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5 Things I've Learned From Travel

Sherry Ott

I stepped out of customs, disoriented after the long flight. I felt like everyone was looking at me as I scanned the crowd looking for something familiar. But everything was different; it sounded different, it smelled different, it felt different, it looked different.

My heart raced, my eyes widened - I was fully aware of everything around me. This was my first time traveling abroad and I had just landed in Istanbul. I suppose you could call it culture shock, but I believe my curiosity had just been awakened. I looked at this new world with a curiosity that I had never experienced before, and that was the start of my travel bug.

I took that first trip abroad at 30 years old, and immediately was hooked. Experiencing new things has always driven me my entire life, and travel was like drinking newness from a fire hose. I was so smitten with traveling, that at 36 years old I quit my corporate career in IT, put my things in storage, and traveled around the world for what I planned to be a year; but it morphed into 12 years. I planted and nurtured a new career in travel writing and photography to sustain my travel lifestyle and nomadic way of life. I ticked off countries, continents, and bucket list experiences. My travel style, focus, and waistline changed as I became a seasoned road warrior, but the one thing that was always constant was my curiosity about the world.

My knowledge of the world grew by being a curious traveler. After traveling non-stop for 12 years, these are my tips for traveling abroad.

Local Connections Bring the Most Satisfaction

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Gone are they days where people are satisfied with going from sight to sight and being lectured to. As humans we are yearning for connection. Going into a local home, shopping at a market, learning how to make the local foods, interacting with the locals in a day-to-day setting; that's what make a successful trip for me.

Some of my favorite and most memorable travel experiences are doing the mundane day-to-day things in a new country and culture. Going to the DMV with my friends in Jordan, Having tea in Morocco with Bedouins, learning how to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, staying with nomadic families in Mongolia - these are the moments where my travel magic happens. It allows me to infiltrate an intimate setting and capture the essence of culture and traditions. It also provides the opportunities to make lifelong friendships, like my friend Giri from Nepal. He showed me around his country and still contacts me every holiday to ask about my family and give me an update on his mother and his local village that I stayed in.

Taking the Road Less Traveled is Essential

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Lewis and Clark had the guts to get out and explore unknown lands, blazing a trail across the United States meeting new cultures, adapting, and getting high on the discovery and exploration. Nothing makes me happier than when I feel like a modern day Lewis and Clark on a trip - discovering a new destination few people don't know about.

So many people just follow where others go and travel to the popular spots. This can be satisfying to some, but most people (me!) prefer exploration to travel.

I find the act of discovering a place that isn't subject to mass tourism brings an excitement like no other. This is why I have started really focusing on getting off the beaten path and finding unique experiences and places. It makes me feel like an explorer of old discovering something that others don't know about yet.

I loved skipping the popular Ring of Kerry in Ireland for the Dingle Peninsula, which was rather unknown and less touristed. When I went to India it wasn't the Taj Mahal that was the most memorable moment for me. It was the walks through the rural villages, interacting with locals and kids who seldom see foreign visitors. It was the cooking class I took with the brother and sister in their home that was my most memorable meal. Mass tourism is easy, but when I take the less traveled route, it's infinitely more rewarding.

Traveling Solo is Less Scary Than You Think

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When I left on my original trip around the world, I was terrified. I wasn't really a seasoned traveler, and I had never traveled solo before. I remember crying at the airport as I left to fly to Kenya, the first stop on my around the world journey. However, it didn't take long to realize that traveling solo wasn't as scary as I had thought. In fact, it was empowering. I started off by easing into solo travel by traveling with a small group of 8 people. By traveling solo within a small group I've made lifelong friendships. It's the perfect way to travel solo without the uncomfortable moments of 'whom will I eat with'. From those first small group trips, I started to branch out on my own more feel more confident.

I quickly learned that one of the benefits of traveling on your own is that you become infinitely more approachable, and you are most likely the most interesting person in the room. People come up and talk to you, you get asked to join people more often, and people tend to watch out for you more. Plus, you can be incredibly flexible when you are solo which leads to the next topic!

Say Yes!

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You can make a travel plan and stick to it, or you can veer from that plan and see where it leads you. When I left for my initial trip in 2006 I planned my first 3 months of travel, and had a very rough plan for the rest. I told my friends and family that if I actually stuck to my original plan, I would be disappointed in myself. After all, travel is about reaching out into the unknown and embracing the new.

My best travel moments have been when I've veered from my plan and said "yes" to things that were unplanned and a bit unpredictable. When I said yes to the chef in Spain about joining him for a town event where he was cooking, it led to an incredible night of local experience and years of ongoing friendship. It's those moments when everything isn't predictable that memories are born. I've learned saying 'yes' to unplanned things can lead you to the best moments of your trip.

The Key to Happiness is Not More Stuff

Travel Lessons Less is More

As I walked around the rural villages in India, one thing was evident - these kids looked happy. They were all playing outside with one another, the families seemed joyful and everyone seemed to smile. Yet they live in dirt floor homes, and women walk to the local faucet to fill up big jars that balance precariously on their head to bring back to their homes. It never ceased to amaze me that the people who had the least seemed to be happier than the people who had the most.

I gave up on the American dream. The one that says you should have a big house furnished in Pottery Barn and West Elm. The one that says you need the latest and greatest smoothie maker. At 36 I stopped acquiring things and started to divest of them instead in exchange for travel experiences. I was able to do this because as I traveled around the world I realized I really didn't need very much to be happy. I lived out of my suitcase for years, and I loved that I had fewer decisions to make each day regarding what to wear, things I needed to take with me, and fewer specialized one-use items. I learned to live lean, and with that came less stress and more smiles - just like the people I saw around the world.

I still have many years of travel ahead of me, and I intend to keep learning what this world has to teach me.

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