I traveled the world when I was 18, and this is what I found:
Well, that’s not entirely true. I picked up some cast-off clothes, and I found some cool rocks, and I also fell in love. But that’s not the point. The point here is to ask the tricky question: what happens after?
I sat on the bed in my childhood room, looking at everything I had packed for college. One large suitcase and one small duffel bag. It didn’t seem like much, but I was used to traveling light. I glanced at my travel backpack, emptied and slumped in a corner. Once clean and red, it was now dirty and covered in patches from all the countries I had visited on my year abroad.
I’m now about a week into university, and although new and interesting questions are being thrown at me every day, only one stays with me. What happens after? I’ve been home for three months now, but this question is the only one that sticks in my head, whispering in my ear. What happens after the grand trip has come to an end; after you’ve come home and recounted your adventures and put away all your souvenirs and your bank account is empty? How do you deal with going back to normal life? Should you go back? What happens when you are stationary but your heart is not? I have been trying not to dwell too much on these questions, so I distract my mind from the longing to travel with the cheap, flashy diversions of the millennial world: Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, iFunny, YikYak; anything to drown out the feeling that I am no longer where I belong.
Travel has changed me. Nearly two years ago I was an average American middle-class teen girl, expecting to go straight from high school into a four-year school and satisfying any urge to travel by scrolling through exotic traveling Instagrammers. Until the day that I wasn’t. One evening in December of 2014, I sat at the kitchen table with my parents. Brochures, leaflets, and magazines from colleges across the country were spread in front of me like a colorful patchwork quilt of cheesy smiles and promises of a secure future. I was supposed to be choosing a school to attend for the next four years, but a mild sense of panic was distracting me. I was trying to calm down, to just pick one, when the solution came to me in the form of my mom’s voice: “Why don’t you take a gap year?”
At first, it seemed like a ridiculous idea. I wasn’t going to be some kind of dropout failure. I was going to do the right thing by earning a degree and a mountain of debt. I was going to have a career and be successful and all the other words emblazoned across those college brochures. But as I thought more and more about it, I realized that I really didn’t want to go to school. I wasn’t ready. I imagined myself as a brave explorer, armed only with a backpack and a compass, discovering new cultures and exotic islands and learning new languages. In that instant, I knew. It was like falling in love for the first time. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach, my hands shook, and a smile spread across my face. It felt right.
And so it began. I read blogs and travel guides. I bought a world map and highlighted the countries I most wanted to visit. My parents gave me my red backpack as a graduation gift, and I purchased all kinds of travel gear from outdoor stores, Target, and thrift shops. I was so overly prepared, my day of departure didn’t feel real. But as my plane left the ground, the magnitude of what I was embarking on finally hit me like a train. The only thing that kept me from sobbing in front of everyone that day was the thought that everything would be waiting for me when I returned, just as I had left it. My life felt so turbulent and strange, just like that flight over the Atlantic.
That was when the journey officially began. The first month was wonderful, as my sister and I explored the UK and experienced the wonders of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. But once my sister went home and I flew to Spain and started working on a farm, the homesickness set in. And oh boy, it was a doozy. I remember feeling like I’d give my own left arm just to see a familiar face for just five minutes. I remember the nights when I cried more than I thought possible, when I wanted to dig my own heart out of my chest because it hurt so badly. I remember wondering how much it would cost to fly home to see my friends and family again. But something inside me (that, and a $3,000 plane ticket) urged me to not go home, to stay and continue on my journey.
And what a journey it turned out to be! After overcoming my homesickness and experiencing natural horsemanship in the heat of the Spanish sun, I visited rainy Germany and Oktoberfest, the Austrian Alps, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, and Israel. I met people from all over the world, and even went on a spontaneous road trip with some of them. For these four months, I was a traveler. I was a tourist (though I hate to admit it). I arrived in a city, explored, took my photographs, and then left. I had no purpose other than to see and do as much as I could. It wasn’t until I touched down in Madagascar that I found a deeper meaning to my traveling.
As my plane landed on a tiny island at an even tinier airport, I felt nervous. I had no reason to be; I had been traveling solo for months. But I was about to start my first volunteer project with IVHQ in a very strange and foreign part of the world with people I had never met before on a project I knew very little about: marine conservation.
I shouldn’t have been worried. Adapting to my new life came naturally, if not easily. Each day, I dove into a new world of warm tropical waters, marine biology, and the Malagasy culture. Even though the weather was often hot and humid, I slept soundly in my bunk to the sounds of crickets, distant thunder, and mangos occasionally thumping on the roof of my hut. I woke early every morning, ready to start a new day of diving and discovery.
The first week or so was hard. My fellow newbie volunteers and I sweated through the humid equatorial climate and studied for our species exams, which tested our knowledge of the reef species. But as we became more experienced scuba divers and more knowledgeable surveyors, I realized that my previous months of wanderings had been just that: wanderings. Here, I had a place and purpose. Every morning, I’d have breakfast with my friends, then prepare for my morning dive. The water was so warm and shallow, it felt like a bathtub—no wetsuit necessary! Prepping my equipment soon became a familiar routine, as did spotting and counting the common species on our reef. It was here, on a tiny island in northwestern Madagascar, that I discovered several things: playing a ukulele in front of your hut will make you some good friends, massive tropical spiders are terrifying but will leave you alone, and how we really know very little about the incredibly beautiful creatures living in our oceans. It was also here that I discovered that I didn’t want to be a documentary filmmaker after all. I wanted to dedicate my life to exploring the oceans and educating the world about them.
Flash forward through several more months of hard traveling, and I was on another airplane, this time touching down at my familiar small-town airport. I arrived home, dirt from the other side of the world encrusted in my boots and memories playing through my head. I dropped my backpack on my old bedroom floor. The only thing that occupied my sleep-deprived mind before I collapsed on my bed was an often-quoted line from T.S. Eliot: “And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I had come full-circle, back to my childhood bedroom. I stared up at the familiar ceiling and the same old photos on the walls. Everything was just as I had left it…except I wasn’t. I felt like a wholly new person, walking through the door for the very first time.
This brings me to today. I am not the same person I was in Facebook’s “On This Day a Year Ago” memories (hello, awkward twelve-year-old me). Nor am I the same person who arrived home after nine months of solid travel. In many ways, I have gone back to “normal” life. I don’t live out of a backpack anymore, and I never have to worry about where I will sleep next. I often take for granted clean showers, refrigerators, and air conditioning.
But my travels have also stayed with me. I am now a first year student at Ithaca College, studying Communications and Environmental Science. I want to become an environmental ambassador—a voice for the oceans. I want to show people how amazing our oceans are, and what we must do to protect them. If I hadn’t taken the leap of faith to take a gap year, to journey to the corners of the earth and back, then I never would have the clarity to know what I want from life, nor what I am capable of doing.
So here’s my final advice for you, reader: cast away from the familiar shores. Explore your interests. Do something that scares you a little. Do something that scares you a lot. Do something that will change you. You will thank yourself for it.