How does one assess how they’ve ‘improved’ as a traveller?
Three years ago as I was getting ready for my first solo trip to Canada, I was both excitedly and anxiously curious about the places I would see and people I would meet, with no idea what to expect. I packed and repacked my backpack, stressing about being able to fit everything in. Upon landing in Toronto I had a swarm of butterflies in my stomach as I fluttered around the airport in a daze of confusion. Relief came when a man from a bus company approached asking if I was looking for a way to get downtown. I sat upright staring out of the window the whole way with a beating in my chest, too nervous to make conversation with anyone else. When I got off the bus in the city I had little idea of where I was or where to start, asking a girl who looked my age for directions with a squeaky voice. I had to spend five minutes psyching myself up to approach a group of people who were cooking dinner in my hostel.
Then, three years later in July I went back to Canada and the feelings were very different from the first time. Excitement was there, but of a different kind. There was no real sense of wonder about what it would be like; I was simply returning to what felt like a second home. I was like a child returning to my usual sweet shop on the corner to buy my usual treat, knowing that it would be there and I would enjoy it. Packing took little time and I glanced over my backpack like a protective parent less frequently. Gone were the butterflies as I strode through Vancouver airport’s arrival lounge. I still wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to get to my final destination, but it didn’t worry me like it would have previously. I calmly followed signs to the trains and confidently asked people questions when necessary. I then boarded a bus and sat back in my seat relaxed, exchanging smiles with an old man when I heard him make a joke to someone. I bought a ticket for the ferry to Vancouver Island and initiated a conversation with an older man and woman. It was only when I arrived at my final destination that the excitement really vamped up. On that first evening back in Canada, I felt immensely proud of how far I had come since my first travel experience alone.
So much assessment of a person is carried out using academic testing – systems based on objective, quantitative scoring. The education system in England and many other countries means that one only adopts a belief that they are improving at a subject if they receive an improved numerical score for an examination. Even if someone feels they are understanding a topic easier, receiving a low or average score dents their self-belief. Students are pushed into a system where learning is about passing exams rather than developing a wider intelligence that can be applied to everyday life. However, some of those students who consistently receive the highest marks will have little confidence outside of the classroom in a new social environment. Their grades say little about their personal human development as a whole.
The numerical system of assessment doesn’t have to be used with travelling. There is no test to pass in order to impress anyone nor checklist to complete for someone else to approve, but simply an experience for one to evaluate for themselves qualitatively. Real-life events allow one to see how far they have developed not as an academic in one specific intellectual sphere, but as a person in general. If a mistake is made, such as getting lost on a map or being conned by someone, there need to be less stress about the repercussions it will have on one’s future career – it is simply a useful life lesson. There is no rush to become better at travelling within a short time period, unlike the pressure a student can face to understand algebra or the Second World War in two weeks’ time. Travel really is one of the most independent, most effective, most fulfilling and most enjoyable forms of learning.
When I returned to Canada, my confidence and ability to travel alone had increased over the past three years not from three years of studying for a degree in London, but from the summers throughout this time when I went travelling. These were the times when the biggest tests were asked of me: the ability to organise myself; communicate with others effectively; cope with difficult situations; be decisive and use initiative; be constantly physically active and mentally alert. No longer were these tests being asked of me in the classroom, but in the real world. And one of the best ways to assess how I had grown as a traveller was to return to the place where it all began and compare the emotions felt. Of all the exams that I have taken on the way to completing my entire education and therefore preparing to enter the real world permanently, travelling has been my favourite and most valuable test.