Well traveled labels – true or not?
Escape the ordinary
Travel forces you to do the unexpected and break out of patterns. Many live in a secure bubble rarely traveling out of a 25 miles radius from their home. There’s nothing wrong with that but even venturing to the other side of your city, county, state can be transformative. Figuring out what train to take in Tokyo when all the signage is in Kangi can leave you feeling triumphant and strong. I live within a half hour drive from the Tijuana, Mexico border and after I walked across, took a taxi and arrived at my dental appointment solo then returned home without incident I felt triumphant and intrepid.
Travel will change you, at least internally. No one wants to to be the blowhard bragging about their latest jet setting adventure. However, the deeper realizations and encounters will leave an impression. Those back home may not be able to identify it but they’ll know.
After decades of living away from my parents – who had been very strict with my freedoms as their first born girl – I became their neighbor during the last years of their lives. We renewed our love aside from duty to connect more authentically with who we’d become. Our roles shifted as they could see how capable without threatening our bonds. The last time I saw my mother she happily lent me a big suitcase for yet another overseas trip. I’ll never forget her wry smile as she looked off from her condo landing after waving goodbye. She died suddenly from a massive heart attack the night I was flying home from South America. I like to think that we passed in the heavens and I was grateful to be home to help family and friends in the aftermath.
Travel with a sibling, a loved one or friend and you’ll get to know each other in new ways. Begin by taking short trip with a new travel buddy. See how it goes and if positive, repeat. You get to know them more intimately for the better or the worse. While my family took regular road trips across country to visit grandparents most every summer, my sister and I hadn’t traveled together until we took a weekend away to Sacramento by train with our toddler sons in tow. It was great fun but better yet was a weekend getaway in Palm Springs on our own. We hiked, swam, and promised to find ways to travel together again. Since then we’ve crisscrossed New Orleans parishes by foot, drove across West Texas, and will soon take off together for Japan.
Conversely, it doesn’t always work out well. I’ve been on trips with companions who ended up having very different values than I do. There was no way of experiencing that beforehand. I entered the arrangement without expectations and loved the opportunity to see parts of the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Break stereotypes about yourself and other cultures
You can’t be who you were comfortably at home when you’re on the road. You may identify as a school teacher, mother, banker, fisherman but who are you far from all those familiar environments where no one knows you? There’s no fall back position unless you choose to stay in your favorite hotel chain, eat at familiar franchise restaurants or take big cruise trips where everything is done to keep you comfortable. There’s a time and place for all those options. Get out and do something new. I really pushed myself last year. Even with a bit of vertigo I ended up on the other side of fear after ziplining off a mountain in upstate New York.
Little things can leave the deepest impressions
I delight in remembering how two French friends would purse their lips and blow out to punctuate their comments. In Sri Lanka there’s a small head wiggle that speaks volumes. In Japan the short nod or bow of acknowledgement, the offering of a business card with both hands, is unlike anywhere else. These memories make me smile, bringing me closer to each of those cultures.
It’s far too easy to see distant people through the narrow lens of news outlets, film or social media. Traces of understanding grow from face to face interactions. While reading books, fiction and non about destinations help, only living in another country, slow traveling for months or marrying into a foreign culture can really give deep understandings of another culture.
Nothing immerses you in a new country that eating new foods and savoring authentic versions where they evolved. I thought I knew fish tacos after growing up in Southern California but still remember being entranced by the woman patting tortillas flat with her hands and roasting them on a street in Rosarito, in Baja Mexico. Biting into a fresh filled street taco opens up another world entirely.
Food is the universal language. Sitting with a local family, watching them cook, finding new fruits and vegetables in local markets yields revelations. Bring curry home from India, buy Tajine spice in Tijuana, share a sourdough starter from Alaska – the memories refresh with every aroma. Life is richer with every bite.
Become more comfortable with change
The world is changing like it or not. Flexibility is a cultured talent and world travelers have to adapt constantly. It becomes a new skill, a muscle – soon you’re like a bamboo reed flexing in the wind, strong from movement. The well traveled know that letting go of plans and expectations can lead to even better outcomes.
I once took a float plane to the remote Alaskan village of Tenakee for a long weekend. We’d rented a cabin near the dock but brought no supplies, planning to eat in the local cafe and enjoy the hot springs. Then we discovered the shops and the lone cafe shuttered for the holiday weekend. Fuming, I tramped down to the bath house for the lady’s hour not knowing how I was going to get through the next few days. I recognized two girls from Juneau. They were talking about what to do with all the food they’d brought since several friends didn’t arrive on the last flight. I summoned the courage to introduce myself and explained our predicament. Soon we walked with them through the forest to a beautiful beach cabin. A weekend of feasts with new friends unfolded.
Come home grateful
I once told an acquaintance that I live in gratitude and they asked “Where is that?!”
To travel is a privilege. For the fortunate, coming and going at will can become a habit and hubris can sprout ugly entitlement. It doesn’t have to be that way if you work to stay present and respectful. Not everyone wants to travel, to strike out into the unknown and not everyone can. But travel can make a difference in others lives providing livelihoods in service, and the creation of jobs. Finding ways to connect with locals and not just foreign investor backed businesses bring welcome support in communities impacted by tourism. As the world strains to adjust to changes travel will have to adapt. The challenge of our age is making it work both for visitors and destinations.
Accept the consequences
There are repercussions that linger long past the remnants of jet lag. One ‘problem’ with travel is that once happily home you’ll already be thinking about the next trip.
As my partner and I flew away from the island of Sulewesi after an intensely beautiful week diving with incredible underwater creatures and making new friends, we looked out the window at the receding islands below. “I want to spend more time in this part of the world,” I murmured and he whispered back, “I do too.” We haven’t returned yet. It may happen or not but the world is full of so many treasures that I’ve stopped making bucket lists. There’s peace and acceptance in that.
The well traveled are story tellers
There is a future where fossil fuels will run out, be banned, or limited to the very rich. The days of jumping on an airplane, owning a car that to drive at will, or seeing exotic ports from the deck of a giant cruise ship may end in our lifetime. What will be our legacy? Will travel continue?
The stories you share about the world will remain. Perhaps we can create something good out of our travels – compassion, tolerance, patience and gratitude. That will never rely on resources other than the willingness to share and others to listen.
Learning by example
My aunt Fawnee is in her mid nineties and still as sharp as a woman half her age. I love nothing more than hearing her stories about living in Thailand after World War II, how she learned to shoot a gun for protection when the soldiers were away, how she played Mahjong with the other officer’s wives and would observe surgeries on the base to learn medical terms. Eventually she became a professional medical secretary. She never imagined that life after a childhood in Minnesota’s Rust Belt. She didn’t plan on being well traveled but continues to enthrall and inspire all who know her. I hope to live long enough to follow her lead.