“This story isn’t about me; it’s about you.”
“Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do.” – Christopher Hitchens, ABC Lateline interview with Tony Jones, 17-18 November 2010
“Why did you start traveling?” This is perhaps the most common question I receive. For every conversation I’ve had with friends or strangers interested in exploring the world for the first time, there’s something about the prospect of traveling that simultaneously draws curiosity and anxiety whenever the topic is broached. My response, however, is always the same: a quiet smile, followed by my story.
The short answer to that question is I have no idea why I decided to travel; I just did. Six years ago when I boarded a plane for Barcelona in the summer of 2012, I had no understanding of what traveling actually meant. Though I had a bit of insight thanks to my older brother (he backpacked throughout Europe a few times and once in Peru), I was never really interested in the idea of doing it myself.
At that time, recently graduated from university at age 25, traveling seemed like a a far-fetched dream, a fantasy not worth indulging due to preconceived notions I held about the barriers of entry. This attitude prompted me to view traveling as a luxury seemingly reserved only for rich people with absurd amounts of generational wealth whom could afford it or for older folks with their life savings in hand looking forward to spending their twilight years together. That was more or less the extent of my traveling education.
The impetus that inevitably prompted my entry into the world of traveling derived from a peculiar sentiment, whose indelible mark continues to inform my perspective to this day. And that sentiment constituted a feeling of hopelessness I could not escape, habitually filled by a lack of purpose or direction in my life.
Throughout the years I’ve worked in various different industries – from construction and hospitality, to sales and customer service – aimlessly wandering from one job to the next in search of a path and purpose to call my own. And though I loved writing and poetry from a young age and developed a deep intellectual curiosity of the world around me, I had no idea how to make a living using my talents, which left me with no real goals or serious career pursuits. I was lost, in other words, because I wasn’t following my passion or even knew what that would be. Up until that point, my life was defined by menial work and the constant pursuit of meaningless paychecks. I was beginning to feel disconnected from those around me, bereft of ambition or drive and motivated by a profound sense of emptiness I harbored deep inside.
Despite graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in English (and the first member of my family to attend a four-year university), I never took advantage of internships or researched potential career paths I’d like to pursue or joined a fraternity for networking connections. Simply put, I was misguided by my own ineptitude and erroneously believed that things would somehow work out, but that wasn’t the case. In the end, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be.
After years of feeling lost in my personal life and professional career, I was burned out and had reached a tipping point. I needed a break from everything and everyone, a transition away from my daily mundane routine to something new and different. I had no idea what this new direction would entail, but something drastic had to change.
So, without much deliberation or clear strategy in mind, I convinced myself that traveling was the remedy I needed to escape the chains of monotony. After more than a year of working to pay off my college debt and build up my traveling funds, I eventually quit my job and followed my brother’s footsteps to travel throughout Europe for three months.
To prepare myself for this new experience, I read Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door to get a general sense of traveling and what to expect in Europe. But as soon as I landed in Barcelona, I was already regretting my decision to embark on a solo trip to a foreign country and continent all alone. I have to admit that I had no idea what I was doing or why I was even there in the first place. From spending several hours wandering the streets of Barcelona trying to find my hostel in the heat of summer (I forgot to write down the address before I hopped on my flight) to nearly getting my bag stolen from my hostel dorm room, my initial foray into traveling left a bad impression on me.
My first few days in Europe as a solo traveler were difficult, to say the least. I was scared and anxious, unsure how to navigate around a city I knew nothing about or anyone for that matter. I was forced to rely on my instincts and wits to figure things out. I was merely a strange face amidst a familiar collective mass of transient travelers, shuffling from one overcrowded tourist site to the next.
It wasn’t until a few days later, however, when I hopped on the AVE train from Barcelona to Madrid that I would experience the most seminal moment of my journey. It was here, at 360 Hostel Malasaña (unfortunately now closed), where I first fell in love with traveling. For whatever reason, the entire circle of fellow expats and travelers at this hostel formed such a tight-knit group and close bond that I’ve yet to see it replicated or reproduced throughout any of my other travels (one possible exception being my stay at the world’s southernmost city, Puerto Williams).
For seven consecutive days, we literally did everything together, from exploring Madrid in the daytime and club hopping at night, to spontaneous day trips to nearby Toledo and late night conversations that would last until early morning. In the evening, we would dine together for hours on end sharing stories about our various excursions of the day, and in the process learned more about each other and our respective cultures than any university lecture or classroom could offer.
My experience in Madrid left an indelible impression on me. It taught me a valuable lesson that the friendships we procure and personal relationships we create are far more important than the money we chase or material items we covet. By traveling abroad and immersing myself in various cultures – interacting with locals from numerous countries, befriending folks from different social and economic backgrounds – I began to understand the intrinsic value of traveling as a unifying force, uniquely tailored to bring people together that is unprecedented in my estimation.
Equally as important, traveling affords each person the opportunity to be introspective, to invest in the quality of your character by delving deep into the purpose that drives and motivates you on your path, whatever that may be. In other words, I allowed myself to grow with each new experience by staying in the moment and being present, thus appreciating the value traveling has to offer, which made me want to be a better person in return.
With that being said, however, it is incumbent upon each traveler to be proactive in this regard, for traveling is inherently inclusive and axiomatic by nature. That is to say you only get out of it what you put into it. The more open, revealing and vulnerable you are throughout your travels, the more opportunities you’ll have to better understand the person who you are and who you want to be. This remains the greatest lesson I’ve learned from traveling. Armed with a newfound sense of self and introspection, I continued along my trip eager to experience even more.
If Madrid is where I fell in love with traveling, then Cinque Terre is where I discovered who I wanted to be. Intrinsically beautiful and mesmerizingly idyllic, Cinque Terre (Italian for five lands) is a lovely collective of five small villages situated along the eastern coast of the Ligurian Riviera in Italy.
I remember early one morning, somewhere along the Via dell’Amore (street of the loving) at Vernazza, stopping to rest on the coastline walkway, leaning both arms against an old rusted guard railing to admire the Atlantic Ocean in quiet solitude. I still can’t explain what happened next, but for some reason everything clicked for me at that moment. There was something about the serene and calm nature of the ocean and pristine setting that put my mind at ease. As I surveyed the scene, watching local fisherman head out to sea in makeshift tugboats for a fresh day’s catch and beautiful young women walking home with baskets full of handpicked grapes from hillside vineyards, for the first time in my life I knew what I wanted now.
After three unforgettable months in Europe, and after visiting 15 countries and 30 cities, it was sadly time I made my way back home. On the return flight from Heathrow to SFO, I gazed out the window peering across the endless snow-white tundra of Greenland. I remember thinking at that moment that I wanted to make traveling and writing a part of my life, my two great passions. I made a pact to myself that somehow I would make that happen, but in what capacity I had no idea. It was on this flight that the idea of South America first entered my mind. With a renewed energy and singular goal in mind, I returned home feeling focused and excited about my new outlook on life and the opportunity of exploring another continent for my next big trip.
Unfortunately, this newfound momentum would be short-lived. I reached a second tipping point in my life when I developed the symptoms of a stroke. Upon my return, I decided to come back to my old job in construction to earn the money I needed for my upcoming trip. However, by pushing myself and working long strenuous hours, often 14+ hours per day with no days off and as little as 4-5 hours of sleep per night, my body started to break down. Relentless and stubborn, I would work like this for months and months on end, obsessively driven to earn the money I needed to go back to traveling – back to the world I cared about.
That obsession, however, nearly cost me my life. Waking up one morning after only a few hours of sleep, I remember my right arm feeling curiously numb as if I had slept on it by accident. More than 30 minutes passed and the numbness not only failed to recede, but it slowly started to spread to my chest, torso, leg and head. It felt like someone injected a gallon of anesthesia into my body, and I could feel its warm numbing fluid course through every fiber of my body and there was nothing I could do to stop it. After several hours, the entire right side of my body, from the top of my head to my toes, was completely numb and left me void of all sensation. Panic started to set in, my anxiety levels rose, and I felt utterly helpless in my sleep-deprived state.
Later, at the emergency room of the hospital, the doctor remarked in no uncertain terms that though I was too young to be having a stroke, I was undoubtedly experiencing the symptoms of a stroke. Here I was at age 28, laid up in a hospital room pondering how I allowed myself to get to this point. Had I learned nothing from my travels about the need to balance work and life?
At the time, I had just started at Jetset Times as a contributor and feeling very optimistic about my new career path. But now I had a very difficult decision to make. Do I continue down the same path, working two full-time jobs to accelerate my traveling plans, but put my health at risk again? Or should I slow it all down, delay my traveling plans and put my health and body first? At that moment I thought back to my time at Cinque Terre, recalling the peaceful state of mind it put me in. I closed my eyes and made the tough decision to delay my traveling plans indefinitely.
Eventually, however, I made peace with my decision. After allowing myself plenty of time to rest and heal, I was able to recover full sensation of my body within a few days. My decision to delay would eventually pay off in the end.
A year-and-a-half after the incident occurred, in February 2015, I embarked on my greatest year of traveling to-date by spending ten months on the road. I ended up backpacking throughout South America for nearly seven months (eight countries, four islands and over 70+ cities) and living in Paris as an American expat for three months. In retrospect, as onerous as that stroke proved to be, that experience taught me never to settle for the comfort of complacency, but rather be patient in pursuit of your passion wherever the path may lead you.
This now brings me back to the tenor of my story and the question I’m so often asked. I’ve met so many people who want to travel and experience the world, but feel wary or reluctant to do so. Oftentimes objections people raise include safety concerns and not having enough money, to language barriers and risking being affected by epidemic diseases they see on the news. Though these claims are not entirely without merit, it would be disingenuous on my part to dissuade or discourage anyone form traveling when I know the positives of traveling far outweigh the negatives. Too often, however, the prospect of fear and the unknown causes folks to eschew the benefits of traveling for this reason.
With that being said, however, traveling remains the best form of education. My journey through traveling helped me reclaim my passion for writing and the humbling opportunity to make a difference with my words. Writing is the most thing to me, my raison d’etre. By helping others in this regard, I’m paying forward the debt I owe to traveling for helping me discover who I want to be.
This is the reason why I travel.
I travel because I want to inspire people and help others find their path. I travel for my nieces and nephew to be an example to follow, so one day they too can explore the world uninhibited by fear, emboldened by courage and driven by curiosity. I travel so one day my nieces can grow up in a world where women are respected and not treated as second-rate citizens; empowered to explore the beauty of this world as solo travelers without fear of harassment or questions about safety. I travel for anyone who’s ever felt downtrodden, depressed or hopeless, in search of some direction in his or her life. I travel to inspire you, so you can learn from my mistakes and use my story as a template for your own traveling adventure and get yourself where you need to be. I travel so one day we can meet on road and I can hear about your story.
In the end, this story isn’t about me; it’s about you. This is the reason why I smile when I’m asked why I started to travel because I can recall all the hardships and mistakes I made along the way to get to the place I am today. If I could help one person and make a difference in their life – whether it’s through traveling or helping them embrace some other passion and interest they may have – then that’s all I could ever ask for.
I hope to see you smile one day and hear your story.
Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.