November 21, 2017

My Best Experience Abroad wasn’t Instagram Worthy—& I’m Okay with that.

When my partner and I decided to leave Canada for a year to travel Australia (and beyond), I was excited by one thought in particular: the possibility of experiencing endless “newness.”

Tired of rushing from commitment to commitment, never having the space to stop and reflect on my life, who I was becoming, or who I wanted to be, it felt like the perfect time to pack up, slow down, and explore the world—and ourselves.

I had so many expectations of what this kind of trip would be like and the kind of people we would grow into. I dreamed up specific scenarios of how I’d overcome fears and become a more well-rounded person. Skydiving. Fully immersing myself in a non-English speaking country.

Not long after arriving though, I realized that most—if not all—of my expectations were misguided.

My biggest challenge was not finding the courage to jump out of a plane; it was the daily grind of backpacking, financial planning, and handling ongoing uncertainty—and confronting the insecurity that arose with all of these. Worrying that we would never make it a year in Australia and would have to return home with our tails between our legs, I was forced to reconsider the relationships in my life—relationships with money, technology, time, and myself.

My stubbornly-held minimalist values—pro-nature, anti-technology—were put to the test when we ended up with very little money in an expensive country to travel in. Early on, we had mismanaged our travel fund in the most human way: we blew through a good bit of it in a whirlwind of excitement, thinking we had an endless supply. But this brought up some serious doubts in my ability to make decisions and manage money.

What was wrong with me? I thought. I’ll never be able to save anything. And if I can’t manage my money, I’ll probably never be able to get a job either. I won’t find work here or at home. I’ll have to move back in with my parents. I’ll probably never be able to afford my dreams of owning a cafe, having children, and traveling long into old age. My life is ruined. I am so lost. I am really homesick. 

I felt so much shame and guilt for having this travel opportunity only to screw it up by spending too much. It got to the point that something as small as undercooking the red pepper in our dinner seemed to me to be a sign suggesting that I didn’t deserve to live.

When we were pinching pennies, the little luxuries I had come to enjoy almost daily—things like specialty coffee, organic groceries, and unlimited cell phone data—were just no longer affordable. Only at this point did I realize how attached I was to these things for comfort. I realized that choosing to not have a lot was much different than not being able to have a lot.

This was also true of my social media use. I had long believed that Facebook and Instagram were turning people into zombies, but when I felt the frustration of not being able to find decent (free) Wi-Fi and not being able to afford to use cell phone data, I realized I only wanted to reject the technology when I felt comfortable doing so.

Once we were in survival mode, it was as if our outer layers of superficiality had been peeled off.

It was time now to really live out the values I so openly defended.

The stress of running out of funds forced us to adapt, and things became simpler: we bought cheap, easy-to-cook food and slept in free camping areas. Because we weren’t working yet, we had an abundance of time. We took things slowly. We didn’t have to rush anywhere or answer to anyone.

However, the simplicity of this life made us a little more sensitive to the emotional highs and lows that come with travel, and life in general. Without our nightly television show, the demands of a job, plans to see friends, and family commitments, our minds and hearts were freed up to engage in deep reflection, both as individuals and as a couple.

Heart now open, emotional memories and beliefs started to surface, like the memory of being 12 years old and feeling shame, perhaps for the first time in my life, about my academic success because it made my girlfriend feel insecure—a memory that since rooted itself in my psyche as the toxic mantra: “Success and furthering oneself is selfish.” This is the kind of thing that can creep up on a person who was just expecting a Gold Coast sunset to change her life.

What the hell did I sign up for? Shouldn’t I be feeling that life-is-great, I-can-fly feeling? Where are the pictures of me sunbathing in paradise without a care in the world? Isn’t travel supposed to liberate you from all the things holding you back from becoming your best self and creating the life you’ve always dreamed of?


They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Sometimes, the teacher dishes out larger spoonfuls of reality than you think you’re ready for. We’re never given more than we can handle, I told myself as I sobbed into my partner’s shoulder.

I had to trust.

I knew that this adventure would be tough at times, and I was willing to do the work to come out the other side a better version of myself. I just didn’t expect the hard-won stuff to be, well, so hard.

Once the layers of safety, privilege, comfort, and protection started to fall away, my true self was exposed to the light of day. My true self brushed herself off and showed me that I am better than my circumstances; they do not define me. My true self reminded me that I am better than my past hurts, my regrets, and my mistakes. I do not have to attach myself to anything to find comfort in moments of fear or doubt—I need only look within myself for it.

Now, I take small, daily disturbances in stride. I know I can live without my phone while I journey across the Australian desert. I can eat an inexpensive, simple meal off the end of the truck’s tailgate and feel full and content because of the time and love my partner took to prepare it with care.

It took tiring, long-term travel, being out of my comfort zone, and worrying about what would happen once the journey ended to fling open the doors to self-discovery. Travel provided me the container for really looking at my life in new ways—in deeper ways. These things don’t always picture well on Instagram, but they are the crucial, private moments that shift and transform outdated beliefs that hold us back from the peace we sought when we decided to travel in the first place.

Nothing challenging happens without loving intention, so I’m learning to go with the flow of life and trust that the tougher moments are there for a reason. They are necessary. And in the end, they are what saves us—I think.



Author: Jess McKeen
Image: @elephantjournal/Instagram
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May

Social Editor: Waylon Lewis


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