In the past I have not understood what the definition of this word was. Wanderlust sounds hipster, artsy, fanciful. It evokes a mental image of worn leather boots and a rucksack. Of a free spirit who packs up the few essentials he needs and takes off into the wild blue yonder to see the world, without any kind of plan. In a way, I think this idea of wanderlust is fascinating to many of us. It’s adventurous, romantic, and exciting. Something that we wish we had the guts to attempt. But often fear of the unknown, the safety of our routine, or other important obligations hold us back. For many, it is an idea that is admired, but usually from afar.

The other day I found a definition of Wanderlust that I loved. It read: “Wanderlust: an irresistible urge to travel to understand one’s very existence.” The end of the quote was what captured my attention the most: to understand one’s very existence. It actually helps explain the Why behind the popularity of the wanderlust idea.

Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to do some travelling outside the country. I’ve made a pilgrimage to Bosnia-Herzegovina, did some volunteer work in Mexico, and attempted to become fluent in Spanish in Madrid, Spain. The several months that these trips accumulated to were spent either alone, or with various friends I happened to make along the way. Those trips were challenging experiences because they were so far outside of my normal comfort zone, they challenged me to grow in ways I didn’t even realize I needed.

When I think about the idea of understanding one’s existence by travelling, it makes sense to me; especially when one travels alone. When you leave behind your “safety net” of friends, family, and home you are forced to push yourself, to be open to whatever and whoever comes your way. You have to have confidence in your capabilities, be resourceful, and know when to ask for help. By travelling, you expand your worldview, your global understanding of cultures and people increases in a way that a textbook could never tell you.

While travelling, oftentimes the only constant you have (besides things always changing) is you. You are your own company, and during the flights, bus trips, walks, and quiet times you are given the opportunity for a lot of reflection and evaluation. Even though unknowns surround you, the challenge of adapting and overcoming increases your confidence in your own abilities.

When I was in Bosnia, I found a local group called St. Joseph’s Workers who would take food and some supplies to the poor and elderly in the mountains. The two people in charge of the trip were Irish and American, so luckily I didn’t have too much trouble convincing them to let me volunteer. We packed an ancient van with rice and beans and various other items before we took off with a crude map (literally a sheet of white paper with a few scraggly lines… no street names) to try and find all of the people on our list. Most of the people we visited were widows who lived in one-room shacks or stone houses. They had a few meager belongings, spoke no English, and were so feeble and Alone that it made your heart ache. But every single person we visited met us with a smile and made sure to pray with us before we left.

One house we stopped at was home to a little, old woman who had a garden (which was rare). She invited us inside her house, a small room with a makeshift bed, kitchen, and table all crammed inside. When we opened the door, tiny balls of fur shot into every nook and cranny. She had a litter of about six tiny kittens she was taking care of. We gave her our supplies, prayed and were leaving the yard, when the old woman started yelling at me in Hrvatski (a very guttural language that I barely managed to master a few words in during my five week trip). I turned around and saw she was waving a ceramic pot with a basil plant in it – she was trying to give me a present. I will never forget how humbling that moment was. This woman, who’s entire possessions fit into one room, who had been in desperate need for simple food stuffs, wanted to give me something. It was one of those moments when all of the privileges that you’ve had pale in comparison to the faith, perseverance and generosity of someone who’s led a life much less easy than your own.

Travelling to foreign places makes you wonder why you live where you do, with the culture you’re surrounded by, and it makes you question what it would have been like if you’d spent your life somewhere else in the world. Travelling makes you realize how many blessings you’ve been given, sometimes solely because of the country in which you were born. It also makes you see the qualities and behaviors of other cultures that you wish you could be a part of. It teaches you that people are inherently good, and that even if they’re from the opposite side of the world, you have a lot in common with them. It helps make more sense of life. It helps you understand your existence in this world.