One early morning in Tokyo, I took a train to Meiji Shrine. The skies were clear when I left my hotel, but they were darker when I stepped out of the station.
The rain began softly but quickened as I stepped past the Shrine’s torii gate. The downpour splattered off my raincoat but drenched the rest of me. I could have headed back, but I was determined to visit, so I pressed on, taking small shelter from the trees along the path.
Some stormy steps later, I stood in front of the shrine, soaked. I am not a Shinto practitioner. But I offered my thanks to whatever deities were present that wet morning. It was a prayer of gratitude that I could be where I was, away from home, bathed in rain from another sky, standing in the silent sanctuary.
I’ve been blessed to have had a job that’s sent me all over the world. It wasn’t always like this — before the last 12 years, I’d hardly been anywhere.
It’s why I’ve never taken my travels for granted. I’ve been tired, lonely, and homesick around the globe. But I’ve always been grateful to see more of the world than I ever imagined I would.
I’ve learned that travel can change you if you let it. The magic of travel comes from meeting the mystery, from opening yourself up to the unknown.
But it’s more difficult to do these days because it’s easy to bring home with us on our devices. Our screens offer us the comfort of the familiar, whereas unfamiliar surroundings can make us uncomfortable.
But the discomfort offers an opportunity, to step outside of the limits of our world and travel. Go with a blank slate and let the world inscribe itself on you. Go offline. Be bored. That is the beginning of attention.
Going offline also forces you to talk to people instead of Google. I was cautious when I started traveling, and always afraid that people would swindle this obvious greenhorn.
But I’ve been surprised by the kindness of strangers around the world. It taught me that most people are good. We may look different and speak dissimilar languages, but deep down, we all want the same things: to be safe and loved.
It doesn’t mean that people won’t be rude to you or rip you off. But they’re not doing it to be evil. This also doesn’t mean you can be naive — not all people are good.
As part of my cautiousness, I used to plan my journeys to the letter. But I’ve learned to hold my plans lightly. Nothing ever happens exactly the way you expect it en route. The weather changes, you get lost, or you discover something better than your plans. The best thing you can pack is your flexibility.
Something else I’ve learned to pack is less. Lighter goes further. The heavier you pack, the more breaks you’ll need to take, which means the less ground you’ll cover. You likely need less than you think. The only essential thing you’ll need is good walking shoes.
No matter how many times I revisit a country, I’ve come to understand that I’ll always be a tourist. You can never know a place by simply visiting it. And thinking you know a place prevents you from seeing it further. The world is bigger than we will ever know, so, be open to knowing nothing.
One way to do that is to go slow but deep. Getting to know one place intimately is more rewarding than going to several places casually.
There is one truth that I’ve come to know more intimately through my journeys. The world is truly unfair. You don’t need to leave any country to see this, of course. But I’ve seen the rich and the poor, and I couldn’t say who deserved what and why. Can anyone?
That doesn’t mean people can’t be happy if they don’t have the means to travel. I’ve learned that travel can become a trap. Believing that happiness is out there keeps you on a constant campaign that can never be completed.
Home is where the heart is. The ability to find joy where you are is a more important skill than dreaming about finding it elsewhere. If you can be happy at home, you can be happy anywhere you are.
It took me 12 years and thousands of miles to learn that. And I’m grateful I got the chance to do it.