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It was July 24, 2011, I was sitting on the plane en route to London, UK. I remember looking out the window of the plane, starring into the beautiful sunset over the great city of Toronto and feeling excited about what lay ahead.

“Maybe this will be the most exciting year of my life and maybe at the end of it, I will come back to the great city of Toronto with a bag full of great stories and memories. But something tells me that this won’t be the case. Somehow I doubt that I will ever call this city my home again…”

It’s been exactly 3 years since I quit my job in Canada and left behind my family and friends in pursuit of a dream to study, live and travel, around Europe. It was a move that has changed my life in a hundred and one ways. So today, in commemoration of my 3 years anniversary of traveling and living abroad, I wanted to reflect on my experience and share with you 10 lessons I have learned from 3 years away from “home”.

1. You Don’t Need to Break the Bank to Travel

When I went on my first trip back in 2008 I spent $10,000 on 6 weeks of travel around Europe. I spent almost $4,000 on a 3 week tour because I couldn’t even comprehend the idea of figuring out my own travel plan. I paid $100 a night to stay in a hotel, because the idea of sharing a room with 8 other strangers just seemed weird and scary. I spent $30-50 per meal, eating only in high rated restaurants, out of fear that the food will make me sick. I was under the impression that travel was an expensive hobby and it was something I could only afford to do once a year.  It’s been a steep learning curve, but over the years I have finally learned how to travel for less and travel for longer. I now travel to 3-4 new countries a year, spending less on flights, accommodation and on the ground expenses than I ever did.  Of course I can’t always get by on $25 a day, but I’ve discovered a whole lot of places in the world that I can travel to for less than $50 a day.  Travel is affordable to anyone who wants to make it their priority.

This Pad Thai on the street of Bangkok will cost you less than US $1
This Pad Thai on the street of Bangkok will cost you less than US $1

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2. Travel is the Only Thing You Buy That Makes You Richer

I used to love stuff. Everything from clothes to home décor to silly knick knacks that are now gathering dust in my parents basement in Canada. Now I think stuff is useless. After having to pack my life in just 2 suitcases not once, not twice, but 3 times, I have learned that a lot of “stuff” eventually just ends up in a donation box. Material possessions have since lost their value. $500 spent on a dress and a few shirts at French Connection will never compare to $500 spent on a week away in Thailand or a weekend scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.

$100 dress or $100 dive?
$100 dress or $100 dive? I’ll choose the later any day!

3. Travel Changes You, Teaches You and Gives You Perspective

Life in some parts of the world is so drastically different from what I was used to at home that it really made me reconsider my beliefs, my values, and my view of the world. I’ve come across experiences in my travels that have changed me in ways that I never thought was possible. Travel allowed me to meet incredible people from all over the world, breaking down my own stereotypes and teaching me to appreciate different cultures, languages, and traditions. Seeing the happiness of families living on a few dollars a day in the most remote villages in Asia made me question the value of material possessions and the true source of happiness. Meeting kids growing up without access to technology, fancy toys, or exposure to media, made me want to raise my own children away from consumeristic culture of the western world.  Travel made me more compassionate, more patient, more adventurous, more understanding, more curious, and a much more knowledgeable and rounded person.

Kids enjoying life on a small island in Palawan, Philippines
Kids enjoying life on a small island in Palawan, Philippines

4. Solo Travel is the Best Kind of Travel

Somewhere between China, Thailand, Philippines, and Cambodia I fell in love with solo travel. I let go of my fears of being “lonely” and learned to take advantage of being in control of my own travel. I loved the freedom of doing what I wanted when I wanted, not having to consult with anyone or take anyone else’s opinions into consideration. I loved that I could sleep in when I wanted or stay out as late as I wanted. But the thing that I loved the most was that it pushed me to meet other people.  Don’t get me wrong, I really love traveling as a couple and having someone to share all the adventures and experiences, but there are definitely times when I wish I could go back to being a solo traveler.

We were all solo travelers. But that day none of us were feeling lonely
We were all solo travelers. But that day none of us were lonely

5. No Matter the Distance True Friends Will Stay

Today, 95% of my closest friends do not live in the same country as me. In fact, my close friends are scattered all over the world. When I left Canada, I really didn’t know how travel was going to impact my friendships back home. When you leave home behind and embark on new adventures it’ll be hard for your friends to keep up. You can’t just talk about that cute outfit you saw when you were out shopping together, or connect over an inside joke you heard at a bar on Saturday night. You can’t go to movies together, or go on day trips, or celebrate each other’s birthdays together. You lose the ability to share experiences and have to rely on something much deeper than that. It’s hard and it takes a lot of work. Skype calls, emails, Facebook, whatsapp, BBM, become your life lines, but sadly not all friendships survive. Some dwindle away… maybe because they were never strong friendships to begin with, or maybe because you both changed so much that growing apart was inevitable. But luckily some of my friendships grew even stronger. I’ve learned to stay connected and to make the extra effort to stay in touch and I’m so grateful to my true friends who have not given up on our friendship despite the distance!

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6. We are All So Different, Yet We All Want The Same Things in Life

When I lived in China I worked in a 95% Chinese office, struggling to find common ground with Chinese co-workers. I felt alienated and out of place, lacking the feeling of belongingness and social acceptance. For a while, I couldn’t connect with locals on the topic of popular culture or daily events. Our lives outside the office seemed so different. But one day while loudly chowing down our chicken fried rice, one of my co-workers said “So do you have a boyfriend?”. It was a question I never once thought would be appropriate to discuss but one that opened up a conversation about love, family, hopes, dreams and desires, one that despite language barriers and cultural backgrounds would connect all of us not only for that lunch hour but for the next year of my life in China. We are all humans, and despite our differences are all have the same basic wants.

7. How to Fit In by Standing Out

In high school all I wanted was to be like the rest of the Canadians in my class. I wanted to dress like them, talk like them, and be like them. I wanted nothing more than to fit in. And while some of those early age insecurities vanished by the time I was in University, some of them stayed with me until my early 20s. I was always different. I had a distinct accent, I hated hockey, I didn’t know how to ski, I didn’t spend my summers at camp, or my May 2-4s at a cottage… and Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving were never celebrated with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles…it was always just Mom, Dad, my brother and I. It wasn’t until I got out of Canada and started traveling around the world that I met people just like me, people that also didn’t fit in anywhere and whose life stories were just as different as mine. They taught me to embrace being different, to appreciate my own uniqueness, and to cherish that my answer to “Where do you come from?” will always be a tale of many countries.

I know I don't look it, but I really am Canadian... or am I?
I know I don’t look it, but I really am Canadian… or am I?

8. You Don’t Have to Live a Normal Life

You finish high school, you go to University/College, you move to a bigger city, get a 9-5 job, save money to pay off your tuition debt and then some more money to one day be able to buy a house, you meet a guy/girl, get married, move to the suburbs, pop out 2.5 kids, all while still working that 9-5 job that gives you 2 weeks of vacation a year that you go on 1, maybe 2 all-inclusive trips to Caribbean.  They call it the American Dream, don’t they? This sequence of events has become the norm for many North Americans. It was the life I once thought I would live.

When I moved to London a friend said to me…

“By quitting your job and moving half way around the world you have broken the cycle of normal life. From here on out, your life will never be “normal” again. Embrace it!”

And I have. I no longer fear deviating from the norm. The norm, just no longer exists. I’ve come to a point where, I think, even my parents have now come to terms with the fact that change is the only constant in my life. Don’t get me wrong, the American Dream or the Normal Life is fantastic life and one that many people around the world would love to have. But it doesn’t have to be your life, if you don’t want to! If you break out of the norm, you’ll have a chance to really figure out what you want, you’ll realize that there are hundreds of opened doors just waiting for you to walk through them. It will be scary at first but it’ll be so worth it in the end! And if you don’t end up liking what’s behind all the doors, the normal life will always be waiting for your return.

9. Take chances

I took a huge chance moving to Australia last year. I never wanted to admit it, but I moved to Australia for love. Gosh, it sounds so corny when I say it out loud. But it’s true, if it wasn’t for Max I probably wouldn’t be living in Australia. Yes, at the time I was looking for a new adventure and I was always open to spending some time in Australia, but I didn’t have a job waiting for me in Australia or an idea how I was going to get a job. I didn’t know where I was going to live and how I was going to pay my bills.  I had no idea if my 5 year long-distance friendship with Max had the potential to turn into a proper relationship.  But I didn’t let all the unknowns stop me. I trusted my gut, my trusted my feelings, and I took a chance that has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.

Max and I are now exploring Australia together
Max and I are now exploring Australia together

Taking risks make you stronger, they make you braver, and open up doors that you never even knew existed. You won’t always have all the information you want to make a decision and sometimes there won’t be a back-up plan, but those are the times when you’ve got to trust yourself to take the leap of faith and just see what happens.

10. Sometimes on the Way to Your Dream You Get Lost…
….and Find a Better One

On day 2 of my one year MBA at Hult International Business School in London my career services advisor asked me:

“So why did you embark on this journey, Oksana? What do you hope to get out of it?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

My answer was simple.

“I moved to London to pursue an MBA so I can get a great international marketing job in London that will allow me to earn a 6 figure salary while traveling to different parts of the world”.

Today, my answer couldn’t be more different. Somewhere between boring classes and never-ending homework, between late nights in Soho and weekends in Prague, between new friends and troublesome relationships I found myself completely engrossed in dreaming about finding a way to help 3 billion people in the world that live on less than $2.50 a day. It’s what drove me to eventually leave London and move to China, to travel to and experience life in countries like India, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Brazil.

Today, I’m still dreaming … but I’m also planning. Experiences like this and this have given me a few ideas. So if you stick around long enough you’ll soon find how this all ends… or perhaps begins…

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It’s been exactly 3 years since I left Canada to study, live and travel, around Europe. Today, I reflect on my experience traveling and living abroad.

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