A Decade of Wandering Ends, Another One Begins (Part 1)

Derek Personal Stuff 19 Comments

On December 25th, 1999 I left the USA for Southeast Asia to embark on my first independent backpacking adventure.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I found myself, as so many others do, wandering aimlessly around Khao San Road at 2:00am, exhausted, overwhelmed, confused, shooing away lady-boys and searching for a place to stay. I’ll never forget the fear of that first night as I sat awake until sunrise, staring out a dirty window from an over-priced room, just observing the street below.

At the time, I had no idea the true significance of that first trip. I had no idea that it would fuel an addiction so intense that I would literally refuse to stop wandering around the world throughout the entire decade that followed. An addiction that has taken me to sixty-seven countries while traveling over 800,000 miles. And now that incredible decade is about to come to a close. Yet I am happy to announce that I regret not a single minute of the past ten years.

This post, and the next post I’ll put up in a few days, is a reflection upon my wanderings thus far. I’ve created a list of the first fifty things – places, people, adventures, thoughts, lessons learned – that pop into my head when I think about the past decade. Today I’ll post the first twenty-five.

The list is a bit rough but I thought it better to present these thoughts exactly as they flowed from my brain…

  • The conventional path of life is absolutely not the only option. Lives can be created out of anything we are passionate about. I used to state this with trembling knees and an unsure voice ten years ago, but now I know it to be completely true.
  • Having friends from all over the world is invaluable. Such relationships open the mind more than any other type of interaction. Looking at my email and phone contact lists, I can’t believe that I now have friends listed from 41 different countries!
  • Nobody should suffer from a lack of self-confidence. We don’t have the time to waste and it turns out, that after high school, nobody really cares how you look or why you have a small, weird-looking ball of skin sticking out of your left foot.
  • Personal success is the result of determination, confidence and a refusal to accept anything less than the achievement of your goals.
  • I learned to walk everywhere, often over 5 miles per day while traveling as it provides constant exercise and helps me maintain an elevated level of awareness of my surroundings. This leads to a deeper interaction with a culture as I find myself in areas rarely visited by foreigners.
  • The most difficult and terrifying step in facing any challenge is the first one – genuinely believing that you can succeed. Once you believe in yourself, yes, the sky is literally the limit.
  • People are inherently good and kind. I have been helped by strangers too many times to count. They’ve directed me, given me food, a place to stay, even money when my wallet was stolen. Being afraid of strangers brings about fear and misunderstanding, while being receptive to strangers brings about kindness and mutually beneficial interactions.
  • It is sad how little we really know about the world upon being released into it after graduating from high school. The schoolbooks are incomplete, real-world experience is almost non-existent and the media is as trustworthy as a politician. The only way to learn is through active, first-hand education, by venturing out into the unknown and exploring life for yourself. This does not require world travel, but at least the desire to challenge yourself and to question your own beliefs and motives at all times.
  • I made the decision that at the end of my life, I want to have a long list of goals and dreams achieved, not a long list of regrets. Nobody can make this decision for us, it is up to us to make sure we end up with the list we want!
  • All people are equal – no ifs, ands or buts. ALL PEOPLE. Not one human being is worth more than another.
  • A lack of money is not a valid excuse for not going after the life of your dreams. I began my journey with about $1700. Good money can be made all over the world. There are NO EXCUSES.
  • Facing your fears is the only way to overcome them. I overcame my fear of death by spending three days watching a never-ending line of bodies burn on open flames at the burning ghats of Varanasi. I realized that death is as unavoidable as potatoes in Prague and therefore I had no option but to live one kick-ass life.
  • Some of the most rewarding human interactions take place without verbal language. I once spent a night with a family in a remote mountain village in Kashmir, eating, drinking, laughing and playing with the children, all without uttering a single word.
  • Carrying a small guitar in a case is quite a good idea when traveling through some of the world’s more dangerous regions. Everyone will mistake it for a gun and anyone with negative intentions will generally leave you alone.
  • Utensils should be banned in favor of using our hands to eat. The food just tastes better this way. Go ahead and eat your pasta with your hands…you’ll give up forks forever.
  • There is no better feeling than finding yourself completely comfortable in a strange land, among strange customs so different from those you grew up with. It is a test of your willingness to open your mind and learn.
  • I was once invited by a good friend to spend six weeks backpacking around Argentina, Chile and Uruguay with her as a remedy for a broken heart I had suffered. Some people just know what you need.
  • A two-hour flight may be quicker than a 22-hour train ride, but the flight flies you over the culture below while the train takes you directly through its heart. I’ll choose the train journey every time.
  • Traveling with friends is an amazing experience. Traveling alone is even more amazing as you are forced to meet more people and make more friends.
  • Doctors and dentists who offer high-standard services for a tiny fraction of the cost at home can be found overseas – try Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok or a US-educated dentist in Delhi.
  • Travel has nothing to do with the actual destination or the sites visited during a trip. Travel is all about the distance your mind is willing to go in testing its own limitations and long-held beliefs. Sure, the photos of the Taj Mahal or the Guatemalan woodcarvings make good souvenirs, but they are no indication of whether or not a person has traveled.
  • People don’t hug enough.
  • In order to maintain my health and sanity, I need to spend at least one month per year as far away as possible from any resemblance of a consumer culture. In 2009 I managed to do this twice – once on the tiny Thai island of Ko Mak and again in the isolated Mexican village of Chacala.
  • A genuine smile is a true sign of happiness. Just think of those photos, we’ve all seen them, of an elderly village woman in some faraway land, all wrinkled and toothless, but with such a beaming smile, that we are left stunned by the real possibility that this poverty-stricken woman might be happier than we are. It turns out that most of them are! So do whatever it takes to get a genuine and permanent smile stuck on your face.
  • This planet is full of such awe-inspiring places, places that have left me no choice but to shed a tear of happiness for being fortunate enough to have witnessed them.

I’ll end Part 1 of this two part post with a heartfelt THANK YOU to every single person that has been a part of the past ten years of my life. And I look forward to all of the people out there around the world who will become a part of the next ten!

Stay tuned for Part 2 – to be posted on Wednesday.


Any thoughts on the past decade? What have you accomplished? What sticks out in your mind as the most memorable moments or lessons learned?

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Comments 19

  1. Jonny | thelifething.com

    Earl, You are a writer of incredible talent and it is pure joy to read your articles and hear your voice of experience.

    “Having friends from all over the world is invaluable. Such relationships open the mind more than any other type of interaction. Looking at my email and phone contact lists, I can’t believe that I now have friends listed from 41 different countries!” So true and one of my great endeavours of life.

    I look forward to following you in 2010 and I wanted to let you know that you have inspired me to take my world wanderings further.

    All the best this year mate.

    1. Earl

      Thank you so much for your words Jonny. I’m always happy to hear when someone is about to boost their wanderings to another level. I assume that’s all starting with your trip to India?? I’m already devising methods to deal with the jealously I’ll be experiencing while you’re over there!

      I wish you continued success and happiness for 2010 and I’ll be eagerly awaiting your posts as always!

  2. patti

    great post!
    i had a similar revelation on the ghats of varanasi.
    the whole over-touristed veneer of varanasi couldn’t detract from the raw intense experiences of the ghats.
    i felt as though i’d never seen so much life and death all at once.

    and i completely agree with your note about the inherent goodness and kindness of people. it’s true.

    1. Earl

      I couldn’t take my eyes off the burning ghats at all. At first I was terribly confused but then became mesmerized by the entire process. There was actually one elderly female that was alive and eating near the ghats, then suddenly died and was burned on the ghat all in a period of less than forty-five minutes. After witnessing that entire process my mind had no choice but to re-evaluate its fear of death. That’s India, intense experiences and lessons at all times.

      Thanks again for commenting Patti!

  3. Brandon James

    Dude, I can’t begin to express how inspirational of a read that was for me. Funny enough, my number one fear right now about my trip is that the wandering lifestyle may not live up to my vision of it. It’s funny how the brain will trick us when going for something we really want, your wrap up of the past 10 years in your crazy life is incredbily ressuring and put me back in the frame of mind that I have when I’m out in the world traveling. This post made me realize that this 1-2 year bike trip I’m doing, could very well turn into a life long addiction! Thanks for the words Earl.

    1. Earl

      Thanks for the comment Brandon. I think you shouldn’t go into a wandering lifestyle with any sort of vision of what that actually entails. All I knew is that I wanted to explore the world. I had no idea what that meant, how I was going to do it, how I was going to survive (mentally, physically, monetarily), but I just said, “Oh well, here we go” and took that first step. Ten years ago I could never have fathomed the adventures that I ended up having.

      So get started on your journey, keep your eyes open at all times and don’t be afraid to adjust your lifestyle as you see fit. That’s a big part of the wandering. And I’ll be eagerly awaiting your first “Decade Recap”!!!

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  5. Audrey

    This is an awesome list – I found myself nodding and laughing as I read through them all. Even though everyone’s travel experiences are personal and unique, there seem to be shared understandings and values amongst many travelers (especially long-term ones).

    I think the first point is one that most people can’t get beyond- that it is OK to live an unconventional life (just as I have many friends who are happy in their conventional lives). It’s scary as hell when you first make the decision and consciously choose this path, but it becomes liberating over time.

    I look forward to reading the next installment. And, congrats on a decade of travel!

    1. Earl

      Hey Audrey – There are without a doubt shared understandings among travelers. It’s often an unspoken understanding, not of the actual physical experiences that we’ve gone through, but the various states of mind we have dealt with throughout our journey and process of liberation. It’s one of the absolute highlights of being a part of such a community!

      Enjoy your month+ in Buenos Aires!

  6. Simon

    Awesome. Inspiring post.

    “realized that death is as unavoidable as potatoes in Prague and therefore I had no option but to live one kick-ass life”

    Absolutely loved it.

    1. Earl

      Hey Simon – it’s funny because after visiting Prague for the first time, I couldn’t eat potatoes for about four months after that. At the time I would have chosen death over having to eat another potato. Happy new year over there on your side of the planet!

  7. Elizabeth

    What a WONDERFUL post!
    Too much deepness and wiseness in one single blog.
    Thank you for sharing them with us… can’t wait to read the second part of your blog.

  8. Lisis

    Earl, this is beautiful… really. It’s funny, I used to travel a TON before 1999. The year you started, I got married and soon after that became a mom. We still move to a new place every year or two, but it all requires a bit more planning and less spontaneity. A decade is a decade no matter how you spend it, so you might as well spend it doing something you really want to be doing, huh?

    Have you met David, from Raptitude? He’s just starting out on his travels and learning the pros and cons of being completely on his own. I’ll send him this article to inspire him to keep going even when it gets a little frustrating or lonely.

    I’m really proud of you, Earl, for charting your own course in life. I am also so glad I got to “meet” you this year. Be sure and keep in touch in 2010!

    1. Earl

      Hey Lisis – I love your pattern of moving to a new place every year or two, that alone is inspiring to anyone who thinks that ‘travel’ must involve leaving your ‘home’ for an extended period of time. Why not create your own rules and take your home with you?!

      And I haven’t met David, but thanks for the ‘introduction’. I’m definitely going to head over and check out Raptitude.

      Happy new year and here’s to another decade of doing what we really want to be doing!

  9. AngelineM

    Earl, beautiful thoughts and have helped me formulate a whole other list of New Year’s resolutions!
    Can’t wait for part 2.
    May you have a better than ever next decade.

    1. Earl

      Hey Angeline – I’m glad I could help with creating your list of resolutions and I wish you nothing but success in achieving every item on your list! Thank you so much for following my posts and I’ll have that second part up in a couple of days. Happy new year Angeline!

  10. Nate

    Earl – thanks so much for sharing this list. Reading this puts a smile on my face. It’s not so much where or what you’ve done, but how you’ve done it that I admire. You clearly come across as an extremely genuine and open person.

    I think you’re right in that it’s not about the destination or place you go so much. What travel does in a very good way, is open yourself up to the present. It almost awakens a person and can be a very enlightening experience. I think you’ve been able to achieve this in your travels, which is wonderful.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Nate. I’ve always been a firm believer that travel is thought about incorrectly. We should be more concerned with the way our new experiences shape our perspectives and life path instead of having an impressive list of where we’ve been. And a person with an open-mind will benefit much more from a ten-day trip to Phoenix than a closed-minded individual on a two-year journey around the globe.

      It’s been great connecting with you over the past couple of months Nate. Happy new year!

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