Throughout my life, I’ve experienced two very different means of travel. The first approach, traveling in a bubble, is enjoyable for sure; the bubble has allowed me to create a sense of home and familiarity, and to skirt the inevitable discomforts of visiting a foreign country. But this is problematic, too. By staying within the bounds of comfort, we are ultimately sacrificing what makes travel so special in the first place. Sure, we’re comfortable, but what meaningful experiences and knowledge are we really gaining?
When I think about the travel bubble in my own life, the first experiences that come to mind are the cruises I’ve taken with my family. With six kids, ranging from late twenties to five, cruises are an easy way to make sure everyone is happy. That said, every time I’ve been on a cruise, what’s struck me is how, although I was across the world, everything felt suspiciously the same. We were sheltered and made comfortable, but never once was my perspective altered or my imagination sparked.
The other approach to travel I’ve experienced is when I’ve actively tried to burst the bubble. The thing about travel that I realized during my gap year is that as we venture around the world, we spend fleeting moments in each place we go and with each encounter we have. Traveling out of the bubble means letting ourselves be open to these moments–making friends with other travelers and locals, trying new foods, doing things we would never normally do. Traveling in this way can be scary, but it’s also freeing– we can reinvent ourselves in any way we like and completely and wholeheartedly embrace the places we visit.
Recently, I got to do just that, on my spring break trip to Thailand and Bali. Arriving at the Phuket airport alone, my senses were immediately overwhelmed. As I rode through the busy streets in a tuk tuk at 2 AM, I felt as if I was in a dream. Motorbikes sped past me with whole families hanging onto the backs, and neon lights flashed from storefronts. Even though it was late, loud music was blaring, stands were set up on the side of street selling meat, and the sidewalks were alive with people. Dizzy and delirious with exhaustion, I looked around and realized that I hadn’t felt like such an outsider in a long, long time.
As the trip progressed, I felt an awkward balance between staying inside the travel bubble and breaking through it. On the one hand, my friends and I were staying in beautiful airbnbs and being driven around in private vans, shielded from any unpleasant experiences. As I peered out the windows of the van, however, poverty and cruelty were apparent: Elephants were chained on the side of the road, stray dogs ran rampant, and little children sped through the streets on the backs of motorbikes without helmets or any form of protection.
On the other hand, I experienced authenticity in many different forms. In Thailand, I visited the temples and Big Buddha statue, removing my shoes and donning both a skirt to cover my legs and a shawl to cover my shoulders; this was a way to show respect. My second day in Bali was “Nyepi Day” or “Day of Silence,” the annual New Year’s celebration. As the festivities began, colorful floats filled the streets in preparation of the ceremonial parade known as “Ogoh-ogoh” and stores and restaurants began to close down. For 24 hours, my friends and I stayed in our villa, unable to use technology, make noise, or use any lights. As the holiday drew to a close, the lack of light in Seminyak allowed us to see the most beautiful sky full of shooting stars. A feeling of peace and reflection hung in the air, as we lay back and stared up at the sky. If we had stayed in our comfort zone, and left Bali before the holiday, as we were talking about doing, I would never have experienced that magic. No matter how exhausting or unpredictable travel can be, I now know that I want use the remainder of my time abroad to burst the bubble, immersing and challenging myself at every turn, because in my experience, the best moments always arise from the unexpected.