A lot has been said about the importance of travel. There is a reason for that. People who travel learn more about themselves and the world. It is hard to gain an understanding of the world if you never leave your hometown. Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” (The Innocents Abroad/ Roughing It).
I would have to agree with Mark Twain, I believe when we travel we learn more about different cultures and people than we do at home. We learn to throw stereotypes out the window and get to truly know people. Of course, I understand that there are many people that can’t afford to travel and this is a luxury for a small percentage of the population. I have managed to take many trips with very little money though, so it is more possible than you would think. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all the adventures I have gone on. Here is what I’ve learned:
- The world is a lot less scary than you think. Always be aware of reports coming out of the places you plan to travel, but don’t let negative stories deter you from visiting. Sometimes, those places can be nicer due to less tourists visiting. Be careful if a war is going on though and don’t get involved in any political movements. People are afraid to travel, because of concerns it is unsafe outside the U.S. Yes, there are places I wouldn’t visit, but most of the world is very safe. Western Europe is in many ways safer than the U.S. SE Asia seems scary, but is easy to navigate and full of other tourists that can give you suggestions on what to avoid. People always warned us that Jamaica is dangerous and my family has gone multiple times and never felt unsafe. Don’t let fear prevent you from traveling.
- People are a lot nicer and more welcoming in other countries than in the U.S. I couchsurfed (stayed at people’s houses for free) in Europe and strangers just opened their homes happily to me. I even met some guys in France who called all their friends around the country to put me up when I visited their city. All of them agreed to and showed me all around their towns. A guy in Paris, who I never met but was the friend of a guy I met in England, left me the key to his flat to stay in Paris for a week while he was gone. We never met. People will go out of their way to help you around the world. I’ve rarely experienced that in the U.S. When I tell people here about couchsurfing, they think I’m crazy.
- You don’t need as much possessions to be happy as you think. I own a lot of clothes. I am obsessed with dresses. Every time I pack to leave for a trip, I struggle with figuring out what is essential to bring. This always leads to me over-packing. Then when I’m a month into my trip, I get so tired of carrying all the things I’ve brought, that I end up chucking most of it. When you are on the road for extended period of time, less is more. You quickly realize that bringing three pairs of shoes was dumb and just takes up more space in your backpack. Possessions start to mean nothing to you. You are content with wearing the same outfit three to four days in a row without washing it. It always teaches me that I don’t need all the stuff that I’ve left at home. I can survive happily with a lot less. Usually when I return home, I feel overwhelmed by the options in my closet and miss the simple choices I had on the road.
- Getting lost is not that scary. It is actually fun. I used to get anxiety when I would get lost in a foreign place, but now I just put down my map and take it as an opportunity to wander. I normally make new friends, because it forces me to ask for directions. I discover hidden gems in cities that are off-the-beaten path. Once in Granada, Spain I got lost wandering the streets and I came upon this quaint little cafe down an alley way and decided to sit down for a snack and made lots of new friends. It normally gives you time to be introspective and trust your instincts. Getting lost may help you find yourself.
- Food is a big part of culture and eating food that is offered to you by your hosts shows respect, even if you don’t particularly like it. I am not adventurous about food. I used to be a vegetarian, which made traveling really hard. I always felt like I was offending people when I had to politely decline their offered meal. When I started being more open to food and gracefully eating what was offered even if I didn’t like it, I found that people were more pleased with me. This may be tough if you have food allergies or are on a strict diet, but try to be as adventurous as possible, because it is a sign of respect to eat the meal your hosts have prepared for you. This may mean trying some really interesting things.
- Wherever you go, there you are. This spiritual concept rains true, especially when you are traveling. I learned a hard lesson on my last big trip abroad, that I cannot escape myself no matter how far I go. Life may get hard and you want to run away, but you can’t runaway from yourself. I was extremely unhappy before my last trip. I thought that leaving the country would instantly make me feel less depressed, but unfortunately it only exacerbated the problem. Now, I was in a foreign country being verbally abused by my new employer day after day and dealing with my own internal shit. I realized that I needed to face my own demons first if I were to ever truly be happy. If I didn’t, I would just continue to drag my unhappiness around the world with me. It wasn’t until I spent two weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand and spent every morning meditating and facing my own internal issues, that I finally was able to release myself. Now, I can go anywhere or stay at home and still be happy.
- It is not only food that you have to have an open mind about. People live differently across the globe. One thing I’ve learned is to not compare other cultures to my own in a superior way. In SE Asia, we had to learn how to pee in holes in the ground and at first I felt annoyed that they don’t use toilet paper, but then I also realized there is less pollution because of it. I also learned to accept that not everyone needs the modern technologies of the Western world to be happy. They are probably, dare I say, even happier without them. Most of the people I witnessed that had very little, had a lot more happiness in their lives. Also, less is more. People don’t need iPhones to be happy. They were more focused on family and friends and the simple joys of life. So you may experience culture shock when you first arrive, but try to keep an open mind to the practices of different cultures. Just because people do things differently doesn’t mean they are wrong. Try to respect other people’s cultures and follow their customs if you want to be accepted. Don’t wear a bikini to the hot springs in a conservative culture or you will get stared at (I did this by accident in Bali and felt very uncomfortable)
- For me, the worst culture shock comes when you get back home. After months abroad or even weeks, you feel more relaxed and more adventurous. You are excited to wake up each day and have a new experience, eat new foods, and meet new people. Your days are full of thrilling things to do. Then you return home and everything is the same. The people are the same. The food is the same. And your life is the same. You are excited to see everyone again, but suddenly become depressed that your trip is over. You have jetlag and you feel like a part of you was left behind. It is really hard to drag yourself out of this funk. The only way that works for me is trying to explore new things in my own city. I try to turn my town into a foreign country and explore it like I would abroad. Find new foods, new friends, and new things to see and that should help hold you over until your next trip.
- Get outside of the resorts. They are preventing you from truly experiencing the place you are visiting. Resort vacationing is my biggest pet peeve. They may be luxurious and full of all the amenities of home, but they aren’t true traveling. When you stay in a resort you are basically staying in a mini-America in another country. You are closed in by walls. You don’t have to experience any new cultures. You don’t meet local people unless they are serving you drinks. You haven’t left your comfort zone at all. If you want to truly travel, stay in the local spots, eat the local food, haggle with the people at the shops not in a hotel gift shop, and really absorb the new place into your being. I’ve stayed in resorts and I’ve learned that it isn’t traveling for me.
- Last but not least, travel is the most valuable thing I’ve ever spent my money on. It has been said that, “travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.” I wholeheartedly believe this to be true. When I buy new things, I feel like I’ve lost money and now I have more stress over protecting my new possession. When I spend my money on travel, I feel like I’ve invested in my self-growth, in my education, and in my strength and independence. I’ve faced challenges I never would have by staying at home. They aren’t challenges I would have chosen for myself, but they have shaped who I am today and made me stronger. I have learned more about who I am and who I want to be and I’ve learned more about the people and cultures of the world. I’ve gained more than any possession can ever give me. BON VOYAGE!!