Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reflecting on Three Years of Travel

Oxford, just after I arrived in 2009.
Three years ago today, I landed in England for the first time with my suitcases and a stomach full of fear and apprehension. I had never traveled on my own before, never been to Europe, never lived abroad, nothing. I remember getting off the plane and wandering around Heathrow as anxiety welled up within me. My phone wasn't working despite the preparations I'd made beforehand. I didn't know how to get to the tube stop where I'd be meeting my cousin who had been living in London. What was the difference between the rail and the underground anyway? I called my father from a pay phone in a panic. He didn't pick up. Neither did my aunt. I was stuck. I was alone. But though I didn't realize it at the time, this feeling of discomfort, of anxiety, would soon become an addiction.

Today, looking back, it's hard to even remember the feeling of terror that pervaded me that day. I was such a different person back then, filled with hopes and desires of the young adult I'd like to become, but still falling short. I knew I had it in me to be adventurous, to be outgoing, to be courageous (read: kind of insane most of the time). How these years have changed me.

After hanging up the phone for the last time, hopeless that anyone back home would be able to help me, I made the decision that would come to define the years since: I'd have to buck up and figure it out on my own. And how that realization has come back again and again, whether it's been finding an unconventional job for after graduation, figuring out how to navigate complex organizations like Google, or landing in a new country for the first time without knowing anyone or how to speak the language. It's amazing the things we can do when we have no other options. The addiction has been putting myself in those situations and finding out that that maxim holds true every time.

Since that fateful day three years ago, my life has transformed monumentally: I've lived on 3 continents, traveled through 30+ countries, made some truly extraordinary friends in some of the strangest places, and learned more about myself and what I'm capable of than I ever dreamed before.

Some time ago, I read a study showing that people who had traveled demonstrated more out-of-the-box thinking. They were more creative, less held down by the restrictions of their small spheres of the world. If my personal experience has taught me anything, it's that I am far less bounded by the expectations and norms that society creates for me. One of my favorite cartoons from xkcd (currently hanging on my wall) talks about this problem: "The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have in uncountable... And no, I don't have all the answers. I don't know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become." And alas, neither do I, but it's something I aspire to, and all the travel has been one hell of a start.

2 comments:

Carolina Rommel said...

Ben Cole,
When I met you (that fateful day in St Edmund Hall) in 2009 I had at least 13 countries on you, now I am behind by at least 7. I must catch up!! Ha ha ha

You are such an amazing person and I am so grateful to know you, call you a friend and to have added a few stamps in our passports together :)

Benjamin Cole said...

That fateful day, which will be three years ago this Sunday. :-) I'll actually be back there to commemorate the anniversary. So grateful to have gotten to know you too, and hopefully we'll get the chance to accrue a few more stamps in our passports together!