I am going to go ahead and say right up front that I think top ten lists are cliche, but in all honesty they grab people's attention because the reader knows that it will be a relatively quick, organized read. So, even if nothing is gained, only a short amount of time is lost. Despite my own efforts to avoid top ten lists of any sort, I still find myself clicking on that irrelevant link about the "Top Ten Beaches in America" or whatever it is. Anyway, here's to me jumping on the top ten bandwagon, even if it's only for today.
Top Ten Lessons from Abroad
...because some things are easier to learn outside the comfort of your own culture.
Whether learning a new language or just trying to navigate around a new city, these things take time and require being patient with yourself. On the other hand, sometimes you have to be patient with the world around you. If you travel enough, or even a little, some form of transportation will fail you. Trains, buses, planes will not come at the scheduled time or will take longer than planned. Trust me, I once spent 4 hours sitting on a bus stopped on the Pan-American highway because of a car accident, and Thomas and I waited for a bus for nearly two hours on the side of the highway in Turkey before deciding that maybe it was time to get a taxi. If it's not transportation, then it's something else. Maybe there is an hour line outside the Picasso museum in Barcelona and it's raining (true story), just be patient. As a side not, I have to admit that my patience with the world may have dropped slightly since spending so much time in Germany, where people get upset when the train is 5 minutes late, but that is a topic for another day.
2. Remember to smile
This may seem like an oversimplified statement, but there is more depth to it than that, just like there is more depth in someone's face when he or she is smiling. A smile is an easy way to communicate when you don't know what to say or how to say it. It communicates a sense of humanity, which worked quite well for me when a little indigenous boy in northern Guatemala couldn't help but stare at me. I smiled at him, he smiled back as if to say 'oh, i get it, you look different but you're still like the rest of us'. Don't get me wrong here, I don't go around smiling all the time to everyone. Of course I'm not going to smile at someone who I feel could be a potential threat to me, but smiling is useful when someone is yelling at you in a language you don't understand for who knows what reason. The Turkish woman who frantically tried to communicate to me that Thomas was waiting outside is my case in point. I clearly didn't understand the words coming out of her mouth; it was only through her spastic hand gestures pointing to her ring finger and the door that led me to gather my things and leave. I gave her one last smile, and then she (and the rest of the women in the Hamam) just laughed. One more thing, I am not referring to the smile you try to use to get out of a speeding ticket or any other smile that you may use to get something in return. On the contrary, I am talking about a genuine smile that resonates goodwill towards others, regardless of any awkward circumstances.
3. Enjoy the everyday things
I have to admit that this applies more to actually living abroad. Traveling does provide a taste of this lesson as well, but it's most relevant when first arriving in a new place. In a new version of home, you have to figure out where and how to do daily things in a language that is most likely not your own. It can be as simple as finding a close grocery store or as complicated as opening a bank account or applying for a visa. These seemingly mundane activities are suddenly challenging, but they can also be suddenly rewarding. Through the small feeling of accomplishment that comes along with it, I have learned to enjoy things like going to the Post Office or finding a place to do my dry cleaning. After all, you might as well enjoy the everyday things that have to get done one way or another.
4. Take the extra time to engage with others
This is somewhat an extension of number 2 on the list, but not really. Smiling is of course one simple way to engage with another person. In this case, I'm referring to being open to having a conversation with a complete stranger, whether it's a fellow traveler or the kid on the street trying to sell you who knows what. It's even more than just that, actually listening to what that person has to say is also important. It enriches your experience by giving you the chance to improve your language skills (if that's what you're in to), gain cultural insights, make some new friends, get travel advice, see things in a different light, exchange books, on and on. Really the opportunities on the road to engage with others are endless, as are the benefits of doing so. Again, I have to mention the "use good judgment" spiel by saying don't be a fool and interact with someone who gives you an uneasy feeling (more on that in number 5 on the list). Engaging with others in a healthy way can make or break your trip and it can become especially important when traveling solo. Remember that everyone has something to teach you, whether you like them or not. Maybe you realize that you want to avoid such-and-such place in hope of never seeing a particular individual again, but I'm here to tell you that it is usually the opposite. Look at me, my future husband was at one time someone I started a conversation with at a hostel in Costa Rica. Number 4 on the list is serious stuff.
5. The power of intuition
Number 5 on the list is also serious, because it could end up keeping you out of a seriously dangerous situation (not to be dramatic or anything). Some people are naturally intuitive and others have to work at it. By "work at it," I mean learning to trust yourself and listen to what your "gut feeling" is telling you about yourself and the world around you. Intuition is really a powerful tool when it comes to living or traveling outside your home culture. It has helped me work around a communication barrier, stay away from scams, meet great people and avoid the bad apples. So, just trust me on this, or better yet, trust yourself.
6. Boredom sparks creativity
We are accustomed to doing everything we can to avoid boredom, but it happens and it even happens on the road or living in a new place. Spending some time with boredom can be quite tedious, but it can also give your brain a chance to create the next move, so to say. Kids seem to be really good at embracing this idea. They grow bored of one thing and move on to the next without thinking too much about it. They build forts and play games that only exist in their minds. As adults we tend to tie negative thoughts and feelings to boredom. Maybe it's not the most pleasant experience, but there is no need to pin it with a negative connotation. Boredom is opportunity in a mask. Of course it's easier to experience this when you are in a new, exciting place, where you can escape boredom in a thousand different ways. The challenge is bringing this perspective home.
7. Walking is therapeutic
Walking is obviously the oldest and most natural form of transportation for humans, yet we so often forget this and get annoyed when we have to walk a little extra because we didn't get the close parking spot. I've always enjoyed walking, and traveling and living abroad without a car only amplified this. Not only is walking good for your body and mind but it also allows you to get a better sense of your surroundings, be that a beach in Costa Rica, a volcano in Guatemala, the busy streets of Marrakech or wherever else your feet take you.
8. Traveling is a skill
This statement has a couple of implications: it's possible to learn how to travel and it's possible to be a good or bad traveler. This is more important than you might think, especially because being able to sniff out a bad traveler before inviting them on a three day trek could save you a lot of unnecessary stress. Somewhere along the way I have learned how to pack light, I always remember to bring a headlamp, I have trained myself to keep a close eye on my surroundings and important personal belongings, I'm better at reading maps (and people when necessary), and I enjoy doing laundry by hand, as weird as that may seem. Those are all nice little mini-lessons, but what really makes or breaks a traveler is attitude. Good travelers don't complain or point fingers when something unfavorable happens along the way. This means that when Stephen and I left our hostel in Leon, Nicaragua and five minutes later there was a downpour and 15 minutes after that we were in ankle deep water still trying to find the bus station, we could laugh about it. Another thing, good travelers don't draw unnecessary attention to themselves by talking loud, wearing flashy clothes when it's clearly not appropriate in "X" culture, being belligerently drunk, or carrying an XL backpack that is clearly more than one person can handle. In general, people who travel well are hard to come by, so if you don't want to go solo, choose wisely. I know I do.
9. Variety is the spice of life...or something like that.
This is not about some cliche saying. It is all about food. The more places you go, the wider variety of food you have the chance to enjoy. Although you can get all kinds of food right here in the states, it is simply impossible to recreate everything as it tastes abroad. Whether it's bread in Germany, fresh pineapple juice in Costa Rica or tapas in Spain, it just tastes better. Even if you don't like to travel but love delicious food, that is reason enough to cross many borders.
10. Look up
I mean this literally and metaphorically, of course. On the more obvious side, I have learned to look up and pay attention to what's going on around me. It keeps me feeling safe and seeing interesting things, not to mention that it boosts intuition. I have also learned the importance of "looking up" as far as having a positive attitude goes, which I talked about in number 8. To top it off, when you are literally looking up either in front of you or even towards the sky, it's harder to feel negative emotions or have harmful thoughts. Try it sometime, you might be surprised.