Travel, if we let it, allows us to peel back the layers we wear in our everyday lives. This is literal, to be sure. (I traded in cardigans and high heels for t-shirts and flip flops months ago.) But apparel is just the beginning.
Distance strips us down to who we are when we’re away from the external influences that tell us who we’re supposed to be.
A life on the road is a life without minutia, without obligation. There are no cable bills to pay, no preschool bake sales requiring me to frost cupcakes well after I should be in bed. There is no need to buy dish soap or new tires or garbage bags. There are no Costco runs. There are no dentist appointments. There is not a single to-do list.
Leaving home frees us from the things we think are essential in the moment, but which given a little space turn out not to matter all that much. Unconstrained by the roles and duties we take on at work, at home and in our communities, we have the mental space to ask the big questions—of ourselves, of each other and of the new people we meet.
One of the things we lamented until last week was how, unlike on our first trip around the world, we hadn’t connected with many other travelers. Traveling with children has kept us away from (or preoccupied at) many of the places where we’d ordinarily strike up a conversation with someone new. We’re staying in apartments or hotels now instead of hostels, and at restaurants, we’re generally focused on feeding the young folk and keeping the peace.
But then we found Ko Lanta, a Thai island in the Andaman Sea. We stayed at a “resort” that wasn’t really a resort at all, but rather a sort of utopia for former backpackers who are now parents of young children. We found the basic lodgings and banana pancakes we remembered so fondly from our younger, freer days. But we also found a basket full of beach toys and a lovely staff who called Walker by his preferred name, “Spider-Man.”
Most importantly, we met other families who, after weeks or months on the road, were as eager to connect as we were.
That’s how we found ourselves at a thatched-roof, beachfront restaurant with a Dane, a Norwegian and two Belgians. As happens so often when travelers connect, all filters were off. We’d only just met, so nobody had a reputation to uphold or a role to fill. What we did have was time for a real conversation with people whose lives, though led on a different continent, were strikingly similar to our own.
We had the opportunity for a real conversation—one much more frank than we’d have around most dinner tables at home: Why did you get married? Are you happy in your job? Are we raising our children well? Far from home, and from the expectations that come with it, we spoke freely and long into the night. And we realized that sometimes in telling, we also learn.