Can Two Weeks Abroad Change Your Life?
I’d like to say I was deep in thought, pondering the implications of this question as I primed my body and soul for the journey ahead. In reality, I was drinking beer and procrastinating packing.
2017 had been a rough year up to that point and I was ready to get the fuck out of town for a few weeks. I wasn’t entirely sure why I had made the decision to travel abroad now, for the first time in my life, but it seemed as good a time as any and the flights were booked. Little did I know, as I begrudgingly assembled the contents of my luggage, that the next two weeks would be one hell of a paradigm-shifting adventure. But more on that soon…
The Hero’s Journey
In 1977, Star Wars enchanted audiences world-wide with its compelling storyline, captivating plot progression, and fascinatingly unique array of characters. George Lucas, the creative genius responsible for the Intergalactic plight between Rebels and Empire, credits the focus and structure of his work to a man named Joseph Campbell.
Joseph Campbell was a teacher, author, lecturer, and mythologist who specialized in comparative mythology. He demonstrated thematic and archetypal similarities between the myths of disparate cultures all over the world and throughout history. One of the crowning achievements of his work – and the piece referenced most by George Lucas – is the idea of the monomyth.
The monomyth or “Hero’s Journey” is a mythological template that describes the journey a protagonist undergoes as they transition from the known world to the unknown, encounter various allies and trials, face their ultimate ordeal, and return transformed with a reward of physical or metaphysical significance. This template plays out in stories as old as The Odyssey and as contemporary as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Hangover.
Joseph Campbell’s complete monomyth has 17 steps, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to use the 12 outlined by movieoutline.com. I’ll demonstrate how my experience overseas relates to this idea and convey how you can use it to add clarity and direction to your life whenever you feel unsure of how to move forward on your own Hero’s Journey. Now back to packing…
As I said, 2017 had been a rough year and I was ready to get the fuck out of town. I suffered my first soul-retching heartbreak and the ensuing emotional fallout. Creativity and motivation were at all-time lows. Purpose felt muddy. Negative facets of my personality that had been dormant ripped through their psychic barriers to the surface of my life.
Something needed to change; be it me, my circumstances, or a combination of the two.
The Call To Adventure
I had always wanted to travel outside of the states but never had the motivation or means to do so. I was at the bar one evening enjoying a few drinks and pleasant company when the topic of travel popped up. As we were chatting, an alluring potentiality arose: that I could travel to Spain and stay with a friend already living out there.
I felt an intuitive pull to the idea and the spark of curiosity ignited a growing desire to see if I could make it a reality. I wasn’t sure if my friend abroad would accept or if I could appropriate the funds to make it happen, but I was excited and decided to give it a shot.
Refusal Of The Call
To be honest, I didn’t refuse the Call. In the traditional monomyth, the hero typically feels resistance at the idea of abandoning the Ordinary World in pursuit of an uncertain future. You can reference Luke’s hesitation to involve himself with Obi-Wan, Frodo’s attempts to rid himself of the Ring, or Woody’s dismissal of Buzz as Andy’s favorite new toy.
This is where a lot of people fuck up.
They’ll feel the Call to Adventure – a business idea, an attractive and mysterious stranger, a new career, a change of course, an unexpected opportunity – but will refuse the call so deeply that they’re unable to progress on their journey.
It is normal to be afraid and reluctant to abandon the status quo on a venture that may produce fool’s gold. But it’s through ultimately accepting the Call that allows the journey and all its marvelous trials, tribulations, and rewards to manifest. Of course, this is easier said than done, and many times the hero will encounter a mentor who helps prepare them for the quest ahead.
Meeting The Mentor
I couldn’t have made it so far as two steps outside the country without my friend Ciera’s help. She helped with trip planning, ensured I was safe and always had a place to stay, took me on epic adventures, encouraged me to experience culture fully, pushed me outside my comfort zone even when I vehemently resisted, saved my ass when I made mistakes, and made my first abroad experience one for the record books. I wouldn’t be in a position to share any of this with you now if it weren’t for her help and guidance.
Crossing The First Threshold
I finished packing just in time to get a few hours of sleep before groggily exiting my dad’s car at the airport. I had four connecting flights to transport me from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Sevilla, Spain and another two from Sevilla to Prague in the Czech Republic. It was drizzling cool late-April rain as I my luggage followed me into the airport terminal and off to the unknown.
My first encounter with European culture came during the transatlantic flight from Chicago to Madrid. Hello became hola. Water turned to wine. Food took on smaller portions and more robust flavors. Time sped up 8 hours.
After an exhausting and longer-than-anticipated travel process, I was greeted warmly by my mentor Ciera and accompanied her on a bus from the Sevilla airport to the heart of the city where she was residing. We crossed cobblestone walkways, illustrious gardens with towering palm trees, beautiful timeworn Spanish architecture, and masses of men dressed in tailored suits with beautiful women adorning traditional flamenco dresses (trajes de gitana) by their sides.
Half a day later, we found ourselves in Prague surrounded by breathtaking gothic architecture, rich cultural history, and all the Pilsner beer one could stomach.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
My first impression of Europe was well-received, but it was nowhere near a walk in the park. It didn’t take long to find myself on the receiving end of a few rude international awakenings.
Test #1: Patience. The flight leaving Chicago had been delayed, resulting in an 11-hour layover in that godforsaken Madrid airport. At least they provided some free McDonald’s to keep me alive while I killed time napping on public benches.
Test #2: Jetlag and sleep deprivation. I felt absolutely exhausted and struggled to maintain physical stamina and mental clarity for days after arriving. It took a fair amount of time to adjust to the time difference and catch up on sleep.
Test #3: Communication. I didn’t speak the language and even simple tasks such as ordering food or asking for directions were anxiety-inducing. After a few awkward exchanges, I started building the confidence and competence necessary to get things done.
Enemy #1: Foreign food. Don’t get me wrong, the food was absolutely delicious. My body was just not accustomed to so much protein and bread with so little water and vegetables. It took thought and planning to ensure I met my nutritional requirements, and I’ll never take fiber for granted again.
Enemy #2: Mosquitoes from hell. These things had a lovely habit of buzzing right next to my ear while I tried to sleep. Talk about paranoia.
Enemy #3: My own mind. More on this in the Ordeal section.
Ally #1: Ciera’s roommates. I had the pleasure of meeting three amazing French individuals residing with Ciera. They were not only incredibly friendly and inviting, but helped me navigate the cultural landscape and were a blast to hang out with. They also taught me my first French swear-word (putain) which was an enlightening experience.
Ally #2: Foreign strangers. Despite communication challenges, the majority of foreigners I interacted with were helpful and accommodating. Turns out not everybody outside the U.S. is bent on destroying us.
Ally #3: SIM cards and WhatsApp. These made navigation and electronic communication a breeze. The SIM card in particular was great for looking up foreign words, things to do, and catching Mr. Mimes in Pokémon Go.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
This is the point in which the hero, having assembled a team of allies, overcome trials, and vanquished enemies, approaches the central Ordeal of the journey.
I had successfully surmounted travel setbacks, my health was rebounding, I was learning local customs and phrases, and my skin was consistently lathered with bug spray to repel those flying spawns of Satan. I had toured Prague and Sevilla and seen many of the prominent attractions. The initial excitement was waning as I settled into the last week of my stay.
I relayed earlier that I wasn’t entirely sure why I had made the decision to travel abroad. If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll realize that I am not much of a surface-level individual…I enjoy depth and seek to derive meaning from experience. The Ordeal, for me, was not an unexpected encounter with bandits, it didn’t involve any crazy schemes, nor did it center around anything external. It was an internal Gladiatorial battle of the psyche, a culmination of trauma experienced earlier in the year, and a darkness I needed to stumble through in order to find hope.
In truth, this is part challenging to share. To put it simply: I felt like a piece of shit.
The life I had been living felt shallow and inauthentic, built atop ambiguous values, poor habits, and an oblivious ego. My self-confidence evaporated. Dark thoughts stung at my self esteem like angry hornets. I felt ugly and obsessed about my physical appearance; how I was somehow less deserving of love and affection than others I unfairly compared myself to. Painful emotions and memories looped like broken records in my head. I was pissed off at the world and myself, made worse by my stubborn unwillingness to take any self-responsibility. I felt anxious, scared, lonely, angry, ungrateful, and vulnerable.
Was this trip a mistake? Why can’t I relax and enjoy myself? Am I a worthless and unlovable person? Why do I hate myself so much? Is there a point to any of this? These negative questions circled my head like buzzards over a rotting carcass. I was in the belly of the storm of my own insecurities, blind to the amazing opportunities lying just outside the swirling gale.
But I kept pushing…
The Reward (Seizing Of The Sword)
“What is it we are questing for? It is the fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us.” – Joseph Campbell
I’m not sure when, but at some point I snapped out of my cognitive nightmare. With the help of friends and the principles I study and share on this site, things began clicking and I went from merely surviving Spain to thriving.
I began taking self-responsibility. I sorted through mental bullshit and lies. I put a conscious effort into being positive and grateful. I sought meaningful experiences. I embraced the present moment.
The result was a rich foreign experience. I learned a lot about Spanish culture and found that they place great emphasis on sensuality, leisure, family and friends, and enjoying life. I discovered the godsend that is Solomillo al whiskey; a delightful tapa of grilled pork sirloin over a bed of potato wedges smothered in garlic whiskey sauce. People from all over the world shared their unique perspectives on culture and language and I even managed to have a half-decent Spanish conversation with a local. I learned everyone is proud of where they’re from and that each culture has its pros and cons. I formed friendships with people who had been strangers just days before and finally felt the sense of community I had desperately and unconsciously been seeking. And perhaps most importantly, I felt a sense of identity and personal power that has stayed with me since.
The Road Back
My last evening was spent laughing, drinking, and enjoying pop music with wonderful people. All that was left to do was breathe in the city one final time before hopping on a plane home with newfound wisdom and humility. What could go wrong?
Long story short, I missed my flight.
This was my “fuck me” moment. The final challenge. I knew I had a high probability of being screwed when I woke up late, hungover, and rushing for the bus. I hurriedly handed the driver my last four Euros and arrived at the airport with an hour to spare. This would have been fine had there not been a complication with my flights.
I ended up stranded at the airport, luggage in hand, with no place to stay. Fortunately, I was no stranger to adversity by this point and I refused to be trapped in Europe for eternity. Ciera, once again, came through and bailed me out, my mom helped fix the flight situation, and I spent the day with two other awesome friends that had the courtesy of rescuing me from vagrancy in the Sevilla alleyways.
My final, final day in Europe came to an end and I boarded the plane home, exhausted but beaming with a sense of gratitude.
Return With The Elixir
This post is my Elixir. The person I am today is my Elixir. And if I hadn’t taken the Call to Adventure, passed my Tests, faced my Ordeal, and opened my heart to the Reward, I never would have had any of these expansive experiences I’ve shared with you.
I could ramble on for another few hundred words about how you need to be brave and face your fears and all that fluffy motivational stuff. But I’m tired and I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave you with one thought:
Be the hero of your journey. If you aren’t, no one will be.
For those interested in learning more about the Hero’s Journey, I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. This book was a beacon of light at times I felt lost.
 “It was The Hero with a Thousand Faces that just took what was about 500 pages and said, here is the story. Here’s the end; here’s the focus; here’s the way it’s all laid out. It was all there and had been there for thousands and thousands of years, as Mr. Campbell pointed out. And I said, ‘This is it.’” – George Lucas, National Arts Club, 1985 (excerpt from The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work)
 The mentor can be a person, object, or psychological realization that allows the hero to cross the Threshold into adventure.
 Spelled Seville in English and Sevilla in Spanish.
 I spent a total of 4 days in Prague and 10 days in Sevilla.
 These can only be captured in Europe and I’m a somewhat hardcore PoGo player.