Anyone in my family will tell you that when I was little, I was exceptionally goal-oriented.
1. Become Princess Buttercup by osmosis. 2. Become rich and famous as a ballerina, actress, or singer. 3. Travel to all 50 states and all seven continents before I die. You won’t be shocked to learn that the last of the three proved to be the most attainable—turns out, I was too fascinated with cutting my hair short to ever approach Buttercup status, and my stint as an extra on an episode of Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place was less of a big break and more a bragging right that faded along with memories of middle school. When it came to traveling, though, I was on the path to fulfilling my goal from a young age. By the time I was five, I’d traveled to Canada and the Dominican Republic. By 10, I’d been to Spain, Mexico, and multiple countries in Southern Africa. By 15, Greece and Belize. And now, at 21, I’ve been to Qatar, South Africa, 11 more countries in Europe, and 34 U.S. states. I’ve racked up a pretty impressive list for someone of my age and financial means—it’s not like I’m royalty (cc: the real Princess Buttercup).
“Nothing mattered more to me than having the ability to say I’d ‘been’ places.”
As a little kid, it didn’t matter to me if I stayed in one place for an hour or for a month. I don’t even remember my drive through Georgia, and yet it’s still on my list. As long as I had set foot somewhere, I’d “been” there. And nothing mattered more to me than having the ability to say I’d “been” places. In third grade, I nearly got into a fistfight with a classmate who claimed to have beaten my record, saying she’d been to 35 states. At age 11, a dream trip of mine was to visit the Four Corners so that I could knock out Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, all at once. I would try to scheme my parents into “quick,” “little,” spontaneous road trips from our home in San Diego to Oregon or New Mexico, greedily hoarding destinations in my box of life experiences. Once I’d been to a place, it was like it ceased to exist in my mind—the thought of revisiting somewhere that I’d already been seemed wildly inefficient if I wanted to keep up with my goals. Before, travel was about crossing places off of a list and never looking back.
“I caught myself lusting after the ability to lay claim to a bunch of different countries rather than lusting after the ability to get to know one or two places really well.”
The crescendo of this juvenile impulse to collect places like trophies came during the first semester of my sophomore year of college, when I studied abroad in the Netherlands. This was the most popular study abroad opportunity offered by my alma mater, as it involved a hundred or so co-eds living together on a campus owned and operated by our school for a semester. At “the Castle,” as it’s called, classes are held Monday to Thursday, leaving long weekends for travel. And don’t get me wrong, romping around Amsterdam one weekend, Paris the next, with Florence to follow was in many ways a dream come true for which I’ll always be grateful—not to mention, the semester was a real lesson in navigating foreign transit under pressure (learning how to count to 10 in German saved me from boarding the wrong train out of Düsseldorf in a pinch). But after three months of zipping around so fast that I could hardly catch a breath, I realized that, other than drowning in homework, all I did that semester was dip my toes into some of the world’s most famous cities just to cross them off my list. Vienna? Yup. Zürich? You bet. Brussels? Absolutely. Venice? For three hours. It left me feeling oddly unfulfilled.
While the semester was an incredible opportunity to see a lot of Europe in a relatively short amount of time, I caught myself lusting after the ability to lay claim to a bunch of different countries rather than lusting after the ability to get to know one or two places really well, and that bothered me. Hardly any of us who participated in the program, for instance, learned how to speak Dutch beyond “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” I didn’t make Dutch friends, or friends from any of the cities that I dropped into, sometimes only for an afternoon. I came away from that semester with a notebook full of check marks next to the names of countries, but little sense of cultural growth. It was the kind of travel that, on paper, sounds impressive and enriching, but winds up mushing together in a mass at the bottom of a backpack, indistinguishable from crumpled receipts and bus tickets written in languages I don’t speak, from places I don’t remember. Ten-year-old me would have been thrilled; 19-year-old me was longing for more.
“My journey toward maturity has been just as much about letting go of the travel-as-conquest idea as it has been about fumbling through tax returns or graduating college.”
I was fortunate enough to have a second study abroad experience, this time in South Africa. It was this trip that helped me see what it could feel like to connect with someplace while traveling: while I only visited South Africa with a small school group for three weeks, it felt infinitely more immersive than my entire semester in Europe. The emphasis during this trip was not at all about squeezing as many destinations as possible into our few weeks—we only visited two cities while we were there—but instead about squeezing scholars, activists, students, artists, dances, meals, laughs, outdoor markets, performances, and local home visits into our time there. Three brilliant weeks in South Africa made me hungry for more travel just like it, where I am given (or I give myself) the space to feel truly present in one destination.
As a young child, I had an insatiable desire to discover; what fueled me most was chasing the new. And it’s not that I’ve lost that sensibility—it’s that I’ve shifted and expanded. I still chase the new, but I’m wise enough now to see that the new is all around us, and that new can be found in old. Since my return to the States from South Africa a little over a year ago, I’ve been yearning to revisit every place I’ve already been, to retrace my steps, to learn something more from each one. My journey toward maturity has been just as much about letting go of the travel-as-conquest idea as it has been about fumbling through tax returns or graduating college.
I see now that there’s always something to be discovered, whether I’m visiting a place for the first time or the 20th. Allowing myself to find newness, to embrace surprise, to seek joy in any place that I find myself—from a whole new continent to the bodega down the street—satisfies those childish desires for adventure more than crossing anything off a list.