On the first night of my first day of international travel, back in 2017, I was on a plane to Chile and we were flying through the midnight sky from Lima to Santiago. I peeked out the window of the plane and looked down at the blackness of the country side where I caught glimpses of illuminated hamlets high in the mountains. I was awe struck. I felt completely frozen in time. It was a moment of incredulousness. I realized that I was really doing it, that I was really in South America, that I had really broken away from my home and I was somewhere that I had only ever dreamed that I would be.
When I first started travelling, I used to have these moments a lot. I would stop and sit in awe of my new reality, amazed by the apparent absurdity of me, a twenty-two year old kid exploring the world. But as my journey has extended itself, as I’ve travelled more and more new and wonderful places, those awestruck moments have become scarce, and the frequent highs of this lifestyle have started to go away.
But their absence isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if I do miss them sometimes. I think this emotional dampening is part of maturing as a traveler. When I first started out, in every new city and new place I felt like a helpless child. And that was a fair comparison. My traveling-self was in his infancy. Those awestruck moments, and their companions, moments of sheer confusion and frustration were the vast emotional fluxuations inherent to that stage of development. It was healthy to have experienced them. But now, having traveled five months consecutively, spending nine months reflecting on that experience, and with two more months of adventuring now on my resume, I’m more developed, and I don’t know that it would still be healthy to experience the same emotions that I did in the beginning. It certainly wouldn’t be healthy for a twenty-two year-old to still experience the tantrums and tumultuous moods of someone in early childhood.
As we mature, as humans, as employees, as travelers, as students, as any category of person. It is absolutely natural for our emotive responses to dampen as our reservoir of experiences grows. And although we often look at the past with a sense of fond nostalgia, and wish to be able to experience that childlike elation renewed. I think it is important to remember that that elation only comes with lows of equal amplitude, and that to slip back into those oscillations can be detrimental to our development in any category.
Of course, I’m not saying that maturity is devoid of happiness. Maturity does not mandate a constant state of emotionlessness. Even in this more moderated state, I find myself sometimes sad, but more often immensely happy, and consistently happy. Though the oscillations of my mood are now less extreme, their average is still skewed towards optimism. I think that is a good goal, the ability to maintain a homeostasis of contentment. Regardless of external factors, to know that you have the skills and inner strength to overcome the obstacles that you might encounter in your journey is a stabilizing and powerful feeling. But it can also become mundane. And at a certain point you crave something different to keep things interesting. And to discover those missing pieces you have to break out of comfort once again.
Now that I deem myself a mature independent traveler of stable countries abroad, I think that I must look to other types of travel to continue to grow. And there are still many types of travel where my experience is infantile, where my wisdom is limited, and where my constant contentment would swap out for more powerful emotional experiences. I’ve never traveled with family, or even another person for a genuinely extended period of time. Imagine traveling with a child and the roller-coaster of emotions that that could engender. I’ve never traveled for business or for love or for family, each of these an unique experience with its own set of challenges.
Additionally, every country that I’ve been to: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, aside from some occasional high crime cities, have all been stable countries at the time of my visit. I don’t have a soldier’s or aid workers experience, navigating zones of conflict and devastation. The closest I’ve come is Rwanda, with guards bearing AK-47s on every street corner, Leticia, Colombia with its heavy military presence, and working on an ambulance in Detroit with its gun violence. I think that hardly compares to navigating a place where you are actively taking fire, and have to worry about hitting an IED on the side of the road, or riding in a helicopter through a hostile terriorty. Nor does it fully capture the experience of traveling through a flooded city as people pick through the pieces of devastated lives. In these realms, despite several failed attempts to assist in some of these places, my experience is sorely limited.
Some people would say that that is a good thing. But I can’t help but feel that it’s a logical next step for my international self. The skills I have learned traveling abroad prepare me well for a dive into these even more challenging landscapes, especially when combined with a formal medical education. If I choose an international direction for my life moving forward, disaster, conflict and humanitarian medicine seem like logical avenues, but that choice, to pursue a career that mandates travel, once obvious to me, is unclear now.
In contemplating various types of travel that I have little understanding of, I realize that my time in my home country, my home state, and city is full of ignorance as well. I used to believe that my sense of unhappiness at home was related to being stuck in one place. But looking at my existence there from a distance I realize that I wasn’t just stuck in one place, but in a lifestyle as well. The lifestyle of the ignorant student, learning about the world that he has no first hand experience in, accountable to projects whose value he doesn’t fully understand. And that of an employee working for someone else, with limited options for advancement without more school. Of course I felt a level of anxiety and edginess. In both of those lifestyles there isn’t much risk and accordingly there is little freedom. And I think that is at the heart of my happiness now, the freedom to direct myself, to build what I want, to discover where I want to go and go there, and collect memories along the way.
I wonder if I couldn’t have the same happiness at home if I just had the freedom to shape my own experience. At home, I have never dabbled in creation. I have never embarked upon the adventure of building something that is wholly or largely my own. If I have, this journey abroad is the closest I have ever come to doing so.
Could something like starting a business at home give me a similar sense of satisfaction? And how would that look? I am still fully committed to medicine. Which means another seven years of an academic or semi-academic lifestyle. A sacrifice that I am happy to make for my love of the field, but I wonder about what happens afterwards. Will I live in one place or travel for work? Will I need to speak another language? Is it possible to run a business and practice medicine at the same time? And where does family come in to all this?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions right now. My understanding of myself at]s a free person at home is still in its early stages. But I’m excited to see how I mature, and for the high’s and lows that I experience along the way.