Why is the first time one travels is the most special travel experience
How That First Trip Rewired my Brain
From a young age, I hopped onto many of those pleasant, four-hour flights going coast to coast. Always back-and-forth, always stateside. Going “abroad” was rarely a dream. Other countries were studied in books. Traveling around the US was comfortable, manageable, and it was all there was.
Flash forward to my twenties. I was two-thousand miles away from the small town I grew up in, halfway through college. Home seemed to be on the other side of the world. I had traded east for west. Those humid nights with twinkling fireflies illuminating the dark turned into snowy peaks touching an unpolluted, starry night sky.
I like to call it the “Twenties Crisis”. Think of it as a midlife crisis, but on the opposite end of life’s spectrum. Instead of looking back at your accomplishments and wondering what the hell you were doing as time swept you away, you look forward and wonder, “What the hell am I going to do with all this time I have?” It happens to everyone, and at twenty my first decision was to get married.
Life was good to me and I married a guy I’d known since I was twelve, dated in high school, and handwrote letters to while he was living in Mexico. So it only made sense to get married to Tyler, but even that decision was a scary one. As if I wasn’t scared enough, a honeymoon abroad was the icing on that blueberry-lemon wedding cake.
With a fresh and empty passport in tow, newly married, and a boat to catch, we set sail. I popped that American bubble I had been in and entered foreign waters with my best friend. Another trade-off was initiated— the brisk, alpine air for a cool, island breeze. Our cruise ship took us island-hopping from the sunny Bahamas, to St. Martin, to St. Thomas.
Though my first experience abroad was full of some classic “touristy” experiences, it didn’t matter. Something shifted. I forgot what routine meant and embraced a changing day-to-day schedule. I thrived when plans went wrong or right. I gagged while swaying to and fro in our ship’s cabin and still wanted to be there.
So how did this brief journey abroad rewire my brain? There is a constant influx of new experiences, thought patterns, ideas, and challenges posed to us each day that requires a response. We respond to those stimuli by first accepting them and then acting on them. What we know is applied to what we don’t know, and we solve problems we’ve never had to solve before. This whole learning cycle produces a physical change in our brain.
New neural pathways are formed, and even the lowest functioning processes within our brains are reformatted to better respond to life’s curveballs. This rewiring happens to us every day to some extent, and certainly happened more than ever as we were growing up. The coolest part? With each new experience, your brain develops a larger capacity to store information and memory. Basically, you get better and better at learning and being creative, and can potentially understand more than you could before that experience.
Leaving the US took me out of my comfort zone, and forced me to problem-solve, navigate, and plan differently than I was used to. I had to address fears head-on and tackle issues with quick thinking in order to progress with our plans. We also had to deal with the inevitable mishaps that come with travel and figure out alternatives.
Which excursion should we choose? Is there a different route to our destination that would be quicker? How often should we check our finances and reevaluate our spending habits? What experiences would be most valuable to me in the short time we have here? What do we do in case of emergency now that our phones aren’t working? How many activities should we plan for each day and still avoid burnout?
These were some of the questions we faced that were new and exciting. Some moments were calm and some were hectic. Things went wrong but we found other ways to enjoy each day. My brain was like a sponge, absorbing every new place, new flavor, new acquaintance. I was literally seeing the world for the first time, at least outside of the confining bubble I was previously in.
The warm beaches of those islands did not preserve my footprints. The turtles we went swimming with do not remember ever seeing me glide alongside them. The people we met do not recall the conversations we held or who we are.
But I remember. Our guide took my GoPro and swam to the seafloor to get a rare shot of an octopus he spotted hiding in its dark hole. The pleasant conversations we had with Seymour as he turned down our cabin’s bed each day. A man on our catamaran who had almost completed his mission to visit every state in the US. When Tyler volunteered to have his head chopped off at a magic show onboard the ship. The magician made awkward sex jokes at us newlyweds the whole time. I remember all of it.
However, out of all the wonderful and stressful things we experienced on our honeymoon, none stuck with me as much as one old man on the streets. As we sat in a small bus headed back to our ship, we stopped at a stoplight. A man scuffled by, hunched over with his long white beard whipping his face in the wind. He was carrying grocery bags back to his home, when he spotted me in the bus window. Stepping off the curb and into the street, he smiled an almost toothless grin and pressed his hand against the glass.
I put my hand to his and smiled back. The only thing separating us was a thin border between his reality and mine. How I would have loved to be walking around when he was, just to meet him and exchange a few words. It was then that I understood what I wanted to do with my life, even in that brief, sweet encounter. I didn’t want to have the borders or bubbles, I wanted to break them and just be somewhere new.
It was this sensory overload coupled with the idea of travel as a whole that has led me to where I am now. Since then I have had to work my butt of at a full-time job to travel. I’ve backpacked the Inca Trail to make it to the ruins of Machu Picchu. Explored almost the full extent of Yellowstone and seen its rugged beauty. Made some furry friends at the monkey sanctuary in Bali. Started a travel blog and slowly began making a profit. Perhaps the laptop lifestyle will find its way to me soon.
All I know is I am learning in a fun and unique way and I don’t want it to stop. I am twenty-four now, and at twenty I would never have imagined I would experience what I have thus far. The wheels are always turning, always steering me back to travel. I used to be the scared and timid one in the family, and now I’m flying across the map to explore something unknown. And I don’t just go, I grow.
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