly a virtue and you’ll learn to tackle challenging circumstances on the road as they come, which will make you appreciate the journey even more (not necessarily in the moment, but when you look back). I’ve been on daylong-overcrowded busses travelling through Asia in 100 degree weather with no air conditioning, no bathroom, alone and surrounded by screaming babies and K-pop enthusiast Chinese girls trying to take photos with me every 5 minutes so they can post it on their social media claiming that we are lovers. This is after I lost my phone while hiking through the jungle, and I just wanted to scream (losing your tech in a foreign country when you’re on a tight schedule is never fun). Locals have tricked me into eating a sheep eye, pig foot, and cow brain, on 3 separate occasions, and I’ve been stuck on top of the Great Wall of China during a torrential thunderstorm, during which I got struck in the foot by lightning, and was forced to take shelter in a guard tower for 3 hours until the storm passed. I’ve forgotten my MacBook on a bus and had to drop all my plans to backtrack to the previous city I was in, frantically searching 150+ tourist busses in the middle of a thunderstorm and dealing with Chinese police for hours until I finally found my computer by sheer luck moments before I was officially going to call it quits. I’ve had to resort to playing restaurant Russian roulette – pointing and ordering random food items because I can’t read the menu, praying for the best, and have been served some pretty questionable looking things because of this. Things like this aren’t major, but when you’re navigating a foreign country for months, stuff add up, and eventually you notice your patience levels improving tenfold. Crazy unexpected shit happens all the time in life. Learning to roll with the punches, take them in stride, and practicing patience is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned while travelling developing countries. Instant gratification signals a successful economy, not a disciplined person.
4. Dance, sing, and laugh often
Humor is a lifesaver when you’re in less than stellar situations you would rather not be in (IE: Squat toilet: 1, Demetri: 0). Learn to laugh everything off. Humor and laughter predate New York comedy shows and watching re-runs of Saturday Night Live episodes while stuffing your face with cookie dough ice cream. Humor is an evolutionarily evolved mechanism millions of years in the making that makes us feel good and bonds people, creates social ties, and most importantly lightens the weight of uncomfortable and awkward situations that can kill the mood or cause conflict. Keeping a smile on your face and laughing your way through a series of unfortunate events that may play out when you are navigating foreign terrain with people is so important to keeping an optimistic outlook on your travels and maintaining group spirit. When you are out in the world doing epic worthwhile things like hiking 30 km through the jungle, exploring ancient temples, and summiting mountains, at one point or another, someone is going to need toilet paper, someone is going to get in an awkward situation, or someone is going get really upset, and more often than not, laughter is always what the doctor ordered. Throw in some dancing and singing, and you’ve got yourself the magic remedy to diffusing any situation. Don’t take life too seriously. More often than not, problems are not as serious as they seem in the moment. CHOOSE to dance, sing, and laugh in the face of awkwardness, pain, fear, insecurity, discomfort, challenges, and obstacles. Nothing is worse than that person who complains and kills the mood because it’s too hot or because they didn’t get any new Tinder matches today. Don’t be that guy. Choose to dance, sing, and laugh often. You’ll always win even if you don’t.
5. You learn to adapt quickly
What’s up Darwin! It’s been said that it is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change. I think this is true in a lot of ways and this is a lesson that got pounded into me during my travels this summer. The odds are, if you’re living outside your comfort zone and immersing yourself in an entirely new world, you’re going to get hit a lot, whether it’s by a language barrier, cultural differences, everyday problems in a developing country, or life back home causing issues abroad. There’s nothing you can do to evade it. The process of getting hit is organic, unavoidable, and just part of the experience of living overseas. It’s a learning curve, and at first, a lot of expats who come abroad actually fight the process of assimilating to the new country and its culture, because they’re not sure of themselves and are still constantly comparing everything to life back home, thinking their country is the best, dealing with culture shock, etc. Come to find out, just like swimming in the big blue, going against the current just creates more problems, and it’s best to decide to fully embrace your experience, open your heart, break down your walls and preconceived notions, rid yourself of prejudices, try to learn the language, eat the food, get to know the locals, and realize that our ability as human beings to adapt is a really freaking neat and beautiful gift nature has bestowed us.
6. Culture shock is real
This wouldn’t be a travel article and I wouldn’t be a travel blogger if I didn’t talk about..gasp..culture shock! The man, the myth, the legend. Hello Mr. Culture Shock! I think a lot of people underestimate how hard culture shock will hit them; at least I did. It’s definitely situational and depends on which country travelling to, which country you are from, what you are doing, whom you are with, how long you will be there, and how immersive you let your own experience be. No amount of research can prepare you for it, and China is definitely the most extreme country for Western first-timers dealing with the phenomenon.The first few weeks I was in China I found myself in tears on multiple occasions, on the phone with my sister telling her I couldn’t handle it, that things sucked, and that I wanted to get on a plane to go back to California. I was totally broken down at times and had such high stress levels some days that I felt like I was going to barf. (I’m not a wimp I promise, I got on a plane alone and dropped myself in a completely foreign world where I didn’t know a soul or speak a lick of Mandarin, so give me a break). It’s a hell of an adventure, being dropped into the country you thought you could dig to when you were a little kid. Culture shock is real, and hurdling it is one of the most satisfying and unique feelings I have ever felt. It’s a process that builds character. It’s hard, it will leave you questioning everything you think you know, you will miss home and your friends, you will want to drown your sorrows by stuffing your face with street food, and you will feel alone at times, but it’s extremely beautiful, and it’s so worth it.
7. The world is safer than you think
I remember confessing to my mother recently that I had a big night out in Shanghai, where I am currently living and studying abroad, and that I stumbled back to my apartment at dawn. Her reaction was: “But don’t you worry about getting robbed in a foreign country?!” Hahaha, not at all mom! I’ve actually never felt so safe! The truth is that unless you’re the type of obnoxious foreigner who’s into mindless binge drinking and doing senseless things like peeing on lamp posts or barfing in a local’s garden, you’re honestly quite safe by simply paying attention to your surroundings, being respectful of local customs, having a sense of humility, playing by the rules, and being a decent human being. As I write this, I have now lived in China for 6 months, and have never felt truly threatened in this country once. I can’t speak for everyone, but the vast majority of my friends, including females, agree and feel the same way. China is very safe, and for the most part, locals will lend a helping hand if you have a problem that needs solving or are in a sticky situation. Aside from being on the lookout for the occasional thieves (so I’ve heard) and having to watch out for taxi or tourist scams you have to be careful not to get funneled into in the major mainland cities, there is very little crime above ground. I can’t speak for every corner of the world, and obviously there are a handful of places you should clearly stay far away from, but it’s not as bad as we tend to think it is. Almost everything most people know about the rest of the world just comes from jaded books, headlines, and government propaganda.Think about it. Very little of our perception about the rest of the world originates in personal experience, and it’s hard to have an open perspective on the world if you only hear negative stories and stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. Traveling methodically unravels those prejudices with a more complex story of the world. More so, traveling illuminates the pulsating light of inherent kindness moving through the world each and every day.
8. People are good
Travelling confirms my personal bias that this world is bigger than any of us can comprehend and that people are inherently good. I can’t count on both hands the number of warm Chinese families that I’ve met while travelling through the country that have taken me in and offered me (very insistently) food, water, and a delicious taste of their culture. We are all wired to help others and share our stories. I watch all sorts of people from all sorts of different backgrounds doing the best they can day in and day out, going out of their way to help others, working hard, and playing by the rules. To me, that is what life is about. We live in a time of progressive interconnectedness that promotes social awareness, peace, inclusion, and advancement. It’s a worldwide movement towards an enlightened way of living and sharing the world. Borders are dissolving, cultures are absorbing one another, and together we are making it work. What a time to be alive.
9. We are all the same
What I’ve discovered is that from a macro perspective, people are basically all the same. Everyone spends most of their time worrying about food, water, money, their job, and family, even the extraordinarily rich and well-insulated elite. Everyone wants validation and love, everyone wants to belong, everyone is proud of where they come from, everyone has insecurities and anxieties that plague them, everybody is afraid of failure and looking stupid, everyone loves their friends and family, and everyone is hopeful of a better future. Humans are, by and large, the same. It’s just minor details that get shuffled around. This homeland for that homeland, this religion for that religion, this government for that government, this social practice for that social practice. Most of the differences that we hold to be so significant are just incidental byproducts of our environment, geography, and history. These differences are superficial, merely different cultural and ethnic flavors of the same overarching humanity. You can relate to everyone in the world if you look past the superficial things that separate you. People are our most treasured gifts in this life. Go meet them. Learn from them. Tell stories. Share things. Develop authentic relationships and a love for other cultures, religions, and lifestyles. Let people across the pond know that we are all one and that they are welcome in your homeland. Things are different now. If and when the world goes to shit, do you want an atlas full of isolated separatist factions, or do you want an inclusive melting pot of a decent humanity that is globally inclusive, connected, and willing to lend a helping hand to each other? Door #2 please. Travel is a great unofficial way to help opens these doors and bridge cultural gaps with people all around the world to promote a unified world.
10. You become a foodie
CAN YOU SAY STREET NOODLES?! The best topic to spark conversation and get to know someone new from a different culture is often food. Everyone loves food. Food is sacred. It’s communal, it’s primal, it’s universal, it’s what brings us together, and it’s what our world revolves around. When people hear the word ‘food’, they can’t help but smile and rejoice as they eagerly share their favorite dishes from home. I am the same way, and you probably are too. (In n’ Out anybody? Where my Californians at?) Probably the most universal act of kindness is the simple act of giving and sharing food. I did not realize how sacred and ritualistic the process of sharing a meal with people is until I got overseas. Of course I always ate with friends and family back home, but basic American food and Western culture is nothing compared to the thousands of years of the East’s fine tuned traditional dishes and Chinese cuisine that has been passed down through countless generations and perfected to the T. The Chinese have simply done it better and longer than anyone else. They are huge foodies. They eat healthy and they eat plentiful. And so do I. I will proudly say it: I’VE GAINED 20 POUNDS SINCE I MOVED TO CHINA (but I look better than ever ladies). I’ll be sure to write an article or 4 strictly dedicated to the food porn I devour everyday over here, so if you’re a foodie, be sure to click and subscribe to my blog here.
11. Take your time
It’s good to slow down sometimes while abroad, and in life in general. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement and busyness of living and studying in another country that you can burn yourself out if you’re not careful. In today’s fast-paced world, make sure to take a minute to catch your breath, relax, and realize you only have 24 hours in a day to accomplish everything what you want to, just like everyone else. I work hard and play hard abroad (no it’s not all vacation over here), and I often have to remind myself that I’m not God and can’t be in every place doing everything that I want to be doing all at once (IE: I wish I could eat noodles and cheesecake while playing with baby monkeys while flying in an airplane to another city while studying Chinese in Shanghai and swimming in the ocean). When our adventure has an official end date or a short life span, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try to squeeze every second out of every day, and eventually that can get pretty exhausting. I experienced this often and had to readjust my pace and perspective multiple times, and still have to. I like to do a lot. I’m a very active traveller. I wake up pretty early and go to sleep pretty late. Knowing yourself and knowing when to pull back a little bit or push yourself forward is very important, and travelling teaches you just how much you can handle. Enjoy every bite of food, take in your surroundings, and appreciate the insanely detailed intricacy of even the smallest space in this world. I could spend a whole day exploring just one tiny street, I swear.
12. Leave stereotypes behind
Here’s how a typical conversation goes when I meet someone abroad. “Hey, I’m Demetri. I’m from California.” “Oh wow! So do you surf?” No, I do not surf. Maybe someday. It’s on my list. And no, I don’t personally know any Hollywood movie stars either. Stereotypes make me laugh. Not all Irish drink. Not all Asians are bad drivers. Not all French are rude. All people will surprise you if you leave your presumptions about them and their country behind you. Respect and appreciate the differences and realize that YOU also seem backwards to them, and that they also have stereotypes about you and where you are from. To sum it up, I think we all know the age-old cliche “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
13. Learn another language
Learning the language of your new country is one of, if not the, most worthwhile thing you can do while overseas to enhance your experience living abroad. You will not only be able to connect with the locals and culture on a higher level and live a more convenient and fulfilling life overseas, but it is also a transferable and valued cross-cultural skill that you can take with you wherever you go. Plus, it’s damn good brain exercise and it feels good when things click as you learn it. There is no better feeling than studying linguistics in the classroom and then being able to step outside into the culture where the language is spoke and apply what you just learned directly and immediately. YES! Mandarin is a pretty complex language to learn so I am not too hard on myself while I’m starting out, but I know enough to have decent conversation with locals and get around well, and it’s an enjoyable and challenging way to immerse myself in the culture and I will continue to pursue fluency it after I return home. Funny story: I’ve messed up a few times trying to decipher Chinese railway station schedules and ended up hundreds of miles in the wrong direction on the wrong train. I’ve also ordered cow brain thinking I ordered noodles. Yeah. That’s where #2 comes in (Don’t ask, I won’t talk about it). And to be honest, if you’re new to the game, a language phrasebook or smartphone app, when coupled with a smile, some humility, and a little effort, goes a long way with the locals of any country.
14. Life is a mirror
Ahh, the golden rule! Karma! You get what you give. You’ve probably heard it all before. It’s the universal law that regulates life. Sorry to bestow cheesy and cliché age-old sage advice on you, but it’s cliché because it’s so used, and it’s used because it’s so true. I’ve found that the people of this world absolutely reap what they sow, and all postage is always returned to the sender. Everything you experience in life is feedback to your previous input. It’s all connected. The basic concept behind “feedback” is that everything that you experience in life, positive or negative, is merely a reflection of yourself. Your life and everything in it is a reflection of who you are, what you think, and what you do. The sums of all these things are the seeds of the circumstances of your life. You input energy, and you get results. It’s mathematical, its meticulous, and it’s universal. You put the pencil to the paper to write a word, and you push the gas pedal to get where you want to go. As you move through this world, everything is truly just a mirror of yourself. You can choose to make this world as big or small as you want. You can choose to think, see, feel, experience, and in turn, become what you want. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. And things change less than people think. People change, and when people change, things change. This is the reason why you should always pursue personal growth and development. If you want to see change in the world or your life, it will have to originate in you. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” This is a liberating notion and implies that there is really nothing out there to truly fear but our own reflections. We are all our own gods, and we are all powerful beyond measure to create positive change in our lives and in this world, even in the smallest ways. Smile at the world and it will smile back at you.
15. Learning to accept and appreciate the transient
I had an extraordinarily close group of friends growing up. We did everything together. Hikes, Californian coastal adventures, proms, school, biking, parties. You name it; we did it at each other’s side. We had and continue to have a lot of good times that I will cherish forever, and being abroad has made me realize how much I appreciate these long-term relationships and the people close to me that I know will always have my back at a second’s notice. So, while abroad, it’s strange to be walking through a stage of life where so many new relationships are often so temporary. I think our 20s’ are a time of a lot of temporary circumstances, and travelling and living abroad just amplifies this. There is joy and excitement in meeting new people while travelling, working, and studying overseas, but there’s also a limit to the depth of the human experience people can accumulate with one another. I have formed so many good relationships with so many new incredible people from all around the world, but in the back of my head, it’s sort of sad because our time together is so limited. Time gets cut short and adventures end, people go different directions, board different planes, and paths split. But once you accept this, you learn to flip the switch and begin viewing the glass as half full instead of half empty. You start appreciating the time that you DO have with people a lot more. You only have so much time, and that’s totally okay. No one has more than 24 hours in a day. I value these people and the role they play in my adventure and I know they value the role I play in theirs. It’s always a blessing keeping in touch with fellow travellers and making new connections around the world. But equally important are the friends who know my history. It hasn’t always been easy to balance traveling and missing my friends and family back home who have been with me since day one. Living abroad has taught me to be increasingly grateful for the deep and lasting relationships I have in my life, while fully embracing all the amazing new people and experiences coming into it.
16. Never bank on paradise
NEVER, (unless you’re in Guilin, China like my picture above, that’s 100% guaranteed paradise). Quick math equation for ya: Happiness = expectations/reality. Happiness equals your expectations divided by reality. It’s a dangerous recipe for disappointment to have unreasonably high expectations for your travels constantly. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have high expectations; I’m just saying you need to keep them in check. Not everyday is going to be full of magical sunshine. Just like regular life back home, your travels can be mundane, lackluster, and tiring at times. And your expectations going into an experience can often make or break how your experience ends up turning out. Most of the places I knew nothing about upon arrival absolutely blew my mind, while a lot of the places that people hyped up and I had high expectations for ended up sorely failing to impress me. On another note, take personal recommendations from people with a grain of salt. All advice and opinion that people offer is simply their autobiography. That’s what I’m doing right now (but you should listen to me because I’m always right). One person’s paradise could be your hell, and vice versa. If my English teachers in high school taught me anything, it was to always check your sources. I know people who religiously follow travel guidebooks to all the popular, saturated, overcrowded, and selfie-stick infested areas, and genuinely enjoy that, and that’s great. To each his own. But for me, I personally hate that, and enjoy less commercialized areas where I can familiarize in a more immersive and relaxing way. So, always keep in mind who’s saying what, why, and what experiences people draw from when they offer you advice. One more thing: Understand that people use social media these days to post the highlight reel of their life. Don’t go comparing your everyday life bloopers with someone else’s curated highlight reel. It’s toxic to spend all day scrolling. Keep things in perspective. Be grateful for the life you lead.
17. Travellers vs. Tourists
You know what I mean. Tourists exchange money for pre-packaged uniform experiences. They consume quickly, often, and move on without engaging the local culture or anything of substance that you wouldn’t see plastered across postcards and travel brochures. In contrast, travelers tend to be more actively involved. They are there to see things, not necessarily buy them (unless it’s boba tea, I’ll take that by the truckload). They may stay with locals, hang out, at least attempt to speak some of the local language, or try to slow down enough to really be where they are in the moment and absorb it. They’re generally more humble and less aggressive than self-indulging tourists. If not a difference in action, there’s often a contrast in mindset between the two groups. Travellers understand they’re simply passing through and getting a cool glimpse of something alien to them. Meanwhile, tourists often give off the sense that the area owes them and the locals are there to serve them as if they’re celebrities. The two groups obviously aren’t black and white, and there’s a big gray area with people of all kinds mixed in, but I’ve been a tourist and I’ve been a traveller in a lot of different places, and can say that these contrasts often hold true. Be humble, be genuine, be decent, pick up after yourselves, and take your time. I’ve seen white tourists yelling and getting upset at Chinese locals on multiple occasions because they can’t understand them. People need to remember: the foreign country you’re in isn’t your home. People don’t speak English everywhere. Welcome to the real world. Sorry to burst your bubble but don’t expect anything to operate on your schedule. It’s not your country anyway, jackasses, get a grip.
18. Language barriers
Speaking only English is extremely limiting to non-tourist travelers. If you are just visiting a country for a weekend, then you can check into your fancy hotel, order mainstream food, get your guided English tour, and convince yourself you’ve experienced a place. Not true. You can even make local university educated friends, and successfully create a bubble to protect you from the local language for as long as you like, and delude yourself into thinking that this is the way things are. But you will never truly experience and begin to understand the local culture if you limit yourself to strictly interacting on a deep level with just the well educated traveller-friendly parts of it. English-speaking travelers miss out on so much and it makes me cringe. I understand that not everyone has the opportunity to spend extended periods of time in a foreign country, that people are on tight schedules with other priorities, and that not everyone is comfortable or capable of going off the beaten path, but if you’re going to spend your time and money to visit a place, at least download a smartphone app or get a phrasebook to learn some basic words and phrases like hello, thank you, and bathroom (thank me later).
19. Tech is rapidly changing this world
It’s safe to say the future has arrived. Obviously we all know tech is changing the world, but I don’t think we all recognize how much it is changing our culture as well. We live in a globally and nearly instantaneously connected world these days. Technology is changing how we live, how we work, how we interact, and just about everything in between. In China, apps such as WeChat have practically monopolized communication, by successfully combining elements of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Skype into one incredible application. If you haven’t heard of it, you probably will soon. It’s revolutionary, has rapidly changed the game in the world’s second most populous country, and it’s only a matter of time before the app that runs China’s economy hits Western markets and becomes a global phenomenon.
20. TV is a black hole
I used to waste so much of my life before I turned 20 spending 2 hours a day watching television. I grew up binge watching Netflix series (quick shout out to some of my favorites: Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Lost, Sons of Anarchy) without thinking about all the time I was ‘wasting’ while the whole world was passing me by outside. There’s no doubt that the invention of the television was a game changing part of the 20th century, bringing humanity rapider communication and news media to the masses, but now as an entertainment platform, it scares me how many people are consumed by the technology they attach to themselves and their lives. In our increasingly connected world with market growth and a consumer market that will continue to be bombarded by progressively interactive and immersive tech, I think it’s important to remember that the world is still worth experiencing through more than a screen. Go outside you lazy bums. Go play in the mud.
21. The world is bigger than we imagine
I don’t think any atlas or amount of Instagram travel feed scrollage will ever help us fully comprehend how big the world truly is. It’s freaking huge. I’ve taken trains cross country for days at a time, just staring out the window watching the world endlessly flash by me outside while I try to take it all in. You can’t. The world is endless, and it’s liberating to be alive in a time where travel and tourism have become thriving, encouraged, and enjoyable phenomenons. Our world has opened up to us. We can now conveniently and efficiently move around the world in a matter of hours. Never before was any of this possible. The game has changed. As I’m writing this in a Shanghai coffee shop on a rainy Friday morning, I’m sitting across from a Syrian refugee, her two young children, and a Taiwanese couple. If a year ago, you told me that that’s what I would be doing right now, I would have looked at you like you were crazy.
22. Understanding different ways of life
Travelling reveals a lot to you about yourself and the world. It makes you revaluate your home country and gain perspective on other ways of life. Personally, it’s made me realize that I could have been born into any of the other bodies I see walking around me every day and that I would have an astronomically different experience than the one I am living out now, one that was established by a roll of the dice and a birth lottery. I could have been a Syrian refugee like the woman I am sitting across from, I could have been Japanese, I could have been literally anyone and anywhere. Who knows? The odds are if you are reading this that you lead a pretty lucky and comfortable life. Our lives are all a roll of the dice and it’s an enlightened way of thinking that there 7 billion other pretty correct ways of living out there that we will never fully personally understand, but should work to.
23. Mastering the art of getting lost
I like to think that I have perfected the art of getting lost, in a good way. Missteps and wrong turns have taken me to some of the most breathtaking places and provided me some of the most incredible experiences that I ever could have dreamed of. Whether you are staring at a menu that’s in a different language realizing you have no idea how to read it, or jumping on a bus that you hope will get you back to somewhere familiar, travel is exciting, and refreshing, and you are bound to encounter situations you aren’t equipped for. You have to do new things. You have to be comfortable with getting lost in the right direction, you have to be on your toes, and for me it is all about getting yourself into random situations, and turning them into amazing experiences that you will remember forever. When I travel, I draft a solid outline of the things I want to do and places I want to see, but usually not a rigid plan unless I’m on a tight schedule. Making your travels (and life) elastic is important. If you’re constantly stressing yourself out over beating the clock and following an extremely precise itinerary, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration when things don’t go exactly as planned all the time. See what you want to see but leave time for improvisation and what I like to call ‘getting lost’. Take side streets, sit down at restaurants you would normally pass up, explore mother nature’s beautiful treasures, and turn off your iPhone maps for a couple hours. It’s in these in-between moments that the best most memorable experiences often seem to fall into your lap.
24. Trying new things
Eat new foods. Try exotic drinks. Go mountain biking. Explore the wilderness. Get outside. Visit a new country. Watch the sunset. Spend a night under the stars with your friends. Wake up early for sunrise. Stuff your face with different cultures’ cuisines. Do something that you’ve always wanted to do. Connect with people. Sit alone in nature. Learn a new language. Be an active listener. Pick up a hobby. Play an instrument. Help someone. Fall in love in a foreign country. Take a different route home. Read a good book. Listen to music. Play music. Order a different drink than usual. Don’t take life too seriously. Dance, sing, and laugh often. Practice patience. The list goes on. Keep trying new things.
25. Listening to others
God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Taking the time to truly listen to what someone else is saying is so important. Too many people barley listen without realizing it because they are so busy trying to relate it to themselves and thinking of what they are going to say in response. Instead, focus on actively listening to what people are trying to get across and internalizing it. Just listen. Take your time. It’s human nature to want to chime in with your persona experience, but it’s not always about you, and in reality rarely is. Listening to others is the way to go. Everyone is a genius in some way; everyone is good at something, and everyone and has a good story to tell. Lessons often come from unlikely people in unlikely places. I have spent countless hours in conversation with strangers on buses, trains, and planes. Each new person I am fortunate enough to meet always offers a fascinating story, a solid nugget of advice, and a small peak into the nuances of their life and culture.
26. Stop judging others
The more people I meet and get to know from all around the world, the more I realize that no one has any clue what the hell they are doing in life. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. Life is hard for everyone. And more often than not, people are so much more than their job title, their ethnicity, or the color of their skin. People are the most complex thing in this world, hands down. Travelling unravels and remolds your preconceived notions of the people and places you grew up hearing about. Judgment and prejudice is natural. It’s how our brain works. We scale someone up from the second we meet them and put them into categories and label them with 1’s and 0’s whether we consciously recognize it or not. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, that’s just how human beings and animals in general are wired. The bad stuff surfaces when people don’t know that’s what they are doing, and then act on a discriminatory basis. What’s important is that we know we do this and know that it’s rooted in prejudice. I’ve learned to judge people not by who they are or what I may have heard, but by observing how they treat people and what they DO. Some of the most kind and gracious people I’ve ever met were people who did not have to be kind or gracious to me, and some of the most obnoxious asshats have been people who had no business being obnoxious asshats to me. The world makes all kinds. And you don’t know who you’re dealing with until you spend enough time with them to see what they do, not what they look like or where they’re from. This world is a truly jaded place, full of racism, bullshit, propaganda, discrimination, corruption, pain, sadness, and things that I hope humanity grows out of. All of that is very real, and it’s here. But what’s also here are billions of good law-abiding optimistic and kind open-minded people all around the world from all sorts of different backgrounds who are keeping their heads down and making this world a better place everyday. We have entered a truly monumental turning point in history as a united global humanity and more than ever, we need to learn to practice tolerance, acceptance, and inclusiveness. We are no longer just 2 isolated tribes fighting over a single pile of resources in a forest. Everything is so connected. Our actions affect so much more than what we can see. Tech has amplified the butterfly effect tenfold. Things are complicated. What happens on one side of the pond ripples across. In the coming years, travel and tourism, international programming, multinational tech and media, and cross-cultural bridging are some of the keys to our survival as a species in my opinion. It all starts with giving everyone a chance and withholding assumption that you know anything about them, because you don’t. Stop judging others. I’ve met, connected, and learned from people from every continent besides Antarctica these past few months, and I can confidently say that we are all the same and that there are is so much kindness and optimism pulsating through the world. I’ve built dinosaur legos with a young Indian boy from Mumbai, talked about ISIS and terrorism with Muslims in a park, gone shopping at a strip mall with a Saudi, taught Chinese children English, explored jungles with Israeli soldiers, pub crawled with Germans, lived with Ukrainians, clubbed with Dutch, summited a mountain with an Indonesian, chatted on the subway with Egyptians, hiked ancient ruins with a Moroccan, done calculus with a Nigerian, pitched tents on the Great Wall under the stars with South Koreans, and had hour long conversations with French about Brexit. I could go on. Trust me, we are all the same and the world is so much more complex than any of us can imagine. We are all so naïve in the grand scheme of things. Stop judging and stereotyping people and places. It has no place in the modern world.
27. Appreciate the little things
I’m talking about decent Wi-Fi, black coffee, solid deodorant, and toilet paper. All very, very major key.
28. Happiness is a project
LIFE HACK: There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The only thing that is certain is death (aww man). I don’t mean to be a downer, but happiness is fleeting and takes work, and the pursuit of it has people chasing all sorts of crazy things they don’t need (thanks capitalism). No amount of money or prestige will get you to the other side where you think the grass is greener. The grass is green where you water it, so do something good for yourself and your neighbor, water that shit, and make it sprout. Healthy relationships improve happiness. Spending time in nature increases happiness. These things are proven. Excessive material wealth and “the dream” have very little to do with it. And the concept of happiness didn’t even exist a thousand years. Our brains actually aren’t even designed for and capable of sustainable ‘happiness’, as in constantly releasing serotonin. But there’s a generic version of happiness called gratitude, and it’s definitely the next best thing (and better in my opinion).
29. Cultivating gratitude
There’s nothing quite as eye opening as long-term travel in a developing country. It makes you realize all the nuances of your own country that you took for granted, all the comforts of home you never thought twice about, and all the good things in your life you never want to live a day without. Cultivate gratitude. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into. Keep a gratitude journal. Write down all the good things in the world and your life before you go to sleep. Stop complaining, criticizing, and gossiping. Get rid of the negative things dragging you down. Compliment people. Exercise. Get excited. Go outside. Look up at the stars. Revel in the miracle of the universe. Keep improving yourself and help others to do the same. I’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the poorest and richest people in the world, and know for a fact that the presence of gratitude is the difference between a miserable existence of sorrow, sadness, and jealousy, and a life filled with light, love, humility, and thankfulness. Sure we all want to be well off and need a sense of security and basic quality of life, but it truly doesn’t matter how much money you have, you don’t need that much money to reach fulfillment. While travelling I’ve spent extended periods of time with some truly dirt-poor locals who are leading more fulfilling and peaceful purposeful lives than the millionaires and rich spoiled kids that I know back home wasting their time running in circles, excessively drinking, and blowing money in America. Your happiness level and quality of life has less to do with material wealth than you have been tricked into believing. In the end, what matters is cultivating gratitude for life and building meaningful lasting relationships. Sure we could all use a million dollars, but money comes and goes. Chase and invest the long-term. Be grateful for waking up. Collect moments, not things.
30. You learn about yourself
I can confidently say that I’ve learned more about myself and the world from travelling than I ever have in a classroom. I’m forever grateful for a formal education, and it’s so important, but it can only provide so much. As cliche as it may sound, if you want to fast track your personal development and world perspective, go travel. Do a semester abroad, or save up some cash and plan a trip over Christmas with some college roomies to somewhere you’ve always dreamed of going. If you are up for a challenge, try conquering squat toilets in Asia. I promise it builds character, and you’ll return with very, very strong legs. Personally, through my time overseas in China, I’ve learned that I am lot better at planning and executing that I ever knew I was. When you plan, book, and successfully backpack your way across a foreign country on a tight schedule overcoming language barriers, cultural nuances, and obstacles thrown at you left and right, and still manage to have an incredible time and end on an optimistic positive note, you realize that there’s not much you can’t do in life. You learn a lot of things you can’t put into words. Overall, I have my flaws just like everybody, but I’ve realized that I’m a pretty optimistic, open minded, upbeat, and passionate person for the most part. I like to see and do new things, I love the outdoors, I’m a foodie, I like to help people, I love sports, music, photography, adventures, laughing, and (trying to) dance.
31. Play by the rules
If you’re in another country, play by their rules. No matter how comfortable you may or may not feel, it’s important to remember that it’s not your turf and it’s not your homeland. While the local customs and language may be totally alien to you, what it means to be a decent human being is a pretty universally accepted notion, and it’s good to keep that in mind. Be respectful of the locals, their culture, property, and ways. Stop comparing everything to your home and trying to explain to people why your way is the best way, and be aware of any oddball local laws you might be breaking without even knowing ($1000 littering fine in Singapore, anyone?). Play by the rules and leave everything and everyone better than you found them. Don’t snoop in places you shouldn’t snoop, respect people’s privacy, be clean, pick up after yourself, don’t be overly loud and obnoxious, and don’t black out and barf on people’s plants and doorsteps…basic stuff.
32. You get addicted to the thrill of travel
The travel bug is real. The thrill of waking up in a young healthy body in a foreign land with no plans is my favorite feeling in the world. It’s not something you can replicate in a lab. One would think that more travelling would get rid of this bug, but really I’ve just been scratching an itch that’s continuing to fester and spread. I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list.
33. Life is a grand adventure
I’ll sum this one up with my favorite quote (cause I’m cheesy).
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color and bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?” -Richard Dawkins
34. Being lonely vs. being alone
Admittedly, traveling alone for extended periods of time can get lonely. You’re constantly saying goodbye to new friends who are boarding different planes and sometimes you don’t have anyone to talk to about the amazing day you just had sightseeing. But there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. I think solo travel endeavors are a healthy and enriching part of life. It gives you time to take in the scenery, process your thoughts, and get to know yourself and who you are as an individual. Go eat a meal or walk around a new city. Take your time. It can take some getting used to, but it’s really okay to do these things alone. Being alone and having time to reflect on the things you are experiencing will help you appreciate them more, and you won’t be distracted by outside opinions and pacing with others.
35. Collect moments, not things
Mostly just because you’ll get tired of lugging things around in your suitcase. Chase good moments, not things. You’ll get better photo ops too I promise.
36. The best souvenirs are the ones you already have
Sometimes the best souvenirs are the ones you already have, but don’t realize it. Train tickets, bus stubs, museum pamphlets, restaurant menus, travel brochures, or pieces of paper that locals wrote barley legible address on are all golden. Instead of throwing these away, hold onto them and start a collection. These little pieces of your adventure hold much more meaning and you will attach lasting memories to these things, probably much more than a factory-produced overpriced plastic Eiffel Tower statue you bought and then have to lug home in your suitcase.
37. Make your days count
Time flies when you are abroad! Endless days of exploration and consumption of copious amounts of White Russians (1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila, floor) when out on the town cause the days to blur together, and meanwhile your bank account dries up, you gain a few pounds, and you hate yourself when you wake up the next day and realize you’ve already wasted half of it! Time is your greatest asset. Use it wisely! If you have a holiday or a few days off, go somewhere awesome with friends. Take a train, see something you’ve always wanted to see, just do something, it doesn’t matter what! There’s nothing wrong with hitting the snooze button and taking a rest, but be careful to avoid getting in the habit of autonomous days lounging around in a bubble, because soon enough you’ll be boarding a plane to head home and realize you still have so much you want to cross off your bucket list!
38. Make a bucket list
Make a list, check it twice! Write stuff down! Draft up a bucket list of things you’ve done and things you want to do in your life. Keeping a list of things you’ve accomplished and experienced is a great way to cultivate gratitude, remember what you’ve done, and keep track of future endeavors you are planning! Crossing things off feels great and it’s fun to brainstorm ideas with friends about adventures you have in mind. Somehow my bucket list is still getting longer, I thought it was supposed to be the other way around! PS: Here’s a picture of a cute panda from my tour of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (definitely recommend)! #BUCKETLIST
39. Ditch the guidebooks
Okay Lonely Planet, I’m not hating, I love your books, I’m just saying that a lot of your recommendations unfortunately become over saturated, over priced, and overcrowded gigs that I’ve learned to avoid more often than not. In this day and age, travel guidebooks are a great way of getting an idea for drafting up your broad itinerary and general route of travel but it’s good to be aware that as soon as these books are published, the places featured in them skyrocket in popularity, which in turn inflates prices and creates tourist traps. More often than not, you’re better off going to the recommended place in the book, and then finding a similar close alternative nearby. Usually these places are even better, less crowded, cheaper, and more authentic.
40. Smiling transcends borders
It’s a universal communicator. You can learn the basic “thank you” and “hello” in the local language, but nothing replaces a simple genuine smile. It knocks down walls and drops people’s guard, and you really can’t go wrong if you approach your travels and the adventure that is life with a smile, patience, and gratitude.
It’s been an incredible ride this past year, and I’m excited to start my 20’s with such a bang! I’m not going to lie, the journey has been really hard at times, but it’s been everything I always dreamt about what it’s like to live, work, and study abroad-the friends you make from all over the world, the breathtaking adventures, the memorable nights, embarrassing moments, crushes, food, culture, crazy views, and the beautiful sights, sounds, smells and spirit of different places and people who’s pulse and energy have become my own, I am so grateful for it all! I have the deepest thanks for the support of my friends, family, and travel community who helped me make this possible and I’m excited to continue exploring our world together.
If I can ever help you in any way, if you have any questions, or if you just want to chat, shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to talk! If you liked this article, I greatly appreciate you sharing it through your social networks. Stay tuned for more adventures, this is just the beginning!