6 Lessons I Learned While Traveling During A Pandemic

6 Lessons I Learned While Traveling During A Pandemic

Last year, right after Black Friday, I was laid off as a Martial Arts coach. My life and fledgling career revolved around Martial Arts training in NYC. I fell apart into a frenzy of fear, panic, and anxiety. I needed to buy food and pay rent and utilities.

My mind shifted into autopilot mode, and I reverted to what I had read and what my friends and relatives had incessantly advised- I began mechanically applying for all types of jobs. After a few sleepless weeks of non-stop applications, escapist daydreams surfaced — Why not go to Japan? Why not immerse myself in my maternal cultural roots? Why not go search for the answers to my childhood questions? My inner voice told me this could be a pivotal point in my life as long as I did not visualize losing my job as a failure.

And that’s when the lightbulb flickered on…. I remembered a training partner inviting me out to Tokyo to train with its best grapplers. I felt enlightened- I would not be running away from, but running towards, well— myself.

The next morning, I bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo and spent my last few days packing my suitcases, vacating my apartment, and saying my goodbyes.

My flight was 22-hours, and I felt like a condemned prisoner strapped into the electric chair pondering my decision to venture forward with no foreseeable return. My hands were shaking, and my stomach in knots for half of that flight­- I had around $5000 in my bank account with no immediate prospects for earning an income in a foreign country.

I second-guessed myself, looked down at the Pacific Ocean, and envisioned myself as a little child treading water in a sea of desperate and anxious thoughts. At that moment, I could not appreciate what was happening.

But “necessity became the mother of invention,” and I gradually re-assembled my scattered thoughts. I spent three months working odd jobs, living in capsules, and training in Tokyo. My outlook brightened and my wallet, although depleted, never became empty. Then working and training with my Uncle in Honolulu­— then Istanbul— and now Belgrade.

As necessity continued to be my surrogate mother, I learned how to sustain myself financially, met people from different cultures, religions, and politics, renewed a spiritual homage with my ancestors, and even managed to shed a few bad habits.

Don’t worry. I won’t ramble about my experiences, the “exotic” food I’ve eaten, or claim “I found myself” in some remote village. Contrary to this oft-repeated maxim, although I eventually uncovered, rather than discovered, myself, I don’t believe a person can find what was lost merely through traveling. And I don’t presume the way I travel, as a single, healthy, martial artist without obligations to others, is meant for everyone.

Traveling “terra incognita” is just another path to a destination that only you will know. The world could be a ball of string that you are unraveling. Adventures and “new” emotions all wax and wane as your hourglass releases more sand. You can traverse Istanbul’s rocky roads or the Netherlands’ flat hills, but every journey has its ups and downs and slippery slopes. So, train yourself always to take the high road.

I consider myself blind and the world an elephant.  Some days, I feel the elephant’s ear, the trunk, the leg, the tail.  And, yes, some days, I step in its sh*t.

Yet, somehow, I learned. About myself, about people in unfamiliar cultures, about the brighter and the darker moments of history. And as the pandemic slowed things down for me, navigating through its turbulence was my teacher.

Looking back, traveling solo during this restricted period exceeded my expectations. In 2019, after conversing with digital nomads about their journeys, I adopted their stereotypes about what I would learn and who I would become.

However, by the end of 2020, the lessons I learned were unexpected, unsettling, and indelibly memorable. Such epiphanies make these lessons valuable, and perhaps, very entertaining. Ultimately, these thunderstorms and lightning bolts were the rainfall and nutrients that helped me grow. If this sparks your interest- please read on.

 You Move Past The Differences Between People And Get To Know Them.

 Stereotypes. Stereotypes. Stereotypes.

The wonder of traveling worldwide is that it confronts you with culture shock, compelling you to overcome barriers and deepen your worldview.  And once you get past the superficial barriers in language, attire, and etiquette, you see that your worldview is actually an inner view, and we are more alike than different.

In your peripheral vision, you will see glimpses into how various cultures interact, how each country’s social structure came to be, or even how the younger generations overtake their predecessors.

So, try to use x-ray glasses to see deeper than stereotypes.

For example, one stereotype of world travelers is a wealthy American student who journeys to the third world to help the indigent. Another stereotype is a young adult from Western, Northern, or Central Europe who wants to meander across Asia for a year to find themselves. Or, how about the overzealous digital nomads who always start their stories with Mexico, Colombia, or Bali and preach about “escaping the 9-5 work grind,” oblivious to the fact that many people are happily content with it.

We can go ad nauseum about stereotypes; to be human is to embed biases and categorize. Try asking a South American, European, or African person what they think about Americans, vice versa- the answer might make you proud, embarrassed, or offend you. But, when you apply Occam’s Razor, you begin to realize people have similar personal biases, wants, and needs that keep us pitted against one another in a vicious cycle.

Maybe, we don’t see the cycle because we are horses that pull our master’s carts while wearing our “nationalistic” pride and other blinders. Perhaps, we are the masters, and we pretend not to see it. Are you a Don Quixote?  Are you Sancho Panza? Or, maybe, you are both.

Cruel might-makes-right happens in public squares and behind closed gates, and in underground silos and orbiting satellites. You can’t change that; it’s a part of life.

Despite this dog-eats-dog, happiness can be omnipresent. Why? Because to most of the world’s people, applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- happiness is just having enough food and a warm home.

Most of the time, all you can do is keep your eyes wide open and use your observations to orient the yin and the yang of your moral compass. If you are a single young adult with nominal responsibilities and close ties, now is the time to discard the blinders to become a lifelong learner.

Why now? Because the brains of young adults are at their peak.

You have heard the proverbs, “children’s brains are like sponges” and “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There’s a scientific basis for these sayings. As we age, the neuroplasticity in our brains decline, slowing us down —hindering our cognitive abilities to learn—and what is neuroplasticity? It’s the brain’s ability to adapt and react to change… so you better get started!

I find it important to be aware of others’ pleasures, pains, and values and learn from them. Lifelong learning allows me to keep my mind fresh, my memory sharp, and helps me empathize with the people I meet.

Whether we are the stereotypical bowl of “salad” or “stew,” we all share a palette of emotions and behaviors that become our experiences and memories. We each need to put food on the table. We worry about our family’s safety. We each enjoy attention and crave self-gratification because it makes us feel important. We all want an activity that excites and inspires us, family and friends that love us.

The Turks might call this “Aşiret.”

The Okinawans might call this “Moais.”

The Nicoyans might call this “Plan De Vida.”

The Americans call this “Finding Your Passion.”

The Japanese may call this “Ikigai.”

Is this a coincidence?

Probably not. If you think about it, humans are connected like spokes on the rotating wheel of life. Sometimes, momentum propels us forward. Other times, gravity holds us down; in any case, the world takes us for a ride.

Everyone Shares Similar Stories, That’s What Makes Us The Same

You realize we are all bipeds from the same gene pool.  Everyone you meet confronts their challenges through similar plotlines of hope and angst. You learn a lot, and the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.

Unfortunately, we are born with unequal privileges, some in a manger, some with silver spoons, some in a test tube. The only gruel doled in equal portions to people around the world is an unfair reality.

I am privileged enough to have learned the financial skills to sustain (just barely) my travel; others have not. And, I am fortunate enough to have had food and heat during the winter and never experienced a war, while others have not.

That being said, you have to decide whether to acknowledge this harsh truth and be okay with it.  Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.”

 You Learn To Pick Up The Low Hanging Fruit That Have Fallen At Your Feet  

As two months, then three months go by, you begin recognizing lost opportunities that appeared in your rearview mirror — options to learn new ingredients to freshen your mother’s recipes. Possibilities to interact with new people and learn their ways of living. As the Zoomers and Millennials say, you don’t want (FOMO) “Fear of Missing Out,” right?

Sometimes, you may anxiously worry that you are wasting your time and have learned nothing. Or, you have wasted your meager savings on meandering, chasing these fleeting so-called opportunities, and thereafter feel “buyer’s remorse.”

And then one day, you get a job, and your visa extends for another year, or you are volunteering on a farm in Colombia, or a change in plans spontaneously arises after meeting other travelers. Your hands tremble with excitement, and your stomach starts caving into itself.

But finally, you did it! You did not waste this opportunity even though your mercurial thoughts told you otherwise. That’s called forward progress, mashallah ( مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ)- you are now a little bit stronger (debatable), more knowledgeable, and hopefully, a little more open to the next opportunity.

You begin realizing that opportunities emerge daily. You know it’s up to you to take action. But you also understand the cons of long-term travel, such as ephemeral relationships and the cornucopia of experiences, which are a kaleidoscope of too many choices that limit you from committing to every new activity and every person you meet.

Too much time on Jack Kerouac’s road can be mentally and emotionally draining, many opportunities lose their luster, and you start thinking about downsizing yourself — maybe, even setting down. You begin to believe there will always be another destination, with a new experience and opportunity to chase, Inshallah.

But mathematically speaking, you will probably not have time in your lifespan to experience these places, nor would you want to. Even if you attempted to travel the world for years, you may end up spreading yourself too thin. Instead of attempting to ascend every mountain in the world, you need to pick a place to make a base camp to allow your Sisyphus to rest.

You Stop Hiding Behind Your Mask

There are many pros and cons to living in a new country every few months. But one of the biggest advantages is that even if you embarrass yourself, many people won’t take offense.

Maybe, you are a “Buitenlander,” “Gaijin,” or “Haole” who is butchering their language. Or possibly, you are uttering something ignorant, or using offensive body language, in a moment of confusion.  In Japan, you will not be able to “kuuki o yomu”- read the air. Most of the time, the vast majority of new acquaintances will give you the benefit of the doubt. They won’t mind your faux pas if they interpret your intentions as benign — they are more likely to appreciate your effort, or they may laugh at your embarrassment, no big deal.

And even if you manage to anger someone (unintentionally), you will be leaving that country (at some point), so stop worrying so much about what the Japanese call “honne” and “tatemae.”

The above does not apply when you have a home base. A set routine compartmentalizes your day-to-day activities. That means you drive the same roads, say hello to the same neighbors, maybe, flirt with the same cashier at your local grocery store. If/when things get awkward, or you feel trapped, you can’t just hop on a plane to a neighboring city- Or can you?

And sure, you could change your schedule to avoid social suicide-inducing moments, but why would you?

I spend most of my days by myself, as do you. Alone with my thoughts, feelings, and anecdotes. Maybe, you feel this way too…. Maybe, you don’t.

But being isolated with thoughts that are implosive can be circling backwards. And although I have trouble accepting the leap of faith that many religions demand, that “if you believe in god, everything will work out,” I do believe being alone is a good thing.

Because the more time you spend by yourself, the more you will ponder yourself. The Buddhists say, “Warm faces in the morning, cold ashes by night.” You realize at death’s door, whether the next minute or decades from now- neither health nor wealth, travel or adventures, or other people matter because you will die alone.

So, it is essential to put away the adult masks and remember, to understand, to uncover your inner child.

 “You can either be your best friend or your worst enemy.” It’s your choice.

The More You Travel, The Easier It Becomes To Accept And Move On.

 “I’m traveling to find myself.”

Most travelers parrot the same mantra, making it a cliché, but to me, it’s a half-truth that begs the question, “Why and how did you get lost?”.

Thus, I am skeptical of this cliché, “I’m traveling to find myself.”

This saying does not account for vacationers who are pleasure seekers seeking entertainment in the novelty of foreign lands and languages. Sure, you can travel the world: climb Mt. Everest, hangout on the golden shorelines of Montenegro, savor the zesty Takoyaki in Osaka, and even strike a few downward-facing dog poses in Bali, but that does not mean your life will change for the better, but it might!

Not every traveler will be successful in finding themselves because although your venues change, it does not mean that your self-perception will follow suit. But travel may illuminate and expose ways to resolve and grow upwards from past traumas.

And just because you CAN change does not mean you will, but some travelers might go through a metamorphosis.  Not every crusader will return from their “hero’s quest” a champion, but many will return with sharpened abilities and stronger armor.

How can I say this? It is inarguable that you get proficient at learning how to “move on” in life. When you are accustomed to frequent travel, variables or external factors fluctuate so fast that you lose grasp of your compass.

One week you are in Turkey, the next you are in Serbia. One month you might wake up in your Uncle’s home; the next, you might be in a stranger’s home. Maybe, you haven’t spoken to your family in a year. Maybe, you can’t tell whether you’re the same person you were six months ago.

…. Or you are confused about your life.

You realize finding yourself is too shallow of a statement to make. You think your character is improving, but maybe, you aren’t­— perhaps, you are continually making the same mistakes— so you often question it.

But one thing is far better than investigating the why and how you lost yourself, and that is learning how to move on.

It teaches you how to move past uncertainty— ultimately sharpening your ability to learn from your mistakes and move on.

Sometimes, you may ask, why is “moving on” so important?

Moving on or “moving forward” is another way to say “locomotion.” And locomotion is a characteristic of being alive, so keep trudging your path because when you can no longer move, you are no longer alive….  Bon Voyage.

“The Universe Is Change.” – Marcus Aurelias, Meditations,

You Learn That You Can Walk Faster With Less Baggage

The character Morpheus once said to his student Neo, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

Morpheus was right. Traveling is a skill that can only be mastered through— well—traveling. In order to thoroughly understand it, you need to do it. Until then, my words won’t mean much.

 “You know what you know, you know what you don’t know, but you don’t know what you don’t know.”

That said, learning how to travel is more than knowing how to pack your bags or which neighborhoods are cheap and safe, the most affordable airlines, the best travel clothes, or the most beautiful places to visit.

When you travel, you learn how to live minimally, reduce your “luggage,” and adapt to change.

Avoid my mistakes- When I first arrived in Tokyo, I carted around a 40-pound suitcase to 4 different homes in 3 weeks. It was winter, and I was sweating through my clothes while slipping on ice and nearly getting hit by buses.

Once, I wandered around Brussels for half the night looking for my flat. I lacked cellphone service, and my friends could not reach me.

I didn’t just learn how to pack better or avoid getting lost. Instead, I learned to leave behind the physical and emotional baggage that weighed me down.  In Japan, I learned the phrase “Iran koto”- things you don’t need. I concur with American writer Henry Thoreau that “You don’t own possessions; they own you.”

You quickly notice that living minimally (in every sense of the word) can help keep your spine straight, remove emotional weight off your shoulders, and lighten your spirits.  Beer and coffee are “essential,” but do you really need champagne or $5 lattes from Starbucks?

Remember, your body has to last a lifetime!

You realize learning how to travel is not just about wandering efficiently. It is about learning how to value yourself, devalue material possessions, maneuver around or through your inner turmoil, and enjoy life for what it is, as the German’s say, “Jetzt haben wir den Salat” (one big mess).

You realize the goal is to keep your spine straight, don’t hunch your shoulders, learn how to adapt to change, accepting life Que Sera Sera.   But, when you can, do your part to improve the world for the next generations.

And after you learn these lessons, you realize there will always be more. More questions, more answers, more lessons because this locomotion makes us human, and the only thing you can do is what my Okinawan grandmother would say, Hayaku-  Hurry Up!   


About Max Hsu

After graduating in May 2018 with a B.S. in Cyber Security, Max Takaesu Hsu decided to explore untrod paths. He became a highly competent travel hacker who is a freelance content writer on Upwork with crackerjack SEO experience. This digital nomad goes by the nom de plume, the Wandering Warrior Poet and, is currently working from Serbia. This year alone, he traveled through three different continents while financially sustaining himself. You can follow the Wandering Warrior Poet on Instagram and Twitter.

Leave a Reply