I am a common woman, and I am akin to you in many ways — yet, what might strike you as something of a rarity is that I’ve been a passport holder since I was two years old. Not American, mind you, but Belarusian. Despite the increased difficulty one can experience when trying to attain a visa with a post-Soviet state passport, I believe I’ve traveled more than the average airport fanatic. And since I became a U.S. citizen in 2016, the number of future trips I’ve planned has only doubled.
I was traveling through Mexico when a corrupt border cop pulled my father and me over, demanding we give him the remainder of our pesos, which totaled to about $50.
I was visiting Minsk when I was, as per usual, running late. I lurched my hand forward trying to grasp the handlebar that would help me board the train when the engineer suddenly shut the train doors, nearly snatching my hand along with it.
I was in the Florida Keys when an unpleasantly blunt waiter chased after us in pursuit of a tip, neglecting to look behind the receipt itself, where a modest pile of cash was awaiting.
A car breakdown left us nearly stranded on the edge of the Nevada desert, bleak and brown and beige.
I’ve slept in my car for fear of bedbugs in, well, my hotel room bed.
And nothing can match the embarrassment I felt as I stood between my father and uncle, both screeching and shouting as dozens of onlookers at the Kiev train station got to witness the dispute about who actually forgot to pack the alcohol.
This is only a taste of the experiences I’ve endured, and only a few examples that left the most profound and rotten taste in my mouth. Malaises like these do not faze me any longer, as the baseline itself has risen far beyond my comprehension. Finding only one bed in a hotel suite where you were promised two or losing an AirPod to the hotel’s unfastidious room service are not situations that my mind garners as being worth the stress.
And despite the overwhelming quantity in which these troubling conundrums make their way into my life, I am never ruled by them. I never shut down the prospect of doing more, seeing more … getting into sticky situations more.
The person I’ve become and the kind and thoughtful qualities I now possess are quite inseparable from the experiences I’ve had abroad — they have become something I truly study and learn from, and each lesson learned is something I eagerly choose to integrate into my understanding of the world as I continue my journey of becoming a better human being.
Ironically, I started to write this piece on my flight to the Turks and Caicos for the summer. I’m ripe with joy and also shivering with fright. I’ve simply never done something like this before — traveling what feels like tens of thousands of miles to meet people I’ve never seen before in a place on the outskirts of society.
I am in a remote area of the romantic and sprawling pearl white beaches, a tiny town in a tiny part of the tiny Turks and Caicos called Cockburn Harbour. We are allowed one freshwater shower a week, and the area itself is lacking in reliable internet and laundry machines. Yet, these inconveniences do not detract from the experience — they add to it. Despite how much I value modern conveniences like air conditioning, 5G WiFi and almost-instantaneous emergency medical assistance, I am not deterred from being adventurous in challenging my willpower and being present.
Now I am sitting writing this as I’m being bitten by a mosquito. I am drenched in a coating of sugar-like sweat, and yet I’m still finding a way to enjoy myself, however slight.
And this is my problem with many of you so-called “world travelers,” “globetrotters” and the like — you fail to see that the enjoyment of a trip does not come from the successful fruition of the travel plans.
Traveling is much more than just recreation — it’s a learning experience. It’s a tangible opportunity to make yourself a more complex individual. It’s about gaining education in a way that makes learning more authentic, drawn from outside sources and witnesses of the firsthand. The beauty lies within the fact that you don’t know exactly what you’ll take away from the trip, knowing only that it’ll be worthwhile.
That is why it is so important to always be prepared to be unprepared when you’re abroad — and I don’t just mean mentally prepping for a missed connection or a currency fluke. I’m also talking about your loved ones.
Arguments are common — at least in my boisterous Ukrainian family — and are a dime a dozen during a vacation proliferant with unprecedented situations. It’s frustrating when something you wanted to go one way ends up going the other, and that frustration can easily turn into conflict. But the more I travel with my family, the less we tend to argue.
We’ve figured out a rhythm, a sort of melody or algorithm, that we now instinctually follow whenever trouble finds us abroad. Our extensive experience with flukes has helped us build a stronger relationship and the skill of positive communication, and we now rarely find ourselves blaming each other for things that go wrong.
And as I’ve said before, the unexpected builds resilience and the unknown builds courage. Once you are resilient enough, you will see the excitement that the shadow of mystery conceals.
My favorite restaurants around the world were discovered not through Yelp, but through the trust I had in my feet. Other people’s likes and dislikes do not interest me, so why have we normalized being so dependent on other people’s criteria? How do you expect to truly find a hole-in-the-wall place that speaks to you by Googling something like “Top 10 Restaurants in (insert city name here)?”
When I was in Vilnius — a truly odd city where Lithuanians speak English fluently but don’t understand a word of Russian — I found a gorgeous patisserie only because I was lacking a stable internet connection. As we were winding up and down those hilly streets and finding numerous churches squished in between the 19th-century European facade, finding a place to eat lunch embodied the Lithuanian experience as much as sitting down and eating did.
And in Chicago, a city infamous for its crime and array of dangerous nooks and alleys, nothing could beat the solitude of strolling through downtown after midnight, soaking up the cool breeze. The empty streets and silent demeanor were nothing akin to the Chicago that many tourists see, but choose not to experience.
But these are pleasant experiences, where nothing truly seemed to go averse.
In Mexico, I was shown the importance of always carrying my ID with me, a lesson learned that came in handy once I started traveling more spontaneously after college. In Minsk, I was educated, with brute force, about the consequences of being late — something that came particularly in handy when I started to struggle with time management and began to seek remission from my ADHD diagnosis. And lastly, the Kiev train station, now more than ever, has become a funny story I keep in my back pocket and something I fondly reminisce upon when I start missing my family — helping me ease feeling homesick for the country I love but can no longer enter (hopefully not for too long).
It is true: traveling is stressful, it weighs heavily on the psyche and almost no one can evade the occasional mishap or chaos. And yet, those who claim to do it perfectly are actually the ones who are doing it all wrong.
“Bad” experiences are fundamental to our learning, to our being, just like when we neglected to trust our parents when they told us the stove was hot but we insisted on burning ourselves anyway. I consider the concept of traveling through the same exact lens. What fun is a trip that is executed flawlessly? What can be taken away from an itinerary that molds itself to your firm grasp, just the way you intended it to?
Take it from me, someone who has endured sand scratching my corneas in the sand dunes and who has broken toes falling off of jet skis, there is no way to mess up a travel experience. In the words of Robert Burns: “Even the best laid plans of mice and men tend to go awry.” And those men whose plans never go awry also never possess the chance to learn anything worthwhile — so take the risk, and enjoy the chaos that comes with it.
Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at email@example.com.