While I have always been proud to be an American, traveling has made me especially grateful for the lifestyle that we often times take for granted in the States. Traveling alone is the embodiment of personal exploration, allowing me to reflect on those notions that we have come to accept as norms. Most importantly, solo travel has given me the opportunity to witness the human element at play amongst foreign peoples, reaffirming the universality of our experience. These are some of my reflections after wandering South America for three months.
I can never relive the feeling of utter awe after seeing a passing band of stampeding stallions along the Chilean coast, or the look of sheer joy in the eyes of that Cuban toddler as he chased butterflies at a plaza center. There are some things that are not meant to be captured on film, and it’s easy to miss out on the truly special moments when hidden behind the camera. Sometimes I wish that I could have gone on this trip before the Internet—no social media, no blogging, no GoogleMaps when I get lost—that would have been real traveling. For now, AirplaneMode will have to do as I keep my eyes and mind open to truly embrace my surroundings.
While this isn’t an experience that I would trade for anything, I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t draining at times. After hitting four cities in a week, or a terrible bout with bed bugs, or getting ripped off by a cabbie, sometimes I wish I could take a weekend off to see a game at the Big House and have somewhere I can truly call home for the night. Traveling can get lonely, but I hold that this is among the most important aspects of the experience. Over time, I have gotten more comfortable with myself, doing the things that I want to when I want to do them, regardless if I seem strange doing it. Becoming your own best friend is essential for traveling the world alone, and for living a full, truly satisfying life.
Solo travel is, more than anything, a test of will and patience. I can’t forget how frustrated I was when my flight to Santiago de Cuba was canceled for no explicit reason; apparently airlines in Cuba don’t take calls after five, on weekends, or Mondays, and I had to go back to Havana with no place to stay or a guarantee of remedy. When traveling, it’s important to realize that things will hardly ever go as planned. By now, I expect my plan to go terribly wrong. As a result, my stress level has dropped dramatically, and it’s a pleasant victory when things work out accordingly. If you stay calm and composed, roll with the punches, and stay positive, you’ll probably figure it out.
In terms of my American identity, I have been very well received by locals thus far in my travels. If you show a genuine desire to learn about their cultures, native people will love you, and are always willing to help you, regardless of where you from.
While I have made plenty of friends from Europe on this trip, I have at times been poorly received by a select few travelers that are eager to criticize “American values”, obesity, Donald Trump, or ridiculous scholarships to travel the world for eight months—unprovoked. My best advice to any fellow American traveler is to act politely and with sophistication while abroad. The boldness of those arrogant few will undoubtedly expose itself, and you’ll see that they’re always the first ones to whine like a “spoiled American” when the going actually gets tough.
It’s too easy for me to say that every American should travel; not everyone has the time or money to make an eight month journey happen. With that said, you’d be surprised how comfortable you could live while traveling on a modest budget, and how much you could see in just two weeks. It is crucial for our growth as a society to see how the developing world lives. Not only does it put a human face on the suffering of those seemingly different and far from us, but seeing the difficult realities abroad can allow us to recognize the same issues that exist in the States, which we prefer to sweep under the rug and ignore. Ignorance is not bliss—the cycle of poverty doesn’t disappear just because you choose not to think about it.
For more information on how you can receive $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months as a Bonderman Fellow, visit the CGIS website.