When I was a small child, I could often be found staring up at the world map my parents had hung over my bed as a gift for my sixth birthday. I spent much of the rest of my free time making drawings and sketches of all of my favorite spots in and around my neighborhood, which comprised all of the traveling I’d done up to that point.
Fast forward nearly two decades to 2009, when I found myself out of college, unemployed and without any real direction in life. I was excited about an upcoming trip to India, which I’d planned and paid for just before I lost my job, but spent the majority of each day worrying about how I was going to make ends meet once I returned.
As has often been the case throughout my life, I would eventually find both solutions and solace not by devising a clever plan to evade unpleasant circumstances, but rather by giving into them, if only temporarily, so that I could them not as a hindrance but as an opportunity to find success elsewhere. I used to believe that I couldn’t see the world until I made something of myself, but I ultimately learned that travel is a prerequisite for a balanced life, not a consequence of one.
India was what I consider to be my first “real travel” — that is, my first visit to a place that was dramatically different than the one in which I’d grown up. Almost immediately upon arrival in Mumbai, the scope of my understanding of the world began to rapidly increase. It’s one thing to see crowded slums depicted on a Catholic Charities commercial; it’s quite another to smell the stench of human excrement from miles away.
Although my visit to India was mired in annoyances and inconveniences, whether it was trains delayed by several hours, the stomach-churning side effect of malaria prophylaxis or the fact that con-men seemed to be lurking around every corner, it was only when I allowed my mind to wander back to my apartment in Austin, Texas that I truly began to feel stress. All it took was an instant’s thought about the bills I might not have the money to pay in a few months to remove me from the starlit shores of Palolem Beach or the timeless sands of Rajasthan. Am I crazy for having come here? I thought to myself. Shouldn’t I be back at home looking for a job?
Of course, remaining in the United States those three weeks likely wouldn’t have helped me find employment anyway, as the hundreds of job applications I submitted that summer without response would prove to me. After nearly nine months of being unemployed, I decided in August 2009 that the only way for me to overcome my financial (and, increasingly, psychological) crisis was to teach English in Asia, a solution I’d considered shortly after using my job but eventually shrugged of as a cop out. I knew that I would never be able to find a job stateside that would offer me such high pay with such a comparably low cost of living and, more importantly, the opportunity to continue traveling. When an English school in Shanghai extended an offer to me, I accepted immediately.
After the initial elation of being in China tapered off, I found myself sobered by the reality of my situation. On the positive side, I was paying down a huge percentage of my debt with every paycheck and the social atmosphere of the school was quickly chipping away at the wall I’d built up around myself being unemployed and depressed. On the other hand, work so occupied my free time and energy that I had little of either to contemplate future travel. To make matters worse, getting time off, even unpaid, was far more difficult than I imagined it would be.
By stroke of luck, I managed to be one of the few in my office to receive the entirety of the Chinese New Year holiday off the following February. I decided long before I arrived in Shanghai that my first foreign trip would be to Southeast Asia. After I landed in Bangkok, the plan had been to spend about five days each in Thailand and Cambodia. When I woke up in on a Thai island the third morning of the trip, however, an unexpected malfunction changed all that: My crappy point-and-shoot camera had broken, just two days before I was to visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, perhaps my most-anticipated destination ever at that point. I freaked out for a few minutes, then began thinking through my options. I’ve been thinking about getting a DSLR for a long time. Maybe this is a sign?
As it turns out, the would-be disaster — my camera breaking two days before I most needed it — had several positive consequences. First and foremost, I ended up with the professional camera I’d always wanted. Secondly, I made the acquaintance of Amber and Kale, two fellow American travelers who were teaching in Taiwan at the time. We ended up spending the entire extent of our time in Cambodia together and hatching a tentative plan to travel together once we were all out of our teaching contracts.
My DLSR would prove a faithful companion to me over the course of the weeks and months that passed after I purchased it. Starting with my travels within China, then continuing on through my return to Southeast Asia with Kale and Amber and the rest of the three-month trip that would take me back to Austin in late 2010, I suddenly had a creative, productive means of occupying time on the road. I began to focus less on what I was doing when I traveled, but more on the places I was visiting and the specific people and things that stood out to me as being important.
It wasn’t really until the following February, on the eve of my trip to South America, that I began to critically assess my own photography. A year of traveling extensively and capturing most of what I saw had undoubtedly transformed me from an inquisitive novice into a budding professional photographer. What I began to notice as I examined my portfolio, however, was that I tended to focus almost exclusively on minute details, interesting as they were, with only scant regard to the greater context of what I was shooting. That September in Israel, my friend Lior would provide me with a specific example of this tendency. “I like that you’ve chosen to spotlight local street art,” he said. “But it isn’t really very artistic on your part if you zoom in too much. Why not try and show the big picture?”
The notion of context has become central not only to my strategy in photography, but also to the way I view my progress on the road of life. Looking back, the near-year I spent jobless and feeling sorry for myself was really a referendum: I hadn’t been doing what I wanted and since I didn’t make the choice to change that, the universe chose for me. Likewise, moving to Shanghai to teach English was less about abandoning ship completely and more about allowing myself to reform, restructure and become open enough to see opportunities when they arose — specifically, the freelance copywriting gig I landed just prior to leaving China, which has financed nearly all of my travel since.
My greatest solace in life is that I have now learned to see my city, my friends and my simple Texas existence from a more balanced perspective. When I first moved to Austin after college, I assumed that I would find the “right” job, meet the “right” friends, settle into a comfortable life and ride off into the sunset. The difficulties I faced finding and holding jobs my first several years here caused me to harbor a sort of disdain for Austin, in spite of the wonderful friends I have here.
Spending most of the past three years away from my adopted hometown has shown me I once saw myself as a failure not because I had failed, but because I had defined success in the wrong way. In my case, this was setting the expectation that Austin should fulfill me either completely or not at all. When I struck material gold seeking spiritual enlightenment elsewhere, I realized that living in Austin had always brought me the inner peace I desired. It was arrogant and selfish for me to expect or want more.
Travel has taught me many things, but above all, it has made me realize that life is never about having everything at the same time or in the same place, but rather about being cognizant of what you get from each place you live or visit — and being brave enough to seek out what you need elsewhere if necessary. Learning to depict the world as I see it through my photography has shown me that the world is less of what you see on the map — that is, land rigidly divided into countries separate from one another — and rather a collection of convergent, beautiful moments as accessible to you or me as to the people that happen to be living them. Travel makes you realize that just because you can’t find what you need where you are doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.