If you were to make a list of all the cliché things that “Girls Who Travel” do, I would probably check every box: I took a year off between high school and college to backpack and work odd jobs through six different countries, I had an Instagram and Pinterest full of quotes and photos from my travels and other peoples’ (and yes, I considered myself an amateur photographer), I used “journal” as a verb and would use every possible break in my studies as an opportunity to jet off wherever I could afford. And when I graduated, I strategically avoided anything resembling a 9-to-5, because my goal was to save up as much as I could serving and tutoring Spanish for six months, then spend the next six months traveling in low cost-of-living countries and slowly working through my savings. I was definitely the Girl Who Travels.
But probably the most defining characteristic of that persona was my privilege. Yes, my privilege. It’s only now, two years into a more real “career” and the start of a life that I’m not constantly jetting away from to have some kind of adventure, that I can admit how much of my nomad lifestyle came from my privilege. My family wasn’t and isn’t super-rich, but we were well off enough that they paid for all of my college and housing so I took on no debt, I could always go live with them when I wanted to save money or not get a new place just yet, and they bailed me out on more than one occasion. (When I got a bad infection while traveling through Turkey, they paid all of my extensive and unexpected medical bills, and paid to put me in a hotel for a week and get me a new flight when I was well enough to go home.)
I understand that this might seem like a crazy level of spoiled, and it probably is, but you also have to understand that, as it was happening, it seemed normal. Of course they would bail me out, I was their daughter. Of course I could go live there, it was financially-smart. Of course they paid for all my college and related expenses, that’s what they saved the money for. And most of the people I met while traveling and living that life came from similar backgrounds, so my level of privilege seemed normal in comparison, even low. I met a lot of people who had “real” money, and who could travel in relative luxury, in countries where the cost of living was super-high.
Ultimately, spending a total of seven years off and on (from 18 to 25) traveling and living a nomadic lifestyle is something I regret, partly because of those very people I was surrounded by. Wherever I went, almost by necessity, I was in a kind of bubble. I could be in a very impoverished country, and my traveling/ex-pat friends would still have flawless Instagrams. Everyone was trying to be a photographer (and thought they had the most amazing travel pictures in the world), or they were trying to be a writer, and wanted to write a novel about the experience. It was a very homogenous social group, even though the places I was going were so diverse.
And I also was a drain on my parents much longer than I should have been, because what should have been my emergency fund was constantly getting drained to pay for my next however-many-months of travel. When I would come back to the country, I’d have to live with them for 1-2 months each time while I got enough money together to put a deposit on a place and cover the moving costs. They loved having me there and spending time with me, but it’s a room they could have been renting out on Airbnb (which they did sometimes, they live in a big-ish city and it’s a good way for them to make extra money), and I know that they could often resent the fact that I took their home as such a given.
Again, there were people who were way better off than me, whose parents would just cut them check after check to get whatever they needed and make their transitions easier. I wasn’t at this level, but I had enough of a safety net that I was often inhibited from growing and taking responsibility for myself. I was able to embrace the “adventure” because there was never any real risk to it. I would even be the kind of person who would talk about how it was a “shame” when people didn’t travel the world, even when I knew on some level that that isn’t financially feasible for so many people.
I learned a lot of amazing things while traveling, and some of the lessons and the experiences I’m genuinely grateful for, and know they couldn’t have happened in any other way, or at any other time in my life. But there is a lot of travel that I could have done in a more sustainable way. For example, I was always so overwhelmed with the process of visas and getting jobs in new countries that I never actually got real paperwork to stay for more than a few months. I could have built a life that was more “real” in several countries I visited, and lived there long-term and actually built some financial stability, but I was either too lazy or too easily frustrated to do the prep work it would require. Now I’m looking into doing that through my current industry, but we’ll see how it ends up. Actually becoming a “real” immigrant is much, much harder than being a “traveler,” as you might imagine.
I also think that the benefits I got from a lot of my experiences are in some ways outweighed by the fact that it allowed me to live a more prolonged adolescence, emotionally and financially. I wasn’t growing into the person I needed to be with my family and friends, and I wasn’t forming healthy or potentially long-lasting relationships with men, because I was deliberately living a life where everything was temporary. The temporary nature of everything gave me comfort, and made me feel like I couldn’t make any real mistakes.
Now, I’m learning to live life in a slower, more methodical way. It’s a lot of delayed gratification, which I don’t always love, and my photo game has taken a serious hit. But overall I’m pretty happy to be doing what I’m doing, and I’m looking forward to actually treating my parents to some stuff this year for once. I am starting to feel like an adult, and my view on travel is developing into something that is different, but still very meaningful. I have an exciting year ahead of me, even if I never leave the country.