Existing Member?

A Year Around The World

Operation Koh Samui: The Futility of Travel

THAILAND | Wednesday, 29 April 2015 | Views [756]

I left my house in Minnesota on December 6 of last year and have pretty much been on the road ever since. I have not set foot in my home country for 116 days, almost one third of a year. 


I am currently in Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. I’m here alone for a quiet week at a yoga retreat center. Basically, you get up in the morning, do yoga on a pavilion overlooking a calm strip of beach, then eat some healthy food, do some more yoga, eat some more healthy food and then go to bed, or in my case watch episodes of Better Call Saul that I’ve downloaded to my Mac.


Knowing for some time that I had this comparatively slow eight days on my travel agenda, I anticipated writing a long blog post about all the things I’ve learned thus far during my travels. A list of the subtle nuances between the US and the nations I’ve visited. Entertaining, funny, maybe the sort of thing that gets passed around on the internet among other long term travelers.


I’ve decided not to do that. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one very important lesson that I’ve learned during the longest continuous period of travel I’ve experienced in my life; Travel Doesn’t Really Change You. At least, not in the way that people may lead you to believe. It certainly changes your location. It shakes up your routine a little. It exposes you to experiences that you’d never have at home and people who live nothing like you live. All these things are very positive, and I’d encourage just about anyone to broaden their horizons a bit and see what they can of the world. The world would be a more tolerant place if people were better traveled. 


However, don’t set your expectations too high in terms of travel being transformative. You are not going to be a dramatically different person overseas than you are at home, and you are not going to come back from traveling, whether for two weeks or two years, as a completely different person than when you left.


If you are a worrier at home. You’re going to be a worrier when you’re gone and a worrier when you get back. If you are a planner at home, you’ll be a planner on your trip and a planner when you get back. If you’re always running around being active at home, or if you’re the opposite, a person who loves nothing more than to curl up on the couch with a book or TV remote, you’ll be doing those things when you’re away and when you get back. Travel won’t change your core personality, and it certainly won’t make you a better person.


This observation regarding travel’s lack of transformative prowess, isn’t coming from a person who is just four months in to one long long trip (and is perhaps a little homesick). Travel has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. My Dad travelled a lot for work when I was a kid. Perhaps it was the perceived exoticism of his trips that set my love of travel in motion. I can clearly remember looking at travel  brochures for mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda when I was about ten. I used to send off for those sort of things in the mail. When I was 16, my Dad took me with him on a business trip to New York City, and being from the midwest, I thought it was about the coolest place in the world.


When I was 18, I joined the Navy. I could have joined any branch of the military, but I specifically chose the Navy because it gave me the greatest opportunity to move around to different locations in the world (plus, as my Grandpa advised me, at least on a ship you have hot food and don’t have to sleep in a wet foxhole). 


Like the recruiting posters advertise, I did see the world during my five years in the Navy, or at least a good portion of it. I was stationed in Italy for three years. I was lucky enough to be on a flagship devoted mainly to serving as a taxi service for a high ranking admiral. As a result, rather than going on six months cruises with two short port calls, we jumped from port to port across the Mediterranean and Black Sea, spending just a few days at sea before spending a few more days in places like Greek islands,  Istanbul or the French Riviera. Plus, I got to spend about half my time actually living in a small Italian town. 


By American standards, the Navy was pretty generous with vacation time. I got thirty days of leave each year, and sixty days during my last year in Italy as a bonus for extending my overseas tour. I took every day of that leave to travel in Europe. I went on multiple 30 day trips using Eurorail passes, took several shorter trips, and went to either Rome or the Naples area on just about every free weekend I had at my home port. Probably much to the detriment of my familial relationships, I never took any of my leave back at home in the states, not even for grandparent funerals. For three years, I never set foot in the U.S.


After the navy, prior to college, I traveled in in Australia, New Zealand and Bali for over three months, just after taking a multi-week road trip across the western US from Texas to Washington State. During college, I used every Spring and Summer break to travel as much as possible. I went to Alaska, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Before attending Law school, I traveled to South Africa. During law school I studied in London. After taking the bar exam, I went to Uganda, finally seeing those mountain gorillas. I spent my honeymoon in Tanzania. I spent my 40th birthday in Patagonia. By Trip Advisor’s count, I have now been to 57 countries. 


I am blessed in so many ways to have done all this travel. I have sacrificed for it, definitely financially, probably career wise, and certainly relationship wise. I’ve never had a family of my own, although I wanted one. But I’ve been very lucky to have the time and money to travel like I have. It’s a passion, and I have been able to pursue it, along with photography, which is more than a lot of people can say about their passions.


However, to get back to my original point, travel hasn’t made that much of a difference. It hasn’t made me a more relaxed, more compassionate or even a happier person. For years, up to and including this trip, I thought that I could escape myself and my problems through travel. Rather than digging deep and fixing things that needed to be fixed inside of me, I just focused on the goal of the next destination, or in the past decade or so, the next photograph I could make. 


People who know me well know that for years I’ve wanted to make major changes in the way I live my life. People who know me even a little bit well also know that I suffered a pretty significant personal tragedy in the past few years. A major impetus for the trip I’m on now was to put that tragedy behind me, to make those major changes, to reset, to build something new and significant. I wanted to transform as a person. 


I’m well into the long journey now, both the physical journey I’m currently on, and the more metaphysical journey that is my life. I’m finally ready to confess that, as much as I wanted it to, travel hasn’t shaped me all that much.

I used to scoff at people who defined their success in life by perceived career success, by how much money they made, by how big their houses were. Yet, I have to admit, in large measure, I’ve defined myself through travel. I was the adventure guy. I was the guy who was always flying off somewhere exotic and seeing amazing things. Could I bag a hundred countries? Visit all seven continents? … Who cares? Gauging your life’s value by how many hours you spent in the office or how many stamps you have in your passport is pretty much the same thing. At the end of it all, the real measure of your life will be the kindness you showed to your family and friends, the respect and dignity with which you treated other living beings, the love you sent out into the world.


Lest you think I’ve come to this line thinking due to the influence of some crazy yoga guru, I haven’t. I’ve hardly been participating in the daily events here or talking to anyone for that matter. I spend almost all of my time alone just contemplating things, thinking about change, loss and rebuilding, and this blog post is where I have arrived.


So I guess the real questions I have for myself are: Have I been the best person I can be, and if not, has all the travel I’ve done helped my progress as a person? Perhaps I’m squandering the precious gift of time I have right now. Instead of traveling, should I stay put in one place, live a simple life and focus on rebuilding solely from within? 


I’m sure now that the answer to the first question is no. There is plenty of room for growth in my life, from the way I have treated others to the way I treat myself. The answer to the second question is more difficult. I don’t really know if staying put would help. I’ve never really tried it. 




****If you’ve been following my travel blog at all, I’d love to have your comments on this post specifically, either through the blog comment section, through email or through Facebook.***


Tags: beach, family, friends, italy, koh samui, navy, retreat, thailand, yoga

About wtarmstrong

Follow Me

Where I've been

Photo Galleries

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Thailand

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.