It was three years ago that I came up with a crazy idea. I would save up money, quit my job, and travel the world. I was tired of letting life pass me by, so I made the ultimate bucket list. It had 20 things I wanted to complete by the time I turned 30 years old. Well, here we are. Time sure does fly by because it’s my 30th birthday!
Recently, a friend asked me what lessons I’d learned over the last two years of travel. Not the kind of lessons that tell you what to pack or how to book a cheap flight. He wanted to know what things I had set out to do, and how my opinion on those things had been altered in the last two years. After thinking about his question, I realized that the way I travel has changed drastically. I no longer care about the bucket list that I once put so much emphasis on completing. Here’s why…
Visiting Every Country Doesn’t Make You Cultured
“Visit 10 New Countries” was number one on my bucket list, and I can put a check next to that box. In my first year of travel, I visited 10 new countries. Ohhhhhh Ahhhhhh. How exciting?! And, it was. It was exciting. But, here’s the catch. In my second year of travel, I only went to one country. And guess what? It was just as exciting, and it was more eye opening than all the others combined.
This year, I spent 5 months in Nepal, and I still learn something new every day I’m there. I’m not saying that it’s bad to hop around the globe, but someone who has been to 100 countries isn’t necessarily more cultured than someone who has been to 5. When people ask me how many countries I’ve been to, I don’t answer. I don’t count countries because it really doesn’t matter. Travel isn’t a contest, and neither is life.
Sometimes It’s Not Worth the Photo
When I look back now, my first bucket list seems shallow and ignorant to me. For instance, “Ride an Elephant” was on it. With the briefest amount of research, it was easy to find out that riding an elephant is unethical. I quickly changed the item to “Meet an Elephant.” Again, I was able to check that off my list, but it really changed the way I saw things. I’d seen so many photos on social media of people riding elephants, and I really wanted that photo. Isn’t that crazy? I didn’t want the experience. I wanted the PHOTO.
The more I traveled, the less important photos became. Often times, the most photographed places were just a line of people waiting to take the same exact picture. They weren’t having fun or enjoying the experience. They were just trying to get the most likes on Instagram. Now, I avoid those places all together. I’d rather have an incredible experience and get less Instagram likes than try to get the perfect shot of me laughing with my dress blowing in the wind.
You Won’t Like Everything & That’s Okay
“Get PADI Certified” was a big one for me. It was on my list, and I was so excited to do it. My mom even paid for me to take a SCUBA diving course in Bali for my birthday! The thing is, I sucked at it. I was set on not giving up, and I made it all the way to the end of the test, but I couldn’t clear my mask the second time. For some reason, I never felt calm under the water. It occurred to me then that I’ve never really LOVED oceans. I’m not afraid of them per se, but maybe water just isn’t my thing.
Because the item was on my bucket list, I felt like a total failure when the instructor told me I didn’t pass my test. I cried. I felt like a disappointment. And, I knew I’d never complete my bucket list. But my bucket list wasn’t meant to make me feel bad. It was meant to inspire me to try new things, and I did try SCUBA. I just didn’t LOVE it, and that’s okay. I don’t know why I felt like I needed to force myself to like it. SCUBA just wasn’t my thing and now I know that. You don’t have to check everything off your list in order for it to be a win.
You Might Love Something & That’s Okay Too
On the other hand, “Summit a Mountain” also made my list. I’m not going to lie, the first one was brutal, and I swore I’d never do it again. Yet, I signed up for a high altitude trek, and then another, and, you guessed it, ANOTHER. I realized that I love trekking, and I wanted to do more of it. In fact, I already have at least two more treks planned for this year.
Doing treks is time consuming and somewhat expensive (depending on the trek requirements), but I want to do more. Because I’ve decided to commit so much time and money to trekking, I don’t really have time for other things that were on my bucket list. For instance, I never got to “Learn to Surf.” Truth is, after hating SCUBA, I didn’t really want to spend that much time in the ocean. Now, the bucket list in my head has different treks I’d like to complete. It’s okay for your list to change. In fact, it’s inevitable.
The Best Experiences Are Often Unplanned
My bucket list began to dictate my travels. I needed to be in Vietnam during certain months to “Sleep in a Cave” or I already booked a tour to “Trek to Everest Base Camp.” I realized that not planning led to so many interesting opportunities. Opportunities that I couldn’t take if I was stuck with a set itinerary. It’s great to plan, but overcommitting locks you into something you might change your mind about later.
This year, I randomly got asked to trek the Annapurna Circuit with only 24 hours’ notice. I canceled lunch plans with a friend, ran to the permit office, and then hopped on a bus the next morning. A week after I got back, I met a guy who worked at a Muay Thai gym, and I ended up training there for two months. “Learn Muay Thai” wasn’t even on my bucket list, but it’s something I really love doing now, although I’ll never get used to getting punched in the face.
Understanding a Culture is the Most Rewarding
My original list included items like “Ride in a Hot Air Balloon” or “Go Bungee Jumping” and these things were fun. Don’t get me wrong, if you have a chance to do them, please do. But, I realized something. Only two of the things on my list actually had something to do with the countries I was visiting. I wanted to “Spend 10 Days at a Silent Retreat” and “Learn Mandarin.” Okay, none of the countries I was visiting spoke Mandarin, but at least it had to do with a culture.
In my silent retreat, I learned a lot about Buddhism. I gave up on Mandarin, but I did start to learn Nepali, and I’m working on becoming fluent one day. Knowing how to respect a religion and how to speak a little of the language opened doors up for me. People welcomed me into their homes. They showed me local festivals. I got to see a side of Nepal I would have missed completely. Yes, getting to “Go Zip Lining” makes a good story, but understanding the culture and being called, “Nepali at heart” has meant more to me than the crazy adventure stories.
It’s Better to See Where Life Takes You
If you’d asked me two years ago what I would be doing today, I probably would have pictured myself hopping around the world, moving from city to city every week. I’d be taking pictures at all the most touristy destinations, looking for the best angle that would result in the most likes on Instagram. I’d be checking off my handy dandy bucket list while double checking the dates on my itinerary. That is what I thought traveling was.
If I could offer one piece of advice to people just starting their journeys, it would be to let go of every expectation. Throw away your prized bucket list. Rip up your itinerary. Do enough research to be safe and to know where you’ll sleep when you arrive. Then, see where life takes you. You may think that you’ll love one country and end up hating it. Or maybe you’ll fall in love with a country that was barely on your radar three years ago *cough* Nepal *cough*. You might hate the ocean and love mountains. You might even change religions or learn a language that’s barely used anywhere else in the world. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”
Have you changed your travel style over time? What were you like when you set out on your first journey? Let me know in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.