What I Learned from Backpacking the World at 16

When I was 16, I decided I would run away. However, I didn’t just head over to the neighbours house or to the next state. Instead I ventured though Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It was a journey that opened my eyes to the world and changed my life. Not only did I learn the street skills necessary in order to survive and travel with no money, but I also learned about people and life, and in doing so, I learned about myself.

Here are the most important things I learned from a year alone on the road at 16

1) The Best Food Is In The Dumpster

Before getting into the deep philosophical stuff, here is a practical and highly cost effective lesson. Thanks to another runaway, I learned that depending on the time of the week, dumpsters behind supermarkets can be filled to the brim with pre-packaged sandwiches, juices, fruits and other perishables that are only a few days past their expiration dates. Not only is it the best because it’s free but since ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ it is also incredibly delicious.

Dumpster

2) Drugs Are Evil

Being alone on the road at 16, with no responsibilities, I had no reason not to experiment with drugs. The more depressed I became the more drugs I did. I allowed my mind to spiral down into an ever-increasing abyss of unhappiness. Although it took a while, I finally realized that drugs only provided an artificial and transient happiness. Essentially, drugs prevented me from discovering true happiness on my own.

Drugs are Evil

3) The Poorest People Have The Biggest Hearts

The poorer the country I visited, the more welcoming and giving were its people. Countless people from Syria to Egypt invited me into their homes. Though they hardly had enough to go around, they always made sure I was well fed and warm. Since they know what it’s like to be cold, to be hungry and to suffer, they truly know compassion.

The Poorest People Have The Biggest Hearts

4) Karma Is Real

I never truly believed this until two birds simultaneously crapped me on shortly after stealing a cell phone. After a few more similar experiences, such as having my bag stolen while hiding in the train bathroom avoiding ticket agents, I stubbornly accepted the truth of Karma. That being, though cliché, “What goes around comes around.”

Karma Is Real

5) Not All Homeless People Are Crazy

When I was living in a squat in southern France, I initially believed that all my tent mates, Steve, Wizard, Rasta, Leppy, and the other Steve, were completely insane. While it turned out that half of them actually were nuts, specifically Wizard, a cross-eyed schizophrenic with Tourettes, the other half were simply victims of some terrible event, like the car crash that killed Steve’s family. The sane ones took care of me, and for that I am forever grateful.

Not All Homeless People Are Crazy

6) Life Is Relative

I had not ingested anything for three days straight. I was exhausted, dirty and down on life. Out of nowhere, a kind shop owner offered me a Coke. The sensation of this high-energy life-sustaining beverage that tantalized my tongue and surged through my veins offered me an indescribable happiness. It was then I realized the relativity of life. I understood that without sadness I could never know happiness. So I accepted the bad times always knowing that things would get better.

Life Is Relative

7) People Are People No Matter Where You Go

The media and Western perspectives had left me confused about what to expect from the Middle East. While I tried to enter Syria with an open mind, fears of anti-American Muslim extremists dominated my consciousness. However, the more I got to know the people of Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, the more I realized our shared humanity. That being, that we all share the same needs and desperately seek to connect with one another and in doing so ease the pain of our lonely life paths.

People Are People No Matter Where You Go

8) Happiness Comes From Within

I naively believed that happiness would lie in a place. And so I kept travelling to different countries with the hope of finding the elusive happiness I so desperately sought. While after crossing each border I was greeted with an initial burst of euphoria, as the days past, I reverted back to my old depressed routine. Eventually, I learned the truth of the old saying, “The grass is always greener…” That being, if you’re not happy where you are now, you’re not going to find it no matter where you go.

Happiness Comes From Within

9) Trust In The Universe

In the beginning, I was always worried about what I would eat next and where I was going to sleep at night. However, after a few weeks on the road, I realized that I was on a path and that everything I did and everywhere I went was meant to be. Food and shelter would always come when I most needed it and things always tended to work out. I stopped worrying, began to trust and that’s when I truly began to enjoy life on the road.

Trust In The Universe

10) The West is Blessed

Upon returning home, I was able to comprehend the relative wealth I was blessed with. I was determined to make the most of the resources at my disposal. I started a delivery business, got an education, and later began my blog, The Runaway Guide.

The West is Blessed

Conclusion

There is no better education for the mind and soul than travel. It grants one an invaluable perspective about oneself and the world. And because of this, I don’t regret running away from home at 16. However, I cannot advocate it as a substitute to high school or as a healthy life path. For one, it was a trip full of suffering, for my parents and myself. It was also very dangerous. I nearly lost my life to drugs, nearly drowned and was nearly shot by police. In closing, I hope everyone will travel at one point in their lives, just not quite the way I did.

For more about Leif, his life and adventures check out his blog, The Runaway Guide.

72 Comments

  1. Waegook Tom on September 5, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Great post and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Although after reading this – I wouldn’t advocated anybody running away from home at sixteen, either, especially judging from the dark places that Leif had to pull himself out from.

    • Therunawayguide on September 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks Tom! I know, running away like that was nutty! So many near death experiences. I’m really grateful I’ still here to tell the tale.

  2. Waegook Tom on September 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Great post and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Although after reading this – I wouldn’t advocated anybody running away from home at sixteen, either, especially judging from the dark places that Leif had to pull himself out from.

    • Therunawayguide on September 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      Thanks Tom! I know, running away like that was nutty! So many near death experiences. I’m really grateful I’ still here to tell the tale.

  3. Koty on September 5, 2012 at 11:49 am

    I loved this. So inspiring. Reminded me of my own travels and I can’t wait to get back on the road. 

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks Koty! I hope you get back on the road soon!

  4. Koty on September 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I loved this. So inspiring. Reminded me of my own travels and I can’t wait to get back on the road. 

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks Koty! I hope you get back on the road soon!

  5. Pointsandtravel on September 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Wow!  unbelievable that you were able to experience so much and realize the impact on your life!  You are a remarkable young man, and I hope you success for your future.  This post made me feel deep emotion for your situation.  good luck.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Thanks very much, I really appreciate that. 

  6. Pointsandtravel on September 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Wow!  unbelievable that you were able to experience so much and realize the impact on your life!  You are a remarkable young man, and I hope you success for your future.  This post made me feel deep emotion for your situation.  good luck.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks very much, I really appreciate that. 

  7. travelFREAK on September 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    COOL story. And so glad you did this. Number six resonates with me deeply. It’s one that I try to never forget. Good luck on your book!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks travelFreak, keep it freaky!

  8. Jeremy Foster on September 5, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    COOL story. And so glad you did this. Number six resonates with me deeply. It’s one that I try to never forget. Good luck on your book!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Thanks travelFreak, keep it freaky!

  9. Edna on September 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Excellent lessons, Leif. One of the best, if not The Best, “What I learned from travel” posts I’ve ever read.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Wow, thanks Edna, that really means a lot to me.

      • Edmund Crawley on September 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm

         im turning sixteen and want have been wanting to do something similar for ages. My only worry is that by doing this im chucking away getting a good job and going to university so what would i do when i get back from it all? whats your opinion?

  10. Edna on September 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Excellent lessons, Leif. One of the best, if not The Best, “What I learned from travel” posts I’ve ever read.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Wow, thanks Edna, that really means a lot to me.

      • Edmund Crawley on September 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

         im turning sixteen and want have been wanting to do something similar for ages. My only worry is that by doing this im chucking away getting a good job and going to university so what would i do when i get back from it all? whats your opinion?

  11. Michael on September 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I think this is one of my favorite articles we’ve published on AOB. #6 is one of my favorite points you’ve made but really all of them are great. Thank you so much Leif for sharing your experience with us.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Thank you Michael for this opportunity, the pleasure is mine. Cheers, -Leif

  12. Michael on September 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    I think this is one of my favorite articles we’ve published on AOB. #6 is one of my favorite points you’ve made but really all of them are great. Thank you so much Leif for sharing your experience with us.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      Thank you Michael for this opportunity, the pleasure is mine. Cheers, -Leif

  13. Dr. Jessica Voigts on September 5, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    LOVE this. LOve it!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Hahah, thank you!!! Glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Jessica Voigts on September 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    LOVE this. LOve it!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      Hahah, thank you!!! Glad you enjoyed it!

  15. Aunt Trish on September 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Leif my favorite journalist nephew. <3 

  16. Aunt Trish on September 5, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Leif my favorite journalist nephew. <3 

  17. Adnan Kekhia on September 5, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Ttraveling the world at the age of 16 should have changed the whole life in front of you, big lesson is that “People Are People No Matter Where You Go” great Job

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm

      Thanks Adnan. I wish more people ‘Americans” understood this. 

  18. Adnan Kekhia on September 5, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Ttraveling the world at the age of 16 should have changed the whole life in front of you, big lesson is that “People Are People No Matter Where You Go” great Job

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Thanks Adnan. I wish more people ‘Americans” understood this. 

  19. TravAddict.com on September 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    This is a very raw and honest perspective, and I enjoyed the read.  It takes guts to do what you did as an adult, let alone at the age of 16.  My travel experiences completely changed my outlook on life, and I can only imagine how this experience would have changed yours.

  20. TravAddict.com on September 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    This is a very raw and honest perspective, and I enjoyed the read.  It takes guts to do what you did as an adult, let alone at the age of 16.  My travel experiences completely changed my outlook on life, and I can only imagine how this experience would have changed yours.

  21. Dave (Melbourne Adelaide tours on September 5, 2012 at 10:52 pm

    What an inspiration. And you got all this from traveling? Thanks for sharing its very interesting.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Thanks Dave. Yes, I will never forget these lessons. Sometimes I do have to remind myself of them though. Writing this post helped me remember again.

  22. Dave (Melbourne Adelaide tours on September 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    What an inspiration. And you got all this from traveling? Thanks for sharing its very interesting.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:06 pm

      Thanks Dave. Yes, I will never forget these lessons. Sometimes I do have to remind myself of them though. Writing this post helped me remember again.

  23. Bente, Norway on September 6, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Very good. My philosophy is always to have an open mind – and not to see the world only through your own eyes.   

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      Tusen Takk Bente, I totally agree. It’s not always easy to do but I think as travelers and as citizens of the world in this new age of heightened globalization, we have a responsibility to try and put ourselves in others shoes.

  24. Bente, Norway on September 6, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Very good. My philosophy is always to have an open mind – and not to see the world only through your own eyes.   

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm

      Tusen Takk Bente, I totally agree. It’s not always easy to do but I think as travelers and as citizens of the world in this new age of heightened globalization, we have a responsibility to try and put ourselves in others shoes.

  25. travel_lover on September 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Only if we can make Americans realize this. They’re blind of the outside world, hats off to you sir!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

      I agree. Americans have to get their passports and get out there. Cheers!

  26. travel_lover on September 8, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Only if we can make Americans realize this. They’re blind of the outside world, hats off to you sir!

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      I agree. Americans have to get their passports and get out there. Cheers!

  27. Donna Morang on September 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Good luck with your book, and I can’t wait to read it. You have had an amazing experience.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 9, 2012 at 11:01 am

      Thanks Donna! I’m excited to share it.

  28. Donna Morang on September 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Good luck with your book, and I can’t wait to read it. You have had an amazing experience.

    • TheRunawayGuide on September 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm

      Thanks Donna! I’m excited to share it.

  29. Anouk Bosma on September 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    I am 18 and I will travel for 6 months next year. I am looking forward to it but it’s also very scary sometimes. After reading you story I fellt much more comfortable about it and I worry a little less! Thank you!

    • Ady Kent on September 12, 2012 at 10:41 pm

      18, and you are going for 6 months travel already? That’s awesome n good luck to you. It’s sad that I only know about backpacking when I was 25 (yes, laugh me but that’s true). When I started my 1st backpacking on next 2 years, I was quite worry to travel alone as well but everything turned fine along the journey. Don’t worry about the coming obstacle, as you will learn something from it.

  30. Anouk Bosma on September 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    I am 18 and I will travel for 6 months next year. I am looking forward to it but it’s also very scary sometimes. After reading you story I fellt much more comfortable about it and I worry a little less! Thank you!

    • Ady Kent on September 12, 2012 at 11:41 pm

      18, and you are going for 6 months travel already? That’s awesome n good luck to you. It’s sad that I only know about backpacking when I was 25 (yes, laugh me but that’s true). When I started my 1st backpacking on next 2 years, I was quite worry to travel alone as well but everything turned fine along the journey. Don’t worry about the coming obstacle, as you will learn something from it.

  31. Andi Perullo, L.Ac. on October 31, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Wow!!!! What an incredible post. Gave me goosebumps!!! I hope you write a book one day.

  32. Andi Perullo, L.Ac. on October 31, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Wow!!!! What an incredible post. Gave me goosebumps!!! I hope you write a book one day.

  33. Crazysexyfuntraveler on December 14, 2012 at 4:50 am

    Wow, this post is so touchy, thanks Leif! I was running away from home when I was 15 too but always just very close to home.

  34. Crazysexyfuntraveler on December 14, 2012 at 5:50 am

    Wow, this post is so touchy, thanks Leif! I was running away from home when I was 15 too but always just very close to home.

  35. Jay Shaw on February 14, 2013 at 7:44 am

    I really enjoyed this article (and never comment on things like this). Thanks so much for sharing.

  36. Jay Shaw on February 14, 2013 at 7:44 am

    I really enjoyed this article (and never comment on things like this). Thanks so much for sharing.

  37. Stef lake on July 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    How did you deal with language barriers in each place this is my main worry,I’ve had issues with drugs at home and am going to travel to find myself and a fresh start, your story is so inspiring

    • Michael on July 23, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      With just English, you’ll be able to travel around the world quite easily.

  38. Stef lake on July 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    How did you deal with language barriers in each place this is my main worry,I’ve had issues with drugs at home and am going to travel to find myself and a fresh start, your story is so inspiring

    • Michael on July 23, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      With just English, you’ll be able to travel around the world quite easily.

  39. Q-dawg on October 14, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    That is so cool that you did this, where were you from originally? I am a 15 year old guy and want to go backpacking next summer when im 16, everyone I talk to seems to think I’m too young but I want to go so bad and before I go into university etc. I have money saved so i wouldn’t neccesarily be eatting out of dumpsters but I definetly wont be staying in any luxury resorts or anything, what do you think about my idea? Also should I go alone or try to find a friend to join me, thanks so much for your story

  40. Phillip ardoin on November 5, 2013 at 3:57 am

    how did you get into Europe if you had no money?

    • Michael on November 29, 2013 at 11:30 am

      That’s where he is from.

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