Five years is a long time to be on the road. I never thought I was going to travel this long. It was only gong to be a year, maybe 18 months tops, and then I'd go back home, find a "real" job, get married, have a house, produce 2.5 children and begin complaining about my retirement fund.
But here I am, five years later, in Romania with the same backpack. I'm still traveling, still staying in hostels, and still having the time of my life.
I think five years is a good point in which to sit back and reflect on what exactly travel has taught me through this long, strange trip:
Every day, people get up and go out the door to travel the world. And they survive and thrive. In fact, the travel industry has made it very easy to make it. Just get on that plane or train or bus. Everything else will work itself out. All that worrying and fear I had was for naught - this traveling thing is a lot easier than you would believe. It's not like you are the first person to ever do this.
Traveling around the world has taught me to how to be more social, adapt, be more flexible, and, most importantly, understand non-verbal communication a lot better. It has helped me figure out situations even when I can't understand them. It has made more independent, more open, and, overall, just a better person. There's no reason to be scared that you might not have "it" in you. You'd be surprised how often you can surprise yourself.
It may seem scary just throwing yourself out there and talking to strangers, but we are all strangers in a strange land. At the end of the day, everyone is very friendly. It took me a while to get used to just saying "hello" to strangers, but now it seems like second nature. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming on the road that even when you travel solo, you are never really alone.
Those times I just want to relax and do nothing are the times I've made my closest friends. Whether it was in a hostel in Vietnam, on a boat in Thailand, or walking into a hostel in Spain, when I least expected (or wanted) to meet people was when I met the best. And even though you may not see them for years, you still end up at their wedding, Christmas dinner, or family celebration. Distance and time cannot break the bond you formed.
I've meet lots of people on the road, including members of the opposite sex I've found attractive. But the nature of travel doesn't always lend to a lot of long term relationships. It's hard to make something last when everyone moves in different directions and holidays end. If you get too attached too often, you'll have nothing but heartache as people come and go. But I've realized you need to simply enjoy your time together for what it is and stay on good terms when it ends.
Yet once in a while, you'll find someone you really connect with. Meaningful romance on the road does happen. And when you have nowhere to be and no place to go other than where you want, sometimes there is no reason not to follow. Don't force yourself to say another good-bye if you don't have to. Pursue it even if the distance seems too vast, because you never know where it could lead or how long it might last. Sometimes you only get one chance and when it is gone, you're filled with nothing but regret.
I used to be a very rigid person, but traveling has helped me expand my worldview. I've pushed myself to the limit, eaten new food, taken cooking classes, learned magic tricks, new languages, tried to conquer my fear of heights, and challenged my views on people. I've learned that the more you know and the more you try new things, the funnier life is.
Doing the canyon swing was tough. So was jumping off the boat in the Galapagos. As was eating the maggots in Thailand. And getting my butt kicked in Thai boxing. And, while I won't do either again, I don't regret stepping out of my comfort zone and trying new things. Even if you only try things once, it's good to challenge yourself and be adventurous. Scare yourself once in a while. It makes life less dull.
No matter what happens on the road, it's never a mistake. As was once said, "your choices are half chance, and so are everybody else's." When you go with the flow and let the road just unfold ahead of you, there's no reason to have regrets or think you made a mistake. You make the best decisions you can and, in the end, the journey is the adventure.
When you travel on a budget and need to make your money last, it's easy to be cheap. But why live like a pauper for so long while you were home so you could not eat the food in Italy, drink the wine in France, or have a sushi meal in Japan? While it is good to be frugal, it's also important to splurge and not miss out on doing once-in-a-lifetime things. Who knows, for example, when you will get another chance to dive in Fiji?! Being cheap only fills you with regret.
But remember you aren't made of money, so don't always feel like you need to party with your new friends every night or do every activity in a new place. Sometimes it's OK just to sit around and relax or cook your own meal. Be frugal, but not cheap.
Sometimes it is great to have a plan. When there is limited time, you want to try to see as much as possible and stay on track. But stop being hemmed in by that plan. Traveling is about opening yourself up to change and letting life take you where you want to go. In the end, you throw the plan away anyway, so why even bother getting caught up in one? Have a rough idea of what you want to do, and just fill in the details along the way.
Don't be so glued to a book. You can travel fine without it, especially with so many good alternatives on the Internet these days. You buy it and hardly use it anyway. Just ask people for tips and information. It's just extra weight in your bag.
Even if you aren't the traveler or person you want to be in your head, it's never too late to change. Travel is all about change. The more you say "tomorrow," the less likely it is that tomorrow will ever come. Traveling has shown me aspects of my personality I wish I didn't have and also shown me I'm really lazy. I've always lived by the phrase "Carpe Diem" but sometimes I don't really do it. It's never too late though and realizing that has made being more pro-active a lot easier.
There're some great benefits to not knowing the local language - like miming out "chicken" to let the lady know you want eggs for breakfast - but learning languages is fun, very helpful when you travel, and works out great when you meet other travelers. Not only can you eavesdrop on their conversations, but there's also nothing like surprising people by speaking their language. It brings a smile to everyone's face.
Seriously. Science has proven it helps, and with all that beach time you do when you travel, you could always use a little more. Being tan is great. Having skin cancer is not. SPF up.
All over the world, I have encountered amazing people who have not only changed my life but have gone out of their way to help me. It's taught me that the old saying is true - you can always depend on the kindness of strangers. My friend Greg taught me long ago not to be guarded against strangers. We grow up in this culture of fear in America that is unrealistic. 99.9 of the people in the world aren't murders, rapists, or thieves. There's no reason to assume someone is one. Sometimes, people are just trying to be friendly.
I've learned more about the world and myself in the last five years of travel than I have in the previous 25 years of my life. No matter what happens in the future, I know that I am very blessed to have these last five years, and I'm a better person because of them.
Follow Matt Kepnes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nomadicmatt