Wanderlust. Unfamiliar experiences. Discovery. These are all a part of packing up our belongings for a few days, weeks or even years and finding a temporary new home.
Traveling is for expanding beyond our small, personal confines. It's exciting, yet mindbogglingly nerve-racking. Traveling is not only expected to be invigorating, but also transformative.
But, is it unfair to expect so much of a trip?
When I was 16, I ventured halfway across the world to the small city of Chandigarh, India. As I sat on the 14-hour plane ride, my stomach tumbled, and my mind was a mess with the stress for what was to come. In the weeks leading up to the trip, everyone kept telling me that this would be “life-changing” and an experience that would give me “a new outlook on life.”
Though I had traveled before, the trip to India provided an entirely new level of culture shock. General poverty characterized the landscape.
Our trip coincided during the month in which India was to be declared polio-free. We administered the final polio drops to the children in these impoverished areas, and we later visited orphanages overflowing with impoverished children. Those shining smiles of the children who had little to nothing shone through their beautiful souls. I was reminded of how truly grateful I was for the life I had.
By the time I arrived back home, I could confidently say I had pushed myself beyond my previously presumed limits, experienced a distinctly new culture and been reminded of my fortunate circumstances. I didn't feel drastically different, though. Even after seeing the beaming faces of children who were grateful instead of deservedly angry at the world, I still felt and thought much the same.
A stigma and pressure has developed when it comes to traveling. We are supposed to feel different, think different and maybe even be a different person when we return, especially with a trip that involves communities overwhelmed by poverty or distress.
Yes, I absorbed the Indian culture during my visit and felt I had actively made a difference, even for a short amount of time. But no, I didn't change or transform drastically.
I saw humanity in the most dire of situations. I sympathized, attempted to help to the best of my ability and even pondered my own circumstances. I didn't really change, though.
I came back home, and within a few days after the jet lag wearing off, I was back to my normal routine. I went to school, had meals with my family and reintroduced myself into the consumer culture of America. But, I felt bad for all of this. I had just seen people who lived on less than $1 a day, and I was out buying a $5 coffee from Starbucks. Was I self-absorbed and ungrateful?
I spent a few months desperately searching for some part of my inner life that had been changed for the better. I found nothing. I felt the pressure to be able to tell people that I came back with a new outlook on life, a perspective never previously considered.
And then at some point, I accepted that I wasn't substantially “changed.” I had experienced a new culture and been given opportunities that I will always be grateful for. But, I was by no means transformed, and that was perfectly acceptable.
I'm not saying there are experiences and trips out there where your mindset can't be altered and thoughts for change can't be discovered. But, I am saying it's OK to come back and not feel those drastic inner transformations.
Be thankful and appreciate the chances to experience, but don't pressure yourself to discover some inner metamorphosis. Don't plan your trip based on what you think will produce some personal revolution.
Instead, travel and experience based on what fulfills you. Just because there was no “transformation,” it does not devalue your experiences.