Growing Up: An Essay from The Immature Traveler

A month or so after returning home from my few years in Japan, I had the opportunity to play catch-up with a certain female friend of mine in, of all places, a local Japanese restaurant. There were the customary expressions of envy at the other’s experiences, surprise at discovering who was now dating whom, and the genuine pleasure of just being face to face once more.

But despite our common interests in the past, I was slowly given the impression we no longer saw eye-to-eye on issues that mattered to me the most. As I was telling another tale of my miraculous rescue of the poor Japanese orphans from a burning building, which resulted in me marrying the princess and finding true acceptance into their society (well … close enough), I suggested to her that she might also want to consider living abroad, giving up the 9-to-5 job, and learn about the other options available to someone her age.

There was no hesitation on her part. She brushed her black hair behind her ear, and dismissed the idea with a gentle laugh, saying, “I have to grow up sometime.”

Ordinarily, I would have been quick to counter what I considered such an ill-conceived notion with numerous quotes from travel philosophy books, stories from the diverse people I met on the road, and why, above all, nothing in this world should be set in stone. I would have done so, if this had not been the second time I heard this exact sentence from friends of mine; the other had been half the world over, a few months prior, in Surattani. In those few seconds between her response and the time needed for me to change the subject before things got awkward, my mind explored this idea of “growing up”.

Is the long-term traveler really nothing more than an immature child in others’ eyes? Not a curious soul seeking answers but rather an intellectual teenager, ignorant of the future and focusing only on the pleasure of the moment? I hope so, but not for the reasons you may think.

I want to address some of the arguments you non-travelers (and parents, really) give to us tourists, vagabonds, travelers, wayward souls, and wandering minstrels as proof positive that your path on this planet is the only way to live long term, and anything else ”¦ is simply acting childish.

Lego Office Copier Technician
© Yo Spiff

#1: The Job

It’s true, we travelers don’t typically awake at 7:00 AM, try to start our car on a cold morning, navigate though 30,000 cars in traffic (though not before picking up a Frappuccino from the Starbucks drive-through), and spend nine hours every day hunched in a grey chair in an even greyer cubicle staring at a white screen. We must be insane to refuse such an enticing experience.

I’m breaking this down into all black and white, but sometimes, in reality, that’s just the way things are. We’re called immature for not opting for the mainstream definition of success: go to the right school, get good grades, get a good job, work hard, get money, retire, then travel once you’re old and worn out. I don’t think so ”¦

“What if I told you ‘insane’ was working fifty hours a week in some office for fifty years at the end of which they tell you to piss off; ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn’t you consider that to be insane?”

Steve Buscemi, Con Air

I’ll grant you, many of us are left high and dry without the dental plan, the 401K, health insurance, and steady paycheck. But I doubt any of us are desiring the life that makes such things easier. Travel is all about discomfort, in that respect: every day we’re learning how to adapt to a different culture, speak a new language, survive without sleep and exercise to catch a midnight ferry. Sure, it’s easy to work in front of a computer screen for thirty years, but you’re often left unchallenged and unfulfilled.

How do we survive? Teaching English in Asia, which requires little to no experience. Working part-time in a hostel to pay for meals. Writing articles for above average (hint, hint) travel websites.

None of us really get rich this way, but we foster a better sense of who we are and what kind of world we live in. We accept the goodwill of others when needing a place to sleep on a cold night, volunteer our services on organic farms in Australia, the whole time our brains rewire themselves to cope and become more accepting of the unknown.

Score: Score one for the travelers: we are not insane ”¦ but our synapses may misfire now and again.

Long Distance Relationship
© Y0$HlMl

#2: Relationships

We don’t often have the luxury of sending out a notice on Outlook telling everyone in the office to meet for drinks at 6:30 at Molly Malone’s. In fact, if we happen to be in the same city where we read the message later that night, it would be a minor miracle.

Needless to say, friendships on the road aren’t exactly the same as those you see among people with stability. Less regular meet-ups, more “happen-to-be-passing-through-Bangkok-want-to-get-a-drink-at-The-Vertigo?” or missed messages on Facebook.

And even though we’re less likely to have friendships with face-to-face meetings and get-togethers, we are more inclined to have companions of substance and common interest. How so? Have you ever traveled with anyone for a prolonged period? It’s a great test of friendships and romantic relationships. One learns how to live in the company of another while both are never really aware of just what’s around the next corner. It’s the test of time, but more so. While growing up together strengthens relationships because both parties are going through the same life phases, so too does travel by allowing us to discover if two people can stay on the same wavelength while their worlds are ever in a state of flux.

However, just like our counterparts at home, there is a tendency to fall back on simple, no-strings-attached encounters before jumping ship or crossing the border (sometimes literally with travelers). Two misplaced bodies catch each other’s eye across the lobby of a dimly-lit hostel, swap travel stories, and suddenly find that their hands have become tightly intertwined; both seeking refuge from the loneliness of the open road or merely using each other as a window into a different kind of life and culture. It happens … or so I’m told.

Although there are shallow romantic situations while traveling, I’ve found that connections between both friends and lovers tend to be extremely polarized among vagabonds. As friends, you either know them well enough to send an email invite for a drink at the local pub, or just as the foreign face in the crowd of Japanese people, someone to give a respectful head nod as you pass each day.

For travel romances, you either find a soul mate who can keep up with your travel quirks and interests or fall back upon meaningless fling after fling. A tad oversimplified, but correct in essentials.

Score: I’d say this point is a pretty even split: 30-15. Advantage: we travelers.

Walk of Faith, Cuba
Walk of Faith, Cuba © lepiaf.geo

#3: Stability

I’m assuming you’re reading this from your home or perhaps your cubicle at work. Look around ”¦ what do you see? Maybe a picture of you and your family, some work you’ve let pile up, some books sitting on the mantle you’ve already read twice, clothes you’re never going to wear again?

You’re surrounded by possessions that you’ve allowed to become piled up over the years. It gives you comfort to cross that threshold that is your home and see all the trinkets you have purchased over the years sitting in their respective places. It’s also what keeps you from picking up and going at your leisure.

Want to head to Asia for a few months?

“Awww, man, I would, but my boss ”¦ well, you know ”¦”

“Ah, I can’t. Things are going really great between Monica and me.”

“A few months?!? Who would feed Mr. Tacos? And water my plants? Get my mail? Pay my bills? Change the lint trap on the dryer in case someone broke in and wanted to do a load?”

I thought we had all agreed: comfort alone is not living.

The job may keep you fed and reasonably well-off, but few jobs can offer a schedule that lets you do what you want, when you want. There’s always a meeting, or a deadline or some emergency that only you can handle. A girlfriend or boyfriend, or spouse may be a source of great joy and comfort to you, but when it comes time to spend a great deal of time on yourself, can they let you go (or more importantly, can you allow yourself to leave them behind)? Your house may give you a place to store all your worldly possessions and kick back at the end of the day, but I thought we had all agreed: comfort alone is not living.

We need to be kicked out of the familiar at times to prove to ourselves that we can survive without TiVo and microwave ovens; that we can order sushi in an out-of-the-way Tokyo restaurant without causing a language barrier stir; that the measure of happiness is not the money in the bank or the items around the room. It’s the human experience, one that needs to be pursued to its fullest potential.

See the world. Break a bone. Learn a new language. Run naked in the streets. Go dog sledding in Alaska. Run a marathon. Use your body and think about the original intent of our species ”¦

” ”¦ we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”

Office Space

Score: Deuce. A tie for those of you keeping score. We are each wanting in certain aspects of life, both of us with different philosophies, different ideas as to what is important to us. In the end, that’s really all that matters. If you’re happy living in the same town, doing the same job, dating the same girl, eating the same food, then by all means, do it.

But if you crave change each and every day, waking up to the sun rising over the Pacific, learning Thai to impress the cute girl sitting across from you in the internet café, reading book after book just to locate the source of one cultural reference you came across earlier that day, then the life of a traveler may be for you.

Call us ungrounded. Call us backpack-toting hippies. But “immature”? I think not.

50 Responses

  1. beachnriver

    It’s funny I had a conversation similar to the “grow up” warning with my daughter who chose to travel to live in the rainforest of Argentina over securing a “mainstream” occupation. She “volunteered” to become a research assistant and bunks in a room the size of a small bedroom with three other girls. She is as happy as a lark. Can I understand? No. But your essay shed a new light — and I can appreciate the viewpoint. What I’d like to know is the truth about where you store your belongings? Mom’s? BTW — she hitchhiked and camped all through New Zealand S.Island a year ago. ha.

    Reply
  2. Turner

    I have a storage place in Texas, but I’m slowly selling off everything inside. Thanks for reading.

    Reply
  3. Lara

    Well said! I wish this was around for my parents to read several years ago when I told them that I was packing up my stuff, quiting my financially secure job, and becoming a baker on a ranch. Since then, I’ve managed to live in 5 more places and out of a car while exploring what this big, beautiful country has to offer. Even now at 30, my parents still don’t get it…especially since my next move will involve seeing the rest of the world…but their learning. They always referred to it as living in “la-la land.” Oh and as for storage…I finally managed to get down to only what would fit in my car, which now is a bummer cause I just sold it too!

    Beachnriver…just keep supporting her…that’s all she needs!

    Reply
  4. Hal

    Nice treatment of the topic, Turner. This is something I think every long-term traveler runs into. It’s unfortunate what “growing up” is synonymous to for most people.

    ps – ever find yourself wishing your storage unit would burn to the ground? I do.

    Reply
  5. Liz

    I am a senior in highschool, destined for the next two years to go to community college and live in a tiny apartment…with complete strangers. I can’t afford yet to hop on a plane to South Africa(one of my many plans), but for now I get the tantalizing offer of being as much outside my comfort zone as possible(living with people i’ve never met before). I really don’t want to stay in the same place forever- I want to see the world! Thankyou for this article, because sometimes I have to contend with the notion that I must get a career and settle down, blah blah blah… long back story. But anyway. This article has reminded me it’s OK to drop it all and GO. that’s what I want :-) [PS I plan on transferring to a university in Switzerland that requires you to travel for two weeks every semester…amazing much?]

    Reply
  6. Nora Dunn

    Excellent article, Turner! Thank you.
    I have wrestled with similar issues as a full-time traveler, and am glad that I am not alone.

    As for keeping stuff in storage – what stuff? I sold it all. I have 6 boxes to my name, in a friend’s garage. And yes – it could burn to the ground and I wouldn’t lose sleep! (smiles)

    Reply
  7. Nik

    Excellent article Turner. To these people my answer usually varies along the line: “Exactly! I don’t want to grow up.. grow old and die… I want to stay forever young!”

    I’ll add a dash of witty sarcasm and/or friendly banter, depending on how close I am with said friend..

    But yah.. 110% agree with you!

    Reply
  8. Carlton

    Good for you. A dear friend, who is now in her fifties, escaped Ottawa, many years ago, by traveling to the East, and teaching English in Asia. It is a fine beginning. She is now a production designer. Another friend, escaped Auckland, to become a visual effects artist, in first London, then New York, and has now, after many years, returned to New Zealand, to a different place, from which she left.

    I am oldish, approaching a half of a century of living and working and traveling on this Big Marble. I have shot film in 33 countries, traveled to many more, and spent this summer in the war zones of Eastern Congo, teaching Media and Empowerment, to young people caught in the crossfires, not of their making.
    I continue to travel, each morning, via Skype and Facebook and cell phone, into the DR Congo, to mentor.

    Physically traveling might be the impetus and the catalyst, but it is not I believe the endgame. Just like there are many different options for the sedentary citizen, the same reality of choice applies to the wanderer. The truth of one’s character is how one assumes one’s station. Hopefully with grace and with a profound sense for the other.

    Just do it. Do some good. And leave little in your wake.

    Reply
  9. Jody Broyles

    Great article! My husband and I have been on the road for the past 15? 16? 17? years. (Who’s counting?) We have been called immature (although I am in my mid sixties!) “vagabonds” (I adore this term) “bums” (not so much, and definitely “unrealistic” by many (mostly those who you describe)
    You’re right, each to his own. I’m glad we choose to live our lives the way we do! We’re happy you do, too!

    Reply
  10. Lara

    Well said! I wish I had this article to pass on to my parents as I told them that I would be packing up and quitting my financially-secure job and becoming a baker on a ranch. That was several years ago, and I’ve continued to roam around this country – stopping to stay in some places longer and other times just living out of a car. They’ve always referred my lifestyle as living in “la-la land.” Now I’m taking my roaming out into the rest of the world. And my parents are still storing what little stuff I actually have. I wouldn’t have it any other way…

    Beachnriver…just keep supporting your daughter…that’s all she really needs.

    Reply
  11. Cindy Wilkinson McMullen

    Who said,”Growing old is inevitable but growing up is not.” Seem quite applicable here.

    We are not young travelers but have had this same conversation many times with friends and acquaintances of all ages. The other side of the question is, “But what will you do?” My answer is always, “Live”

    It is unfortunate that so many, particularly Americans, measure success and even self-worth by acquisitions and possessions.

    We sold absolutely everything, even donated 650 volumes to the local university library. What a freeing experience it was to rid ourselves of the encumberances and the associated costs of mainteaining them.

    We are down to a couple of duffles each and hope to weed further. What did Jimmy Buffett sing, “…too much stuff.”

    And, Turner, as for the bit still stored. Go through it and ask yourself who will need to deal with it when you are no longer around and will they care to keep whatever it is. I, too dealt with some old scouting stuff. My suggestion is to enjoy the memories, pat yourself on the back for the accomplishments and then let it go. As for yearbooks, they can always be found in the school library. If not, donate yours and they’ll be there should you ever want to look at them again.

    Reply
  12. Claire

    GREAT article! Very well-written! And, also a good point, to Nik, that world travelling would keep you forever young…a person does have to stay on their toes for whatever might be around the corner, and also be learning constantly about new cultures & be open to new experiences. I’m not a world traveller, but my cubicle has been looking grayer and grayer every day.

    Reply
  13. Jenny

    I liked your article but it is rather stereotypical. I have lived abroad for many years having wonderful experiences and exploring the world but in recent years I have gotten a ‘real’ job as they say (which allows me to do the things I want and is in an industry that is young and fun), married the love of my life and ‘settled down’ but that doesnt mean that I am not going to stop traveling (I am going to East Africa for two months to volunteer in a few weeks)

    My point being is that we do not stop growing just because we have a 9-5. We learn new hobbies, go on crazy hikes, run marathons, clean up beaches, learn how to surf, meet people from around the world in our own city, and work in our community to make the world a better place. We challange ourselves while holding a job that allows us to take time off, travel without having to worry about if they will have free cornflakes in the hostel in the morning.

    You mention that traveling helps you accept people for who they are. Your comment about your friend at the beginning of the article proves that you dont accept her point of view and where she is in life, so maybe you need to take off for a little while longer and ponder what she wants out of life.

    As for the ‘immature’ travelers – there are plenty out there. Trashing hostels, drinking all night, sleeping all day. Treating the locals like idiots, trying to scam merchants, not appreciating the customs of the country and being obnoxious and loud. Sleeping with whomever you like with no concequences. The list goes on and on.

    I think in this world, there are many roads in life and definitely step back and take a look at the world around you, but dont judge people for their chosen path.

    Reply
  14. Cindy Wilkinson McMullen

    Jenny ,It sounds to me that you still live the traveler’s life even though you are spending longer periods in one place. It is certainly not necessary to check out of the hostel each morning and move on to the next place to be a traveler. I find my most meaningful experiences are generally those where I stay put and become part of the local culture for awhile. It seems you’ve just chosen what some might consider a more conventional ,or in Turner’s language, mature location. But your life as described certainly appears to be that of a traveler. I imagine you still are confronted by questions from others who see you as unconventional and question your lifestyle.

    Reply
  15. Steven BREWER

    I enjoyed reading your post, although it struck me as just a bit defensive and it makes gainful employment into a straw man. I think finding work worth doing can result in not filling out useless forms — even if you are sitting in front of a computer all day. There can be many roads to Allah.

    In the interests of full disclosure, let me state that the author of the linked article is my brother Phil.

    Reply
  16. Turner

    Thanks for reading, everyone.

    As far as “real work” is concerned, I guess I am seeing things a little one-sided. In my experience, and the experiences of 99% of the travelers I meet, you become so complacent in a regular job (sorry to use that word) and non-traveling lifestyle that you just start seeing the world differently, not even remotely parallel to a vagabond’s eyes.

    Of course people with 9-5’s have hobbies, traveling among them, and stretch themselves… but I honestly believe this is but a shadow of what you could be feeling on the open road. Maybe I have yet to strike the proper balance when I return home and find my brain doesn’t quite function the way I like it to, focusing on trivial matters.

    But this is by no means turning against people who choose such a path, which is why I adamantly stated without the least bit of irony:

    “If you’re happy living in the same town, doing the same job, dating the same girl, eating the same food, then by all means, DO IT.”

    Reply
  17. Travellohr

    Immature? You’re working. You’re living a perhaps more challenging life than people who stay home, as you’re dealing with unfamiliar languages, different societal norms, bursting through comfort barriers to set up a new life for yourself.

    Traveling extensively, to some people, does look like just one day in the park after another, I’m sure. But one could say a sign of immaturity is taking the easy path in life, the path that keeps you home, the path that keeps you close to familiar faces, the path that keeps you comfy.

    Travel, on the other hand, is not always exactly easy. Perhaps those who are brave enough to make new lives for themselves in another culture are those who are the more mature.

    Reply
  18. ChristiaanH

    *looks around* to many books, a cluttered desk and a backpack in the corner that hasn’t been used in to long.

    Now I’m itching to hit the road. What you sacrifice can’t weigh up to what you gain with vagabonding.

    *starts reading Potts again*

    Reply
  19. Kirsty

    From a New Zealand perspective – it’s a right of passage to go travelling after you reach a certain point in your life – for me it was finishing my undergrad degree. I went travelling around the UK and Europe. I don’t think travelling is viewed in the same light over here as in the USA, it’s never really synonymous with growing up in the same as it may be over there… in fact im saving up to go travelling again & I think it will be a continuous cycle in my life with travelling, coming back home, saving up then going off again.

    Reply
  20. TA

    This article is great, I am 24 and have been on the move now for 4 years. I am British and my friends at home are all settling down, getting married having babies and they keep asking me….. when are you coming back? When are you going to settle down?

    Well I don’t like to go “back” I like to move forward.

    As for growing up, I have grown so much whilst I have been traveling and my friends at home have stayed pretty much the same, same outlook on life, same routine. I am worried that if I stop traveling I will stop growing as a person!

    Reply
  21. Shreesh Taskar

    I liked your essay. I think that both traveling and sedentary lifestyles can be mature or immature.

    I find that it is difficult for me to find traveling buddies that are of the same caliber as the friends I have back home. Maybe because of the shared experience there is more depth. I notice most of the conversation with my travel buddies is “Where did you go?” or “Where are you going next?”, rather superficial and banal.

    It is possible that more in-depth interaction can occur, but after a year and a half on the road it has not been my experience.

    Maybe it is possible to have a hybrid lifestyle – where one lives “longish” periods of time in a place and then moves on.

    Shreesh Taskar (www.alongdrive.com)

    Reply
  22. Randolph Eustace-Walden

    Turner, your comment about ‘storage space’ hit a nerve. My storage locker has seen more of my belongings than I have. I’m certain that my ‘stuff’ feels more at home there than any of it ever did as part of my former sedentary life. Those trinkets and baubles are in fact so happy that I may have to arrange a separate Facebook account for them to communicate with other like-minded ephemera and detritus.

    Reply
  23. Cindy Wilkinson McMullen

    “Ephemera and Detritus” – what a great name for a blog

    Reply
  24. Christian Haugen

    Loved the article, always good to stock up on arguments both for others and myself as I’m heading back to the A4 life with a wish to get back out travelling as soon as possible. Thanks a lot!

    Reply
  25. Caitlin

    Great article. Makes me even happier that I will be hitting the open road again in a month and a half, with no definite “coming-home” date. My parents don’t get it.

    Reply
  26. Rainbowfire

    I guess if we didn’t have our little brainwashed drones, the world wouldn’t go around. Would there be cultures to visit if everybody travelled? :)

    I sometimes think that people who slate the traveller are, deep down, just jealous that they don’t have the guts do something as “crazy” as dropping their safety blankets and throwing themselves into the unknown. So they tell themselves that we must be the crazy ones..

    Reply
  27. CJ

    “It is impossible to ‘Grow Old’ – you are old the moment you stop growing.”
    Travelling is more likely to force you into a situation where your sensibilities /understandings/ preconceptions are challenged: a prerequisite for growth.
    “There is no meaning to life – Life is the opportunity for any number of meaningful experiences: have one every day.”

    Reply
  28. Amber

    Hey Turner,

    I’m a 20 year old, college student (from Alaska! and I’ve never been dog-sledding :P) I just got back from volunteering for a month in India. One of my favorite parts of the entire trip was meeting other, like-minded travelers. I have so many friends at home that say they want to go here, and go there and do this and that, but when it comes down to saving the money and doing it…well you know.

    I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across your blog, but I’m glad I did. you summed up how I feel about life in general. Even at 20, I’m already stuck in a ‘normal’ job. I’m in a cubical from 9-5. I know its not what I want to do forever, but it allows me to save the money to do what I want later. but anyways, thanks for sharing your views. I know I will continue to travel for all the same reasons.

    -Alaskan Amber

    Reply
  29. Turner

    Thanks Amber. I spent a memorable summer on the Kenai Peninsula, but never went dog-sledding either. Plenty of halibut fishing, though.

    Reply
  30. Todd

    What exactly is immature about seeking knowledge and life experience? We live in a digital age where living a lifestyle like this is much easier than it was 15 0r even 10 years ago. You only have one life to live and to die with regrets is not something I’m into. My good friend, and occasional travel buddy watched his grandfather die and his grandfather’s one regret was not traveling. My friend may be in his early 30’s but he now travels as much as possible.

    Reply
  31. Jeremy Branham

    I admit I am torn. I love to travel but also love comfort and routine. It’s probably why I struggle to find contentment. Maybe I am different. I hate my job but love having a routine and a place called home. I get tired of routine and am excited to travel but also love coming home after a trip. I’ve had a lot of conflicted emotions as someone who travels, writes, and works full time. It’s not easy and there are pros and cons to both sides.

    Reply
  32. Lost Potential | Once A Traveler

    […] combined with ability and drive came without effort. My first piece for vagabondism about the immaturity of long-term travelers was written in one sitting over several hours. No pauses, bathroom breaks, or even looking out the […]

    Reply

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