Two Years On, What Have We Learned?

There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.

– Jawaharlal Nehru

Shy Indian Girls - Kerala, India
Some serious eyes. Kerala, India.

The second anniversary of the beginning of our travels passed in December. We use this milestone as an opportunity to answer the oft posed question: “What have you learned from this journey?

Although the following list contains a revelation or two, most items are re-affirmations of lessons that life had taught us previously, but whose importance we hadn’t yet fully realized. Unknown knowns, perhaps?

[Spoiler alert: No, we haven't yet figured out the meaning of life.]

Life Lessons after Two Years of Travel

1. Life’s common experience

If you are struggling with something in your life, take solace: chances are that there’s someone on the opposite side of the planet who struggles similarly. Our travels, the people we meet, their struggles and ours all bear this out.

2. Smile

Nelson Mandela used his brilliant smile to make his captors feel comfortable and to earn their trust. We don’t advocate goofy grins, but genuine smiles make a difference when engaging with others – especially when there is no shared spoken language. Remember, over 50% of communication is non-verbal.

Pamiri Young Women - Garm Chashma, Tajikistan
Smiles in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.

3. Sleep is nature’s remedy to heal the body and the mind.

Almost everything looks and feels better after a good night’s sleep.

4. The beauty in the familiar

One surprising side effect of having traveled to so many unusual places: we now tend to observe almost everything as wide-eyed tourists. Traveling has conditioned us to keep our eyes open to appreciate the beauty and value of the everyday, the mundane. We all love a beautiful, exotic temple, but even the grayest of cities evince a certain aesthetic that’s worth reflecting on – if you look at them through the right lens.

5. Two outfits can go a long way

To say it another way, we realize how little we really need. As we travel the world with backpacks, the lesson regarding the limitations of our material needs is retaught to us in so many ways by so many people.

6. The world is not a place for black and white

Us/them, with/against, good/evil. The world and its people live and breathe primarily in shades of gray. Discourse regarding the world’s challenges and opportunities would be more productive were it to follow suit.

Peace and Nuclear Bomb - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Dr. Strangelove, Kyrgyz style?

7. Earplugs are worth more than their weight in gold.

The chorus of babies, cats, dogs, and chickens rings loud in the wee hours in many of the places we’ve visited. Reach for a set of earplugs and enjoy the power of silence (see #3).

8. Plan with a goal in mind, but remain open to diversions on the way there.

It follows that it’s perfectly acceptable to never arrive at your original destination. Our most memorable experiences often happen on the way “there.” This is an application of the Dwight Eisenhower wisdom regarding planning and preparation: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Diving Cow, Trekking at Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan
The Divining Cow – Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan.

9. Walk there.

Another good one for mental and physical health. Walking also provides us a closer, more engaged relationship with people and our environment. It enables us to meet people and to see things we otherwise might have missed were we in a car. An entrepreneur we met in Pondicherry, India offered: “Many of the world’s great leaders were walkers.” We haven’t researched to confirm this, but far-fetched it’s not.

10. Long-term travel as an investment in yourself.

At the very beginning of our trip, an Afghan man we’d met in Bangkok suggested, “You are making an investment in yourself with this journey.” Words of wisdom and comfort when things aren’t going our way on the road or when doubt seeps in about the future.

Honorable Mention:

The versatility of condensed milk. Some may argue that condensed milk – the condiment of kings, the dressing of divinity – deserves more than an honorable mention. After all, what other product sweetens oatmeal and coffee while topping rock solid bread in moments of desperation? OK, maybe honey. We’re not talking haute cuisine here, but a tube of condensed milk can go a long way for the nomad.

Smiling Kid with Condensed Milk - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Condensed milk and smiles. Two of our favorite things.

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Comments

  1. says

    Just discovered your website and wanted to say that this is a fantastic write-up! Best of luck in your future travels!

    Cheers,
    -Mike

  2. says

    What beautiful pictures! I just stumbled upon your blog today, and love it. This is a part of the world I know so little about – thanks for sharing. I am more focused on Africa, but someday hope to visit every continent. Come visit my blog, especially the earlier ones for stories on Africa. Since I haven’t been on a trip for a while, I’ve been slightly distracted by decluttering the home, living frugally, and New Year’s resolutions… But I’ll be back on the road, this time Ethiopia, this time next week.

  3. says

    You know, people laugh at me because I’m all, “LONG UNDERWEAR CAN NOT BE OVERVALUED.” So I’m happy to see your “EARPLUGS ARE WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD” item. It’s one of those things you learn the hard way, by, for example, freezing your @$$ off in Halong Bay when it’s supposed to be a lot warmer but there’s some crazy wind from China, or when for the love of god, WHEN WILL THE HONKING STOP?!

    Love, love, love your blog, still.

  4. says

    Earplugs certainly are worth their weight in gold or any other precious metal/substance of your choice. An eyemask is good too, but a sock can work in a pinch. Difficult to improvise earplugs safely though! Love the writing, and surely will be back. I came here from nerdseyeview’s twitter feed, if you were wondering.

  5. says

    This picture is divine and the girls adorable. Where in the world will you go next? To have the freedom to even think about this let alone do it is one of the most rewarding things about travel.
    No matter where you go, your stories and pictures will continue to bring joy to those who only dream of adventure.
    Safe travels, can’t wait to see where you decide to go next.

  6. says

    Audrey and Daniel, we here at the Underground continue to amaze at all you’ve experienced, captured for others, and continue to teach. Yes, teach! If only more folks would learn what you’ve picked up so far.

    I continue to enjoy traveling because of what it teaches me, not because of who I get to lecture to during my trips. Lance Armstrong says, “It’s not about the bike,” and I paraphrase, “It’s not about the trip (or the money).”

    Keep bringing us your wonderful photos and stories. And of course, your insights…

  7. says

    @Planet Perspectives, Mike, eileen, Gillian, Lola, Sharan: thanks for the wishes, compliments and tips. Happy travels.

    @pam: Long underwear definitely joins the list of the great underappreciated. “When will the honking stop?” – this one is possibly a philosophical question for the ages, or at least the modern age.

    @Cate: Where next? Good question, and one we hope to answer soon, with the help of our poll (top righthand side of our website).

    @Mitchell: Thank you. Teaching is the journey.

  8. says

    Just catching up on your blog. This post was beautiful, thought provoking and made me laugh several times. I had no idea sweetened condensed milk was so popular in other parts of the world. Brazilians consume it to its excess. Number 8 is the perfect travel advice. I have also never known the power of a smile and laughter until I lived abroad in a foreign place with an unfamiliar language. Blessings in this new year!!

  9. says

    @Lori: I thought of your condensed milk post when we added the honorable mention. It is amazing how far a smile can go when there is no common spoken language. True, you can’t discuss politics or philosophy, but a lot can be communicated through gestures and facial expressions. Great practice for charades as well!

  10. Allegra says

    When I was a PC volunteer in Senegal, we found very creative ways to use condensed milk. With the sweetened version, put a little oil in a small pot, put in a whole can milk, and cook it until it turns into chewy caramel. This is what the Senegalese women would do, and then they’d sit outside the school and sell these sweet caramel balls to the children.

  11. says

    @Allegra: I love condensed milk stories and how it is used around the world – yes, I’m a bit of a condensed milk fan :)

    In Central and South America I believe they do something similar with cooking a can of condensed milk so that it becomes brown and gooey (like dulce de leche). The caramel balls in Senegal sound like they’d melt in your mouth. Yum!

  12. Shawn says

    Wow, what a beautiful site and stories. I’ve been meaning to take a long trip myself but wanted to ask you, was it difficult convincing yourself to leave job, money, etc behind and hit the road instead? I guess, I feel myself chickening out and need some motivation…

    Happy Travels,

    Shawn

  13. says

    @Shawn: You hit the nail on the head regarding the hardest part of long-term travel: making the decision to actually doing it. We talked about traveling around the world for years before we handed in our resignation notices and made it real. It’s so easy to convince yourself to put it off for the future or get talked out of it by “practical” friends and family.

    Many people thought we were crazy to leave our “ideal” lives in Prague, Czech Republic. But we didn’t want to look back 5 or 10 or 20 years from now with regret; the risk of “what if” was a big motivating factor. Now that we’re on the road, we face different risks and do have uncertainties about our professional and financial future, but we have no regrets about our decision to leave and explore the rest of the world.

    Good luck with your decision and let us know if you need some more motivation!

  14. scout says

    We enjoyed reading about your journey and look forward to more. My fiance and I talked endlessly about taking a year off to travel, and finally we just did it. Spain, Portugal, Malta, all of Africa we were allowed to visit, and Southeast Asia, travelling by local transport and walking (except for the flight to SE Asia). Brilliant, life-changing, addictive. At the end of it we stepped right back into our old life here in the U.S., but the lure of the road is a constant undercurrent to every long-term decision we make, always there to make us hesitate settling down.

    Everyone is so shocked that we had no hotel reservations and there is a general sense of fear involved. We had no scary situations (just some eerie stuff and warnings in Zimbabwe that came to nothing), but we also used common sense. We met so many lovely people and travellers as well, who continue to keep in touch with us four years later.
    Safe journey to you both!

  15. says

    @scout: Thank you for a very kind and thoughtful comment. Anyhow, as you can imagine, we completely understand all of your feelings and sentiments: the lure of the road, leaving yourself open to experiences without making advance reservations, discerning unwarranted fear from valid concern, and valuing common sense.

    And safe travels to you!

  16. says

    I find your travels to be inspiring! We have been viewing your blog as a resource in helping us build confidence and plan our journey around the world. Safe travels!

  17. says

    Sorry, yet another late response from me. Just discovered your blog yesterday but I’m thoroughly enjoying your stories already. I agree on everything especially the condense milk bit – grew up drinking that with milo and hot water. Mmm mmm!

  18. says

    I know this was posted about a year ago, but I just wanted to let you guys know that your photos are amazing. Especially the first one on this post. How on Earth did you get these?

  19. says

    @Lindsey: Thank you! We really enjoy taking them…especially of people. The broader story on how we get these photos: we just walk the streets. We also have a lot of conversations. After those conversations are over, we ask to take photos. The first photo was taken in Kochin / Cochin in Kerala, India. The mesmerizing young woman in the middle was obviously incredible and unusual (how about that pose??). All we did was talk to them and snap the shutter a few times. We are just now finishing reviewing all of our photos from India. What a spectacularly photogenic place — particularly the people.

  20. says

    I actually just came across your blog today and happened to be drawn to this particular post. As someone who has also been traveling around for many years, I really appreciated this list. #8 is something I feel is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned. Being open to changing the course of your life is vital in order to avoid being restricted by one plan. The Eisenhower quote is perfect!

    I’m looking forward to exploring your site even further!

  21. says

    @Earl: Glad you enjoyed the list and found it pertinent. The Eisenhower quote was actually one that I remembered from my management consulting days. There are some nuggets of wisdom that transcend all. This to my mind is one of them.

  22. Ozofu says

    Hello Audrey and Daniel
    This is beautiful! Love it. But most importantly nos 2 -smile and 6-The world is not a place for black and white got me more interested in reading. The pictures are nice too!
    Thank you for sharing.
    Wishing you the best 2010

  23. says

    @Ozofu: Late reply here, but thank you so much for the wonderful comment. I’m with you — my favorites are “smile” and “shades of gray”…a mantra for world tolerance.

  24. says

    Fantastic impressions! I love traveling, and recently got back from a trip to Philippines, and so much of what you wrote echoes my feelings. Especially the part about how traveling makes you view everything through the eyes of a traveler. Totally! When you’re traveling you notice every little detail and nuance, and together those details all form the depth of the beauty you experience. But most people going through the motions of their regular routine tune out most of what is goig on around them. Whenever I start to fall back into that mode traveling is the perfect antidote!

  25. says

    @Paul: You are so right how travel tunes your observational skills and ability to notice and appreciate the little things. Then, you want to question and understand why things are the way they are. We find that when we return to the States and spend time with family/friends we are still in the travel mode of pointing everything out.

  26. says

    Enjoyed your list — and especially how it covers the mundane to the profound! But I have to say, I’m so glad you mentioned #6: The world is not a place for black and white. You can get so much more out of your travels — and life! — by being open, curious, respectful and non-judgemental towards people and their culture. When you think you’re right, you shut yourself off from the myriad of colours of the world.

  27. says

    @Mariellen: I couldn’t agree more with your comment about taking to travel (and life) by being open, curious, respectful and non-judgmental. It’s amazing the nuances and stories you’ll learn in the process of being open and listening. So enriching.

  28. Lutzi says

    I am just reading a book from Thorsten Havener. So I found your site. I wish a good life for you and a stabil condition. What was the nicest place, you have visited?

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