Unpacking what I really learned from traveling abroad

When I was around thirteen, my two best friends and I spent all night eating popcorn and writing in a giggly fervor. For whatever reason, our teenage selves were inspired to draft out bucket lists. Ten years later, I found mine crumpled up and shoved between the pages of an old diary, a gift from my past self at an uncertain time in my life. Though I laughed at some of the more outlandish goals like, “Sing in a red dress on top of a grand piano” (I think Chicago had just come out to inspire that one), many of them still held true for me. Still, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t check off as many items as I would have liked.

So, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I set my sights to #7 on the list: Backpack through Europe.

That summer, I snapped the clip of my backpack at my waist and set out alone, visiting over ten cities in six weeks. The experience was more than I hoped for, but when I got home, I felt depressed as the normality of my life returned. It felt like I had been woken up too soon from a great dream—I was no longer in a place of celebrated art, stunning architecture, or streets bursting with the music from pubs. In fact, I was at my mom’s house in Florida, thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have quit my job and moved in before summer began.

I had to face reality, which took some time, but once I realized that my journey had changed me in fundamental ways, I began to rework my life into a worthy journey of its own. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

  1. Your personal strength is all you will ever need. When I was backpacking, I had to rely on my own strength, both mental and physical, to make my way. This meant trusting my intuition when in uncertain circumstances, leaving my comfort zone, and picking myself up when I fell. But when I returned home, I fell back into a dependency on others and the alluring, but not necessarily healthy, comforts of society. I had to become that strong person all over again by turning off the distractions, taking new risks, and diving back into myself.
  1. Only carry the important things. On the trip, I lived my life knowing that every single thing I bought had to be carried on my back. So I stocked myself with practical goods and searched for small souvenirs more steeped in the memory of experience rather than any material worth—ticket stubs, postcards, a rock from the beaches of Normandy, a coaster from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, museum maps, etc. I realized that memories are the lightest possessions we carry. When I got home, I went through all of the boxes that I had painstakingly shipped to my mom’s house when I moved. So much of it was in excess of what I truly needed. So I took out the necessities and the memories, donated the rest, and felt the weight lift from my shoulders (I even donated my hair so the meaning is literal).
  1. Actively take care of yourself. In the end, my most important possession is my body. It will take me wherever I want in the world, but only if I treat it right. After countless hours of walking and hiking through some of the world’s most beautiful sights, I put on a few pounds when I got home and I began to feel lethargic with a lack of exercise.  I loved the way I felt in Europe so I actively sought a healthier lifestyle at home. For me this meant more whole foods, more exercise, and more yoga.  After all, an adventurous soul needs a ready and willing host.
  1. Leave negativity at the airport. On the last leg of my journey, after being so vigilant about my personal safety throughout the trip, I was mugged on the street in the middle of the day. Though physically fine, the experience left me shaky and scared. It easily could have ruined my trip, but why focus on the one memory when I had so many great ones to savor on the flight home? No trip goes exactly as planned, but most leave me with good experiences if I choose to focus on them.
  1. Make your life the souvenir. After moping for a week because my ‘real life’ was not as great as my trip, I realized that it could be, and that I had the power to make it so. During my time abroad my heart swelled when I took in art and literature, and I wrote freely in a journal every day. I yearned for the creativity and expression that my old job didn’t allow me and knew then that I needed a change. My journey let me see the holes in my life, but it was up to me to fill them. So I moved to a city whose artistic reputation precedes itself, continued writing, and applied to jobs in a different field. Now, I’m slowly making my life what I love. That, by the way, was #1 on my bucket list.

Darby Sanders is a newly-established Portlander after a life spent traveling. Her perfect day has simple ingredients: a good book, hot coffee, and her two cats by her side. You can check out her thoughts on equality (aka feminism) here and her dabbles in poetry and creative writing here.