If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I’ve been everywhere. I’m being serious when I say that: between my last blog post and now, I’ve visited thirteen countries. I’ve sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Panama Canal and consumed bread on four different continents. I’ve gotten lost in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, learned how to do shots, and connected with people so radically unlike me with the deepest love and affection I’ve ever felt.
Long story short, I’ve been around the world and back.
I want to say thank you for sticking with me through the hiatus. Our tendency is to unfollow people who aren’t constantly producing content, so I appreciate you for continuing to follow me and being patient as I took some time for myself. In order to have the most impactful study abroad experience that I could have, I needed to disconnect from my platforms and live by myself and for myself.
And that’s exactly what I did. My four-month sail with Semester at Sea has truly changed me as a person. I have a different perspective on a number of topics: immigration reform, environmental impact, cross-cultural communication, the ethics of cruise tourism, the devaluing of currency, and the prominence of American culture around the world. I’ve learned that the only things we can all agree on are soccer and cheese pizza, and that blending in takes more than smiling and being nice to locals.
Above all, my voyage changed me, and it’s a change that I’m inherently grateful for. I’m now a more engaged and aware person; I feel more connected to the world and have an increased capacity to visit cultures that are different from my home culture. There’s another thing I learned: Americans have a culture. We like to think that we’re the default, but we’re not. Other countries aren’t failed attempts at being the United States any more than we’re failed attempts at being other countries.
But in the midst of this cultural sensitivity and awareness, I can’t help but feel that I’m a stranger in my own country. Hours after getting off the ship, I went to a San Diego restaurant (Puesto, they’ve got killer tacos and guac) and was overwhelmed with relief that there was toilet paper in the stall and clean ice in my water. The waiters were so smiley and there weren’t open gutters on the side of the road. The first thing I did when I got home was drink straight from the tap, something I hadn’t been able to do (without fear of contracting traveler’s diarrhea) for three months. I walked around the only country I’ve ever known, in awe of my own culture.
To some extent, I still feel like an outsider. My stomach aches for pierogies in Krakow, plantains in Accra, brigadeiros in Salvador. I spend an absurd amount of time planning trips with money I don’t have, longing to be somewhere strange and wonderful. What I wouldn’t give to be in the middle of the ocean right now, sailing from one country to another, counting the flying fish. What I wouldn’t give for one more sunset over the mirror-glass horizon, or one more night of the ship rocking me to sleep. I haven’t slept so peacefully since we disembarked; the slow, cradling movement was enough to evaporate any lingering anxieties and put me right to sleep.
Every cell in my body is constantly pulling me toward the airport or the coastline or the train station. It’s like I have a built-in radar for escape routes. I happen to know exactly how much money it would take for me to fly to New York City, London, Bangkok, or Minneapolis at this very moment because the app I use to track flight prices on my phone is one of my most frequently-visited apps.
I’ve been home for almost two weeks now and I can feel the pieces of me that I gained while abroad starting to flake away. The set jaw that I used to ignore people trying to sell me overpriced tourist wares on the street, my meager vocabulary of Polish and Portuguese, my knowledge that what is different isn’t inherently dangerous. I want to cling to the person I was when I was abroad, to preserve her in her finest state.
But that’s not the point. The point of a journey isn’t to take the path and then stop half-way, but to take the path until the road runs out. And when it does, you pull out your map, select a new destination, and find a new path. There isn’t anything to be learned from getting somewhere and sitting there forever.
While I was abroad, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I’m never satisfied. I’m the kind of person who will save up to buy something nice, then decide what I’m going to save up for next before I’ve even bought the thing I’m currently saving for. I always plan my next adventure before my current adventure is even finished. Exhibit A is me sitting in my hotel room in Fes, Morocco, applying for summer programs that were almost a year away.
For better and worse, I want what isn’t right in front of me. In the months leading to my semester abroad, I wanted nothing more than to be away from home and sailing the high seas. And when I was abroad, my heart ached for my dad’s cooking and my mom’s hugs. Thinking about my dogs moved me to tears an embarrassing number of times.
So, where does this leave me? Am I destined to always want what’s just out of reach? Am I sentenced to a life of half-planned trips that never quite scratch the itch?
The most prominent thing I’ve learned about Americans is this: we are terrified of rest. We’d rather work and work and work because we’re afraid that if we take a moment to let our lungs fully inflate, we’ll realize how sweet it is to taste the air. We’re afraid that we’ll become lazy, complacent, content with how things are with no motivation to keep going and growing. If we don’t plan our next trip before the current trip is finished, we’re afraid that we’ll never leave the country again. We need something to work toward, so we shove our schedules full of goals to accomplish and boxes to check.
This makes me sound cynical, but I think this is mostly a good thing. I’m proud to be ambitious and hard-working; it’s part of my personality. Give me a calendar, a computer, and a deadline, and there’s nothing I can’t accomplish.
This ambition doesn’t stop me from taking a rest. I know that if I stay in my plaid jammies all day and watch Season 5 of Parks and Recreation in one sitting on a Saturday, I’ll still have the gumption to get off my behind and accomplish what I want to accomplish. Taking a day, a week, or a minute to exist in my current state and chase what feels good now doesn’t preclude me from chasing what will feel good once I reach it.
Here’s what I’ve learned: plan your trip. Book your flight. It’s easier to travel internationally than you think, and the world is populated by good and honest people. What is different is not inherently dangerous (but stuff most of your cash in your bra and keep one hand on your purse). Disconnect from your phone and soak up every moment of that time, because you’ll yearn for it for the rest of your life.
When it’s over and you have to go home, give yourself some grace as you reenter your culture. You’re different now, but the place you were probably hasn’t changed. Give your friends and family some grace is they don’t understand your new perspectives; they’re learning, too.
You’ll long for the buzz of travel, and that’s okay. Let that passion inspire you to save your money, buy a backpack, book a flight, and fly. Go somewhere you’ve never been before, and go with an open mind. They have more to teach you than you have to teach them.
And then you’ll come back, readjust your perspectives, and do it all again.
Thank you for making it this far! I’m also planning some less serious content that’ll highlight all the different books I read while abroad, how I was able to keep reading while abroad, and the new formats I fell in love with during my travels.
If you want to hear more about my study abroad experience, drop a comment or suggest a post! I could talk about it for hours, so I’m happy to share.
Until next time xx
LISTEN TO MY PODCAST HERE