In the dense morning air over the glimmering British countryside, we cascaded from the illuminating sky. The excitement built as the massive wheels of our British Airways flight released from below, then moments later landed with a thud as we skidded across the runway at Gatwick Airport, brakes now fully engaged. The feeling set in, and was immediate – something had changed within us.
Many have the fortune of traveling young in life, whisking away on European vacations with their family or jet-setting on a backpacking venture in South America in their formative years. We were not these two, having taken our first international trip as fully-formed adults now six years into our relationship.
Travel, for us, was a distant dream – something reserved for the financially independent or those free of responsibility.
Travel, for us, was a distant dream – something reserved for the financially independent or those free of responsibility. We knew nothing at the time of “travel hacking”, of budget flights or many of the tips and tricks we now use to make our venture around the world a reality. We had only each other, and a strong sense of wanderlust that had, until that moment, gone unrequited.
It was that first step off the plane, that first, fresh sniff of English air that filled us and ultimately changed us. Since then, everything has been about travel – every dime, every dollar and every spare moment built in the pursuit of a life of travel.
Now five years and more than twenty countries later, we look back on our first trip and talk often of how we’ve changed, and of how travel has made us the people we ultimately wanted to be. Travel is the ultimate expansive experience, because it gives you the ultimate opportunities to expand.
Take our first night in London, for example. As the sun waned on a Thursday afternoon, we found ourselves at The Red Lion, a posh, traditional pub directly across from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Westminster. Through the course of the night, we mixed and chatted with the locals, shared stories and more than a few pints. At the close of the night, we got into a fascinating discussion with two brilliant and hilarious women, both about our age, and both of whom mentioned they worked for the Foreign Office across the street. As we chatted about their jobs for a short time, one asked us flatly, “so, do you want to go on a tour, then?”
Mind you, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is the equivalent of the American Pentagon and the White House. Both the residence of the Prime Minister and numerous government offices, the FCO isn’t really open for tourist. Ever. It is, however, open for employees with a pass, who can bring up to one guest per person. Given the situation, we found ourselves stumbling along cobblestone paths leading to a massive entryway, where we were allowed onto the grounds with a guest pass attached to a lanyard, which we hung around our necks. We’ll never forget asking our new friend what the dancing shadows were atop the building and hearing her reply. “Oh, those? Just the guards…”
What awaited us was one of those irreplaceably expansive experiences, as we walked throughout the halls on our midnight tour, passing large rooms as our friends gave us backstories of famous speeches given, secret meetings in times of war, and even a glimpse through the thick back gate facing 10 Downing Street – the Prime Minister’s front door. It was our first night out of the country, and to this day the experience seems surreal.
Travel is a universal language that one must learn to speak, and this was a first lesson in a type of communication with the world that has left us changed. Sometimes, the adventure in learning to communicate is literal.
While in Peru, we had the pleasure of spending time in Cusco and fulfill a lifelong dream for both of us – to visit Machu Picchu. The experience of visiting such a grand, almost-mythical site was deeply moving, as we stood at the entry area above the ruins, snapped a few photos, and stole a moment to simply exist. It was if you could literally feel the passing of time and history blow through you with the breeze. We remembered the moments that brought us there, our first time reading The Heights of Machu Picchu by Pablo Neruda or a passive mention in a college history class about the Incas that blew our hair back. To experience it that day was the culmination of both of our wants of wanderlust truly mingling with the moment.
That night, we sat outside a small restaurant sharing a meal and having a few drinks while a local band played original songs in Spanish. Whether it was the band or the pisco sours, we aren’t sure, but soon we found ourselves in a conversation with the hostess working at the front of the establishment. Somehow the conversation became an opportunity for the three of us to challenge ourselves, as we conversed with her in our severely-broken Spanish and she responded with her growing knowledge of English. The chat lasted three hours, with neither of us relenting to the temptation to revert to our native language out of respect for the other. We told her of our dreams to see this beautiful place, and she told us of her life growing up in the quaint village and her dreams of one day traveling to the United States.
We told her stories from back home, and she shared with us stories from other locations in Peru and throughout South America – surely she had also traveled. As the last patrons left and we found ourselves the only remaining diners as brooms and trash cans began making their appearance in the outdoor sitting area, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.
It was our first opportunity to speak in another language with a native speaker in their own land, and though as rudimentary as our Spanish skills were, we were deeply honored by the opportunity that travel presented us once again. It gave us the courage to try again, and again, and to ultimately learn new languages and take new chances in new places.
Travel changes you in ways you cannot possibly imagine without experiencing it first-hand. Sometimes, your expectations of a place have nothing in common with the reality – both good and bad. We remember the anticipation of going to Paris, only to learn valuable lessons after being pick-pocketed and being generally stunned by a city we had built up in our minds as being something we failed to find. We remember the stunning vistas of Lisbon and the charm of the people, a city which we included on our itinerary initially as an also-ran. Travel doesn’t care about your preconceived notions, but in fact destroys them.
Through these adventures and so many more, we’ve learned to abolish expectations while appreciating everything, even the difficult experiences. We’ve met people, both rich and poor, that gave us perspective of the basic humanity that dwells within all of us, despite social tags. We’ve seen places, from the opulent to the destitute, that made us recognize that things don’t determine happiness. It’s a walk among ancient stone work, a street-side café with a glass of wine, a chat with a stranger in a foreign language or the beautiful coast of a remote island. We are indeed changed by travel, transformed, not as a finished product but as an every-flowing evolution of something that came from our former selves and calls to the next location, wondering what we will gain and hoping we can give something back.
Travel is transformative in ways you cannot possibly imagine without experiencing it first-hand.
It’s funny now, to look back at what we were before we traveled, how we viewed the world then and how we’ve discovered ourselves since that first landing in London. We’ve overcome fear (of flying, even), we’ve learned to appreciate what we have and who we are, and we’ve learned more about each other in the process. There’s simply nothing that brings a couple closer together than finding, and experiencing, one’s passion. When you share that passion, the world unfolds before you.
This is the impact of travel on us, but above all we know that the expansion is never finished. In every city and country, you leave a little piece of you and replace it with the vibration of that place. Travel teaches you compassion, love, fascination, and shows you the human spirit in its purest form. Over time, it’s true that we are all the sum of our experiences, and we know that the experiences in front of us will change us still.