No, I’m not referring to the cosmic universe, but to your own universe! The one you actually live in, the one where you grew up in the countryside, the one you learned in school and evolved in, the one you work and in which you currently exist, the same one you could future expand.
My center of universe is currently somewhere in south-central Romania. It is reaching north in Ukraine, with another island in Latvia and Estonia. To the west it stretches to Prague in Czech Republic and Milano in Italy, with some islands of experience in Berlin, Rome and an area in Portugal from Lisbon to Lourinha for which I am deeply grateful.
To the south, it goes over all the Balkans in a grounded and step by step, solo travel, no GPS kind of way. To the east it goes all the way to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Ulan-Ude, Siberia and back, with some islands of space left to explore but with maybe the strongest and most impactful part until now.
What is a universe?
But this is the “visible”, the space part of my universe. How do we actually define our own universe? For me, it is the total sum of experiences that I have lived, that transformed and helped me evolve to who I am today. It consists of all the places I have discovered and all the individuals and their stories I have met along the way, that through their uniqueness have challenged and enlarged my view on the world. My potential universe is limited only by my curiosity about the world, my genuine curiosity about the world. I know expanding this universe involves a lot of travelling which is not always easy but as I have experienced myself and seen others do it, I can confirm that travel is never a matter of money, but of courage. I know I will talk a lot about traveling around but this is not a travel article, it is about enlarging your view of the world, discovering more about the reality you live in and developing your perception capabilities of it. How do you define your universe?
But why the trouble to do it?
I believe that in order for us to grow as individuals we need to explore and experience as much as we can from the world that we live in. The moment you make your first step and start to expand your universe is the moment you are (consciously or not) more open. Open to what you might find, to what you might learn, to the people you will encounter and to the experiences you will have, “good” or “bad”. I believe that when we are more open we are more empathic and when we are more empathic we better understand the world around us, first hand, not how some else depicts a picture for us.
There will always be a difference between how the world is, the reality, and how we understand and perceive it, but the gap between the two can be shortened in time if we practice curiosity and if we are proactive in discovering it. I see this pursuit as an obligation that we have as individuals, because I believe that expanding our universe and better understanding the world we live in helps us grow, enriches our lives, creates meaningful experiences, and evolves us into a better version of ourselves and ultimately creates the space for us to give back, turning us into a change agent.
Here is how you can start the journey.
- Travel the world (overlanding)
Yes, I will start with the obvious one, discovering the world by… (shocking!) traveling. But I am not referring to the touristic way, the “two day – european capital – coffee drinking – city break” type. I am referring to moving from our little known universe (where we were born, where we live, where we eat, where we sleep, where we learn, where we know everyone, where we cry and where we are happy) to the unknown, out of our comfort zone, to the discovery of others and ourselves, I am talking about that “travel is a matter of courage” stuff.
Bassam Tarazi is someone who manages to catch this idea perfectly when he talks about planned grit and empathy in his Mongol Rally experience, brilliantly capturing it: “…when you experience the world, one tyre rotation at a time, you’re forced to abandon the broad social brushstrokes of they to reveal the pointillism of us,…” (you can find his TedX on youtube under the name of “10,000 Miles Of Planned Grit | Bassam Tarazi | TEDxSalem”). And he is right, discovering the world, one tyre rotation at a time, gives you the chance to know people one stop at a time (sometimes even while driving), to see it in the most detailed way possible, seeing in front of your eyes, from hour to hour, from minute to minute, how the landscapes, animals, towns, and people are changing. Overlanding (by car, bus, RV, backpacking, bike, motorcycle, etc.) is doing it the old fashioned way, appreciating the distance and the effort of covering that distance (not just skipping the line with a plane) and throwing you into the reality of that area. You start to face the same challenges those who live there face, you start to appreciate the little things (like known brands of gas stations, which at a certain point can become the ultimate sign of civilization and luxury) and most importantly you have the time to interact and get to know local people and their stories, especially if you travel alone. And this will also make people be open and curious about you, your story, your journey and again, if you are alone it will be even easier for them to engage and interact.
Doing this has the potential of getting you in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert, at two in the morning, being surrounded by twenty motorcycles and finding a random dude at the gates of hell (actual name of the place) that speaks your language, thousands of kilometres away from the nearest native embassy or getting you stuck in the Pamir mountains near the Afghan border (again at two in the morning, I see a pattern here…) with no mobile and GPS signal or my personal favorite, being kind of… kidnaped in the Iranian border. But these are exactly the kind of “out of comfort zone moments” that make you experience the world first hand, asking yourself “What the f**k am I doing here?” and at the same time, make you grow!.
After experiences like these you actually start to see a difference between what you find there and how that world is depicted for you by others. In my and my teammates’ case it was the same, especially in the case of Iran, although we already heard that what is there was unreal different from what you know from mainstream info, still, experiencing it directly… indescribable! Right after we entered the country we started to search for a place to buy a SIM card… easy thing to do when you have no clue about the language, alphabet, there are no pictures and it is 30+ degrees outside. But we were lucky, or at least we thought we were lucky, because we randomly asked around in the street and not only got directions but ended up in a post office where we were helped to activate our SIM cards. After that we got on our way again, and again we started to notice other cars in traffic that were honking at us, but when we looked we saw that it was not actually a traffic jam type of honks but people were actually saluting us and welcoming us into their country. It felt like we suddenly became rock stars and everyone around us was saluting us, and it continued in the highway tool stop where the clerks didn’t let us pay the tax because we were foreigners visiting their country and in the gas stations where everybody wanted to take pictures with us and where we had to insist to pay for our own petrol (which I still suspect we didn’t fully pay, but just a modest part so we can feel ok). The fifteen minutes of fame actually continued through our pass in Iran at every stop we made. In the restaurants along the freeway the struggle of ordering food was staying strong, with no pictures and no idea if what we were asking for was actually food or oil for our car, it was clear from a kilometer away that we were not from around and every single time someone from the restaurant was coming to help us, even if they didn’t speak english, and after that was actually paying for our food (good luck trying to say no or negotiate that). The local authorities are also the same, we were once stopped by police because they saw that our cars were foreign, just to make sure we have plenty of water with us and we are aware of how hot it is around. Another time, we were around four rally cars on the side of the road, making coffee and eating something and again the police stopped to see if we had mechanical problems or if we needed something. I know that reading this and knowing about it for the first time must feel like a scene on the Truman Show or some kind of Orwellian society but I assure you it is not, I cannot say the same thing for what is after Iran… but it isn’t the case here. You can confirm this with any well known travel vlogger around, not even going to bother to recommend one, just go random on YouTube and watch some episodes in Iran and you will convince yourself, I have not found one good travel vlog that had a bad experience in Iran.
Of course it is not always sugar and nice, sometimes the spice is out of hand (I will get to that in another story) but that spice, that planned grit, that is what is taking you out of your comfort zone and growing!
- Interact with foreigners in your universe
Ok, maybe you can’t just stuff a backpack and leave somewhere, not even for a week or two, I know there are a lot of challenges out there, so search for those who can do it and pass through your universe. Look around you, they can be recognized by the large amount of unnecessary stuff carried along. I’m actually serious here, when the airport travel dimension of luggage disappears… it doesn’t matter if you are on a bike or a car, you tend to go crazy with it.
Wherever you live, there might be a chance that there is something around you that is an attraction for travellers. Might be your city center, might be the medieval construction around, the ruins of something older, a cool part of nature, an old abandoned military warehouse digged in the mountain, a simple river dam or a burning whole in the middle of nowhere, you name it and I guarantee there is someone in this world that wants to see it. Even if there is nothing around you, you are a shepherd in the middle of the mountains in the Balkans or in the vast Kazakh steppe, there is a chanse some dudes with adventure bikes will pass by (see TET) or some idiots with old, small, 1.0L engine cars to break down nearby (not even bother to name this by now), engage them, be curious about their story, why are they there and what is motivating them. After I’ve met people who were continents away from “home”, travelling by cars, bicycles, motorbikes, scooters… you name it, I’ve reached the conclusion that the crazier it sounds, the more interesting the story is.
If you are aware of this you might start to notice it more often than you think. Be open and friendly, see a stranded bike on the road? Offer to help, see some foreigners asking for a hotel? Offer to host if you can. Trust yourself on assessing these kinds of situations, people are generally friendly, being there to expand their universe, not to run with your TV out the door in the middle of the night. Be as curious and open as you feel you can be, this is also something that you build in time, it is a repetitive and practice thing. I guarantee that you will learn new things and you will discover a little more about the world that is from their starting point until your point. I know this is depicted by someone else, so try to rehearse this exercise, the more point of views you will discover the better you will start to understand what is out there, and with each new one that you will discover I am sure that you will start to also discover solutions to that one or two weeks travel in any direction from your current universe.
- Watch travel vlogs
Ok! Ok! You can’t just go crazy in one random direction and you live in the middle of an enchanted forest that keeps strangers away, but you somehow found an internet connection if you are reading this, great! Just get on YouTube and start searching for those who managed to do it and also caught it on tape.
You can actually do this in many ways, can start by searching for a country or territory that you were always curious about and see all the travellers that passed by. You will start to see different points of view of the same area, I think this is the fastest way to learn about a place in more depth. I recommend starting with places like Pamir Mountains and Wakhan Corridor, The road of bones in Russia, Patagonia, Mongolia, Iran, India, South and East coast of Africa, just to start with, the list has no end! And remember, Italy is nice and all but we are aiming for out of the comfort zone.
After a while maybe you can start to notice different “organized” travels in different occasions in that area and start searching for what are they actually doing, in this way you can find out about madnesses like the Mongol Rally, the Monkey Run, the Rickshaw Run, The Great African Run (Budapest to Bamako), Put Foot Rally and others (only these ones should give you some months worth of research). If these adventures are too short for you then just go along with the people that went “all in”, the ones who do a around the world trip, or those who do it without an end plan in sight.
If you reached this point I recommend vlogs like “Itchy Boots”, “Got2Go”, “on her bike”, “Pedro Mota”, “Eva zu Beck”, “Moosafir” or “The People” (last one is a particular kind of blog but one of the best examples). Even if you are not a travel junkie and start watching vlogs of cooking around the world to discover local cuisine, I think that at one point you will want to go there and try it for yourself.
Just starting to watch this will get YouTube to recommend even more so again, this is just the start of it. But take the time and watch their stories from the beginning, see how they started, how they left their universe, with what plans and how it evolved in time.
- Join an NGO
This one is especially for the young ones (because there are more opportunities for them) that don’t have a budget for travelling yet. Join an international NGO, if you are in a University, chances are that you have what to pick. Usually AIESEC or Erasmus are the top candidates but be open and see what is actually happening in your neighborhood. You have a double win with this one, on one hand you will work in a cool environment with foreigners that come to visit and on the other you will have opportunities to go abroad yourself. Just by writing I cannot even give a glimpse of the huge potential this has for you, it is so huge that If I could, I would make it mandatory for university students. To have the opportunity to work in an international NGO while you are learning is a blessing and not taking part in it is just a waste of chance.
Go as deep as you can with it, but also be aware that once it gets you, you might not want to stop. There are people that dedicate and work a large part of their lives to an NGO/cause they have found and identified with. Depending on the area you are reading this you might also want to search about Teach for All, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Vision, SOS Children’s Villages or the classics Unicef, Médecins sans frontières, Red Cross.
Do a reflection process, see what are your deepest values and then see which of the NGOs around you share that, join and make an impact, your universe will enlarge for sure and you will discover new people and new places.
If you are an old school type of person that accidentally ended up on the internet reading this, and none of the above makes sense or believe any of them, I invite you to read. Not only that, but I challenge you to read and keep your universe as it is right now.
Read a travel book by someone who went the long way and took the even longer patience to write about it. Read the story of those who blew up their universe and got so deeply inspired and moved that they started to write a book for the first time in their life. I can also bet that if you have a favorite writer, there is a big chance that he/she has written a travel-themed book at a certain point, reality or fiction. I am so sure it is extremely easy to find such a book, I am not even going to recommend titles like “7 Years in Tibet”, “The roads to Sata” or “Sovietstan” because they are so small in the vast possibilities of the genre.
But I do challenge you to try to keep your universe unchanged after reading a book of this type, who knows, maybe one day you will write a book of your one.
Whatever path you choose to expand your universe is up to you, these are some examples, I invite you to find your own. If you choose to overland, take time to think about your next travel and afterwards reflect on how it was, how different it was to how you thought it would be, how it changed you, what “normes” changed for you and how is that impacting you further. Set your course to the ultimate destination, the outside of your comfort zone!
So, how large is your universe?