On a Thursday in the spring of 1986, I took an 8560-kilometer journey that would change my life forever.
It was a confusion of sights, sounds and smells. I slept a lot and cried a lot, as the world whirled past my car window, then an airplane window, then another airplane window. It felt like a journey that would never end (and in a way, it never has).
There’s only one problem with the above account: it’s completely made-up. I can’t remember any of it. At the age of just three months old, I travelled from Seoul, Korea to Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Just a tiny scrap of life in a white blanket going on a life-changing adventure, heading to a new life in a new country with a new family. It’s funny how journeys can be life-changing, even though you’re not aware of it at the time.
Little did I know, that this journey also marked the start of a life of travel, a way of living rather than an interruption from it – and each single journey has shaped me into the person I am today.
Growing up in a stable, supportive and caring home came with a life of opportunities. In 2002, my parents took me on a trip to Thailand. It was my first trip to a non-western country. From the moment I stepped out of Bangkok airport and felt that intense, tropical heat, Thailand held me under her spell. The chaos, the carnival of unfamiliar smells, sounds and colors, the temples and shrines… I was completely captivated. We traveled throughout the country visiting the tropical beaches in the south, the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi, and the night markets in Chiang Mai. We even visited a remote Karen ‘long neck’ village in the Mae Hong Son province. We tried all sorts of fascinating (spicy!) food, learned how to bargain and had a traditional Thai massage.
This is the point where I fell in love with travel. Simple every-day events in life are often treated as throwaway. They are forgotten. It’s the things that we are super-aware of, that we fall in love with. During this journey, I absorbed every little detail. No single day was the same. Travel made me feel alive. It excited me, gave me a feeling of adventure and every day I learned new things. Travel gave me the chance to get to know the world a bit better.
From that moment on, travel became my passion. I read travel guides, looked at maps and dreamed about new trips. I started to collect free travel brochures from travel agencies and I could talk about travel for hours without getting bored (although my conversation partner may have been).
And of course, I traveled (a lot!). I did a 4-week homestay in remote Innermongolia in China, spent two weeks as a volunteer in Tokyo to dig a pond in their bird park, boarded the Transmongolian Express, traveled along the ancient Silk Road, backpacked all throughout Southeast Asia (twice), hiked to Machu Picchu and explored Eastern and Southern Africa. I became experienced in hitchhiking, border runs, bucket showers, camel rides, hole in the ground toilets, food poisoning (unfortunately) and lenghty bus rides. I even went back to where it all began -back to my roots- and visited Korea a few times.
Every single journey challenged my intellect, changed perspectives and broadened my mind. I won’t say that all these journeys transformed me into a completely different person. And I’ve never been on a trip to ‘find myself’ or whatever that means. Let’s just say, travel contributed little (positive) bits and things to the person I am today.
Here is how:
- I became more independent, self-sufficient and confident. Years of solo travel learned me how to cope with difficult, unexpected situations and ‘to get sh*t done’ on my own.
- I became grateful for freedom of speech, democracy, education, medical care etc. and realized that these things should not be taken for granted.
- I learned about culture, history, religion and geography by ‘experiencing it’. I smelt the fumes of an active volcano in Ethiopia, joined a group of pelgrims in their prayers in underground mosques in Kazakhstan, learned about the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and marveled at the pyramids in Egypt and Sudan.
- I became more compassionate, understanding and tolerant by seeing and meeting so many different types of lives in the world.
- I learned that -despite different cultures, skin color, language- we are all not so different. We are all humans. There are jokes and laughter everywhere in the world. We all experience sorrow and grief. And we all have have the same dreams of being happy, being safe, being successful or exploring the globe.
- I learned humans are inherently good. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the place, I would always meet kindness and hospitality on the road.
The journey has never ended, and sometimes I still feel like that tiny baby in that white blanket, struggling to understand what’s flying past my window as I head towards somewhere new. I wish I could remember more of those early days – but we get what we’re given, and I’m grateful.
Journeys have played a crucial role in my life and I hope this continues to be so. Travel makes me a better person. So I think I’ll keep going for a while longer – just to see what’s at the end of that next plane ride.
For this article Bunch of Backpackers teamed up with ‘The Journey’, an original podcast from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. ‘The Journey’ tells true stories in a cool and original way, about people who lives has been transformed by travel. You can meet the extraordinary people of The Journey Podcast here. My favorite is episode no. 2 about how a trip to Kenya led to a career in stand-up comedy :)