"Today I visited an 83- year-old man who looks like he's 60. He lives on two acres of land, which is abounding with every fruit tree imaginable. He has vines of the greenest, fullest spinach leaves creeping up tree trunks and enormous mango trees blossoming with fruit. He said that birds will eat and eat, becoming so intoxicated with fruit that they will literally fall off the trees! Every morning I wake up and take a little shortcut to the beach. I love the beach here because they have left all the palms and paper trees growing along the shore, and there are no condos, walls or people. We let the dogs run, and we just swim or walk forever."
This is an email I sent from Cairns, Australia in 2006 when I was traveling by myself at 18-years-old.
The summer before I left home for college, my mother packed me up and whisked me off to Oz for a month. I remember not feeling too thrilled about this golden opportunity. I had my first boyfriend and we were inseparable. I also had a full itinerary of activities planned, such as laying out at the beach, Haagan Daz dates with friends at the mall and shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch. According to me, travel would devastate my perfect final summer vacation before college and I had so much to prepare before the fall semester started. Despite my teen 'tude, momma booked the flight, contacted some friends and family that live down under and flung me like a boomerang to the other side of the world.
This was me: a typical American teenager in the early 2000s. Gap years were virtually unheard of in the US. Instead, you had steps to follow and deadlines to meet. You were filling out college applications, shopping for dorm supplies at Target and dreaming of finally reaching the sacred threshold of "adult life", although you had no clue what you wanted to do, or maybe even had no idea who you were as an individual (most kids in my freshman college writing class didn't even know what a thesis statement was).
Cairns, Australia was the final stop on my month long excursion. My time spent there had a lasting impact on me, jump-starting a love of travel that continues to influence my life choices to this day, like when I quit my job, sold my belongings and set off for Southeast Asia with a backpack as an adult.
I stayed with my quirky godmother and her family in her seaside abode with a yard overrun by guinea pigs, fragrant tropical flowers and a natural fence line of towering bamboo. She was best friends with my mother at boarding school in Sri Lanka during the 60s and 70s. At 25-years-old, she did the unthinkable and embarked on a solo trip around the world.
She was unlike any person I'd ever met; a vibrant thinker with a wild spirit and youthful glow, taking life day by day with the ability to find joy in the smallest cracks and corners. Her unbelievable tales of far off lands captivated and inspired me. She wasn't financially wealthy, laughed at the white picket fence and didn't "follow the rules." Instead, she chased challenges, created happiness, lived selflessly and reveled in the good and bad. As an American girl who had been spoon fed the ideology that going to school, graduating college and acing a career was the spice of a successful life, her nature was foreign to me. These experiences are what made her so rich; not sitting at a cubicle day by day with a framed degree on the wall. A small voice piqued up from deep within my young soul and whispered: You can do it too.
My godmother took my hand and taught me how to travel. Cairns was a dream world. I bungee jumped above sprawling jungle canopy, spied crocodiles wading in a murky river that carved through a 135-year-old rain forest, got up close and personal with Goliath clams that glowed neon purple in the Great Barrier Reef and gorged myself on juicy tropical fruits I had never heard of before. You can read my original post on Cairns here.
I partook in activities I never thought I'd have the cojones to do and accepted that losing track of time, not being consistently productive and doing nothing is OK. Most importantly, I discovered the world is stunning, mainly because of how a person's story can work in remarkable ways to rewrite someone else's story. The old man mentioned in my email; he lived alone on a large orchard. My godmother visited him every week, just to give him company, to show him that he wasn't forgotten. When she took me to meet him, I'll never forget happiness in his eyes a short visit from another person had brought him. It changed my perspective on what being successful means and that living is never simple, yet simple living yields an abundance of wealth.
It is the season of graduation for 18-year-olds across the US, including my cousin and soon, my younger sister. Remember, the world keeps spinning, and with each generation the trends, technology and expectations will keep evolving. But, one thing always remains the same: the thrilling yet confusing in between of child to adult. I urge you to reach for more than just good grades, cute clothes, the ultimate party or the most likes on a photo. If you need a break, take it. If you aren't ready, it's OK to wait. If you have the chance to travel, whether for leisure, study or to volunteer- go. School, a career and bills will always be there when you return.
Don't let them tell you it's dangerous out there, or that you're too young. Don't let them tell you that you're doing it wrong and traveling now will hurt you in the future. Travel isn't a vacation and it isn't a reward for good behavior. It's always a lesson, one that you don't see coming, challenging you to question and discover the unknown. It prepares you to view life and the world with a fresh breath of clean air from the peak of the tallest mountain when all your life you've only breathed the same stagnant air of the valley down below.
Read more about my travels on my travel blog: A Great Perhaps