Finding Our Identity by Traveling

Per my customary Sunday night routine in Playa del Coco I belly up to the bar of one of my local watering holes to take in my one American indulgence since I landed in Costa Rica: Wings and NFL football. Sitting beside me is a guy who I haven’t seen in town (the town is only five blocks long) but who immediately strikes up conversation. “Well what brings you to Costa Rica?” he asks.

“A bit of work and play,” I respond, though I quickly regret not giving a more black and white answer, fearing we may be heading down a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down.

“What the hell do you do for work that would bring you down to Costa Rica?”

“I’m a travel writer.”

“You’re a travel writer?,” he responds quizzically, giving me a long stare that I notice out of the corner of my eye as I take a swig of my beer. I nod, and while he still seems perplexed by the notion, he turns his head to the TV screen and doesn’t say anything again for a few minutes.

“So like you travel, and then you write about it?”

“Yep, I write about the places I travel to for work.”

He nods, though he doesn’t seem satisfied with the response. Either that or he doesn’t believe me, but continues with drinking his beer and watching television--for a few minutes at least.

“So people pay you to both travel and write about it?”

“Yes, that’s how I make a living,” letting out a more obvious sigh and responding more firmly.

“Ha, a travel writer,” he says, before he downs his beer and doesn’t say another word.

We seem to live in a world that operates under the presumption that our titles make us who we are. We are siblings, spouses, singles, children, employees, volunteers, retirees, and so on. These labels seem thrust upon us in relation to place, both in a literal and figurative sense.  They are directly tied to both our geographic location (our “homes”) and what type of place we are at in life.

This in and of itself isn’t a problem. It’s only natural that labels are a part of how we communicate ideas. However, the problem is when these labels and definitions are constructed from someone else’s reality and not our own. I feel like this is often the result of peer pressure or family and cultural expectations, where we act not based off our own self-interest, but rather the expectations of others. “Well this is how we’ve always done it,” I would often hear growing up when I questioned the logic of something. But just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way. At that point, are we living our own identity or the identity someone wants for us?

But what about when geographical place is removed? How can our identity be shaped if we remove the cultural influences that often affect it? I actually believe that that is when we have the best chance of finding out who we really are. There’s no longer the pressures, influences, norms, and expectations that are a result of the bubble we live in, often coming at us from every direction, be it friends, family, classmates, co-workers, bosses, the media, and so on.

Masaya Volcano Nicaragua
Masaya Volcano Nicaragua

When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road. -William Least Heat Moon

I remember arriving to Costa Rica three and a half years ago with a pretty skewed worldview on identity and who I was. I was amidst a divorce, facing piles of debt, had never really addressed the recent passing of family members, sold and gave away everything I owned that wouldn’t fit into a backpack, and had quit my full-time job to pursue a completely different career path as a freelance writer. I pulled the rug out from underneath myself, as who I thought I was and what I thought I had built an identity on, wasn’t who I was at all. I felt like I was at ground zero. I had to rebuild it all--my friends, my career, my livelihood, and to a certain extent, my relationship with my family.

It was a few weeks after my conversation at the bar and a few months after arriving in Costa Rica that I found myself in an ordinary moment, walking to the beach as I did every evening around that time to catch sunset over the Pacific Ocean. But this would be no ordinary sunset. Tears streamed down my face, sitting on the beach with one of the local orphan dogs, as vivid colors illuminated the sky and the sun dipped beyond the horizon. In that moment, I came to experience a wonder at the world, life and myself that I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid. Life, and more specifically, my life, was beautiful, and I felt satisfaction and fulfillment that no label or material accomplishment could produce. In that moment I had a grip on who I was, who I wanted to be and what I had to do to get there.

A few weeks following my initial separation, I remember writing down a list of who I wanted to be and what I wanted from my life on the short-term and long-term. A few of the things I wrote down included: Moving, traveling, living on a beach in Central America, and becoming a professional writer.  I was doing all those things just a couple months after. What’s followed the last three years has been a desire to envision something and follow that vision out to its completion until it’s time to live out a new vision.

But I believe my life would be a lot different if it wouldn’t have been for those several months living in a foreign culture. My senses were heightened, as every day I found myself outside of my comfort zone living within a culture much different than my own bubble that I had grown up in and been living in. In that way, I could be and become whoever I wanted to be (within limits of course) without many of the outside influences I had come to expect. And I did. I slowly began peeling back the layers of what I didn’t want my life to be and start pursing my idea of what and who I wanted to be. And I soon came to realize, the best version of myself was who I was when I was traveling, as who I came back as wasn’t who I left as.

I don’t often tell people that I’m a travel writer anymore. “Travel writer” seems to describe someone whose time is predominantly spent traveling and writing about those travels for magazines and books. Yes, I love to travel, and I love to write, but that tells such a small part of the story of who I am. I’m as much a travel writer as I am a blogger, cocktail chronicler, instagrammer, tweeter, hiker, adventurer, bucket/life list maker, moviegoer, concert-frequenter, amateur photographer, and the list goes one. They are labels of our culture that we use to help define ideas. But they aren’t who I am.

In a few weeks I return to Costa Rica for the first time since I left three years ago in conjunction with Expedia’s “Find Your Storybook” campaign, in which each of Expedia’s blogger are taking their own storybook trips.  What will I find? I’m not really sure. I go into it similar as I did the first time I went, without any expectations. It was philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In that way, I believe the trip marks something of a milestone, in which I reflect on where I’ve come from, where I am and where I’m going. My “journey” didn’t end when I left Costa Rica. Costa Rica was just the first of a new series of chapters. My story was just beginning, as I feel like I’ve had a lifetime of experiences in the last three and a half years since I left my “home” to travel, live abroad and create the life I wanted to.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. ― Søren Kierkegaard

I’m not telling you to leave your life to travel like I did. Drastic times often cause for drastic measures and I knew that I had become someone who I wasn’t at my core. The solution for me was to travel. And I truly believe that travel can tell us more about who we are, who others are and what the world is better than anything else. It removes us from what’s comfortable and drops us into unpredictable, uncomfortable situations in which we have to be on our toes. It’s when are true colors then show.