I have had the good fortune to travel broadly, and I have been able to explore wonderful places and learn about different cultures.
The travel has been fun and instructive but more importantly, it has helped to shape my world view and my life. The following are some of my “lessons learned” from living a life inspired by travel.
My mother often used the old phrase, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” As an American traveler, it is easy to take convenience and accommodation for granted. As a result, many tourists earn the title of “the ugly American” by becoming demanding or aggressive. Waits may be long, lodging can be unpredictable, favorite drinks or special amenities may not be available, and language may be difficult. These are all simply a part of traveling.
Differences in Rules:
When traveling, rules may vary, but they are still rules. When we arrived at our hotel in Russia, we had to surrender our passports for several hours so the hotel could register us at the local police station. Despite complaints from my traveling companions, not doing so wasn’t an option. In Egypt, we were met by our tour guide and a guard with a machine gun. Since a massacre of tourists years before, private armed guards are required to accompany visiting groups. Since we usually take safety for granted in our country, needing a guard was an unusual feeling, and it has made me think more about safety when traveling.
Americans tend to think we have the answers, or we can do it better our way. When visiting Rio de Janeiro, hotel staff warned guests about wearing jewelry on the beach and strongly encouraged leaving any jewelry in the hotel safe. No more than fifteen minutes later, a guest wore a heavy gold chain when he went for a walk. A young man came running by and quickly grabbed the chain. Not only was the chain gone, but the man’s neck was injured. A lodge in South Africa had an open ceiling, and we liked to watch monkeys clambering from spot to spot. Despite signs and being told repeatedly that the monkeys would quickly steal anything you put down on a surface, tourist after tourist lost their sunglasses, cameras, and other personal items.
Our culture does not take precedence when in another country. Travel has shown me that there are cultural differences that must be respected, even if we might not agree with them. In one country, I visited a mosque. As requested, I had on a long skirt to cover my legs. After just a few minutes, I was approached by guards who noisily demanded that I leave. I am fairly tall, and my skirt did not completely cover my ankles which they found disrespectful. In another Muslim country, a traveling companion became violently ill after drinking a strange fruit drink. Two local men took her to a pharmacy that was staffed by medical personnel, but she was refused treatment because they thought she had been drinking alcohol. With the help of hotel staff, we were able to get her seen by a physician. She required treatment for several days.
The history of the United States is very short. When viewing Viking ships, the great pyramids, magnificent cathedrals, and castles, or walking on the Great Wall of China, one gains a better sense of the vastness of the world and our place in it. Our hometown is just a tiny dot in the big picture of the world. All does not center on us.
When traveling, inequality and poverty are almost always present. Witnessing great poverty is disconcerting and overwhelming. In Tanzania, we saw young children who daily walked four miles with their donkeys to secure enough water for their family. It made me realize all that we take for granted, and it highlighted the importance of preserving the environment. In India, there were families whose homes were simply tarp roofs attached to fences that surrounded the wealthier houses. I was moved by women sweeping their dirt floors with tree boughs as each new day began. They not only seemed accepting of their lives but gave the appearance of being positive and cheerful, certainly a lesson for when we feel discouraged with our own lives.
In Tanzania, I was awed by the sheer determination of two young women who started a hospice for abandoned babies dying of AIDS. They had secured twenty old cribs and, with a few colleagues, worked tirelessly to provide care and comfort to the children. It reminded me of what can be done with very little when we set our heart and mind on a goal.
Increasing My Sense of Adventure:
Travel, itself, is an adventure, and it has taught me to be more adventuresome. I have ridden an elephant in India and traveled by both tuk-tuk and rickshaw. I’ve climbed the bridge over the harbor in Sydney and enjoyed zip-lining in Costa Rica. I’ve been inside an armed favela in Brazil and seen a dump where small children were forced to work for pennies in Cambodia. I visited Poland before the revolution and visited the graves of dissidents. I descended the 99 spiral steps to see catacombs in Alexandria and went hundreds of feet underground in a salt mine in Romania. I don’t tend toward recklessness and I am careful about safety, but I know that my travel experiences have expanded my curiosity and my courage. They have taught me the value of trying new things, of moving outside of my comfort zone, of taking more risks, and of being more accepting of differences and people.
I encourage each of you to travel as often as you can.