I think there's some truth to the cliche that one can "find themselves" in their travels. I just think that most are searching in the wrong places--usually the bottom of an empty shot glass.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with traveling with friends and simply relaxing. Travel doesn't have to be a soul-searching mission. Sometimes you just need to unwind from the stress of your work life or whatever bullshit ails you.
But I think some people are looking for more.
So here's my attempt to lay out what has worked for me in hopes that it can help a few you of you. I'm sure that none of this is new or groundbreaking material, but I'm sharing it anyways. Deal.
I'll throw in a caveat to say that I'm new to traveling. In total I've spent about four months outside of the US (mostly in Chiang Mai) with two of those months having traveled by myself. Which leads me to my first bold claim.
Shocker, I know.
Going to a foreign place should bring about feelings of unfamiliarity. It should jolt a sense of wonder and confusion into you. Travel should present the opportunity for you to awaken from the habitual routines that have pervaded your life back home.
And I think that traveling with friends brings about too much comfort.
I think there really is something to the notion that you are who you surround yourself with. So who the fuck are you when you are surrounded by no-one?
That to me is where opportunity lies. It's in that uh-oh feeling that you get when you are absolutely alone and you realize that you haven't clue what to do with yourself.
So now the question is, what to do with supposed opportunity?
Use the solitude that is built into traveling alone to question your notions of what it is to have a life well-lived.
I know that's kind of heavy, but I really think that there is something to being in a new environment--especially one that is drastically different from that of your home--and being apart from those who influence you most that creates a fresh canvas for you to start anew.
Wander about the streets of the unfamiliar city in which you find yourself.
Get lost. Observe the ways in which these foreign people are living. See for yourself that there are paths to happiness that diverge from your own. Question why that is and question the path in which you currently find yourself on.
Try some new things. Take some local classes. Meet some local people. Try spending time doing things that make you uncomfortable with people that you wouldn't normally spend time with.
Test the beliefs which that maybe you've passively accepted to be true because everyone around you has.
While uncomfortable at times, I think this is not an effective way to spend your time, it's an exciting way.
One night in Thailand where after popping a tire on my motorbike during an absolute downpour, skidding out and barely making it to the side of the road, I found cover from the storm in a local Thai karaoke bar. A few beers and an abysmal rendition of Hotline Bling by yours truly later, I sat and listened to my new Thai friends, and while I couldn't understand a word they sang, it somehow didn't matter.
Another night I nervously asked a local yoga teacher to join me at the Loi Kathong Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai. To my surprise she accepted, and we spent the night getting lost on my motorbike to and from the festival and laughing about it along the way. Although I'd be lying if I didn't worry she had some ulterior motives. The maze of sketchy alleys that were supposedly "shortcuts" looked like a prime location for a white boy like myself to get "lost".
My most cherished experiences in my travels have not been scheduled plans to walk on some old bridge or look at a giant clock that I've seen in pictures a million times already.
It was the unexpected moments that could have never be found in sprinting endlessly from one tourist trap to the next.
With the exploring bit out of the way, now it's time for the fun stuff. And by fun, I mean the painfully lonely yet rewarding work to be done through reflection.
Carve out time to be alone with your thoughts. Find a quiet place of seclusion--preferably in nature. Then ask yourself a question and see where your mind takes you.
For me, I prompted my thinking with variations of the following questions:
Everyone is different, but for me, I do my best thinking when I'm writing. I use a giant Word doc with an increasingly baffling amount of rambling thoughts and concerns that have piled up since I first took up journaling. I find that simply writing the thoughts as they come tends to reveal my true feelings, intentions and insights.
Give it a shot. It doesn't have to be on a computer. Jot some thoughts on your phone, or use a quill and parchment for all I care.
The important part is to set the intention of just asking a question.
I think often we find that we had the answer lying dormant in our subconscious all along--we just needed the space for it to be revealed.