Why you should travel in your twenties

Just the other day I read an article being shared on social media explaining why millennials should not spend the early years of their twenties travelling the globe. Now let me start by saying that while I’m not opposed to hearing all sides of any story and love a good discussion with opposing views, I somehow seem to feel that there are so many confused perceptions out there. So many people believe that it’s near impossible to travel the globe and still be able to save for a future home, pay off debt and create a pension fund. To them, traveling for a year or two in your early twenties is a way to find a momentary sense of purpose in the world. Wanderlusters are portrayed as whimsical millennials that are more concerned with chasing fleeting experiences around the globe rather than locking down more serious responsibilities like finding a stable job and saving for retirement.

That really is the furthest thing from the truth!

Sure, we all love to say that we were brave enough to pack our suitcases and buy a one way ticket to somewhere unknown but there really is more to leaving home than just exploring. It doesn’t for one minute mean we aren’t aware of our personal responsibilities too.

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Dotonbori Street, Osaka

One of the most important lessons I learnt in the last two and a half years of traveling through China is the difference between gaining life experiences and accumulating things. After graduating with a Master of Science cum laude degree in Environmental Microbiology, instead of adulting like so many others, I left. While most of my friends had already taken to finding stable jobs, getting married and having kids, I was mentally drained. I had spent the last two years conducting research in a laboratory, analyzing results, presenting findings at conferences and mentoring students whilst simultaneously doing everything in my power to ensure I followed every research protocol out there, only to realize in the end that not everybody wants to change the world and make it a better place like I did. In the end all I got was two published papers, a dissertation and a Master’s degree. Don’t get me wrong, I was more than grateful for having accomplished what so many others may never have the opportunity to do but the truth is, I wanted more and I wanted to do more.

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The Great Wall of China

They say everything happens for a reason and I am a firm believer of that. I won’t lie and say finding a job in South Africa is easy. In fact it’s pretty damn difficult and it’s not uncommon for post graduate students to sit around for a year or two before being offered any kind of position. It took months before I was even offered anything remotely science-related and as grateful as I was for those job offers, I knew deep down that I wanted more. I wanted to make a difference in the world and I wanted to see the world.

So instead, of waiting for the right job, I completed a TEFL course that enabled me to teach English as a Foreign Language overseas. I accepted a paying job to teach English and Chemistry at a high school in a city I have never heard of before that was located in the south of China. I sold my car and used that money, along with what was left over from my scholarships to fund my trip. This way I would be able to support myself financially while still getting a chance to travel and see the world, hopefully making a one-on-one difference in the lives of others.

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The Ancient City Walls, Xian

What I didn’t expect was to learn so much about myself in the process.

From the moment I landed, my mental strength was put to the test. My luggage somehow did not arrive with me and I couldn’t speak of word of Chinese. With the help of a stranger and my family back home, I managed to communicate with the airline desk and locate my luggage. As time went by, I quickly learnt to read body language and interpret tonal meaning and eye language. As a female, now traveling solo, I learnt to be more vigilant about my surroundings and who to trust. I also learnt to love. No, I didn’t fall in love and have some kind of international love affair but I did fall in love with my life. I loved waking up in the morning to the quiet solitude of my own apartment and making a cup of coffee. I loved decorating my apartment with little trinkets I picked up at the markets. I loved sitting on my bed with a sketch pad and drawing what I saw and I loved planning weekend trips to neighboring cities I had never heard of.

More importantly, I loved my students. What started out as basic Chemistry and English classes soon turned into lessons about life and literature where I got to share my experiences and impart some of the wisdom I had gained over the years. I loved teaching my students and sharing things about the world because I knew that for many of them, they had never left (and most likely will never leave) the communist country of China.

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Cemetery at Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto

Sure, there were days that it was pretty damn tough. I couldn’t have a conversation with anybody outside of the school I worked in because nobody spoke English. Traveling on weekends and still maintaining a job where I had to prepare for A-level chemistry classes was not easy either. In fact, at times, it was mentally draining. But like anywhere and with anything, you’ve got to sink or swim. Stay or leave.

I wasn’t ready to return to the monotony of home yet. I kept in contact with my family in South Africa on a daily basis even though there was a six hour time difference.  I also saved a portion of my salary so that I could not only buy a plane ticket in case of an emergency but also so that I would have some money left to support me when I did decide to return home.

During my second year in China I moved to the capital city of Beijing. While I still continued to travel and teach, this was when I became more aware of my personal responsibilities. I started putting a portion of my salary away every month into a pension fund. I saved an additional portion of money so that I would be able to pay for my plane ticket back home. I saved a third portion for a rainy day. In addition to my travel insurance, I ensured that I had health insurance in case of medical emergencies. I moved all my savings back home into an investment account so that it would earn a higher interest rate while I wasn’t in South Africa.

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Jiumenkou, China

I started a blog. That was one of the best things I could have ever done because what started as a way to share my travel experiences soon turned into a place for me to learn a new skill while at the same time, allowing me to keep on online journal of everything I was experiencing around the world. This soon went from an online travel journal to a place where I could inspire and reach out to others all around the world. Since I had no web design experience and no one to guide me, I took to good old YouTube with a cup of coffee late at night to learn as much as I could. I can’t even begin to tell you many late nights I spent (and continue to spend) working on page designs, html plug-ins, figuring out SEO and affiliate marketing in addition to writing content. Truth be told, I still don’t know as much as I need to but my knowledge is steadily growing and I’m even more excited to learn. I’m by no means claiming that this blog is a fully-fledged business making me hundreds of dollars but after working on it for close to three and a half years, it is only now starting to trickle in some form of passive income. Fair enough, it isn’t even enough to buy me a new suitcase let alone fund any plane ticket but it is steadily growing and that in itself cannot be a bad thing.

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Shenzhen, China

Sure, I don’t have a house or mortgage to pay off as yet and perhaps I’m nowhere near to being married with kids and settling down but I do believe that those things will happen in its own time.  I chose to spend two and a half years abroad because I wanted to experience the world before I laid down my roots. I didn’t want to see the world for a few days and then go back home. I wanted to live in it for a few months. I wanted to walk alongside Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to hike to the tenth tower of the Great Wall and then hike along the other sections too. I wanted to eat street food in Japan and feel the history of Hiroshima. I wanted to be alone in a world full of people and leave pieces of what I stood for in the hearts of the people I met. I wanted the places I visited to shape me and show me their secrets and I wanted to do all this while I was still young. Does that mean I was chasing fleeting experiences across the globe and running from my personal responsibilities? No. Perhaps it wasn’t the standard conventional way of doing things but somehow I found a way to take care of my responsibilities while still following my dreams of traveling. I learnt more about the world than I could ever have learnt from a textbook and more than that, I learnt more about myself than I ever could have if I had never left my front door.

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Hi World! I'm Shal - an environmental microbiologist, writer, teacher and artist from Durban, South Africa. I've spent the last two years traveling and teaching Chemistry and English to young kids in Asia. Life of Shal was founded as a way to share travel experiences, tips and other worldly magic with you! Join me on my journey!

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