This year, the year of Covid-19, has been an adjustment for everyone. The shift to working from home and (somewhat ironically) the avoidance of unnecessary journeys has given me a chance to reflect and understand just how important travelling was to my personal growth and how important I think it should be to everyone.
Firstly, I would like to clarify what I am calling travelling. Throughout this blog I will be talking about travelling that is self-researched, planned and funded by myself. While you can gain skills from family holidays, school or funded trips, there is so much more scope for individual growth from making your own travel adventures.
When I left school in 2016, I was quiet, shy and avoided big social events. My best friend and I were planning a leavers’ trip. While everyone we knew was planning a trip to ‘Maga’ we wanted to do something more ‘us’. We spent three gloriously exciting months planning a trip to Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, this included 4 weeks volunteering in an NGO called CSDS.
This sort of trip had a higher price tag than your traditional leavers’ holiday, to offset this I got a job working at a local hotel at wedding functions. Combined with this and some savings I had I was able to set my self a budget of £1400 pounds plus flights.
I had never been to Asia, in fact, I hadn’t done much travel at all and I spent a long-time researching reading and planning. I was quite nervous: I had never done anything like this in my life. My mum kindly dropped us to the airport, and I can still remember the feeling when she left us at the security gate after a round of hugs. I was thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into’.
My mum now tells me she hid her nerves and cried all the way home trying not to think.
In my first week in Vietnam I travelled around, I got ripped off buying a travel guide, lost my phone and was in a boat crash during a tropical storm.
My nerves were well founded it seemed, but I learnt so much. I gained perspective on being streetwise in a different country, possessions can be replaced, and safety measures are lifesaving so pay attention to them
Following this, I joined a volunteer house, filled with a wide range of ‘characters’, all stopping to spend a few weeks volunteering.
Walking into a shared room I met what came to be my new group of friends. This situation really forced me to initiate conversation, find common ground and bond with strangers. On the other side of the world from home, I found confidence to come out of my shell and really connect with others. Time travelling is real, the few hours or days connecting with strangers I made lifelong friendships with more ease than I had through my school years. We explored Vietnam together, organised trips and made lifelong friendships.
After I returned to Ireland, I visited a friend from travelling in Cambridge.
Travelling in England didn’t seem like travel after Vietnam: I had developed such confidence in getting about…
Shortly afterwards I started my first year at the University of Dundee. During this week I attended every event that I could, I went to parties with ‘course mates’ I had only just met and made my group of friends. Honestly, I would not have had the rich and diverse University experience if I had not been pulled out of my shell during the summer.
While I do believe you mature within your normal environment’, travelling forces you to adapt and build confidence as the safety net of the norm is not on hand. An example of this is eating by yourself in a restaurant. if you have travelled alone you discover how nice it is to sit and relax while reading a paper, yet some tell me how they struggle with this needing the crutch of company.
Following on from confidence, self-assurance is a key skill gained from solo travel. That ‘can do’ attitude that you build from travelling. I used to be nervous about booking flights in case I made a mistake or wasn’t sure I would enjoy it.
Last March, I booked a last-minute flight on a Friday evening at 10pm that left at 8am the following morning. I went to Budapest for a weekend coming back on Sunday for the return price of £40.
Sadly, this was the last trip I made before the pandemic. Looking back, I would not have had the self-assurance to book that if I had not had my previous travel experiences and my lockdown cabin fever is softened by the travel adventures I have already had.
This self-assurance is a good skill – it means I put myself forward for opportunities that I might otherwise have dismissed. At the end of my first year I successfully applied for a eight-week summer school to Shanghai: I know if I had not had my confidence strengthened from travelling I would not have applied.
This may seem like an obvious point but as a person who grew up in rural Ireland my experience and understanding of other cultures was honestly shocking. Bar a one-week introduction to Islam in school I didn’t really know much about other cultures. I think if everyone had better cultural immersion via publicly funded programmes some systemic issues within our society could be party addressed.
Being interested in history, I love visiting museums, churches, local restaurants and cultural sites. When you travel with your family or friends, I have found that it is more difficult to visit these places. Whether your friend isn’t interested in a museum or ‘’is veggie’’ and doesn’t want to try traditional Estonian food. When you travel alone you get to set your daily schedule. As much fun as it is travelling with friends it can provide restrictions you didn’t anticipate.
On the other hand, your friends may offer you an opportunity to broaden your horizons. I visited Bulgaria to see a friend who introduced me to her culture, even driving me to Plovdiv to try stomach soup, which with the garlic powder was a culinary delight.
Having spent hours within the Prado, Madrid, looking at each painting or visiting a Buddhist temple I have tried to educate myself on other cultures.
Something very personal to me is language learning. I felt school French and Spanish were unsatisfying: their aim was to pass an exam rather than communicate with others in a way they can understand. I now want to try and learn as many languages as I can. I have been teaching myself Spanish and recently I have been taking Arabic classes. I hope that I will be able to hone these skills and use them within my career.
Travelling gives you the opportunity to learn languages and force you to use them.
When I was last in Spain, Santiago, I was determined to practice my Spanish, which was challenging but I am so glad I did. I have much more confidence in my ability now. Except for one embarrassing encounter where I politely asked a shop assistant what ‘a donut’ was in Spanish, she replied ‘donut’ with Spanish accent. I’ve learnt to recognise that even when speaking in English to another English speaker, the issues of language, vocabulary, accents, communication, understanding all need attention.
Learning, or attempting to communicate in a different language, I realised the importance of non-verbals in any language.
Even more I have learned how easily miscommunications can happen when trying to speak in a language that is not your native one.
What I have learned from this?
With this reflection I have understood how much and why I enjoy travelling. It has been critical for my personal and probably professional development. The life – long friends from across the globe have opened my mind and soul to embrace differences and similarities.
I want to find graduate roles that need the agility of mind that comes with a seasoned traveller. Roles with opportunities to travel and be placed anywhere across the globe will be well matched with my eagerness for adventure and challenge.