I am 29 years and 364 days old today. Tomorrow is the big 3-0. A new decade, the end of an amazing era. I have been mourning my 20s for the past few months and going through the five stages of grief (I have only recently come to accept it). It’s not necessarily that I am sad that I am getting older, or that I feel life will suddenly change once I enter my 30s. Rather, I am sad that my 20s are over because these years have been so transformative and full of adventure, heartache, love, and maturity. And I am who I am today because I traveled.
Most of my early 20s were spent traveling around the US, Central America, and South America. As a college student, my friends and I would take several roadtrips per year in the West Coast, or through the Rockies, to Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas. I had my first taste of real adventure travel going to Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia. In Peru, just after my 21st birthday, I fell in love for the first time in my life.
It hit me fast and hard and it was completely unexpected, meeting a stranger on a train and falling for him. It was not as fast when it ended, only because I was too young and inexperienced to accept reality, which only prolonged the pain of my first broken heart. People would tell me that things happen for a reason, but I refused to believe them. There was no way, in my 22 year old mind, that I would get over this and that it would change my life in the best way possible.
I was still sad months later, and decided that I needed a change, a BIG change. My broken heart played a huge role in my decision to move to South Korea to teach English for a year right after I turned 23.
I grew up in South Korea. Not in the sense that I was raised there, obviously, but I grew tremendously as a person during that year. It was my first time on my own, my first time living in a foreign country, having to navigate language and cultural barriers, learning to work in difficult situations, having to take care of myself and make big decisions. I came in with an attitude and a goal of making money in order to fund my travels after my contract was up. I was so focused on the end goal that I didn’t truly embrace my experience living in Korea.
This was something I realized only a few months before my contract ended.I wasn’t ready to leave, but I had to. I had already told my school I wasn’t renewing my contract and I had already bought my tickets home. Leaving my Daegu home felt just as sad as it felt leaving my home in the US. Right before I left my apartment for the very last time, I stood at the door, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The apartment always had a certain smell, like cleaning agents mixed with wood. I’ll never forget it. I found a taxi right outside of my apartment and he drove out of my neighborhood the long way. Maybe it was to run up the meter, but I didn’t care. I watched my rice paddy fly past through the dirty cab window, a huge lump in my throat. I had just turned 24 and was now about to embark on my first solo trip around the world.
I spent 6 weeks traveling solo, seeing places I never, ever though I would experience in real life. I went to beautiful beaches in the Philippines, jungles in Borneo, explored Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, spent a week in Phuket, then made my way to Nepal, and onto Europe. I have always been an introvert, and traveling solo brought me out of my hardened shell. I stayed in hostels, made friends from all over the world, and enjoyed the company of strangers on planes and in restaurants. It was the first time I was completely alone, with nobody to help me or guide me. Not only did I survive it, I thrived and it made me realize that I am resourceful and strong and brave.
At 25, I called Sydney, Australia home. I moved there after visiting Australia during my winter break from school in Korea. I fell in love with the country and felt like it was where I was meant to be. I came on a working holiday visa with no intentions of ever going back home. My goal was to either find a job to sponsor my visa or to meet someone and get married. But those high expectations let me down. Living somewhere you love is so different from visiting. The daily grind, combined with my grandfather dying 2 months after I left the US, sent me on a downward spiral. Most people go through their rebellious stage in high school or college, but mine was in Sydney. My time there was a blur, truly. Friday through Sunday was one long stretch of partying and no sleep. I looked forward to the workweek so I could get a few hours of sleep a night. I was in a bad place and I knew it, and I needed to go home.
I left Australia several months later. My friend who I went to Korea with came to Australia to visit, and then we traveled around the country together before jetting off to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe before finally going home. About two weeks after I came home, my friendship with her ended when I found out that she had betrayed our friendship during our Australia trip. I won’t go into details, but we have not spoken since, although I miss her very much. After that happened, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go abroad again to Argentina or New Zealand, but I felt paralyzed by grief and indecision. So I stayed home, got a temp job to save up some money, and planned to move abroad again in a few months. I never did.
Just before turning 26, I met a guy at my temp job. Then, the company I was temping for offered me a full-time job making more than I had ever made before in my life. I stayed to see what happened in my new, budding relationship. It was unlike any relationship I had ever had. It was stable, mature, and for the first time ever, someone loved me just as much as I loved them. I finally found the stability I had craved in Australia and the true love I never thought I’d find. We traveled a lot, to Washington, DC, Seattle, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia in the US. He got his first passport stamps with me in Ecuador and Panama. We’ve been all over the Caribbean, to Norway and England, from Kenya to Cape Town, Japan, and even French Polynesia. We got married when I was 27.
When I was 28, we went to Japan together, then I continued on to China for 2 weeks. It was supposed to be a month-long trip, but I cut it short. I had returned to my solo traveler roots, but I didn’t feel the same excitement and wonder as I had in my early to mid-twenties. Traveling to China made me realize, as corny as it sounds, that home is where the heart is, and my heart was no longer out in the world, but with a man and a cat in a condo in Florida. I still love solo travel and wish I could do it more, but I am very content sharing my experiences with the man I love.
At 29, I realized travel is not the most important thing in my life. My best friend was diagnosed with cancer and I spent several weeks in California, once during her treatment, and once when she found out that the cancer had not spread and she was officially in remission. Being able to experience that joy with her was better than any exciting adventure I’ve had overseas.
And so, as my 20s come to a close, I am switching my focus from reminiscing about my roaring 20s and looking forward to all the joy, pain, triumph, and of course, travels, that my 30s will hold.I’ll miss my 20s, but I am pretty sure 30-39 will be just as eventful.