I have always been a hard learner.
I am not the type to take your word for it if you tell me the pan is hot.
I need to touch the pan, sear my finger, jump up and down screaming at how hot the fucking pan is, sheepishly look and chuckle with you as I agree that yes, the pan is hot.
What’s worse is that I have a tendency to be stubborn. I can be convinced I am right, even without evidence or experience to support my beliefs.
Not too long ago, during my first visit to a friend’s apartment, I had the audacity to tell him the best route to take as we walked to his pool. I had never been to the pool. Hell, I had never been to this apartment complex. And yet I was completely confident in my ten second visual assessment from my walk in.
One of the things that makes humans special is our ability to learn from the mistakes that others make.
Recently, I had a revelation about a pretty significant mistake I had been making in my life. This is story is a journey that lasted a few years. More than one wrong turns were taken.
This story ends with me finally understanding a simple truth. A truth that is now be a guiding principle for how I live my life.
In order for you to understand how I made such a stupid mistake, I need to tell you a bit more about my personal story. This is not comfortable for me nor is it normal. This post is long, but I honestly believe it is worth your time.
I can see now just how much I have learned from all of the people I have met in my life.
My hope is that you now can learn from me and my mistakes.
Places Make the Person.
When I took my first leap abroad and moved to Korea back in 2012, I believed that the places would make me. Like many people who decide to move abroad, I was not content with my life back home.
I not only wanted more, but I needed a change. I had some deep emotional wounds and some serious insecurities I needed to get over. I thought that just being abroad would be the solution.
I felt deep down that traveling, literally just being somewhere else, would make me better somehow.
I had daydreams of myself standing in front of a temple in Thailand or a sunset on a beach in the Philippines and having some sort of transformative experience. Like I would just all of a sudden get it. As if just being in and visiting these places would make me better, wiser, and happier.
To be honest, I thought that the places made the person.
I arrived in Seoul in the fall of 2012 full of gusto. Every weekend was a new opportunity to travel or visit someplace new. Every winter holiday and long weekend another chance to travel. Japan, the Philippines, Busan, Seoraksan, Jeju-do. You name it and I was down. There weren’t enough places to visit, enough restaurants to eat at or enough things to do.
My plan from the start was simple. Work for a year, save money and start traveling. Get in, get out and start getting to as many new places as possible. From the day I arrived in Korea, I had one foot out of the door.
The only problem was that I really liked Korea.
It was perhaps the best place for a single white guy in his twenties to live. First, Korean food kicks ass. Anyone who knows me knows how my stomach dictates the course of my life. Plus, I had a great group of friends, made easy money teaching English to groups of adorable Korean kindergartners and I was surrounded by beautiful Asian women who loved white guys.
Check, check, check and check.
One year turned to three, but my plans did not change. I was still going to travel, just not yet.
One of my few regrets from living in Seoul was that I treated my entire time there as if it was semi-permanent. Everything from the apartments I stayed in to my teaching contracts to the relationships with the women I dated was on a timer. Don’t commit. Don’t let anyone too close. You’re gonna be outta here soon.
Unfortunately, I got into the bad habit of treating my relationships as semi-permanent as well.
It’s a phenomenon that maybe only those who have lived as expats can understand, but when you are living abroad you tend to kinda de-value your friendships with the people you meet.
It’s nothing personal, it just is what it is.
Almost everyone you meet is only in that country for a short period of time. They’ve got their life back home, their real life, and you’ve got yours. Your time together, wherever it may be, is temporary.
It’s not that you don’t like people. You do. And it’s not that you don’t have fun with the people you meet. You do. It’s just that you meet so many new people and watch so many of these people come and go that it sort de-sensitizes you to the idea of building lasting relationships.
In my first two years, I became close with two different groups of friends only to watch members from each group pick up and leave when their teaching contracts were up.
In my second year in Seoul, I had a very difficult split from a woman who decided to leave Korea to travel.
Like all of my relationships, the entire time we dated it was understood that our time together was only temporary. This “mutual understanding” made it 0.00% easier when she left.
It became exhausting to meet people, get close to them and then have to build an entirely new social network once they left.
While I was all-on meeting anyone and everyone when I first arrived in Korea, towards the end of my time in Seoul I honestly began to feel like it was a waste to invest my time in new relationships.
But that was OK. Because in the back of my mind, I still had my places. The people didn’t matter. I knew it was the places that would make me.
After three years, I finally left Korea and embarked on a six-month backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia.
It’s Better To Do It Alone.
On my backpacking trip, I discovered the pure freedom that comes with traveling alone.
Several friends encouraged me to travel solo, without plans or an itinerary. I took their advice and loved it.
Learning to be comfortable alone was a very empowering experience. It was a sort of freedom I had never felt. I recognized that I didn’t need anyone for anything. When I wanted to do something, I did it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. When I was ready to go, I went.
While I met lots of great people on my trip, I was very hesitant to invest too much time with them. I completely ignored the “you have to be a friend to have a friend” rule and went all in on me.
I hardly ever compromised what I wanted to do in order to accommodate someone else. Sure, I traveled with different groups for a week or two, but I spent the majority of my trip traveling alone.
To be honest, I looked down on other travelers who only traveled with groups of friends or who so foolishly signed up for huge guided tours.
“Idiots,” I would mumble under my breath. “They don’t know what they are missing out on.”
I secretly judged other travelers for not going out to face the big bad world on their own. I took pride in my ability to do it by myself.
I can see now that it was here my tree of stupidity was planted.
Soil : My indifference to meeting new people.
Seed: The conviction it really is easier to go through life solo.
Tree: That will come later…
After my backpacking trip, I returned home to the United States and began planning my next big trip.
You see, deep down, I still needed more. Somehow, the places just hadn’t made me yet. While I was braver and more confident, I still needed to see more. I needed to experience more.
The problem certainly wasn’t with my outlook. No, no, no. Of course not. It was just that I hadn’t seen or done enough.
Like I said, I’m stubborn.
So I continued to move, go, see and do. In fact my travel itinerary for the last two and a half years has been:
US to Colombia to Peru to Colombia to Argentina to the US to Colombia to the US to Greece to Albania to Italy to Switzerland to Germany to Austria to Poland to Germany to Portugal to the US to Mexico to Colombia to Peru and finally back to Colombia.
For a lot of the past two years, I was with other people. I would get close to people, but I would only let them get so far.
I picked my places and made friends where I could, but for the most part I avoided building deep relationships or becoming a part of the communities in the cities I lived in. What the fuck was the point? I was gonna leave soon anyways.
In a strange way, even though I always had people around, I mentally considered myself as being alone. I continued to take deep pride in my ability to do it alone.
I continued to push myself to travel and to see more of the world.
Six weeks of solo backpacking in Peru.
Three weeks living in Albania alone.
Five weeks traveling through Patagonia by myself.
And you know what?
The more I traveled, the more I continued to ramble through the world alone, the more unhappy I became.
I was seeing all of the places I wanted to see. But my inner discontent did not seem to go away. With each passing month, I became more of a mental wreck.
I tried to put a finger on my unhappiness. I exercised more. I practiced meditating. I stopped drinking. I journaled more. I traveled to more places and had even wilder experiences. Nothing seemed to do the trick.
It was not until I visited Macchu Picchu last week for the second time that I realized what had been missing.
Yep, it took two separate trips to the same ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere, but I was finally able to identify what I was missing.
Like I said, I am a hard learner.
A Tale of Two Machu Picchus
I have been to Machu Picchu twice now. My first visit and my second visit were almost polar opposites.
When I first visited Machu Picchu in 2017, I did so by myself. I was a broke backpacker on a six-week trip throughout Peru. I did not take the train into Aguascalientes. Instead, looking to save every last penny, I took a harrowing bus ride through the Andes mountains and walked for three and a half hours alongside the train tracks that went into Aguascalientes.
On my second visit, I was in Peru for six days, not six weeks. I was not traveling like a backpacker but instead like a good ole’ fashioned tourist. I was with a good friend and was no longer broke. My friend and I stayed at hotels and ate at nice restaurants. We took the fancy train from Cusco to Aguascalientes and drank coffee as the jagged peaks of the Andes passed slowly by.
Despite all of the tourists and Peruvian money-grabbing schemes, Machu Picchu is still one of the most magical places I have ever seen. On my first visit, I remember walking up the steps into the park and being struck with awe and fascination.
It’s hard to put into words, but the city just shouldn’t exist. It’s not just a cool stone city. It’s a cool stone city on top of a mountain that is surrounded by a roaring river that is further surrounded by a dense jungle.
Like, who the hell were the people who built this city trying to get away from? Or closer to?
And there I was, by myself.
I cannot remember a time where I felt more excited and more alone.
I remember on my first visit talking to as many strangers as possible, just trying to find someone, anyone, to share this experience with. I took hundreds of photos, doing as much as I could to make sure I remembered this moment. But to be honest, the photos didn’t do any justice and didn’t make a damn of a difference. I have showed them to a handful of people and looked a them maybe a half-dozen times.
Then, this past week, I returned with my friend.
And even though it was the second time around, even though I had already been there and done that, even though the weather was the same and the park was just as beautiful as before, this second time around was much better than the first.
I wasn’t alone.
This time, I had someone to share my happiness and appreciation with. I had a hiking buddy to walk with as we marveled out loud at just why the hell this place was built in the first place.
It may sound weird, but the experience just felt more real.
I recognized that no matter what happened in life, nobody could ever take away this time that I had with my friend.
We all have our own life stories. And, if only for a few days, my story and my friend’s story overlapped and the experiences we shared became our story.
As I flew over Peru on my way back to Colombia and the Andes slowly faded away in the distance, I felt content as I have felt in quite some time. My burning to do more and see more had been extinguished.
As I thought about why I was so damn happy, it slowly began to dawn on me. My realization. The “it’s-so-obvious” fact that I had been blind to for so many years.
People make the places, not the other way around.
While I am certainly more cultured and confident because of the places I have been to, I see now that almost every change in my person is a result of the people I have met, not the places I have visited.
I recognized that our lives are only made real through our existence in the lives of others. Our life’s story is, more or less, a winding narrative of how our lives intersect and become a part of the narrative of the people we meet.
Think of it this way.
If you walked the planet alone, never encountering another soul, how would you ever be assured that you actually existed? Wouldn’t it all seem like some big strange dream?
The relationships we build and the stories we share with other people are more than a common thread that ties us all together. They are literal proof that what we experience is real.
This realization caused me to think back to all the places I had been over the years.
And you know what?
For every place I thought of, my first thought was of a person or a group of people.
When I thought back on my time in Korea, I did not think of the bright lights or the food or the different cities I visited.
My mind immediately wandered to memories people. I thought of playing euchre with Chris and E and KQ and Larry.
I thought of sitting in O Bar and talking with Paul and Sally.
I thought of drinking beer and soju with Peter and Ian over Korean BBQ. I remembered my first months in Seoul and making family dinners with Jacqui, Ashley and Ryan. I thought about my after-class chats about literature and life with Chris and Andre. I daydreamed about my first dates with Yuri and Yu-Jung.
My heart filled with joy at the thought of my weekly “English / Korean cooking” classes every Monday with Helen.
When I thought back on my backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, I instantly thought of Indonesia and Vietnam.
Because those were the times when I was with the best people.
I will never forget the hilariously muddy, rainy and dangerous night Larry I and rode our motorbikes through northern Vietnam.
I can still see the muddy satisfaction on Larry’s face as we celebrated being alive with Banh Mi sandwiches and warm beer.
Indonesia is a beautiful country, but my mind didn’t race back to images of beaches and komodo dragons or diving with reef sharks. My first thoughts were of my traveling companions, the wonderfully nicknamed Yoda and Porkchop, and the three weeks we spent criss-crossing the islands together.
Say the word Medellin and I will instantly think of smoking spliffs with the ‘Tucky and Sam or of having breakfast at Hija with Big Left and Sean and Andrew. My mind will wander to finca parties with the All-Stars and partying with Franco and Max and Cindy. I think of Ingris and Chris and Tina and Till.
Mention Mexico City and all I will think about is Ingris and the night we partied so hard she missed her flight back to Colombia.
UMass was Chris and Big Bri and Yousuf and Anthony and Ian.
Milwaukee is Drew and Dave and Kev and Jess and Jerm and Alex and Jeff and the Frederick Boys and Lindsey and Bain and Toonst and Casey.
I thought about Europe and couldn’t help seeing Emmy’s face roll up into a big ole’ laugh as we watched the sun set from a beach bar in Portugal.
A lot of you may be thinking:
“Duh. Of course relationships are important. Of course they impact who we are. What kind of a sociopath are you?”
And you’d be right to say this. But it never hurts to be reminded about the important things in life.
So take this as a reminder from someone who has learned the hard way. From someone who has rambled around the world, trying to do it all alone, thinking the places would eventually make the person.
They don’t. Nor does your job, nor does the size of your bank account.
Next to time, relationships are the most important currency we have in life.
They not only validate our existence, they enrich it. Every person you meet and every story you share is another unique thread with a unique color that winds the tapestry of your lives.
Be sure to relish in the people in your life, no matter how brief your time together might be. Go out of your way to build and invest in the relationships with the people you are close to. There is someone whose story might not overlap with yours for too much longer. Enjoy the chapter while it lasts.
I know this is going to be priority numero uno for me in my life. Because at the end of the day, people don’t just make the places.
They make us.
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