Six Important Things I’ve Gained From Travelling (Part 1)

All text and photography by Tess McLennan 

Hold up, this blog is about to get a bit philosophical on you. But in a good, easy to understand kind of way. Ever since I studied a psych elective in my first year of university/college, I’ve been fascinated by how our personalities are shaped by the world around us. Why are we, the way we are? What makes me, me?

 The answer to the question of ‘why we are, the way we are’ lies solely in our experiences and encounters. Character building comes in many forms, and for me, many of those essential life lessons have come through my experiences travelling the world.

So read on to find out six of the most important things travelling has given my life, for the better. And in turn, you might start to ask yourself, how has travelling shaped your character, your personality, and changed your life?

1.     Fierce independence

As children, we mostly rely on our parents, or other adults for guidance in tough situations. Your Dad might come and change a tyre for you, or suggest an alternate route to the hotel when the trains are closed in London, and Mum might make sure you have a healthy lunch and a warm jacket if the wind is biting outside. But if your parents aren’t on that freezing London street with you, or with you when you lose your credit card in Canada, it’s probably time to grow up, and fast.

I’m beginning to believe that independence is a skill perfected over time, not something you’re born with. It is something that is created from necessity. Fortunately, my independence has mostly been honed by years and years of travelling without my parents… necessity: because let’s face it, if you’re a teenager in a foreign country, other adults just will not suffice in times of crisis.

My first trip overseas without my parents was to Taiwan at thirteen, with an orchestra. I was in a host family with my best friend, so I wasn’t completely alone… but the following year, when I travelled to Japan with the same orchestra, I found myself in a host family without a companion. Yes, it was scary at first. But I found it was one of the most important character-building lessons of my life. Situations may seem scary at first, particularly if you’re facing them alone… but in reality, they’re never as bad as they seem. And my host family were the sweetest bunch of people I’ve ever met. Ever since then, I’ve faced potentially scary situations with the same attitude: just dive in, you’ll be fine (unless, of course, I’m actually diving… then I usually rethink my plan of attack).

Now, I find that I want to travel with people for the companionship, not because I need someone to hold my arm tightly in a foreign street. I realised this over Christmas when I travelled to Canada by myself, via South Korea. While I had no problem checking my bags in, navigating the security, customs and international transfers without guidance, it certainly would have been nice to have some company on the long trip. To continue with the philosophical train of thought, wanting someone is not the same as needing someone. And dammit, I want someone to chat to when I have a three-hour layover in an airport.

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My travel companions in New York.  

2.     Organisation

My mum Sue is the master of organised travel. I’ve often said to her that she would make a great travel agent, however she says she only likes planning trips for her and the family… not the twentieth average Joe who wants to go to Bali (and that’s another story entirely). Sue is also the person to talk to you if you want good deals on flights and hotels, as I swear they have an alarm that goes off every time there is a sale, and only she can hear it.

As for me, I do believe there is some merit in being an organised traveller, and of course, this is another skill I’ve honed over many years of practice. Yes, I’ve forgotten my phone charger, and left things behind… I recall a hotel mailing my ancient Nokia 3310 phone back to me. But as my favourite street scientist Gretchen Rubin says, let’s focus on progress, not perfection.

If you want to become a more organised traveller, start with small steps, by planning the absolute essentials.

Flights, accommodation, travel insurance, vaccinations, money, medication, passport, visas… That’s an even number of things to remember.

These things are the most important of all, and should be at the top of your list. If you focus on them, the rest of the planning should come easily. You won’t be struck down with an asthma-related illness, because your inhaler is with you. You won’t be stuck at the airport, because your passport will see you through to the world outside. It’s simple. Yes, clothes and suitcases are important too… but most things you forget, like clothes and lip balm, can be bought at your destination. Medication and spare passports don’t come in a vending machines. Unfortunately.

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Packing the essentials… 

And if you really aren’t an organised person? Let someone do the hard work for you… try a Topdeck or Contiki tour. Research which one is best for you, get yourself to the pick up point and the rest is history.  Topdeck even gives its passengers a packing list (and reminds you about vaccinations and having a valid passport!), so that’s another tick off your list of things to do before embarking on your trip.

 3.     Gratitude.

How often do you say, ‘Damn, I’m lucky’? Like most people, probably not enough. If they ever say it all. I’m incredibly intolerant of people who whinge about their problems, incredibly intolerant. Particularly if those problems are what I deem to be ‘first world’… and most of the time, they are.

‘Yea, yea’… I hear you say. ‘She’s going to give us a sermon about how lucky we are to have a house with a roof and electricity, and education, and food, blah, blah, blah. My boyfriend didn’t text me back, and the world is ending.’

No, not at all. But seeing how other people live around the world, you can’t help but feel a little bit gracious, a bit less concerned with your own problems, and a bit more aware that what you do have, is pretty damn great.

Graciousness is one thing I’ve had ingrained into my character, after years and years of travelling. From that, I also feel it has made me a kinder person. And as I’ve found particularly in the last few years, gratitude and kindness can go a long way, because people don’t expect to see it anymore.

It’s something that I’ve noticed about myself: certain little things, they really don’t bother me. Like the stewardess who forgot to get my drink for the third time, the long line at the airport checkin, or the public transport system being closed at Christmas time. Most recently, my family and I boarded a train from Vancouver, bound for Seattle. We had grand plans to see the sun as it rose along the coastline. The train got about fifty metres and then it broke down. We sat motionless on the tracks for a few hours, until Amtrak decided to put us on buses to Seattle instead. What I noticed about my entire family, was that nobody complained, nobody whinged about how long we had to wait, they just dealt with it. It made me proud. Other people in the terminal were not as gracious, blaming the poor Amtrak staff for not being organised enough, etc, etc. Insert whingy complaint here.

But in truth, the train breaking down wasn’t life ending, and not worth the energy to complain about. In the end we got to Seattle, which was the plan all along. I thought the Amtrak staff were fantastic, under what was probably quite stressful circumstances. In short, life happens, you just get on with it. Or spend your life complaining… because when you’re travelling, things generally don’t always go to plan. Just like the train to Seattle.

In the real world, yes, sometimes the food at a restaurant might not be to my liking (note: if the food is not cooked properly, that’s something entirely different), but I ordered it and I will eat it. If someone cuts me off in traffic, it annoys me, like it would most people. For a fraction of a second, and then I get on with my day. I give to charity, but I don’t post on Facebook about it (until now, this is the first mention on social media of my benevolence). Similarly, my brother and I poured the last of our American coins into a homeless man’s bucket in New York, because he needed it more than we did. From graciousness, comes kindness.

So next time, you catch yourself whinging about some small detail of your life, take a look at the bigger picture. Is it going to matter in five years? The answer is, mostly likely not. You’ll mostly likely be laughing about it. And that is one of the best things I’ve picked up from travelling so far. And that boyfriend who never texts you back ? Probably worth getting rid of him.

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Taken in Seattle, when we finally arrived… what a day! 🙂 

This article was getting super long … so stay tuned for Part 2 next week! 🙂

Weigh in below, how has travelling changed your character?

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2 thoughts on “Six Important Things I’ve Gained From Travelling (Part 1)

  1. Wow. It was such a beautiful write up. The part about gratitude is so true. We are not grateful enough of the beautiful life we live which millions others can only dream about.
    Apart from being a very practical article , it’s the beautiful lessons regarding life which make it complete.
    Ones inner self begins to reflect on ones face. Maybe that’s how I began to follow you on ig.
    Keep up the good work.
    Best wishes.

    Like

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