As parents struggle to find just the right gift for their children this holiday season, let me make a suggestion: I’d give the gift of independence.
In this age of “helicopter parenting” — our unceasing hovering over our children — it’s not always easy to instill in them the joy of independence and its corollary, self-reliance. Do we really want them to leave us behind and embark on some other journey, separate from our care?
Yes. I’m not suggesting dropping a teenager in the middle of the Gobi Desert and wishing him good luck (more on that in a minute), but a series of escalating challenges is the quickest route to becoming your own person. Travel not only opens a window to the world but also grants the traveler an opportunity to peer deeply inside himself. “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering,” said St Augustine, a famed traveler himself, once said.
When we travel, we change under the influence of impressions, memories and experiences that force us to reexamine and reevaluate our present, our past, who we are and what we aspire to be. Travel puts life into perspective, often reminding us of what’s important.
It is life’s most valuable teacher, and I’ve become its rapt student. It began the day that, fresh out of college and working at a brokerage firm in London, I announced to my family I was going on a Himalayan trek. Their response was underwhelming. They were worried. After all, the Maoist insurgency was at its height. But I dreamed of going, and nothing would stop me. In a way, you might say it was their fault. They encouraged this independence, but they just didn’t think I would take it quite this far. I’m glad I did. Here, I share with you some of the lessons I’ve gleaned from this and many other journeys that ultimately became my TV show called “Amazing Adventures of a Nobody”:
I learned the rewards of dealing with uncertainty. Travel can be completely spontaneous, which means you are at the mercy of a force greater than yourself. You have to discard life’s trivialities, but in their place grows a rich archive of unique experiences you can always claim as your own.
I learned to drive my own life, which is crucial, because if you don’t, someone else will. The greatest people in history know that living confidently is key to feeling fully alive. On my Himalayan trip, I found far more than the rugged mountains of Nepal (and no Maoists, I hasten to add). I experienced the sweet taste of personal achievement by trekking the famed Annapurna trail. I found a self separate from family, friends and colleagues.
I learned to resolve conflict. When you’re faced with situations that demand instant conflict resolution, you learn very quickly. In 2009, I was traveling in Bihar state in eastern India, in a 1960s Cadillac, on the way to a local train station when the car caught on fire. As the engine burst into flames (yes, really) the driver got out and began to douse the fire. Somehow he decided the episode was my fault.
Bihar, which the Economist described, in the early 2000s, as “an area of darkness,” an “armpit” and a place of “widespread and inescapable poverty,” wasn’t exactly the safest place to be. It was only later that I learned the dangers of traveling at night. The driver understood them, though, and grew belligerent. He threatened to walk away, stranding me in the middle of the state. Being a foreigner, alone and in the middle of the night is not something you want to be in Bihar. I had to find a way to resolve the situation, which I did by apologizing for making the choice of leaving at 3 a.m. He recanted, and we put out the fire together and the car limped its way to the station.
I learned patience. We live in a world attuned to Instant gratification. Travel cured me of this. I remember the moment things changed. I decided to go to Mongolia and soon found myself in the middle of the Gobi Desert where my driver’s World War II Jeep kept breaking down. Then the engine exploded.
Instead of losing my cool, I stayed calm and began walking to the main road. A Mongolian family on their way to the capital city, Ulan Bator, eventually scooped me up.
At home, I’ve learned to apply the patience principle to my real life. Sitting in traffic in midsummer heat, I remember the time I was stranded in the Gobi Desert and squash the impulse to indulge my anger. This way I don’t let the small things upset me.
I learned to embrace alone time. Traveling alone builds iron inner strength, filling you with a feeling that you can overcome anything. Being forced to rely entirely on yourself is liberating. Leaving family and friends as you embark on solo travel can be daunting, but the ensuing hours and days of solitude offer calm and serenity.
My first trip alone was a trek across Europe in my trusty VW Golf. I set out from London and in the weeks that followed, I found myself in Greece and beyond. I spent a month on the road, just long enough to feel the family bonds loosening, replaced by the power of independence.
I learned to appreciate others. Travel awakens even the coldest heart. I wasn’t oblivious to life’s miseries. but I was definitely sheltered. I once found myself in the poverty-stricken port town of Puerto Bolivar, Ecuador, after a Panama Canal crossing. I was thrust into a world where kids were dressed in rags and walked barefoot. They were hungry and hopeless.
With these powerful images I realized I didn’t have it so bad. “Travel,” Mark Twain once wrote, “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” That day in Puerto Bolivar shifted my perception of the world. It gave me a much better sense of injustice and inequalities. It instilled in me a much-needed dose of humility and gratitude.
But there is still much more to learn. My classroom beckons; I hope to be a lifelong student. I welcome your company as we travel the road to independence.