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Brain Food

Jiab Wasserman

MY MOST MEMORABLE experiences are family vacations—and that includes the mishaps. Those become the stories we laugh about years later.

For instance, when our boys were young, we took an overnight train from Bangkok to northern Thailand. We found ourselves trapped for three days in Chiangmai by an unexpected torrential flood. Multiple times, we had to modify our plans for getting back to Bangkok. Finally, we got a flight on a small airplane. As we walked up to the plane, we saw tons of fuzzy yellow baby chicks loaded under the plane—which delighted our boys. Today, the boys don’t remember much about Chiangmai. But they’ll never forget the flight with the fuzzy baby chicks.

More recently, during a trip that Jim and I took to Istanbul, our inexperienced taxi driver got lost in the historic district. At 2 a.m., he dropped us off in a dark alley on the wrong side of the Hagia Sophia mosque and told us to walk to the hotel. Adding insult to injury, he tried to overcharge us by $2. The hotel was only a 10-minute walk. But in the heat of the moment, we spent 30 unproductive minutes arguing with the taxi driver, who spoke little English.

Traveling doesn’t just give us colorful stories and good laughs for years to come. It turns out that it brings additional and unexpected benefits. As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley in Search of America, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” Here are three reasons to pack your bags and head to parts unknown:

1. Travel brings happiness. A 2014 study found that people were happier when they traveled, and not just while on the trip. Just anticipating a trip can make you happier for 15 days beforehand, while the after-glow from a trip can last for a month after your return.

2. Travel is good for the brain. Jim and I are no longer spring chickens; we’re more like late-summer chickens. During our five days in Istanbul, I only managed to learn a single Turkish—teşekkürler. It means thank you.

But it doesn’t matter how fast or slow we learn new languages. What matters is we challenge ourselves, and help our brain by taking it off autopilot. When I’m in an unfamiliar place, I have to think about small things, even something as simple as reading a menu of unfamiliar foods or how to say “thank you” in a different language.

Scientists used to believe the brain only changed during childhood. Now, it’s widely accepted that neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change—is present throughout our lives. People who travel to new places, keep learning languages and continue to experience new things are far less likely to develop cognitive decay, according to Dr. Michael Merzenich.

3. Travel brings new perspectives. Travel changes us, sometimes in unpredictable ways. When coming home from developing countries, like Vietnam or Cambodia, I have more appreciation for my surroundings and good fortune.

My most memorable travel moment was walking El Camino, the pilgrim’s route in northern Spain. I felt fully alive and present in the moment. The walk gave me a sense of connection with others, and tested my mental—as well as physical—strength.

“Travel,” wrote former Los Angeles Times travel editor Catharine Hamm, “requires you to be braver than you think you are, whether it’s for a week or a year, and involves the joy of finding a better, smarter, stronger self that lasts well past the day you put away your suitcase if, indeed, that day ever comes.”

Jiab Wasserman, MBA, RICP®, has lived in Thailand, the U.S. and Spain. She spent the bulk of her career with financial services companies, eventually becoming vice president of credit risk management at Bank of America, before retiring in 2018. Head to Linktree to learn more about Jiab, and also check out her earlier articles.

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Kishore Ranade
Kishore Ranade
6 months ago

Another cogent and useful article, Jiab!
I loved your posts from Spain and was a wee bit dissapointed when you returned to USA. I missed Granada!
But I am glad you and Jim are back in full form
Please keep writing……..!

NY Moneyhawk
NY Moneyhawk
6 months ago

Great article! I try to conserve spending normally, but I have never regretted a dollar spent on travel.

Those are the times you look back on and remember over the years.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
6 months ago

Great article Jiab!. I especially love the last quote. It reminds of what a friend of mine, a few years oder, told me after he came back from a physically challenging trip to New Zealand. He’d travelled all over the world as a younger man, but took that trip in his 60s. When he cam back he was happy to realize that “he still had it”. I remember that statement and hope i can hang onto it” as I age.

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