My Perfect Travel Pictures? Yeah, I Cried That Day.
I’m going to go ahead and burst a bubble; the bubble of dream-like, picture-perfect, international travel.
The cold hard truth is that it ain’t all glamorous, despite what Instagram tells you, so don't swoon over them too much. (Just like you shouldn't swoon over anything you see on Instagram too much, but that's another story.)
Another cold hard truth is that, technically, it shouldn’t be (all) glamorous, but I can really only speak to long-term travel. Trust me, I’m well aware of the fact that I’m incredibly lucky to have the experience I did, so I know the following doesn’t apply to all travel.
I was 23 and had never left the US before, so I knew I needed a big ole dose of worldly experience. Big time. I had a one-way ticket when I left and ended up spending seven months living, working, and traveling in Thailand with a splash of Vietnam, and let me tell you, I had some low lows. I really do believe they were 100% necessary because being that vulnerable, insecure, (sometimes miserable), and uncomfortable changed me for good and for the better. I mean granted, I knew full well I wasn’t going abroad for rest and relaxation.
Okay but first up, no one warned me about the, shall I say, “adjustment period” of transitioning and adapting to life in a foreign country.
The first couple of months were hands down the hardest mentally, and missing the holidays with my family was a bonus sting. I had plenty of “*Explicit* What did I get myself into?” moments. I’m a pretty calm person, and still I would get Grade-A overwhelmed. Once, I was shopping for essentials and had to hide in an aisle of rugs to give myself a minute to hold my head, close my eyes, and breathe. Another time, I broke into manic laughter at some unknown, predawn hour out of pure frustration, madness, and exhaustion.
But, like most things, I eventually got past it. I have Brené Brown to thank a lot for helping me through those first few months. I listened to her TED talk, “The Power Of Vulnerability” on repeat. It just nailed it. Nailed. It. I understood I had to embrace all the emotions and insecurities I was feeling. Amazing things happen outside of your comfort zone, that’s where real growth happens, so I started rolling around in my tumultuous mental state rather than hide from it in a stack of rolled up rugs. I mean for real, grow up, D.
I told myself to adjust, readjust, then adjust some more. Adapt and adapt again, roll with the punches, and let all the culture clashes fall by the wayside. And trust me, working and living in Thailand, there were a lot of culture clashes, naturally. We are from opposite ends of the world, ya know. A very small, harmless example: I’d get so confused because the teachers or the principal would signal for me to “come here,” but the Thai body language for “come here” is our “go away," like they’re saying “shoo.” Ensue, admittedly funny, but awkward interactions.
So that’s just one very real, very unglamorous aspect of no-joke traveling you couldn’t see behind my pictures. Those first few months were quite an adjustment. But wait, I got more...
Warning: I’m about to paint some pretty pictures some might deem as TMI, but hey, I’m just getting real here. I have no shame.
Those pictures of me with my students? Those were my good classes - I didn’t post group pictures with the classes that would make me cry in my office. Okay fine, and once in class. Just once! (Which is actually a really funny and borderline inappropriate story now that I think back on it…maybe another time.)
That picture of me walking through a metro station in Bangkok with my too-big backpack on and my cool purple pants? That was after I puked in the street from what I later found out was an ear infection. Lesson learned: take decongestants if you have to fly with a cold, or just don’t fly with a cold...and then don’t fly (again) with an ear infection you got from flying with a cold.
We had a metro and a plane to catch. Suck it up now, cry later.
That picture of me reading a book on a train during golden hour? That was before I had a bad spell of…#2...on a squat toilet...on a moving train...for four hours. Ugh, real cute. Whatever. Real life.
That picture of us with giant, colorful water guns in the streets of Chiang Mai all smiles and celebrating the Thai New Year aka Songkran? That was after a 15-hour, overcrowded to the point of being inhumane, third class train ride with people sleeping on their suitcases in the aisle and bathroom. Ha, “sleeping.” Sure, call it that. I was really just sitting straight up, closing my eyes, and pretending I wasn’t on a train ride to hell. Findahappyplace, findahappyplace.
This picture of
us in Vietnam?
This was after bees were stinging us the entire hike up and before the massive rainstorm on our entire hike back down. Wrong day to wear a maxi dress, too. I didn’t know we’d be hiking, okay?!
I could go on, people!
So yeah, there’s a lot you don’t see and don't know behind the photos, which is fine because it’s no one’s fault. It’s just that there’s an unglamorous side to traveling that’s so, so important that isn't really talked about often.
It isn’t all smiles and rainbows and butterflies, and it most certainly isn’t a walk in the park. If it was, then what would be the point? Where are the lessons? Where’s the growth? Where’s the appreciation?
I came back to the states with such gratitude and it's stuck. I have gratitude I can flush toilet paper instead of throwing it away in an open trash can (yup). Gratitude I can flush a toilet at all with a handle and not a bucket of water. Gratitude when I receive a plate of food without a hair in it. Gratitude for soap when I wash my hands in public places. Gratitude for personal space and leg room and padded seats and air conditioning. The gratitude goes a lot deeper than all that (you should go see some villages for some real deep gratitude), and that gratitude has also made me complain a lot less when things aren’t ideal. When I hear people complain, especially over petty things, I just think to myself, You know nothing, Jon Snow. And I feel bad for them, I really do. They just don’t “get it.”
Traveling the way I did taught me the beauty in being crazy uncomfortable. So I strongly recommend to go and feel weird and insecure if you ever have the chance and the means. See things you normally wouldn’t for perspective to ground you. Embrace vulnerability. Grow a thick(er) skin. Learn about yourself and the world outside of your comfort zone. Get in the dirt and grow from it because it results in such an appreciative outlook in your day-to-day, even years later.
And the pictures...they aren't always what they seem. When you're scrolling, keep in mind you're only seeing "the good stuff." I have picture proof that there's a story behind every picture, and not all of them were fun and games. Just be grateful for the places you’ve had the honor to see and learn from.
Not everyone is so lucky to have time to get uncomfortable and unglamorous abroad. I was privileged enough to have seven months of it, and I couldn’t imagine who I’d be without it.