My grandfather once told me he was taking me to see an Opera. Being sane, and six years old, I asked why.
He said simply, “I want to educate you about life before the Americans get to you.”
It wasn’t a hateful thing against the good old USA – he was a former Perth city councillor and had the key to the City of New Orleans proudly hanging in his study.
It’s just that he saw my impressionable young Australian mind being swamped with American popular culture, and he had a wider view of the world he wanted to share with me that went beyond Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, basketball, Disney movies and chewing gum (heaven forfend!).
So from the age of six till the day he died when I was 28, he never stopped taking me and my siblings to Australian and world cultural events.
Foreign films, drama performances, sailing lessons, gifts of books and concert tickets; a kaleidoscope of culture and experience was presented to me to devour – even American culture, though definitely not from the commercial mainstream.
The icing on this very rich cake was travel. He was obsessed with the classical European concept of “The Grand Tour,” a prolonged journey through the continent to marvel at the artistic and cultural achievements of Western civilisation.
He took me twice, for two months at a time when I was 16 and 19, pulling me out of school and university on both occasions. “You’ll learn more in a month of travel than a year of school,” he would say, and he was damn well right.
So how much can one learn in 18 months of travel?
Carmen and I were walking down an unfamiliar street in Mexico City last night, hunting for a bottle of water, when she said to me “Happy anniversary.”
I panicked, thinking I had forgotten the big one.
“We’ve been travelling for 18 months now,” she quipped, and I smiled with relief, and then pride. It’s an awfully long time to be on the road, and I’ve since then I’ve been reflecting on the value of such a long journey.
So here are the first nine lessons I’ve gleaned from 18 months of travel – my Grand Tour of Canada, The USA, The Caribbean, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.
Life lessons from travelling for 18 months
1. Times flies
It was yesterday that I boarded the plane for Canada at the beginning of our trip, and five minutes ago that I said to Carmen, “Six weeks to go till we get home.” And now we are just days away from seeing our folks:
Time really does fly. Sometimes it drags, but it is always ticking. And the older I get, the faster it seems to go. There is no reasoning with it, slowing it or pausing it. It just ticks away, no matter what. I used to comfort myself by saying ‘time is on my side’, but that’s just not true. Time is our master, and all we have.
Eighteen months of travel has taught me that the amount of time you have on this earth, in this body, in this mind, is not important. It is what you do with it that is.
2. Experiences are best shared
Earlier this year Carmen and I did a salt flats tour in Bolivia, where you can’t tell the difference between the sky and the earth. It was a stunning experience driving through such a blasted and beautiful landscape, but the company we had made it special.
Two Dutch blokes on our tour – Jaap and Sander – were big fans of the movie Into The Wild, based on the sad but true story of Christopher McCandless who died alone in Alaska searching for meaning to his life. In the movie, he has an epiphany, writing ‘happiness only real when shared,’ into his journal.
On our final night in the salt flats, Jaap, Sander and I stood outside in the freezing cold air of a nameless town gazing up at a sky blazing with stars. If I had been alone, it would have beautiful. But with two mates, it was special. It was a reminder that in life, sharing is best.
3. 99.99% of people are awesome
Yep, I’ve met some people on the road who can only be described using the bluest of four letter words.
Lots of them.
Like the taxi driver we had last night in Mexico City who ripped us off. Or the crashing bores who only talk about themselves, or the used car salesman in Canada who filled my radiator with tap water, or that guy in Bolivia who looked at me funny that one time.
But the vast, overwhelming majority of people I have met while travelling, be they fellow tourists or locals, have been brilliant.
Kind, generous, accommodating, going out of their way to help, encourage or protect. We’ve been to places with infamous reputations like Cali, Colombia – home of the Cali dug cartel and the old ultra-violence – and felt as welcome and safe as in our parents’ homes.
I suppose the lesson here is that most people are great, we just tend to focus on the ones who aren’t. Which brings me to this point…
4. The news is mostly noise
Trust me, I was a journalist. A steady diet of news can leave you with the absolute belief that the world is totally messed up and it’s best to sit tight in your living room, hidden from the street by a high garden hedge and use movies and TV shows as your avatar of experience.
But that’s rubbish.
Travel has taught me that the news is a narrow lens, like looking at the world through the gun sights of a tank.
There is so much more to life than passively watching the idiot box, going ‘oh dear’ at another report of some terrible event. Get out there and judge for yourself.
By all means, avoid the war zones and keep your wits about you, but the world is nowhere near as dangerous as Fox News makes it out to be.
And if you’re going watch world news, make sure it’s the BBC, ABC (Australia) or SBS. The rest are there to make money by reinforcing your prejudices – and by scaring you.
5. Quit – it’s good
At the start of our trip I quit my job as a news producer at BBC World News in London, a place that had represented the pinnacle of my professional ambitions.
Until it didn’t.
I wasn’t happy in the job. I kept telling myself I should be. I was in the Jedi Temple of Journalism, in charge of news programmes, setting the agenda, rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck into the big issues. But no matter what I tried, I was unfulfilled. The old passion I had was ebbing away. It became just a job.
In the back of my head, ever since I became a journalist, I heard the words of my high school mentor Mr Alcorn. “Journalism? That’s not creative enough for you.”
Over the years the whisper became a shout and then a scream. So I worked up the courage, saved a bundle of money and quit so I could travel and pursue writing. I was terrified. What if I failed? What if this is the biggest mistake I have ever made? But then again, I faced the same bad ends if I stayed.
I’m happy to say that I am now very satisfied with the decision I made.
I make money while I travel, pursue my creative passions and fill every day with good experiences. So if you’re not happy with your position in life, do something about it.
There’s no shame in quitting if you have a bigger ambition to fulfil. Your only regret will be not trying something new and wondering forever what opportunities you passed up. Remember – you can always go back. What’s the worst that can happen?
6. It’s never as bad as you think
A few years back everyone was talking about ‘first world problems’ when they complained about things like their cupcakes burning when people in poorer countries were starving. It’s since fallen very much out of favour as a Twitter hashtag but I think it still has merit as a concept, unlike Yolo. F that.
Rural Bolivia has some of the poorest people in all of South America. No running water, reliable electricity, remote, grim, hard working lives. But they are happy. So happy. They laugh and sing and enjoy their families and don’t give a hoot for the latest iPhone or Kim Kardashian’s oiled arse.
It’s only natural that our first reaction to the sight of what our western eyes consider to be poverty is ‘oh dear, how terrible,’ especially if it’s filtered through the news or the TV. But in the flesh, things are different. It is never as bad as we think it is. People find a way to live, and live well, even in the direst of circumstances, and because most people are awesome, they are willing to share it with you.
Applied to our own lives, our problems pale in comparison to those less fortunate, and I make sure now to take a deep breath and get some perspective. I was ripped off by a cab driver? At least I have the money to pay for a cab, and can absorb the hit. In the end, I’m arguing over pesos when I hold dollars! Be thankful for what you’ve got and stop complaining.
(And as a side note, poorer people often seem happier than us Westerners. Get your head around that one.)
7. Get up early, it’s worth it
This has taken me to the ripe old age of 32 to realise. Give me a comfy bed and a dark room and I will sleep till noon. I could represent Australia in sleeping, though I would have an intense rivalry with our American travel buddy Kristin who can sleep like a hibernating grizzly bear, minus the snoring of course! (Sorry mate, couldn’t resist!)
But if you sleep till eight, you’re too late. Starting your day early is awesome, even if the first five minutes make you feel like a mashed banana. Do some exercise, have a coffee and you’ll feel like a million bucks. The crisp morning is yours, and the rest of the day will flow from it.
Carmen and I recently visited Chichen Itza, a massive Mayan ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a magnet for every tourist in the nation and by 10am it’s as if an alien race of portly, camera toting, loud talking, gum-chewing humanoids have descended on the place to scour it into dust.
But at 8am, the only thing you can hear is the buzzing of bees in the grass, rising up and up in a note of suspense as you walk past ancient ruins glowing in the morning sun.
So get out of bed! Your parents are right.
8. Sleep is amazing – but you can sleep when you’re dead
That said, I have rediscovered my deep love of deep sleep. For a long time I worked night shifts at the BBC. They are called graveyard shifts for a good reason, you become the living dead, a zombie that eats dinner for breakfast and forgets how to tie your shoelaces.
But travel also throws you sleep curve balls, like trying to get forty winks on a bouncing night bus whose chemical toilet door keeps opening up like a horrid giant’s mouth. Or you’re pulling an all nighter in a Colombian salsa club and you have a plane to catch the next day and no time to sleep.
Travel has taught me to value my sleep, but also that it shouldn’t stop you having a good time. Coffee is the answer, not putting things off for another day.
Too often I have found myself protecting my routine and the notion that I need eight hours of sleep. But like the song says, “Soon we’ll be without the moon, humming a different tune.” Choose life, not linen.
9. Routine and spontenaity are best friends
Carmen and I have actually discovered that we hate to travel. Moving from place to place is a pain and we now avoid it as much as possible, preferring instead to stay in a place for a week or longer. We just spent a relaxing month in Oaxaca and it was great. We established routines that allowed us to get work done and have fun. I even befriended a dog named Baron who lived next door and took him for walks.
But we also threw a Thanksgiving party on a whim. And dropped our work one day to visit a market town and stuff our faces with fried pulled pork sandwiches filled with cheese, called Gorditas.
Eighteen months on the road have taught me that while I am a creature of habit, I am also a person who likes surprises, and a combination of the two is the best.
Balance is the key – and the more I travel the more I become aware of it.
There, I think I’ve bored you enough for the day – part two will come soon.
I do think that I could have learned all of the above staying at home. But travel has a way of magnifying the experience of life, forcing you out of your comforts and limits and making you play instead of watching from the sidelines. Its lessons cut deeper.
If there’s one thing I hope to impart to others, it’s that the emotional and physical limits we place on ourselves are seldom true. Gravity is non-negotiable, but everything else is changeable.
There is no normal, only usual.
There is always a way to do the things you want to do.
We are all descended from travellers. For me as an Australian, it was brave settlers, poor convicts and foolhardy adventurers who travelled halfway round the world to impose a new world on one established by noble people who themselves had risked everything to be there.
Dial the clock back even further and we are the first men and women, hacking life from an unimaginably hostile environment with nothing but our wits and hands and love driving us onward.
We are all travellers, and to quote my favourite Australian film Gallipoli, let’s see you do it!
You never know what you may learn about yourself and our world.