Recently there have been a lot of articles and cartoons going around Facebook and other sites about introverts, things like “23 signs you’re secretly an introvert”, and “the power of introverts“. Reading and watching these pieces had me vacillating awkwardly between “Oh yeah, I’m so an introvert!”, and “Whoops, guess I’m not, never mind.”
So what’s the deal? Am I an introvert, or aren’t I? My conclusion: neither. I am a person who used to strongly identify with introversion, but by way of traveling has found herself wandering into extrovert territory. There is no word for this, so I made one up: I am a travelvert.
Most people I know would have a hard time believing I was ever an introvert, let alone that I still carry introvert tendencies with me. But I promise you, it’s true.
In sixth grade I used to spend recess under a tree reading a book until the bell rang. One day I got in trouble for reading in class while Mr. Miller was teaching. My punishment was to go outside for recess without a book to immerse myself in. The whole class laughed at me for being so weird.
I was still set in my introverted ways when I left for my first big trip abroad, an organized adventure tour to New Zealand. I was sure that, given a blank slate with a group of total strangers, I’d finally be able to be someone different, someone likable and easy to get along with. But my personality sabotaged me from the very beginning. It took me a full half hour of lurking before I gathered the nerve to walk over and meet the group in the LAX terminal. Unfortunately, someone noticed my weird hesitation and called me out on it. Things only went downhill from there.
I traveled solo at the end of that trip, and for most of my international adventures after that. Solo travel suited me much better. I had plenty of time to read, write, hike, explore, and take in the world at my own pace. Sometimes, though, I felt extremely lonely, and I looked around at groups of laughing people and wondered how it was so easy for them to meet other travelers everywhere they went.
Fast forward to the present day. It’s 2013, I’m 29 years old, and that New Zealand trip is nine years in my past. Am I still as shy as I was back then? Is fitting in as stressful and challenging as it was on those group van rides through the South Island? Do I still sit around hostels waiting and hoping for some extroverted person to befriend me? Not really. So what happened to change all that?
Well, nearly a decade of travel to dozens of countries happened.
If there’s one thing travel is good for, it’s forcing you out of your comfort zone. Whether you like it or not, interactions with other people are a fact of life on the road. In a single day you’ll find yourself talking to the person you accidentally stepped on while crawling down from your bed in the morning, the guy asking to be buzzed in because he forgot his key, the smiley girl who sits herself down at your table without asking first, and the group of travelers who suddenly got jazzed about a local hike and are looking for more people to split the cost. And that’s just the other travelers. Add to the mix the bus drivers, street vendors and friendly locals, and you’ll find yourself being far more open than you’re used to.
But it’s more than just forced interaction. At some point, even the introverted traveler seems to start initiating the interactions. For me, this big change happened on my motorcycle trip to Panama. One day I decided to stop waiting for good people to come to me, and I began to seek them out myself. The first person I initiated a conversation with offered me a free place to stay for the next two weeks (talk about positive reinforcement). I also started playing the yes game, where I said yes whenever anyone offered me help, company or adventure.
I was a reluctant extrovert, but eventually extroversion became a sort of habit. Just like any new skill, all it took was dedication and practice. And as difficult as the transition was, I don’t think it would have even been possible without the forced practice provided by years of prior travels.
So now I’m able to approach people with no ulterior motive other than wanting to meet them, and I can ask total strangers for help, and I can participate in pub trivia night without wanting to run away in the first five minutes…but am I a pure extrovert? No way. The motorcycle trip was a perfect example of why not: whether I’d spent one day or five being social and chatty and extroverted at a destination, my happiest moment always came when I pulled on my helmet and hit the open road, alone.