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  • Writer's pictureKristen Rocco

Traveling This Year? Here’s How to Up Level Your Vacation to Epic Proportions

Up Level Your Vacation to Epic Proportion and Better Yourself in the Process

Every new year do you find yourself asking how you could up the ante, improve, or challenge yourself a little more in the coming year?

I definitely do. If you’re anything like me, it’s helpful to have some inspiration and this year, I knew just where to turn.

At the beginning of the year I like to make a departure from writing about romantic relationships and dive deeper into the relationship we have with ourselves. Last year, I reported on Courtney McAtee’s year of love and shared how her year of peace transformed her life.

This year I’m excited to share the wisdom of a mentor of mine. Her name is Tanya and soon you will see why she’s an amazing mentor. Someone once told me that they make movies about Tanya. At 19, she enlisted in the Army, selflessly desiring to protect our freedom. She deployed on missions all over the world, from Haiti to Kazakhstan and both Iraq and Afghanistan. Over that time, she rose through the ranks, became an officer, and has stories that would blow your mind. She was once a SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) Instructor, training pilots and Special Operations personnel in the military code of conduct to survive if captured as a prisoner of war. She retired honorably after 22 years of service, which is when I met Tanya.

Her ambition continued after her military career and for her next act, she was accepted to Columbia University to earn her master’s degree in social work with a concentration on policy and international social welfare. She hoped to use her new skillset and military experience to advocate for veterans at the state and federal levels and effect positive change for those transitioning to civilian life. While in grad school, she created an opportunity to intern at the United Nations for the country of Andorra and after graduation, she responded to her internal calling to travel abroad – this time as a civilian. She left the U.S. on June 25 with a one-way ticket in hand. She had no destination in mind, just an openness to explore her surroundings wherever her travels took her.

Tanya is one of the best examples I know of someone who has carved her own path in life. Strategically, but with openness to make adjustments for the unexpected, she has followed her gut and as a result, has a life full of meaning.

She’s also one of the most down-to-earth, humble human beings I’ve ever met. She’s the type of person that would stop to talk to you even if she was in a rush to get somewhere. She’s about connection. She’s about relationships. And that’s why she’s experienced so many incredible things in her life. Never taking anyone for granted and soaking in everything she can – all the lessons, all the advice – and being grateful for it all.

Six months after she left for her global expedition, I had to check in with my friend. What was life like traveling for the last six months? And what had she learned about life that is hard to experience, to really get, when you’re living your day-to-day life. I had planned to share her travel tips. She, better than anyone, would have amazing advice for those wanting to experience traveling on a different level, but what I realized from her answers to my questions was that they also double for what it means to be a student of life. Tanya’s travel insights, on the surface, are ways you can make your travel experiences more rich, more profound, more interesting, but underneath, you may also uncover some inspiration to embrace life in a new, more meaningful way.

From Skopje, Macedonia, she appeared on my computer screen by way of our real-time video call and we launched right in.

What can traveling do for the soul?

The answer actually depends on your state of mind. Traveling can bring about many revelations and life lessons, if we allow it. What I mean is that rather than controlling every aspect of your travel, try and be comfortable with letting go and releasing the urge to plan for every situation. Accept and expect good things to cross our path and in doing so, you can overcome obstacles and open yourself up to the many exhilarating experiences that are out there and freely coming to us.

I have a few phrases I like to repeat to myself including, “Things always work out for me” and “Strangers go out of their way to help me.”

What type of mindset should you embrace when traveling to an unknown place? Any precautions?

It’s natural to be fearful and it’s prudent to be aware of the threats where you’re traveling and to be cautious with your belongings, but fear is the driving force behind a lot of negative behavior. If fear overshadows your actions, you will push away all the positive experiences waiting for you.

With regard to mindset, begin making decisions based on your feelings, so that you learn to trust your intuition and learn the difference between fearing something (that could be safe) and not feeling good about something that is indeed bad. I’ll give you an example.

I knew before traveling that I would find myself in uncomfortable situations and I prepared myself mentally for those. It’s important to understand that I don’t mean unsafe situations, simply circumstances that may be quite normal for a local person, but uncomfortable to me because it’s not a customary practice for me. On the beaches in Spain, for instance, it’s quite normal for a woman to remove her bathing suit top and sunbathe or go swimming in the ocean this way. This is not a common practice in the States, but one that I appreciate because the Spanish – well, European culture, it seems — accepts this as normal and does not sexualize this behavior. By not attaching sexuality to this, women feel comfortable and young children, both boys and girls, are taught to view a woman’s body differently, so in turn the men who have been exposed to this as children, don’t act the way men would if this were the first time seeing a woman’s breasts exposed. Being able to “do as the Romans do” and remove your top is a freeing experience. Remember, the only one uncomfortable is you. Act like this is something you’ve done for years.

This isn’t for everyone, so I’ll give another example: Greeting others. This is a simple practice you can adopt that may feel awkward if you’re not used to it, but is a good place to start. If it is customary to shake a person’s hand when meeting them, do this. If it’s normal to give a kiss on the cheek, it’s okay to follow suit. Many Europeans tend to give friends a kiss on both cheeks. Just act like this is something you do all the time. I just learned that here in Skopje, Macedonia, it’s customary to give a close friend three kisses (for the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). This doesn’t mean that you have to accept the religion, it simply provides the background and explains the origin for why it’s done.

What have you learned about yourself during your travels?

My resolution was/is to decompress, to stop rushing. I’m so goal-oriented, so it was hard to slow down. I was always go, go, go. Now, I’m okay with not jam-packing everything into a short time frame. I also told myself I would “pay attention”. By this, I mean being aware of what’s behind the physical. For instance, if I see an advertisement about horseback riding and then I meet someone who brings up the topic of horses and then if a friend who doesn’t ride suddenly shares an article with me about horseback riding, I think it’s important to “pay attention” to the message coming your way and perhaps go with it and see what happens. You may have an unforgettable (and necessary in terms of personal growth) experience that you hadn’t even planned on. I’ve made some revelations along the way as well, such as releasing judgment. Judgment drains my energy. We all do it subconsciously, but it’s nice to be aware of it and be able to step back and question why I think I’m right. I’ve also learned that what seems “abnormal” to me may be normal to others. My/Our culture has a way of doing things that may be different, but both can be right. Making comparisons (in how I’m used to doing things) is natural, but constantly comparing hinders learning and the learning process. By adapting to my surroundings, I’ve begun to sync with everyone else around me. Surprisingly, this has happened most frequently while driving. Now, I feel like I’ve tapped into the rhythm and everything feels more harmonious - like we’re all a part of a shared consciousness. Everybody gets it and it just works. I’m far less aggressive behind the wheel than I used to be. I used to have a slogan at the bottom of my email. It read, “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way, if not, you’ll find an excuse.” If I say it, I also need to do it! So, I’m doing it.

What daily practices, if any, have you put into place?

I have a lot to say and the thoughts come to me while I’m walking or taking public transportation or driving and because I’m exploring all day, it was hard for me to find the time at first to wind down and write in a journal, for instance. If you’re traveling with someone else, it can be hard to find time alone, so I suggest early on, agreeing to give each other an hour (or two) of “quiet time.” That way, you don’t feel like you’re being rude (especially if you’re a guest in their home) and you can take the time to catch up on reading, journaling, going through pictures, posting a few or something else.

I take photographs and share them with my friends on social media. I’ve gotten good at taking pics quickly without missing a beat, which I began doing while jogging. I incorporate early morning jogs around sunrise with photography in order to get some great shots and work out at the same time. I also began meditating recently for 15 minutes right after waking up. This is the best time to keep the mind blank and free of thought without outside influences since I do this before checking emails or social media. I choose not to let the outside world interfere with this new practice of mine, so I purposely do this before anything. It’s the purest time for our minds, fresh out of sleep.

If you had one (or two) piece of wisdom to share with the world, what would it be?

I recently learned of a new term for our feelings: it’s our internal navigation system. By feelings, I mean our intuitive nature. Despite the reference to woman’s intuition, it is not gender-specific. Incorporate your internal navigation system in everything you do. In making decisions in life, let THIS be your guide, your gauge. As a practical person, I recognize the importance of weighing the pros and cons when making a decision about anything, big or small, but I would like to suggest you try sitting with it — the idea — for a few minutes, visualizing the choice and then asking yourself which feels better. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve been spot on. Yes, even with big things like purchasing my first home or finding an apartment or townhouse to rent.

Let go. I’ve argued for things out of principle and felt justified in doing so, but lately, I’ve started asking myself, “Does it really matter? In the greater scheme of things, if you ask yourself this question, you might realize that it’s not such a big deal and be okay with letting it – whatever “it” is, gooooo.

In the time that I've known you, you have continued to expand, learn and take on new opportunities, is there a particular worldview you hold or personal reason that makes you want to keep experiencing new things/push yourself to expand even more?

I like that you used the word “expand” because I think this is everyone’s purpose in life is to expand as much as possible. We will never reach a point where we’ve expanded enough. There’s always room for more growth and more FUN. Let’s not forget that we can and should have fun. There’s no age limit to learning, having fun, exploring, growing. As long as we’re alive, there’s more exploring to do.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self? Or to a current 20-year-old?

Two things:

Listen to your desires: your path lays there. Let how YOU feel about something (not how someone else feels about something, despite that other person’s role in your life) guide your decisions. If you feel excited about something, that’s a sign that you’re onto something that you may be really good at or that will bring you a lot of joy or happiness. If something comes easy to you and doesn’t feel like work, even though it may be hard for someone else or something other people aren’t into, that might just mean that it’s perfect for you. Remember, it’s about being the right “fit” for you. Be it a love interest, a job, a hobby or a school, no matter how “PERFECT” others might say he/she or it is, it’s about that person or thing being perfect for YOU. Make your decisions accordingly. The choice is always yours.

Second, we feel most comfortable with having a plan because we want to make the most of our time, but I would plan for “unplanned time.” That’s where the real original experiences come in usually.

What’s an original experience that you didn’t plan for on this trip?

Last week, it was raining, but I couldn’t stay indoors. So, I decided to take a little road trip - the Podgorica to Andrijevica route listed in “The full Monte’ road trip: Montenegro’s best drives.” Who knew that it would have me encounter wondrous colorful fall colors one moment and Montenegrin magic the next, as I discovered a winter wonderland like nothing I’ve ever seen. I had no idea that weather conditions would lead me to cross the border and into the warm and hospitable home of a family I had never met in Albania, who invited me in for coffee and rakija and later a home-cooked, farm fresh dinner and a warm bed to stay the night.

On another occasion, I had planned to go to Manastir Morača. Before my visit, I stopped for coffee at a place next to the parking lot outside the monastery. It was small inside and two people were smoking, so I opted to sit outside in the cool air. An older man was seated at a nearby bench and talking quite a bit, not really to anyone in particular. He spoke to me in German, but I couldn’t understand him. I asked if he spoke English or Spanish or Russian and he responded with a list of other languages he spoke, including “macaroni.” I laughed out loud and he liked that I got his joke. I pointed to the monastery to tell him why I was there. An hour later, when I returned to my car, he was still there and called me over to give me his Eastern Orthodox prayer rope bracelet. What a special gift.

I hope that some of Tanya’s experiences, travel tips and life lessons can inspire you in the new year. She gets what life is all about and she makes it her mission to spread kindness and love to others.

Now I would love to know: what are you taking away from this article? How can you become a student of life? How might you travel differently as a result of Tanya’s advice?

We can’t wait to read your thoughts!




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