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Arbitrary Lessons I Learned on the Road

Nothing ever happens as you think it will happen inside your self-confined imagination. Things will break down, people will behave unexpectedly, and that is okay, because that is life, not the end of it. Be grateful for the experience.
08/04/2014 12:52pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Side view of a young man using a smart phone sending a text message. He is standing by vintage car during summer road trip. Horizontally framed shot.

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Overdue haircut. Overdue shower. Overdue shave. Overdue laundered clothes. Backpackers don't always leave the best impression. Yet, they almost always leave people with a little bit of envy -- traveling around the world, meeting new people, learning new cultures, trying new foods, living new experiences. Yes, traveling is about all of these things. But, for me, traveling has also taught me -- or reminded me -- of lessons that are just as applicable in my daily life as they are when I am on the road. Here are just a few.

Attitude matters.
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You can't expect a happy ending or a pleasant journey if you start out behaving like a grumpy old (wo)man. Treat everything as an end in itself. Find love in whatever you are doing. If, instead, you find yourself grumbling about it and notice that your friends don't want to talk to you anymore, then it's time to switch to something new. When I started my Latin America trip, I was sitting on a bench in NYC waiting for the bus to JFK Airport. A subway train passed by overhead, shaking loose idle water and landing it on top of me and my backpack. As I was taking off my backpack to observe the damage, I cut my hand on the edge of one of the backpack straps. Sure it was not the best way to begin a trip, but at least my backpack was now properly christened and ready for two months on the road.

Take the plunge and don't doubt yourself.

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Roads fork and so does life. When you have a decision to make, think through your options, pick one, and don't second guess yourself. If you're right, that's great. If you're wrong, find the lesson learned, and move on. Life happens now. I was on a bus heading back to San Salvador and missed my stop. I could have gotten off at the next stop, but decided to take it to the end of the line -- what other way was there to get a tour of downtown? Turned out it wasn't one of my best ideas, but at least I got to see a side of the city that I would not have otherwise.

Best stories come from the worst experiences.
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It's human nature to like hearing about other people's crappy experiences. Stories of great experiences generate jealousy. You know it. Don't deny it. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek to La Ciudad Perdida, but from my experience, people don't want to hear about the hundreds of stone structures discovered at The Lost City, a stone masonry city that's old enough to be Machu Picchu's great-great-great grandfather. Instead, what elicits the most emotions are the descriptions of the hot and humid Colombian jungle air that left me soaking in my own sweat, and the beds that had soaked in hundreds of other backpackers' own sweat. I can sense your disgust already.

Nothing is ever final.
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If I accepted the first price given to me each time I wanted a taxi or some other good/service, I'll be a backpacker living without the backpack. Negotiate for a higher salary. Bargain for a better deal. Compromise on who does laundry and who takes out the trash.

A smile goes a long way.

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It puts people's guards down, even if inside you're secretly thinking about how you're going to manage to pay for the $30 meal you just ate with only $20 in your pocket. Besides, it also does a whole host of positive things for your body -- reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure, making you look younger and sexier without the other person first being inebriated. On my way back to the States from Peru, I missed my connection in El Salvador and had to spend the night there. The airline compensated each passenger with a $200 voucher, but a smile and an hola at the ticket counter got me an extra Benjamin.

Habit creates complacency, but also frees you to do other things.
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I get bored easily. That's why you will never find me (when I'm traveling for leisure) in the same city for more than 3-4 days. Blink and I'll be on a bus heading somewhere. But, that doesn't mean I don't like a little bit of routine in my life, just not so much that it puts me in a rut too deep to crawl out. The more "non-essential" things you routinize, the more intellectual horsepower you'll have left for other things. Although I'm not technically in Zambia for leisure, my morning gym routine frees up a period of time when I don't have to worry about anything except to enjoy the peacefulness of the morning sunrise. Then the chaos ensues.

Being uncomfortable is okay, and exhilarating.
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Singapore was the first international place I traveled to solo. I still get a little nervous every time I land in a foreign country, especially in the middle of the night. But, at the same time, it reminds me that there is still so much to explore and to learn. Being uncomfortable is a sign that you are living, growing, learning. The moment you feel too comfortable is really the moment you should be sweating your palms about.

You can't control everything.
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A crazy bus driver, an out-of-control client, a GPS that takes you to a nuclear power plant when all you want to do is go to the mall. There are things in life that you can control, and things that you cannot. For the former, take charge. For the latter, there's MasterCard. No seriously, just be smart enough to know that it's the latter and stop stressing yourself over it. This includes natural disasters, other persons (e.g., your partner or the guy in the car in front of you who won't turn off his turn signal while driving on a single lane road).

You don't know everything.
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So don't assume anything. This applies to what you think you know about other religions, societies, or cultures just as much as it applies to the people in or out of your life. If you don't know something, go find out, even if it means putting yourself out on a limb.

Crap will hit the fan. Learn your lesson. Laugh it off. Act now or move on.
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Nothing ever happens as you think it will happen inside your self-confined imagination. Things will break down, people will behave unexpectedly, and that is okay, because that is life, not the end of it. Be grateful for the experience.

Material things get in the way of life.
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Live uncluttered. If you have too much stuff, follow this chart. If you're considering making a purchase, refer back to the same chart and imagine what category that item will fall in within six months' time. A hike on a summer's day requires nothing but a good pair of shoes, a water bottle, and a shopping bag to carry out your garbage. As Trashy the Bear says, "Only you can prevent forest litter."