This post offers a philosophical look at how travelling can help some of us transition from an old lifestyle to a new. I hope it may encourage those who feel the call to make the jump and hit the road, but are still undecided…
We all have our own reasons to travel. I’ve met many travellers along my way – on motos, in 4x4s and those travelling by bus and hitch-hiking. Some are young, taking the opportunity to spread their wings before embarking on a career. Others are enjoying the fruits of their labours, using their retirement to do those things, see those places, they always wanted to do or see. And others are like me – at a cross-roads in their life, using the experience and the freedom of travelling to re-calibrate from an old lifestyle and allow space for a new vision to emerge. But whatever your age, whatever your reason, travelling for extended periods in foreign lands will inevitably change you and the way you perceive life.
For those at the beginning or the end of their professional lives, the decision to travel is probably a relatively easy one. For those in the middle, it can be a lot harder to make the jump. This conundrum is much bigger than simply deciding which moto or jeep to buy and which continent to traverse. It’s the classic ‘mid-life crisis’: questions about where you’ve reached in life, and where it is all going; a sense that there is something more meaningful in life which as yet remains hidden; a restlessness with the routine that has built up around you. Everyone’s circumstances will be very different, and it would be wrong for me to offer advice to others based only on my own personal experiences. But having made the jump and spent a year and a half here in South America, meeting others along the way in a similar situation to me, perhaps I can offer some helpful observations.
When I made the decision to travel, I had just left the Army after 18 years. What’s more, I had chosen to leave at a unnatural ‘break point’ in my career, which made the transition from one lifestyle to another, very different one even more disorientating. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I needed time and space to reset the dials. As a soldier nearly all my adult life, I had become used to structure, organisation, having a defined path ahead, always being ‘in control’. Yet I could recognise the constraints that this way of living imposed upon me. I could sense that out there, somewhere, was a huge space I had yet to discover, which would offer new and richer experiences.
Stepping into the unknown and leaving the familiar behind can be a daunting prospect – even if the call to travel is strong. I have reflected on this, and I see an ironic and almost comical paradox – it’s a fear of freedom. Removing the shackles of a routine life – the patterns you have developed that can become set in stone; the expectations of others around you which you feel obliged to fulfil; the ‘needs and musts’ of daily life such as covering the bills; the attachment to the apparent comfort of an established lifestyle – opens the doors to freedom. Life on the road – with you entire home in your panniers or the back of the car; where you are anonymous; and where the course of daily events simply cannot be fully predicted and controlled – magnifies that freedom.
This experience of expanded freedom for me, a former soldier, has been profound. Yes, at times it can feel daunting – having an empty horizon and undefined possibilities ahead of you can sometimes feel like a lack of direction, a lack of purpose. Letting go of the need to have a purpose, and the accompanying identity, can be very hard for people who have had a strong professional focus for perhaps twenty years of their life. But since leaving the Army two years ago I have come to see the importance, indeed the imperative, to force ourselves to stop and take stock; to have no purpose for a time; to embrace that empty horizon. Only then can we really see where life has thus far led us to, who we have become, and where life’s flow wants to take us next.
It very hard to ‘flow’ when you are living within a routine. However, it’s easy on the road. I had a plan, or at least an idea, when I set off from Buenos Aires in November 2012: I was on a road trip, Ushuaia to Colombia, six months to a year. As I write, I am still in central Peru, eighteen months in. I’ve learnt to stop planning and controlling – a broken moto in Patagonia less than two months after setting off, which took six weeks to repair, taught me that early on. By ‘going with the flow,’ and sometimes ‘rolling with the punches’, I have found myself in wonderful, unexpected places. And I have met special people who would otherwise not have crossed my path. When you travel, especially on a moto, plans rarely work out and surprises lurk around every corner.
Life on foreign roads give you time and space to recalibrate. In fact, you have no choice but to recalibrate. First-hand exposure to different cultures – different ways, ideas and values – challenge your preconceptions, your blueprint of life. Sometimes these preconceptions will be severely tested – working to South American timings as a former soldier has occasionally pushed my patience to the limit. Stay in a foreign land long enough, allow yourself to connect with it, and you simply can’t hold on to all your old ideas.
When I look back over my time here, I see that my personal blueprint has been edited in many areas. My perception of the value of money and financial security has changed: the absence of both surplus cash in my pocket and the consumerist temptations of the western lifestyle model, coupled with daily exposure to people who have to graft just to feed their families, has seen to this. Carrying all I need on the back of my bike, I now see the burden (never mind the waste of money) we create for ourselves in our almost addictive quest to accumulate ‘stuff’. My sense of the importance and the richness of real community has been amplified by my time spent in Andean villages. And my faith in philanthropy, peoples’ willingness to look out for others and make a commitment to others, has been refreshed.
I offer these thoughts and observations for anyone who is feeling the call to travel, but as yet has not summoned the courage to make the jump. Tough decisions in life are usually the ones that offer the greatest reward. Life can sometimes feel like a supertanker – changing direction can feel impossible. But travelling can provide the open ocean needed to make that turn, free from obstacles and with time to find a new course.
Embrace freedom, embrace the unknown, let go of the reins of life for once. Make the jump…
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