The Inconvenient Truth of Life Changing Travel

Travel has changed my life. More specifically, extended international travel has changed my perspective about my life and the world I live in. My world hasn’t dramatically changed, but the lens through which I look at my world has changed. This is not necessarily a good thing because a new lens on life makes me uncomfortable, and who likes being uncomfortable?

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The inconvenient truth about life changing travel is exactly that; travel changes you, for better or for worse. Change is hard. Meaningful change requires you to closely examine every weak and insufficient part of your life, whether it be your diet, fitness level, emotional health, mental stability, relationships, career, faith, etc. Travel gives you a microscope to find every small detail that you could ever imagine about your life, reveals it to you, and forces you to make sense of it all.

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

~Henry Miller

Travel has made me more honest. I’ve become more attuned to what is authentic and meaningful to me. I’ve reaffirmed my core values. I’m more genuine and compassionate with others, but more importantly, I’m more honest with myself. It’s tough business trusting yourself, but travel does this to you. Travel makes you figure out who you are, why you are that way, and what you stand for.

Allow me to be more specific.

I’ve seen this old man with dark, frail skin at my local supermarket before. He wears a beanie and oversized clothing and dirty jeans. I’ve heard him speaking Filipino to another man before. I’ve seen him with his bicycle and the little sign that reads, “Homeless. Please help if you can.” All the times I’ve seen him over the last couple of years, I’ve sometimes said hello, but never actually helped him until one recent night.

On a routine trip to fill up some water before picking up my daughter from preschool, I saw him again. It was pre-dusk and the streets were being lit up by headlights from cars on their way back home from work. He was sitting there with his sign and his bicycle. I acknowledged his presence as he was sitting directly across the machine where I filled up my water. Other pressing matters were on my mind, though. I still needed to pick up my daughter, so we could make it in time for dinner at home.

I took my two gallons of water and drove my car off with the intention of picking up my daughter, but didn’t end up going that route. Instead I went straight home. I got a big, orange Nike plastic bag and started filling it with anything that I could find in my pantry: crackers, bottles of water, bananas, apples, and even a cold can of beer for good measure. I picked out a blue down vest that I hadn’t worn all winter and decided I would be giving it to him. He certainly looked like he needed one, especially since he was sitting outside in the cold all day.

I’ve seen suffering all over the world in the rural towns of Ethiopia, in the red-light districts of Thailand, on the streets of Mumbai, India, and in the urban sprawls of China. Seeing suffering on a global scale makes you think problems are unsolvable; they’re too big and too complex and doing anything to help seems so insignificant. But when I see suffering in my neighborhood, I must do something. Travel has done that to me. I don’t mull over helping someone in need, even if it means making me uncomfortable or delaying my time schedule. If I see someone who needs help, I do whatever I can to help that person.

I returned to the homeless man, now with my oldest daughter, Emily, to give him the blue vest and the bag of food and drinks. He gladly accepted and immediately put on the blue vest over his jacket.

“It’s just what I needed. I’ve been looking for one of these, but I haven’t been able to find it. Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome. What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joe,” he replied. He extended his hand out and I shook his cold, gaunt hand.

“Well, it was nice to meet you, Joe,” I said.

It was already dark outside, so Emily and I left to go pick up my youngest daughter at preschool. Back at home, I asked Emily if she thought Joe liked the vest I gave him.

She nonchalantly replied, “Duh. It was standing right there and all I could do was listen. He said it was just right and he was looking for a vest like that.”

That’s what it’s all about. All we can do is listen, see, and act. We need to do something that comes out a place of compassion. It doesn’t need to be earth shattering or praiseworthy. It just needs to be genuine and from a place of love.

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The “old me” before traveling the world would have brushed the homeless man off as another beggar or someone who wasn’t trying hard enough at making it. The “old me” would be so wrapped up in what I needed, what I wanted, and what I had.

The “new me” after traveling the world pays attention to those who are suffering, whether it’s a homeless man, a family member going through some emotional struggles, or a friend who needs support. The “new me” cares about the needs of others, even if that means not paying attention to my needs first.

Travel has taught me to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I speak to strangers more freely now, I help homeless people when I can, I live with less, and I try to live a life of moderation rather than excess.

Travel at your own risk; travel will change you hopefully for the better, not only for you, but for your family, your friends, and your community.

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father, who is determined to live a better than normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. His writing has been featured on MSN, TODAY, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and other publications. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design.

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  • Brandi

    Cliff, I agree completely. My husband and I call ourselves traveling teachers. Every break we get we travel with our children who are now 14 and 16. Two summers ago we lived abroad in Italy for the summer, and since that time we have never been the same. It completely changes who you are inside and outside. It makes the American Dream seem less of a dream. You find yourself looking for life in the moments and people and not material things. Thank you for writing your blog. It is great to see other like minded people. We believe that travel is the true teacher for our children. We are returning this summer to see our Italian friends, and we cannot wait!

    • Well said, Brandi. And I’m glad to hear you’re living your travel dreams with your family. We loved Italy and definitely want to go back soon with our kids.

  • Natasha Drisdelle

    Travel has definitely brought out the best and the worst of us! You are right that it causes you to stop and evaluate!

    • Thanks, Natasha. Glad you are sharing travel with your kids. Wishing you guys all the best.

  • Good on you Cliff!