6 lessons I have learned from travelling 14 months around the world
I used to think it was nonsense that people could learn from travelling, but that’s a lie. I have learnt about myself and the world more through travel than anything else. I travelled for fourteen months: starting in Greece and ending in Mexico. I spent one to three months there in each country I’ve visited. I do not want to see a lot of countries, but rather to experience them. I want to actually feel a nation, her people and her culture.
Where did I go? I started in Greece, then there was Russia and Mongolia. On to Asia, where I visited China, Malaysia, and India. From there, I went on to Australia. I hop over to Africa, where I saw Ethiopia and Zanzibar (Tanzania). A stopover in Madrid and onward to Guatemala, where I volunteered. I made weekend trips to Belize and El Salvador, then to Cuba and lastly, Mexico, where I took my Divemaster Course. Six weeks of diving, day by day. In this sense, I am learning about our world and about the world underwater. Since there is a whole world under the surface as well.
In those months, I learned six lessons I would love to share with you:
First Lesson: Time does not exist
‘What is the time,’ I ask. The boy I met at the hostel this morning rolls up his sleeve. He looks at a sizeable tattooed globe on his arm. Where most people wear a watch. ‘It’s the time of the world,’ he says. I smile. He’s right. Time is a construct that we use and – I must admit – is handy, but at the same time, it is a construct that does not help all the time. It creates a lot of extra pressure because you can be “wasting” your time when you don’t use it in the way you would like it to be spent.
But now, travelling, it doesn’t matter what time it is. We eat when we are hungry, rest when we are tired, and do what our bodies tell us we should or want to do. Time is irrelevant because there is no time.
I don’t have to work, don’t have to be anywhere. For the first time in my life, I can be. Being, with a capital B. That feeling of not having to do anything is something I wish everyone could have. That’s the reason to quit your job and work, and go travel and not make an appointment to come back. When there is a time when you have to be somewhere in the world, your travel experience is different than when you have to do nothing.
I find that there is plenty of time in many places in the world, but not when I meet Western people. Then it’s about what time we have to be somewhere or whether it’s already time to eat. I meet a lot of people who say they ‘don’t have time. That’s nonsense. Time is something we all have. Not everyone has money to do the things they want, but everyone has time. Time can never be an excuse.
Second Lesson: News is Irrelevant
The news game of politics
In politics, my career before travelling, the news was my job – or so I thought at least. The assumption is that many people widely know a good politician and as much as possible in the headlines. When you want to be in the headlines, you come up with information that is either unique or new.
The news is an event or information that is by definition the exception. That is why it is news. Everyday things are not newsworthy. In other words: news is information, but not all information is news.
Politicians try to share new policies or ideas to be in the news. It is all about who has the first piece of information and succeeds in bringing it out. Or when something happens that is not particularly good for the politician, the information needs to be managed. Thus, my work was basically the game of the news.
Losing faith in trust and objectivity
In politics, my trust in most media has declined. I was, for example, working on issues that were almost every day in the newspapers. I was surprised when I found out what factual incorrectness was in the papers about my working problems. They didn’t write the whole truth. Why?
When we went on to ask why it was written like that, the journalist said: “I have left things out, so it is easier to understand”. Really? I was a passionate reader of newspapers, but that had completely stopped when this happened quite often. When journalists don’t take me seriously as a reader, I’m gone.
Trust in the media is not the only thing I lost in politics; I already lost my fate in objectivity. Journalists claim the news is objective. There is no such thing. We all look at the world with a particular set of glasses. That’s okay, but it’s in acknowledging that we all view the world differently and therefore present different proposals for solutions (in politics).
People are good
My view of the world changed significantly by barely following the news (far away) for over a year. I started basing my opinions on things I was experiencing instead of what was happening somewhere far away. I became aware that the world around me is good.
“I am doing well; we are doing badly”, in the words of former Social and Cultural Planning Office director Paul Schnabel. The Social and Cultural Planning Office conducts social science policy-relevant research and reports to the Dutch government and parliament. People generally have it good in the Netherlands and the western world, but we think based on the news that things are not going well. When we look at ourselves, we realise we have (in general) a good life, but we think it is not going well in our country based on the news. That is a lie.
Strangely, we tend to base our feelings and opinions on the media – the exception – while the real thing is what I see, isn’t it? I do realise that I don’t read it all, but by keeping up with the news, you also don’t see the complete picture. Thankfully, many people share my thoughts. When I returned to the Netherlands, Rutger Bregman’s books titled Most People Are Good were piled up in bookstores.
Perception of the other is blurred
In India, I meet people again who say they won’t go to Europe because that is a continent in decline and ‘all those attacks’. At that time, there were attacks in London and Germany. As a Dutch citizen, I know that you can walk the streets of those cities with absolute ease. That doesn’t mean that everywhere is unsafe. Still, when you follow the news about a country far away that you don’t know, with customs that you don’t understand, then your opinion is different.
It works the other way around as well. Friends warned me to be careful in India because maybe I could be raped. I do not say that doesn’t happen, but the chance it happens is not that high that you can’t be in India. Like in Europe, it is safe, but there is always the option of an attack.
Lesson Three: You Can Trust People
The mistrust I had picked up in politics had damaged me in a way within. Travelling restored my trust in the majority of people. When travelling, I would rely on stories from people I met: from people around me and not based on news.
For years I worked in a restaurant where the owner challenged me to think about things while eating. One of the things he asked was, “but do you know anyone yourself who experiences this way? He asked this when something was mentioned about a big problem in the news, but I don’t know anyone who had it. It’s possible we don’t know anyone with the problem. Still, with many things, I did start to wonder about the magnitude of the problem. I started basing my decisions on things I experienced and not things that happened somewhere far away. I became aware that the world around me is good.
Now, I sincerely believe that at the very root, everyone is good. People don’t do things that you won’t be rewarded for in the long run. That would be against nature. Every choice is based on such consideration, and, at its core, people want the best for themselves and others. After all, we remain group animals. These interests can sometimes conflict, and then choices may be made to the disadvantage of others. Thus, people’s choices sometimes seem irrational, but the options often turn out to be rational when you ask through. Yet, most of the time, we don’t know why people do things. We don’t know them.
Easier to travel
That fact helps me when I travel to approach a new place with open arms. It literally feels like playing in the world. Countries don’t matter. They are made up of friendly people everywhere and are eager to tell you about their lives.
Even in a poor country like Russia, I left my passport, laptop, and stuff to go to the toilet. I talked to a boy for more than an hour when I had to go to the bathroom. I look at my stuff. I can’t take my passport and everything to the restroom, can I? Then the other person feels I don’t trust him. I went to the bathroom, trusting he was keeping an eye on my belongings. Nothing happened. Call me naïve, but it reinforced my confidence that when I trust people, they don’t break that trust.
I decided: I will judge people not by the outcome of their actions but by their intention. I learned of the power of choices from Oprah. She talks about intention all the time. Intention is more important than the actions of someone. When someone does something, and I am not happy about it, but the intention is good, we can talk about it. When the intention is hurting me, I won’t speak to that person anymore.
This is also helping me. I am a perfectionist. I am always afraid to hurt others, but now I realise that others will listen when my intention is good. When you have the right intention, people will help you.
Lessons Four: Life is About Connection (and Community)
In his book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks refers to the phenomenon in which the first settlers in America were imprisoned by the Indians. Their fellow Europeans often came to “save” them a few weeks later, but these people often did not want to be saved. Why not? Because they were suddenly included in a community in which they made contact with people. They were part of a group.
The first settlers came from Europe, where individualism had already grown. By then, people already don’t know anymore what it is to be part of the group or community. Until suddenly, they are included in the group of Indians, whether or not forced.
It may sound strange, this is how it feels when I write it down, but this is also my feeling when I started to travel. While travelling, I am part of an international group of young people who are seeking connection.
It’s nonsense that all travel contact is fleeting or more profound than your contact with people at home. To me, the contact is ‘more real’ because there is no agenda. People don’t know who I am, what I do or can do; travellers contact me simply because I am me. I needed this contact immensely after the years in politics where people only talk with you with an agenda.
Lessons Five: You Are Not What You Do
When I worked in politics, I often had a dream that I was on the theatre stage. When I was on stage, I either no longer knew my role, what the play was about, or when I was backstage, things went wrong. In the end, most of the time, the stage or the theatre collapses. I saved myself, but I felt uncertain and fearful.
During those years, I never looked up what the dream stood for. Until I found out that dreams have meaning, especially if it repeats. A play can mean that you are playing a role in your life. That you are not playing the role of who you really are. I realised that that was me. I was playing a role in politics. Everything in politics was so fake. This journey brings me back to who I am, not what I do.
Lessons Six: Life is the Road
You don’t have to climb the mountain of your life all at once or maybe not at all. Not in the way most people climb the hill. For a long time, politics was the top for me. I thought I would find something there, but I realised that there is nothing there for me in my ascent. In fact, there is nothing at the top.
When travelling, I have concluded that I have spent too much time climbing the social ladder in the last ten years. On all those things people ask you about: your job, your income, your house, your partner. I’ve had it and lost it again. Yet, it doesn’t matter because life is about the way (up). It is not about the destination. The destination is the same for everyone on earth: death. Most people climb to something that they think is important but rarely look around to see how beautiful life and the world are.
My New Perspective on Life
This is my mission: enjoy life, connect to people, trust them, just be me and not forget to look around to see how beautiful life and the world is.