© JD Hancock

The Immature Traveler Returns: All Grown Up Now and Looking Back

As of this week, I am 30 years old. In the mind of teenagers and those in their early 20s, I’m sure that means my youth is gone, never to return, and my life is on a slow, steady downward spiral. To anyone 26 and up, I’m betting just reading this fills them with a sense of dread at what they know all too well lies in their future.

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To all those people, I say: I’m not dying.

But I am different.

It’s no exaggeration to say travel matures us far faster and more effectively than stern talks from parents or working as a professional. We learn humility being the ones forced to brave a conversation in a foreign tongue for something as simple as finding the bathroom (or using it properly). We gain perspective by speaking with those who may know nothing about where we came from: our economic background, our school, our whole world. We feel the pressure of being the only one of “our kind”, a stranger in a strange land.

A long-term traveler is nothing if not responsible: arranging transportation to/from our destination, ensuring a proper place to sleep, serving as ambassadors to our countries even when we’re not aware we’re doing so, learning from our many failures, and accepting goodwill.

Silhouette in Seattle Airport
Pensive in Seattle © Wonderlane

Looking Back

My first year in Japan and my first experience abroad could well have been regarded as a fifth year at university: weekends partying in the city, days spent bickering with roommates (well … coworkers), using any means necessary to get laid, shirking responsibilities like work and study in favor of YouTube and sugary snacks.

I wasn’t the worst of the worst when it came to foreigners behaving badly, but I was certainly no angel. I lied to my boss about being sick so I could travel to Osaka. I considered my ways superior to those of the Japanese and wouldn’t hear anything to the contrary (who sets the thermostat at 28 degrees C in the summertime, anyway?).

I wish I could say to those beginning their journeys that it was just a matter of being on foreign soil for a given amount of time and once that passed, you began to evolve. If only it were that easy.

Mastering the art of travel is not accomplished with practice or talent. No school will give you a bachelors degree in not getting shot while backpacking through eastern Africa. Or in avoiding Montezuma’s revenge on your trek through Mexico. It’s a way of life. Unknown to the majority, it’s almost impossible to convey to your friends back home over the course of a single conversation. It’s more of a feeling, it’s the excitement I experience the night before a trip. The high that comes with booking a one-way train ticket to a place I’ve never heard of. It’s the little things that so often go unnoticed.

The Art of Travel

Bitterness and Discontent?

Travel, like any other form of education, requires an open mind, someone willing to listen to what the world is teaching us. Many of us have that, but there are a fair few merely existing abroad that do not. You’ve seen or heard about them: expats who do nothing but complain how awful life is here, how wonderful things are back home, how shallow, even stupid locals are when compared with their massive egos, who indulge in McD’s and KFC seven days a week … these are people to whom I feel entirely justified saying “You don’t like it? Go home.”

Bitterness can be an unfortunate side effect of living abroad for the long haul; the idea that we will be perpetual outsiders, standing on the surface of the water but never experiencing what it’s like to take a dip and swim freely, can be infuriating for some. Others learn to laugh it off and just go where the current takes them.

After years spent living on the road, I’m not bitter either. Just different.

Pensive Mood
Thinking, San Francisco © Jayel Aheram

Where the Grass is Greener … Maybe

At my age (it feels weird starting a sentence this way), I toe the fine line between irresponsibility and freedom. As a 20-something traveler coming into my own in Japan, I couldn’t see an end to the journey. So what if I was teaching English as a second language, a dead-end career in Asia if there ever was one? I was in Japan! I was eating sushi and taking pictures of shrines! My friends posted Facebook comments about how jealous they were and how much they wished they could escape. How could I want that life to end?

I once spoke with a Theravada Buddhist who told me of Thai monks forced into disrobing after years of practice due to fatigue. They had tried to follow the path as their tradition had laid out, but in the end, it didn’t lead to enlightenment, a lofty goal for anyone. Eventually, one just gets tired, even when you know the grass is greener on your side of the fence. I knew all too well that I was living an enviable life by American standards, a life few of my people knew how to obtain. But it didn’t matter, because in the end, I wasn’t satisfied.

I reached a point (I have no idea when) where travel became more comfortable than starting a life in the US. Gallivanting across the globe, not knowing where I would end up by nightfall, what I would eat, how I would make money, was easier than putting down a deposit on an apartment, sending out resumes, and paying $100 monthly for a smartphone. And so I chose the easier path, the road less traveled by most, but not the challenge to which I should have risen.

Road man
Road Man, Iran © Shahram Sharif

The Road Ahead

I’m writing this in a shared apartment in San Francisco. I’m 30 years old. I have no car. My credit card balance reads $0.00. I am employed, but on a temporary basis and only earning enough to get by. My biggest financial obligation is service for my iPhone 4. I’m at another crossroads, wavering over which path is best for my future.

To the right lies the life I’ve been living for the past six years. I keep traveling the globe, gaining experience, feeling more complete, exploring my passions, yet still … there is a nagging thought at the back of my mind that it can’t last forever. Will I meet someone who shares my desires, who wants to live constantly on the go?

To the left lies stability. A place to hang my hat. A full-time job in one location. A cat. A car. A life that can be maintained almost indefinitely by simply showing up and doing what needs to be done. But still I wonder … what did I leave behind, somewhere out there? Was I just one trip away from finding everything I ever wanted?

Yes, I’m breaking this all down into black and white, right and left, but the middle path isn’t feasible for the lifestyle of a true traveler. Barring ridiculous amounts of cash, we can’t simply have a regular place to call home and a stable job and drop everything to backpack around Europe for months. That’s the rub: what do we return to when we finally go home?

For years, I’ve looked at my 30th birthday as the ultimate boundary. It was a vague time in the distant future when I would have things figured out and settle in to a career or be well on my way to doing so. But I did nothing to prepare.

Japan led to Thailand. Thailand led to New Zealand. New Zealand to South Korea. And back again, filled to the brim with stories and perspective, but no richer, and no closer to being the man I thought I would be at thirty. Perhaps I’m more of a victim of societal pressure than self doubt; if I didn’t hear from classmates buying a house, having kids, and getting that promotion, I’d likely be more confident in my chosen path, and more willing to step back on that plane.

In the end, that’s what the maturity of a traveler means to me. Whether you’re someone with a base of operations who makes a few trips throughout the year or a vagabond constantly on the move, think your path through as much as possible early on. Don’t jump to a new country expecting to find any more meaning than you did in the last one.

Weeks lead to months, months to years. Before you know it, you’re at a crossroads facing a decision we all face: do I stay or do I go? Have the self-confidence to ignore what those you left behind – and even those who followed in your footsteps – are doing. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to explore every road not taken.

  1. “To the right lies…traveling the globe, gaining experience, feeling more complete, exploring my passion…To the left lies stability… But still I wonder … what did I leave behind, somewhere out there? Was I just one trip away from finding everything I ever wanted?”

    THIS is what I think about everyday when I think about planning my next steps. Yes, I miss home and the friendships there and the comfort of knowing the language; but I am sure I will continue to have nagging doubts–what am I missing in the world by staying home? There’s so much to see…and so many people with great travel blogs that let me peek into what it’s like to work and travel and live in other parts of the world. So I understand the contradicting feeling of wanting to do what everyone else is and lead the stable life, but also wanting to follow the path less traveled, and travel. Brilliantly written- and it makes me think above all else, Facebook status updates should be abolished.

  2. 30 ! a mere whippersnapper :-)

    I think age just boils down to a state of mind

    ask yourself “how old would i be if i didn’t know how old i was” ?

    on that thought i am off to book an 18-30 holiday


    1. And declining physical growth/potential/function. There is a point in your mid-thirties when even the organ banks start to have second thoughts if they want you. I empathize with the author’s observations so plan your trips accordingly with this in mind. One day the stairs may actually be too steep and the diet to exotic.

  3. You kids! Just kidding this is wonderful article.

    I started traveling full time when I turned 50. I can’t really claim to be “growing up” but I definitely feel that I am growing. Traveling also makes you a better world citizen. The would would be a better place if more people tried it.

  4. Oh, young man, how brave you are to have followed your true nature!! Take it from someone who wishes she had…being 55 now, I did all the ‘right’ things according to ‘normal’ society. I went to college, got married, raised a family, bought a home – in that order. Now, I find my life unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Mind you, it’s not what I accomplished that I regret…no…it’s not having enjoyed it along the way. Now, I long for distance shores, and live vicariously through the travel channel and the like.
    You are still young enough to find a permanent place in the sun…if that is what you want. The key is not to fall short of the promises you make to yourself, for yourself. You will be the richer for it in more ways than monetary.
    On the other hand, you can study abroad, or take online courses, (which you can take anywhere there is internet), to put those glorious experiences to practical use. You could become a writer for a travel magazine, or a photographer, etc. These will avail many rewards including necessary revenue. You can do it – do it for all us who didn’t. Best of luck.

  5. Would you say that you did eventually have to ‘mature’ and accept that the well worn path of the 9-5 job that you hate and the mortgage you can’t really afford was the only way forward? Maybe you were using travel (In a long term sense) to avoid making choices that one day we all have to face? I’d like to think not, being a young traveller myself on the cusp of a life overseas for self discovery and such.

    Reading your article I feel like its just a future me saying, don’t be stupid, get a job soon and work for your retirement. I know that the life experience that travel brings is invaluable, I’ve been travelling my whole life. But it’s a bit of a downer thinking I’ll probably just be sitting in my cubicle in 5 years time with my experiences relegated to dreams of time passed. I’d like to think there’s a way of balancing the two lifestyles, though beyond the rich and powerful, I struggle to find examples.

  6. Who says you ever have to “grow up,” whatever that means. This is well said though. I think a lot of travelers feel this pull in opposite directions. I didn’t, until recently, feel like I needed to succumb to any societal pressures. When I was 25, everybody around me said “yeah, go be young and free!” Now, they keep asking me when I’m going to find a husband. I’m 26. Is there really that much of a divide in one year? Whoa.

  7. Nicely written and so timely for me. You’ve just echoed what I’ve been thinking about this past year – except I’m on the other side of the fence, with a 9 to 5 (ok, 7 to 9), car, occasional 5 day trips here and there because I can’t bear to leave work sometimes. I turn 30 next year and wonder if I can be brave enough to take a year off now that I’m older, wiser (maybe?) and have the benefit of having built a small financial cushion. If the immature traveller has grown up, am I looking to ” recapture my youth” after conforming to societal pressures to take the path well trodden? It’s great to read the nuggets of wisdom above from those much wiser. But I guess I’m still waiting for that turning point that’ll put all this hesitation to rest. In the meantime, live your life! You chose this path and I doubt you’d change a minute of it if given the chance ;-)

  8. Great article. I recently turned 28 and can relate to the feelings you talk about here. I really tried to hang on to the mid-20s label, but now 30 seems to be quicky coming about. However, I’ve recently started travelling around Canada for six months and feel positive about getting older and, erm, hopefully wiser :-)

  9. I recently turned 30 and I’m dealing with a lot of the issues you’ve mentioned in this article. It’s amazing how years pass at what appears to be the snap of fingers. I’m now considering what it is I want to do exactly overseas. Teaching English is not my passion and as you mention in the article is somewhat of a dead-end job.

  10. I remember when i was due to turn 30 (just last week, cough cough)
    I had a to do list consisting of tattoo’s body piercings, sky dives and facial hair.
    then i had to totally re-assess life/career etc

    got divorced/quit a high paying job in the city/ sold property..All in the same day.


  11. What a load of crap. Traveling to gain experience and knowledge, backpacking Europe; To-do lists; bucket-lists. It’s all masturbation. Completely self-absorbed. What could you possibly learn bouncing around from one place to the next – figuring out how to ask for the bathroom in 2 or 3 different languages? It’s just an extension – or, rather – a slightly more exotic version of the cookie cutter lives all your Facebook friends are leading back home.

    Your essay completely misses the point. Sure, travel. See the world. Heck, take your iPhone 4 (the number so important that it couldn’t be left out of the essay!) with you if you like. The point is not to go but to stay. STAY in Japan or Thailand or Bolivia or wherever and take the opportunity that you have as a wealthy foreigner to really learn a foreign culture and language. To REALLY see the world through new eyes.

    If you fill yourself up with random bullshit, you’ll still be full of shit. And if you fill yourself up with emptiness, in the end you’ll still be empty.

  12. @skip – not sure about that comment! You don’t need to stay in a country a long time to learn something, most people dont have the privilege of time.

  13. Great article, Turner! I’m wrapping up a year long RTW trip, and I’m facing the same issues. It’s hard to consider settling down when you’ve had so much chaos and variety to look forward to on the road. Part of you worries that you’re missing out by not starting on a career track/finding love/investing in your future while the other half figures you’re missing out on a rapidly changing world by settling into arbitrary “adult” responsibilities. I couldn’t agree more that the social pressures of what every one else is doing have the biggest effect.

    All this… and I’m only 23.

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