The Identity Crisis of a Traveler

“I believe in the transformative power of travel,” Andrew Zimmern began when he got up on stage. He had just finished showing a clip from a recent episode of Bizarre Foods, the hit Travel Channel show that made Zimmern the travel celebrity he now is.

People were eager to hear what Andrew Zimmern had to say, and even in the sensory-overload setting of the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Expo, all eyes seemed to be on him. Makes sense—people coming to this convention (myself included) watch the Travel Channel like sports fanatics watch ESPN or conservatives watch Fox News. Travel Channel stars—like Zimmern—have realized our dream, at least in the idealistic way we want to see it: to travel to distant locations and get paid for it.

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Andrew Zimmern speaking at the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Expo in January 2012. photo by Katherine Lonsdorf

“I like who I am when I’m traveling better than the person I am when I wake up every morning in my own house,” Zimmern shared, making sure to note that this was not meant to be a dramatic statement about his home life. Rather, he thought traveling brought out his best qualities.

I was standing at the very back of the crowd, but despite my distance from the stage, I felt like there was a strong possibility Zimmern was reading my mind. I’ve spent years trying to figure out why I find travel so—for lack of a better word—addicting. Why, after even the most exhausting trip spent craving the comfort of my own bed, I’ll wake up the morning after returning home eager to leave again. And then, as Zimmern talked, it suddenly made sense: My “travel-self” is my self I like best.

That’s not to say I don’t like who I am when I’m at home on the couch, or walking through my neighborhood in Los Angeles, or bartending in order to fund my next plane ticket. But there’s something about the way I approach a new day when I’m somewhere else, with a kind of childlike wonder and excitement, that doesn’t always translate into my everyday life.

And honestly, I think that’s probably fair to say about almost everyone. Does anyone out there really wake up every morning, ready to carpe diem, rush hour traffic and all? I can tell you right now that gridlock on the 101 has never been inspiring to me. So why is it that even stuck in the worst traffic ever—but in Cairo—I feel alive?

Zimmern, again, hit this right on the head. “When you travel,” he explained, “you say yes, even when it’s uncomfortable.” Often that means saying yes to situations you would never consider in your every day life, creating a kind of “go with the flow” approach to your day that homelife doesn’t always allow.

The author learning how to make traditional bread with the Garifuna people in Belize. ©ProjectExplorer.org, 2011. Photo by Beti Gathegi

A crowded three-hour bus ride on a bumpy road in 100 degree weather with no air conditioning? Yes. A cup of tea with a local shopkeeper? And then two more?? Yes. An unidentifiable meal served to you by hospitable new friends? Yes. Helping a cab driver fix a flat tire because he insists on taking you to your destination—for free now—because it’s his job (and no, don’t you dare flag down a different taxi that passes)? Yes. Finally coming to terms with the fact that the “new york minute” means absolutely nothing in any other part of the world—and your lunch will take two hours? Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Why? Because that’s what everyone else is doing. And when you travel, you are no longer the majority in your surroundings; your comfort zone really doesn’t matter. You are there to experience how life would be if this was where you called home. “Yes” is the magic word to figuring out that answer.

“Being challenged and growing and remaining teachable is what I love about travel,” Zimmern continued in his talk. It’s not just the sense of awe that comes with being in a new place, he explained, but talking to the people you meet while traveling, actively learning from where you are. “It’s easy to forget how important it is to be a citizen of the world,” he admitted, but when you travel, you kind of need to be.

It’s that sink or swim mentality that makes traveling both daunting and exhilarating. That, and the fact that even in some of the stickiest travel situations, you come out swimming—and feeling more capable than you maybe ever have before.

Sunrise off the coast of Placencia, Belize. ©ProjectExplorer.org, 2011. Photo by Katherine Lonsdorf.

Navigating my way through unexpected experiences abroad have been some of my biggest personal accomplishments. I’ve learned how to ask for help, but also how to help myself. I’ve learned how to appreciate even the simplest of things—like hot water and sunrises—and how to miss daily comforts. Most of all, I’ve learned that people are people, and language doesn’t have to be a barrier. It sounds simple, but it has made my life a lot richer.

So, if my “travel-self” is my better self, what do I do the other 95% of the time that I’m not traveling? I worried about this for the last few days after hearing Zimmern speak, until I realized one (pretty huge) fact: I live in Los Angeles. Being out of your comfort zone in less than a mile away here, no matter where in the city you are. I’m between Chinatown and Little Tokyo, while Koreatown, Little Ethiopia, and Little Armenia aren’t too far away either. I hear Spanish about as often as I hear English is my neighborhood. Who said you had to board a plane in order to learn with that same wide-eyed awe?

Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown Los Angeles for the year of the dragon, 2012. Photo by Katherine Lonsdorf

I challenged myself in the last week to approach Los Angeles with the same excitement with which I approach travel, despite a busy work week, the comfort of my own bed, and a myriad of other distractions. Chinese Lunar New Year was right on the horizon when I made this decision, and—like I said—Chinatown is a walk away. To be fair, it didn’t require a whole lot of effort (although that might also be a lesson learned in the process), but for three hours on a Sunday night, I was far away from the LA I call home, surrounded by 500,000 firecrackers, dancing dragons, and offerings to the deities. I had no idea what was going on, what I was eating, or what people were saying—until I asked a few questions—and I was happy.

I might have missed this resolution when 2012 rolled around January 1, but I seem to have caught the year of the dragon just in time: This year, I will tune into my “travel-self” as often as I can, whether in my neighborhood, a different state, or across an ocean. I will try new things, meet new people, and strive to stand in awe of something at least once a day. Because really, you don’t have to travel to appreciate the world around you—but when you do, your world becomes that much bigger.

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About the author: Kat Lonsdorf

Originally from Verona, Wisconsin, Kat has a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College, with a focus in Journalism. She started learning Japanese at the age of six, lived in Okinawa, Japan in high school, and spent a year living in Amman, Jordan in college where she attended the University of Jordan, studied Arabic, and traveled throughout the Middle East. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and is a producer, blogger, and on-camera host for projectexplorer.org, a non-profit that creates online educational travel series for kids and families. Follow her on Twitter @lilkat_bigworld

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