Ko Chang Sunset

Travel has changed me so much.

Short trips, long trips, it doesn’t matter how long I’m gone or where I go: I inevitably come back a different person, with new perspectives and different points of reference I apply, knowingly or not, to my everyday life. The change is rarely what I anticipated; the changes shape me in ways I’m not aware of.

When we go to places both new and familiar with open eyes and clear minds, the things we can learn in short periods of time are astonishing. Last year, when my fiance and I traveled around Sri Lanka and South Africa, with a few-day stopover in the Maldives in between. I went there knowing little about the places we’d visit beyond basic facts and broadstrokes of their respective histories. Five weeks later, those countries felt familiar: the mood of the people, the vibe of the politics, the tourism highlights and lowlights, how to get around, where to go, what to expect, what to see and what to skip. Broadstrokes, still, but ones that at least now came together with some clarity.

But it went far beyond that, as it always does.

I learned more about myself, about my fiance, about how we see the world together and how we choose to tackle it together. She’s my only travel partner, as she’s my only partner in life: we’ve been all over the world these past 7 years, but still, we surprise, delight, maybe even sometimes disappoint each other in ways we didn’t expect. That trip was no different, as the one before it wasn’t and the one after it wasn’t. We learn about all the places we go to together, but maybe just as importantly, we learn more about each other together. On the fly, in situations both swish and shitty. Travel is the enabler, our ticket to world- and self-discovery. (Let’s be clear, I’m the one who might disappoint on occasion–she’s the unflappable one.)

When I come home, I do so with renewed energy and outlook; oftentimes, I come back more humble and more aware of my good fortune than I already was. I come home promising myself to hold onto that spark found on the road for as long as possible, but while memories last, and the ways I’ve changed and the things I’ve learned become an unspoken part of me, everyday life has a life of its own, immediate wants and needs, and inevitably, the thrill of travel adventures wane. I suppose this is why I sometimes find myself fighting off bouts of mild depression during those rare times when there’s no “next trip” booked.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, and how easily years can slip by. Events and snapshots from years past seem like yesterday: a family road trip to Montana, my first day of first grade and trying so hard to color in between the lines, the first touchdown I scored playing high-school football, my little brother (now 22) being born, my first kiss, my first time abroad.

I turned 33 years old a few weeks ago. Still young, but a well-established adult. Teenagers would say I’m old, just like I did when I was that age. They’re right: I’m old enough to have a family (when my parents were my age, I was 13!), retirement savings, a real job… a college loan that’s actually going to be paid off soon! I’m okay with it, all of it. I’m healthy, lucky to have the means to see the world, and even luckier to do it with someone I love and who shares, and inspires, my curiosity.

Travel teaches me to look at my life in new ways and in different contexts. It reminds me to appreciate the opportunities I have and the people that I know. It inspires me to be a better, more-open person. Isn’t that what travel is all about?

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.