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How Long-Term Travel Changes People Forever

Derek Freal on New Famili 100

Last week I celebrated my ten year nomadiversary of quitting my job to travel the world. Ten years of long-term travel have taught me more than I learned in the 24 years prior to that. The knowledge gained, unforgettable experiences, and amazing people I’ve encountered over the years have changed my life forever, in ways never even imagined. This travel blog began a decade ago as a journal to let my childhood friends back home know that I was not dead and it eventually evolved into, well, this. In fact if you’re brave (or bored) enough you can even find some of my old, drunken rambles (I loathe to call them posts) still online — they date back to 2008 and were intended only for friends back home, so don’t expect much useful information, just embarrassing stories 😉

Regardless of whether you are travel blogging, working as a digital nomad, on a gap year, pursuing a RTW trip or even just living your retirement to the max, long-term travel makes a far greater impact on a person and their beliefs than anything else in the world. It shapes you, molds you, teaches you, humbles you, and yes, sometimes even scares you. But it’s all for the best.

However…

Full Disclosure:

  Long-Term Travel Can Also Ruin Your Life

Travel will ruin you for life. Once it gets into your blood you will never be the same: the feeling of freedom, the stimulus and the strangeness – it all gets under your skin. From the bright colourful saris in a New Delhi marketplace to the grim reality of a Russian prison tour, every new experience forces you to see the world in a different wider way.

Carol Perehudoff       Wandering Carol

Long-term travel changes your life -- and ruins your life

In The Beginning…

We all start out as wet-behind-the-ears newbies whom know nothing about international travel. Most all of us were shocked when we first saw meat being butchered on a dirty street corner or hordes of motorcycles in the streets driving every direction and even on sidewalks — many with both parents and multiple kids aboard. We felt out of our element riding some of the strange and unsafe forms of transportation around the world and downright confused by the abundance of street food until learning that food actually tastes better when sitting on plastic stools intended for kids. We’ve also been humbled by many a foreign festival and diverse religious gatherings in every corner of the globe. However it’s exactly these overwhelming encounters that make travel addicting.

On the way to Subic
2008: Newbie traveler Derek Freak arrives in his fourth country, the Philippines, with best friend Jared

I’m bi-polar, and thought I would be on (very expensive) meds my whole life. But travel changes my brain. When I travel, I don’t have mood swings, and don’t need my meds. It may be the constant new stimuli combined with the constant exercise that keeps me in check, but only when I come back home do I ever feel I need help controlling moods. And even then, it’s only once in a while (like around holidays when I usually get manic-y). Travel is the best thing that ever happened to me. I never thought I could feel normal on a long-term basis without taking medication. I love travelling!

Dani Blanchette       Going Nomadic

Discovering Yourself

In order to embrace and grow from travel you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and open yourself up to new possibilities. A religious author coined the phrase now popular among travelers “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” and nothing could be closer to the truth. Only there can you truly begin to find yourself — and once that process is underway your whole perspective of the world changes and evolves.

Panjat Pinang Closing Photo
After a long day of panjat pinang we had to take group photos

If you were to have asked me five years ago what do I want out of life, well I can guarantee my answer would revolve mostly around physical possessions. In the west we are raised to think that we need a new cellphone every few months and a new car every few years. “The iPhone18 is out now.” “Well I just bought the iPhone17s last week but I need the newest one.” “Can’t afford it? Don’t worry, just put it on credit!”

Even the mainstream media — especially in the United States — often portrays foreign travel in a scary or unsafe manner. Why? Because once you begin traveling you learn there is much more to life that what you own or how many zeros are in your bank account. You’ll be tempted to quit your job and travel the world or even worse begin to realize some of the things that your home country is doing wrong, both on the national and international levels.

Most Americans grow up believing there is a very limited definition of success, one that involves a steady, well-paying job with a few vacation days that you are meant to use very sparingly. I used to think that way as well. Traveling has allowed me to break free of work-addictions and guilt for taking time away from my job or stereotypical life responsibilities. Exploring other cities and countries has allowed me to be happier, more relaxed, and even achieve a better type of success, both professionally and emotionally, than I ever thought possible.

Rease Kirchner       Indecisive Traveler

Discovering Different Cultures

Don’t get me wrong, staying at a posh resort on the beach or perched up on a mountainside with a spectacular view is amazing! But there is no real culture to be experienced there, no matter how much you may think otherwise. The authentic culture can be found wandering the streets and people-watching, or better yet by making friends with the locals. You just have to be willing to put down your Lonely Planet, blindly explore and above all interact with the citizens.

Do not just walk around taking photos and speaking in your native language

I’m not saying that you can’t walk around with a DSLR in hand, just please do not forget to engage the locals. Too many people travel through their camera lens and forget to speak with the locals actually living the lifestyle they are photographing. Learn a few words of their language. Attempt a conversation via pantomime if all else fails.

Filipino Blessing
Giving and receiving a Filipino blessing to a village elder back in 2008

Exploring ancient ruins, walking paths that have existed for centuries, tasting your way through a modern metropolis. Meeting people that have had the same way of life for generations on end, then meeting those on the edge of the digital revolution. I’ve done all those things in one day, and each experience has left an imprint on my soul. Each interaction has irreversibly changed who I am and my outlook on the world. I’ve learned compassion, understanding, and acceptance of things one can’t change. Each day on the road subtly changes a different part of you until you look back on your past and don’t recognize who you were. That’s what’s travel has done for me. It’s rebooted my life and helped me find my soul.

Kenin Bassart       The Constant Rambler

Discovering How The World Works

An optimist might say the world runs on faith and good intentions…a pessimist might say every government on earth in corrupt. While both statements are, to some degree, accurate, one cannot actually comprehend this without traveling first. It is one thing to recite something you saw on the news but a completely different conversation to say, “well, yes this and that were correct but they have this wrong and here’s why…”

The biggest thing I have learned from traveling the world?

No one country does everything right.

We all have something to learn from each other and ways we can improve our own country by following the examples of other nations; We just have to leave race, religion and politics out of the discussion.

Some of my friends back home are confused as to why I love Indonesia so much that I am now speaking, tweeting and yes even blogging in the native language. “Dude, isn’t that a Muslim country? So what, are you friends with terrorists now?”

That kind of biased, ignorant thinking is part of the reason why I decided to give up my posh life in the States.

Penthouse Life in NYC
Penthouse life in NYC. From a trip back to the States in 2010.

I’ve been skipping ’round the globe solo now for more than 30 years (including 20 as an int’l tour operator), and there’s no denying it: travel is who.I.am. It’s addictive. It’s exhilarating. It’s often a miserable, bewildering, pain-in-the-butt. But I absolutely THRIVE on the challenge of perpetually testing my mettle each and every day, as I try to find my way around a strange new foreign land. Traveling is my passion. Traveling is my glue. Traveling surely ain’t everybody’s cup of tea. But traveling – especially as a solo lass – will most certainly change both you (from the inside-out!) and your view of the world. It will humble you, it will sometimes bring you (whimpering) to your knees. But it will also make you soar – to magical moments of self-discovery, electrifying euphoria, and sheer joy.

Dyanne Kruger       TravelnLass

Discovering What You Need In Life

Above all travel is humbling. Meeting families who live in a one-room “house” and off $2/day yet are still eager to bring you in, to welcome you, to share dinner with you… That never ceases to grow old. It also makes you realize how much we take for granted growing up. In some countries having a personal computer, a television, hell even drinkable tap water are things that are unheard of in local life.

It’s not just level of income or social status that dictates the size of your home. In rich countries like Japan and Singapore where space is often limited people live in very small houses and flats. However for some reason the notion of having a large house in the United States is not just normal stage but practically a life requirement. It’s not just something for the upper class but rather a staple of middle class suburban life.

In reality no one really needs that much space, we rather just want it. In the States success is determined — at least in part — by whether or not you own your house, whereas in Asia success is measured by whether or not you have a large family.

Travel has changed me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. It’s made me a better listener, more open-minded, and dare I say a better man? I met my wife and got to know her through traveling… It’s requires a more analytical way of thinking to get where we’re trying to go, and offers a chance to express myself to tens of thousands of readers a month. When we went back to the US, it felt… foreign… It didn’t fit anymore – like trying to put your right shoe on your left foot. Getting back to Asia meant getting back a place where I knew how things worked…

Chris Backe       One Weird Globe

Discovering What You Want Out Of Life

The answer to this question will be different for every person reading this article. However one big thing I’ve learned from extensive travel is that you only desire certain things when that way of life is all you know. After traveling and seeing how the rest of the world lives, what you want out of life shifts dramatically. More than you can even comprehend!

Derek Freal and Riyanni Djangkaru cook dinner with locals in Sumatra
Derek Freal and Riyanni Djangkaru cook dinner with locals in the Riau province of Sumatra.

It is extremely difficult to put into words just how great of an impact foreign travel makes to a person’s character, much less try and convey this message to someone who has never left their home country or has only stayed at all-inclusive resorts while abroad. In fact several blogging buddies tried to deter me from “wasting your time trying to explain travel to non-travelers.”

That only further encouraged me to write this post, regardless of the outcome or how many people actually heed our advice. As you’ve no doubt notice I’ve included numerous quotes from fellow world friends of mine. The purpose of this was to help illustrate how many people feel this way, while also illuminating the variety of ways in which foreign travel, especially long-term travel, impacts everything you thought you knew about life.

We’ve been on the road almost 11 years now and still loving it. I think my biggest change has been letting go of a planned/organized life with every step I set thinking of what the consequences will be for the future. Going from a 9-5 job with a big company to becoming a freelance writer is something I had never dreamed doing, but it happened. Life in the road is a life of freedom, a freedom I didn’t know exist. It makes me responsible – at least at a deeper, more aware level – for every single step I take, and I love that responsibility.

Karin-Marijke Vis       Landcruising Adventure

Brave Enough To Try Long Term Travel?

Just be warned       Long-Term Travel Ruins Your Life

About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

25 thoughts on “How Long-Term Travel Changes People Forever”

  1. Only for one month, just a temporary gig to see what all the fuss was about. It was okay I guess, a new experience, but not for me. I love being on the open road with no plans or schedule 😉

  2. I did a two month teaching deal in China years back. It is quite demanding. Well China is probably the most difficult place one can teach at as they have school 6 days a week! I would recommend anywhere else.

  3. Yeah, most Vietnamese students have school six days a week too. But the pay here is great: $20/hr starting (and that’s with no certification or experience). Can get double that if qualified and teaching at a good university

  4. Thank you for posting this! You have some wonderful photo’s (even if you don’t live through your camera, some of your photo’s may allow others to!)

    Travel has impacted my life!

    I now see things through different eyes. I am no longer centered in just one place and am slowly becoming a mixture of places.

    I also think my appreciation for different things happened because of travel. I now appreciate good friends, conversation, people’s stories and food so much more than I ever did!

    Sadly though, with travel I now am suffering from reverse culture shock at home and culture shock when I go abroud. Just like no place is perfect, I am now realising I don’t really *belong* in any one place. I am ready for the world and am most happy when I am on the road!

    • Woo-hoo, happy to hear! 😀 Can totally relate to becoming a mixture of places and learning how to appreciate new things. It’s a priceless feeling, isn’t it? The hardest part is actually convincing people to take that first leap of faith and travel — not just to some all-inclusive resort that keeps the locals away with fences but rather out into the nitty-gritty of local life. That is where the real experiences — and appreciation — begins.

      I feel the exact same way as you except I found a cure to my reverse culture shock: sell all my possessions and never return home. It’s a pretty strong prescription and not for everyone, however it worked for me. After all travel is severely addicting, as most of us now know.

      In fact if I had to pick a home right not it would be Indonesia. That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop traveling anytime in the next few years but rather that I can only visit a few countries before I start to miss Indonesia and it’s 17,508 islands just begging to be explored. Even visiting one a day it would still take 48 years to accomplish!

      And thanks for the positive comments about the photos however I’d like to think I have much better examples of my photography skills than the they ones included here. I was in a reminiscing mood and decided to use some old photos and some new 😉

      • I definatly appreciate that – sell everything and never return home. I will be doing this, about this time next year. I cannot now as I am in the last year of my degree. I told myself at the start of this year that I would commit to finishing it off and then I would travel. There’s a lot more you can do with a degree (ie. teaching english) and I decided to finish what I started.

        You are becoming a mixture and that’s fantastic!

        I like these photo’s because they tell a story. I feel like there are some amazing photo’s out there in way of composition, etc. but I prefer photo’s that tell a story myself.

  5. Woa! Ever so nicely done, Derek! I was expecting a somewhat cut ‘n dried list of fellow long-term traveler quotes (btw, I am humbled at the quotes of others here, and can only add, that we long-term travelers really are of a kindred spirit), but happily clearly not at all the case here.

    Love the way you wove the quotes among your own most thoughtful (I dare say, brilliant!) ruminations. Indeed, just goes to show that the lessons of true travelers are generationless – and you my dear, are clearly waaay ahead of the curve.

    I could go on ‘n on, but suffice my favorite among your many bits of travel wisdom here would have to be:

    ‘It is one thing to recite something you saw on the news but a completely different conversation to say, “well, yes this and that were correct but they have this wrong and here’s why…”’

    Sooo very true. That, and… that FABULOUS pic of you playing panjat pinang. Seriously. How perfectly does that depict the very essence of authentic travel? And oh my – especially when contrasted with the pic of that NYC penthouse. Enough said. 😉

    • Ooooohhhhh yeesssss, so happy to hear I didn’t write a boring, predictable, “cut ‘n dried” article. You just made my day Dyanna, thanks 😀 Also glad to hear that you not only agree with some of my points but that you can also relate to them. Hopefully this post will resonate equally well with those considering travel and serve to inspire/motivate others.

      I would ramble on here again but I’ve been on a motorcycle all day (traveling Vietnam) and don’t have the luxury of time right this second. Suffice to say we will be talking more again soon. Oh and thanks again for your input in the piece 🙂

    • It’s hard enough to properly explain how travel impacts you personally, let alone to try and illustrate it to others who have yet to experience the joy we’ve found. It’s like trying to describe the taste of a cheeseburger to an Aborigine or attempting to sing the alphabet in Mandarin — impossible! But I tried my best here.

      Very happy to have your input be a part of it, thanks Carol. And as you can tell of the many quotes I received (far more than I could properly fit into the article) yours was one of my favorites. Clear, concise and straight to the point but also with a leading sentence that just grabs you. After reading it you immediately have to know more. Why? How? Really…? Exactly why I put it first 😉

  6. Hahaha wow Tom I *literally* just spotted that and was adding in the “will” I thought preceded that statement right when you posted this comment. Crazy timing. But yes, you’re right….shame on me.

  7. Absolutely love this post my friend. What an amazing analysis of travel from all aspects of it and all views. The chime-ins from the other travelers is priceless and chock full of truth. Good on ya man, and keep the horizon unfolding ahead.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t want to do a simple (and rather boring) post about how travel changed me, I wanted to do something different that others could relate to. I especially love Dani’s comment about not needing medicine anymore. You can’t make this stuff up! Out of all the posts I’ve written thus far this year, I think it is my favorite. I’m also rather disappointed it didn’t get more of a reaction (in terms of comments or traffic). Guess I might have to share it again over Twitter / Google+ / Facebook and hopefully give it a a lil boost 🙂

  8. It’s kind of funny that I just stumbled across this article as I found myself thinking about so much of this whilst writing my last article. It was a great read, good job!

    Personally though, I think that the thing that changes the most for me when travelling is my distinction between what is black and white and right and wrong. I feel like when you’re in one place you grow up with a certain cultural mindset (albeit with some individualistic thought towards that mandset), but once you start travelling you see that every single place will have a slightly different way of approaching a topic and that just because you’ve learnt one thing one way it doesn’t necessarily make that way the best or right way. I was reading an article on how children are treated around the world recently for example, which showed that children can be anything from replaceable child soldiers to revered possessions, to protectors of the future which was interesting. I just find it so interesting to try and understand how other people think though and for what reasons too…

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Claudia, glad to hear. I wanted to take a different approach with this article and not have it be boring or just about me 🙂

      And yes, I completely agree with what you are saying about different viewpoints and the subsequent variance in mentality and perceptions. I would ramble on here but forgive me, I have a lot on my mind right now. I am currently locked up in an immigration detention center awaiting deportation. Why, you ask? Because of an angry tweet against Indonesia immigration that I deleted five minutes later — but not before someone took a screenshot and tweeted it to immigration. While they apparently have no problem locking up a foreigner who has spent the last year of his traveling career exploring Indonesia and praising this country, they ignore all the just complaints from their own citizens rallying for crackdown on corruption. In fact this is turning it a huge ordeal now online….there’s a tweetwar a-raging against kantor imigrasi and I’m doing interviews via phone while also trying to write my own article about this “Deported Because Of A Tweet: My Immigration Horror Story”

      • Just saw your reply Derek, sounds like you’re going through a bit of a nightmare at the moment, I’m so sorry to hear that! Have you been able to get in touch with your embassy to try and appeal the deportation? It’s crazy how some countries like to scapegoat foreigners for the smallest things. I hope you get out of this okay and if you need any support in any way, let me know. I may be halfway across the globe, but my thoughts are with you. Be careful!

  9. It’s gonna be my favorite post by far, makes me excited to be back on the road again, sleeping at different hostels, had random chats with people I dont even know their names.. haha. In December, I have to start my journey again, exploring SEA (Myanmar, Laos back to Cambodia, I miss the way local called me LADY haha, funny .. woohooo, I dont need any Visa to these countries and all by land again, digital nomad.. saying good bye to my Cats (it’s the hardest part I guess when the time comes, because I can’t text or talk with my cats on the phone 🙁 )

    Well, I agree with points on your article. I feel it. It doesnt matter where you go, once you live overseas, integrated with culture out there, you will never be the same again. You see your country is not in the same view again, I experienced it. After I left Indonesia for a long period of time (not only for few days / weeks holiday overseas), I become more open minded to the way foreigners see and judge my country, not being a blind nationalist when others criticized my country. If you never leave your comfort zone, you’d never see the comparison, you only see your small world. You’d never realize it that the world is BIG and sometimes, things that right in your country might be wrong for other cultures or customs. Long term travel make us being less judgmental.

    • So very very true Rahma. It doesn’t matter whether people go abroad for a few short trips or a yearlong RTW adventure, foreign travel changes people. It’s impossible to go back and see things as they were before.

      You know how some countries have mandatory military service? If I was in charge of a country it would have mandatory foreign travel!

      • haha, yes.. in Singapore, every S’porean son have this duty until they get old.. One of my friend went to NZ or Sumatra for this military service.. but, they are in military service Derek, not backpacking… no Girls… hahaha

      • A ha…
        I forgot I commented on the best piece of article here..
        Well, I apologize.. seems like I didnt connect with your statement, maybe I was just still shy at that time.. 😛
        ‘If I was in charge of a country it would have mandatory foreign travel!’ << LMAO .. True True… and with salary from government called 'Traveling Salary…'

  10. Awesome stuff Derek.
    I’m just coming across your site as I’m a little over 3 months deep teaching in South Korea.
    This goes to show I’ve got a lot of growing to do as a traveler; getting out of my box and experiencing more culture through locals, specifically.
    Looking forward to further reading of your work and adventures
    Colby

    • Hey Colby, my deepest apologies for the late response. Been crazy hectic. Anyway, when you say “deep” teaching in South Korea, you mean like teaching somewhere a little bit off the beaten path or just heavy workload?

      Oh yes indeed, long-term travel or expat life is a constant self-evolution. Your likes and needs change as you discover more about yourself, what makes you happy, what you dislike, what you witness in this world, and eventually what you want to do in this world. It is definitely a growing process. Phases. Almost like chapters in a book. But an experience that always makes you a better person. Cannot appreciate what you have until you see all the people who have nothing yet are still happy.

      Anyway, cheers, good to meet you and best wishes for the remainder of 2016 😀

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