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The Real Reason to Make Travel a Priority

Why it's crucial to calibrate your expectations.

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illustration of older woman looking at city landscape, traveling, travel
Kate Wong
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In 1986, China had just opened to independent travelers. Going there was like trekking through North Korea today. But after college, that’s where I opted to backpack. “I’m going to climb the Great Wall and become the female Hemingway!” I announced.

Yet I didn’t really travel for my writing — or China. Rather, I was besotted with the idea of myself as adventurous.  

After graduation, I’d moved back home with my parents. I was lost, waitressing, hooking up with misfits. Backpacking through Asia, I believed, would transform me from “loser” to “mythic.” Travel offered the ultimate makeover.

I’m hardly the only woman to think this. While many men are taught to view travel as a source of adventure, women are often encouraged to view it as a source of self-help. (Spa weekend, anyone?) Bestsellers and movies like Wild, Eat Pray Love, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Under the Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine all celebrate the transformational power of the getaway. Are you heartbroken, drug addicted? Newly divorced, widowed, postmenopausal? Pack a bag, they suggest. Ride a motorbike, renovate a villa, climb a mountain! Far from home, you’ll find great love. Or self-love. Or both.

But does “taking off” actually have the power to change us? Well, yes. But not in the ways we’re led to expect. Certainly, it’s freeing to escape our daily worries and responsibilities.

“So many women feel chastised by our surroundings when we’re home,” says New York psychoanalyst Gina Gold. “There are all these undone projects around you, and you feel put-upon by your family. By going away, women give themselves permission not to do stuff.”

We can reinvent ourselves too. “Generally, I like myself better when I travel,” says Samantha Barnet, an artist in Michigan. “I’m much more of an introvert in the U.S. When I travel, I’ll go to a bar or restaurant and just start talking to people.”

Yet if we expect to run off to Portugal, Thailand or Jamaica and come home with a band-new self, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. While travel can be liberating, it’s hardly a cure-all. What’s more, it can be far more challenging than popular culture lets on. If you’re contemplating going abroad to get a new lease on life, it’s crucial to calibrate your expectations — and bear in mind travel’s less glamorous sides. 

Stepping outside our comfort zone can feel uncomfortable. 

When I first arrived in China, the food, bathrooms and language were radically different. For days, I was paralyzed with culture shock. If you arrive in a foreign country and don’t immediately feel like jumping on a rickshaw or climbing the Acropolis, congratulations! You’re a traveler! Foreign places are foreign! They’re not a spa!

When you cross a border, your IQ plummets.

Whether you land in Tijuana or Tokyo, prepare to feel like an idiot. Things we do effortlessly at home become ridiculous challenges abroad: Ordering coffee. Flushing a toilet. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a drugstore in Italy trying to pantomime the word for “toothbrush.” Travel forces you to surrender your basic know-how — and with it, your dignity.

You’ll discover parts of yourself you never knew — but these are not necessarily good parts.

Travel makes some people anxious — and anxious people are rarely at their best. I’ve seen panicked diplomats screaming at tour guides in India. Mature professionals having meltdowns in Parisian restaurants. I, myself, have become a lunatic intent on boarding a plane first even though I was assigned to seat 47-J. In a different country, yes, you can become your most fabulous self. You can also morph into a deranged neurotic.

Changes, like makeovers, rarely last.

Have you ever bought a gorgeous batik sundress on vacation, only to find it looks lousy back home? The magic of the “new, improved you” from vacation can wear off just as easily. In fact, some brain studies show that the neurological “uplift” from a getaway lasts only a few weeks after you return.

You can go to Morocco after a bad breakup and come back so over that person — until he or she beckons again and you are right back in a bad relationship. Remember: No matter how lightly you pack, your baggage comes with you. One vacation will not erase a lifetime.

However, travel can create real, enduring changes. Ironically, it’s the small victories that end up empowering us the most: Figuring out the metro in Vienna. Eating dinner alone in Montreal. Navigating Buenos Aires when you don’t speak Spanish.  

Learning to survive in a strange environment — despite your fears and insecurities — is an enormous confidence booster.

“You feel like, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’” says Desa Sealy, a world traveler and owner of a real estate company in Washington, D.C. “It’s also badass. Women having fun on our own is subversive. It goes against cultural norms. It shows the world, ‘I’m in control of my own life.’”

As such, travel can be especially empowering for women who’ve left abusive relationships — or are considering it.

Katherine Charlap, a psychotherapist based in New York, specializes in helping traumatized women. She finds that “travel gives them an opportunity to assert their independence. They find out what they like without someone abusive telling them what to do all the time. And it’s very refreshing for these women to find out that many strangers in this world can be decent.”

Travel also helps our aging brains. According to neuroscientists, placing ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, learning a different language and trying fresh experiences stimulate new neural pathways. Most of all, travel broadens our perspective and understanding of the world. As such, it stands to endow us with wisdom, empathy, humility. We may take off to unplug, heal or find ourselves. But what travel ultimately stands to teach us is that the world is rich, surprising and complex — and that, as just one person in it, it’s not All About Us either.                 

Want to know about the new Real ID and travel? Then read this.

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