As I was looking through old travel journals, I rediscovered a letter I wrote to myself back in 2018 during my post-college year of solo travel. I was struck by how much of what I wrote still applies to me four years later, now that I’m living abroad again. I decided to rename the work— originally titled “To the Person I Was Before I Started Traveling”— because these contemplations are truly for all times and all places.
To the person I was before I started traveling—
Things take more time and effort in the real world.
After seventeen years of successful formal education and learning how to “think critically”, don’t be surprised when you can’t build a shelf from scratch or name a fair price at the market. Academic knowledge is valuable, but practical street skills drive the world. If you want to go anywhere, you have to learn to be resilient and to get your hands dirty.
You’re not as great as you think you are. Yes, you do have talent— but those talents aren’t fully developed yet. And honestly, you’re still learning the art of self-discipline. You must learn how to fail with grace. Learn to develop a thick skin. You will send so many messages to potential employers and hosts, only to be rejected again and again.
You won’t pick up languages as fast as you think you can. Just because you’ve “immersed yourself” doesn’t mean you actually are. You’ll blame it on the people around you who just want to practice their English, but it really has more to do with your internal mixture of pride and embarrassment. When the homesickness creeps in, you’ll start to crave the sweetness of fluent conversations in your mother tongue. The art of learning a language is an emotional challenge as much as it is an intellectual one.
Sometimes when you feel like you aren’t making any progress, it’s because you’re playing by the rules too much. Your nose is in books when you should be out and about. And this isn’t just about learning languages. You will learn how to feed goats, to climb mountains, to cultivate mushrooms, to clean an outdoor toilet, to cook without a recipe book, to invent convincing bedtime stories, to develop a healthy intuition, to make small talk, and to have a conversation without even knowing the other person’s language. And you’ll learn to do all of this without reading a textbook.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Asking for help can be a scary thing, especially as foreigner in a new country. Even though you want to travel “in the best way possible”, remember that it’s okay to not know everything. An attitude of intellectual humility is critical to your survival. Instead of trying to plan out your itinerary alone, ask the people in your hostel. Usually, people are also looking to make friends too and are more likely to converse if you initiate.
Lose the map (i.e. the phone) once in a while. Instead of viewing getting lost as an inability to find things, view it as an opportunity to practice a new language or to make new friends. It’s easier (and more fun) to share a laugh with a local shopkeeper over Google Translate than to walk around the same three blocks for an hour trying to find obscurely located Chinese characters. It will force you to interact with local people, to have memorable conversations, and to find your way in the big world without a phone.
When you struggle and feel ashamed, remember that it’s okay to ask for help. There will always be someone who is more of an expert than you are, even in those things that you think you know a lot about. Learn to learn from as many people as you can.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; instead, welcome these moments of correction. Trial and error is one of the most historically proven ways of learning.
Travel is not a competition.
You will see people travel in countless ways, from flashpacking to English-teaching to structured vacation getaways. Eventually you’ll run into somebody who believes that their way of travel is the most authentic, and you’ll think of your own travel in the same way But if there’s one piece of advice I could give you before you started, it’s that travel (and travel blogging, for that matter) is not a competition.
When you see a featured Instagram post about a traveling nomad who blogs about her travel accessories and has 1.5 M followers, don’t grow bitter. You might argue, “But that content is so superficial!” or “I’m the one who wants to share my authentic emotions and experiences about a place, so I deserve more than this blogger does!”
But before you criticize, remember that blogging is not a platform of absolute merit; it’s a multi-voice industry cultivating communities of readership. Anyone can become a blogger, an artist, or a writer these days because of the Internet. If all you’re going to do is criticize the work of others without producing any of your own, you deserve nothing. Get over yourself, and create something you really believe in.
When you want to silently condemn that voluntourist profile with the nameless [African] orphan or those Western beg-packers on the street trying to fund their adventures, take a deep breath and acknowledge how you feel. While it’s worth discussing these issues of responsible tourism, refrain from judging others simply because you think you’re better than them for living “more ethically.” Do not be angry with them, for you do not know their story. Remember that you too can be selfish even in your most righteous acts of altruism. Recognize the plank in your own eye before you call out the speck in your neighbor’s.
Instead, show people that you love them. If you want to offer your opinion, listen first to what they have to say. Share your stories. Engage in respectful, constructive dialogue. We are all nomads figuring out our own paths, and the best opportunities to grow are when we take the time to reflect on our journeys. Focus on growing into the person you want to be, and not on those around you.
Don’t expect relationships to be easy.
I know you’re expecting to make so many amazing, lifelong friends when you go abroad. The first time you meet new travel companions, you will feel so dizzy, fresh, kilig, even. And this is a natural, predictable feeling to have.
But the hardest part about traveling solo isn’t about making friendships; it’s about maintaining them. At this point in your life, you’re fresh out of college and idealistic. You will meet and share deep conversations and create seemingly strong ties with all of them: German backpackers and Venezuelan street performers and Chinese cruise ship workers. But even after you’ve hiked together up an Ecuadorian volcano or partied all night on the streets of São Paulo, these people will vanish— many of them without even saying goodbye. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person or that they’re terrible people. This is just the transient nature of life.
Even after one year of this uncomfortable ritual, you’ll connect with a person really well and then still feel crushed no matter how used to the process you think you are. I say this not to fuel your cynicism but to help you realize that it’s okay to let go. Letting go is a necessary, human part of life, so make the most of every interaction by cherishing those short, memorable times you’ve shared with others.
Instead of trying to become lifelong friends with every single person you meet, learn to value quality over quantity. Focus on the relationships you already have while remaining open to the new ones along the way. It may seem tempting to accept every invitation to go out, but coming and going every three days is tiring and leaves you with fewer chances at making deep connections. If you ground yourself in a community for a longer period of time, you’ll have left your heart with people that matter once you move on.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
When you start out on a shoestring budget, ask yourself: how far are you willing to go to continue abroad? Would you skip a few meals? Take three long-distance buses in a row? Sleep on a floor for free? Be careful not to confuse “self-care” with doing whatever you feel like doing at the moment. Economizing is necessary, but there’s a difference between traveling frugally and traveling dirt-cheap.
When you feel the culture shock settle in and just want to curl up in your bed and binge Youtube videos all day, that’s okay. But remember to eat. Don’t neglect your physical, mental, and emotional health. Hunger and exhaustion are the roots of a lot of poor decisions. So please— learn to stay centered in this constantly changing life. Develop a regular routine by writing every morning, exercising regularly, and making sure to have at least one healthy, face-to-face interaction with a real person.
In the end, you will need to choose to be happy wherever you end up. Whether you’re relaxing on a beach in southern Brazil or bundled up in a Ukrainian forest, you must learn how to carry (and take care of) any physical or invisible baggage along the way.
Remember— you are the author of your life. Make the most of this year. You won’t regret it.