In 1988, aged 17, I went on the Trans-Siberian railway and learned two lessons about the art of travel. First, never use paper underwear (bought in Hong Kong) as a clever method to avoid doing laundry. Second, talk to everyone. I shared a compartment with an old Mongolian man who I assumed was some kind of travelling salesman. It turned out – over vodka and poker – that he was a famous classical pianist on his way to Moscow for a farewell concert. It taught me never to be too quick when judging others and to nurture my curiosity about strangers.
In the mid-1990s I volunteered as a human rights observer in a Guatemalan refugee community, towards the end of the country's three-decade civil war, where I stayed in a tiny hut in the jungle without running water or electricity. Witnessing violence and extreme poverty first-hand was an experience that ripped me open into empathy.
As I get older I've become more interested in my family ancestry, so last year I went on a pilgrimage to the tiny Croatian village where my great-grandfather was born. Of the seven people in the village bar, four had the same unpronounceable surname as me. "We are all cousins!" one of them exclaimed. We drank cherry liquor together and I felt this wonderful sense of discovering a family I never knew I had.
My latest book explores the ancient Roman ideal of carpe diem or seize the day. I couldn't quite face doing a parachute jump as part of my research, but I did find myself kayaking with 20-foot basking sharks on the island of Tiree off the west coast of Scotland. Watching the sharks just underneath me not only set my heart racing but filled me with awe and wonder, and clearly brought home why we must do our utmost preserve the natural world.
As a 14-year-old my parents took me out of school in Sydney for three months to go campervanning around Europe. Although I didn't realise it at the time, I learned more in those months than I would have done in a year of school – about different cultures, languages, geography, history, politics, art, food and friendship. Looking back, it inspired my lifelong interest in cultural history, international politics and the art of living. I thank my parents for this gift, and hope to offer the same to my eight-year-old twins.
Roman Krznaric's new book, Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, is published by Unbound. Read free extracts at www.carpediem.click