Unpack This

I Traveled To 40 Countries By Age 33. Here's What I Learned


Unpack This offers deep dives as to how how society shapes and perpetuates ideals based on the writers experience as a social worker and therapist. Melissa covers dating, love, shame and guilt, therapy, white supremacy, intersectional feminism, trauma, and how difficult and weird it is to be a human.

During the most recent vacation in March — gorilla trekking in Uganda — my husband told me that when I travel, I flow like water. When I asked him what this meant, he said, “You can adjust to pretty much any setback that comes your way without missing a beat.” “I watch you,” he said, “Nothing messes you up.”

I started thinking about why that is, and I realized that it’s likely because I’ve had the immense privilege of visiting different parts of the world since I was 11 months old. That, plus a consistent therapy practice based in self-compassion are probably the culprits for my flow-like-water approach. But I wasn’t always like that.

The first trips planned for my family were to Disney World bolstered by my childhood bible, The Unofficial Guide to Disney World. I loved how, with a little extra planning, I could “hack the system” and subsequently master the complex web of a Disney vacation. I love that my obsessive preparedness would result in less time spent on lines and more time spent doing whatever the hell else we wanted. I loved that, with extra research, I could feel a sense of control despite being in a brand-new environment. If that’s not a metaphor for life itself, I don’t know what is.

Much to the benefit of those who travel with me now, I’ve since loosened up on the moment-by-moment itineraries. What has stayed constant is the joy of choosing a place, imagining a vibe* to inspire overall environment and activity selections, and doing the front end work it takes to enjoy myself the way I know how.

“Much to the benefit of those who travel with me now, I’ve since loosened up on the moment-by-moment itineraries.”

Because of the joy I get from planning and exploring, there are few places in the world I wouldn’t venture. Just like the benefits of therapy, traveling requires you to build self-awareness of your needs and reflect on how you relate to the outside world.

The secret to unlock from both travelling and therapy is: if you can create a home within yourself (including knowledge of your needs, your desires, your boundaries, your preferences), it suddenly becomes more possible to feel at home anywhere.

“Just like the benefits of therapy, traveling requires you to build self-awareness of your needs and reflect on how you relate to the outside world.”

The issue becomes when we don’t know ourselves well enough, we cannot create a home wherever we are. Below, here are my tried-and-true travel tips to get you thinking about what it would take for you, too, to create a home anywhere in the world, where you could flow like water.

1. Know what kind of travel experience you want before you go.

I like a mix of city, country, and a water source (beach/lake/river) if possible. If I can hit all three in one trip, that’s ideal. If not, I like an overall mix of rest (moving slowly in a calm space with an incredible view) and rally (exploring and touring a faster paced city.) If you’re traveling with someone, get a sense of what type of trip they also want. If you are in relationship therapy with me, this comes up a lot. Getting on the same page with the people you’re traveling with is a must. You don’t want to find out on your very expensive vacation that your girlfriend was planning on sleeping late and then dancing all night at the clerb while you were mainly jazzed about that early morning historical walking tour.

2. Don’t overdo it on the sightseeing.

I learned this from early family trips in which going to every museum and every cathedral was non-negotiable. What often resulted was pure exhaustion as well as a preoccupation with ticking things off a list instead of experiencing the thing we were there to see. Do your research and get a real sense of what you want to do as well as what’s realistic given your specific situation. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t go to the Eiffel Tower. Take a cue from Anthony Bourdain (RIP) and spend your trip doing exactly what you want to do, not what you think you should do.

3. Allow for flexibility.

I started out as the type of traveler who would be like:

9:00 AM – 10 AM: Visit Museum

10:00 - 10:15 AM: Leisure time

Now, in my wise older age, my itinerary looks more like a list of things I really want to do and things I could do. Sort of like finding an apartment in New York City: must-haves, nice-to-haves, could-haves – with a time-worn understanding of: you can’t have it all. Check out your destinations on a map and group some things together on your itinerary for efficiency. Research beforehand if things are open the same day, closing times and allow for mistakes and adjustments, which there will be. Things will be under construction, Google maps will be wrong, you’ll get tired or hungry or, if you’re like me, so randomly and desperately thirsty that if you don’t find water immediately, you may die. Don’t freak out, just slot things in and out as needed. And, for god's sake, bring a water bottle with you. This is a self-compassion practice – give yourself what you need instead of shaming yourself for needing it in the first place.

4. Leave room for spontaneity.

When I think about the best times I spent traveling, they all have one thing in common. They weren’t listed on my itinerary. The best parts of travel, the things I remember, the stories I tell at dinner parties are not usually the exquisite cathedrals (actually, maybe I just hate cathedrals?) or paintings I saw but the people I met randomly, the SNAFUs I got into, the windy street I decided to walk down where I found an hidden courtyard to sit in and people watch.

5. Know your non-negotiables.

This is a biggie. We are a relational species, meaning, we often want to relate to and sometimes even appease the people around us. When we start from this place, we set ourselves up for building resentment. Instead of the ever thrilling, “I’m easy! I don’t care what we do!” Consider this: you’re not easy and you do care what you do. Figure out what those things are that, if you don’t get to them, you will be sad or mad. Give your travel partner the gift of making that clear to them so they know what’s most important to you.

6. Don’t listen when people say, “It’s not enough time.”

People who love their hometown often say whatever time you have isn’t enough time, that you cant possibly spend x amount of days in their beloved place. Don’t let that deter you. Take the time you have and plan realistically. If you have 5 days in total, perhaps seeing 3 places isn’t realistic. However, you know yourself best. Some people like to spend 2 weeks in one place because they like to experience it like a local. Their joy is finding a coffee shop to visit every day and making friends with the barista. Others want to move more fast paced and don’t mind switching cities every 3 days. Know who you are and plan accordingly.

7. Jet lag is a beast and you will not beat it.

There are all sorts of tips out there for beating jet lag. What works for me is to accept that jet lag is more powerful than I am. If you can, don’t overbook yourself your first two days anywhere. I usually plan a spa appointment to help support the general grogginess if I’m in a place with a bath culture or a country know for reasonably priced massages. Give yourself the things you need (self compassion, yet again). And, cue the serenity prayer.

8. If you run into an issue, tap into gratitude.

I can’t tell you how many times I watch people lose their GD minds when there’s some small inconvenience on a trip. Remember — you get to travel. It’s not a privilege many have. Bring something to entertain yourself when things don’t go accordingly to plan. Take a walk. Do a crossword. Listen to a podcast. Buddhists believe that resistance is, “believing that your experience should be something other than it is.” Annoyance is part of being human and if you think your well-thought-out plan is going to guard against that, you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

9. Travel within your financial and emotional means.

Travel is expensive. It requires budgeting and proactive saving and planning. If the money you are spending on a trip is going to regularly stress you out, don’t do it. Plan something cheaper or more manageable financially. Or wait and save until you can travel with less stress. Some of the best trips of my life were the cheapest most local ones. This same premise goes for emotions. If you are not someone who likes to be outside their comfort zone, don’t plan a trip that will require you to do that. There is nothing wrong with booking an all-inclusive resort if you are primarily looking for ease and childcare. I can’t tell you how many times people tell me they’re going to an all-inclusive resort and then immediately follow that up with some explanation as to why they’re not doing something more adventurous and exciting. If that’s you, give yourself what YOU need and fuck everyone who says otherwise.

10. Do some things by yourself.

I always recommend dedicated time to tapping back into what you want to do on a moment-by-moment basis. If you live your life concerned about others well-being before your own, you will bring that energy into travel and may be surprised when you get home and realize your vacation wasn’t as relaxing as you’d hoped. Wake up early and go for a walk on the beach. Linger a little longer at the coffee shop. Spend time weaving in and out of shops at the exact cadence that fits you. I travel to expand my mind. I travel alone to remember who I am.

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