This month marked ten years since my first international trip and my first time leaving my home country of the United States of America. In mid-July 2006, a group of teens from my high school in Ohio and I boarded an early morning flight to San Diego, California. It was there we would team up with a local missionary and his family and live out of an old school bus turned RV for the next two and a half weeks, driving around rural parts of Mexico. That trip changed me and humbled me in ways I didn’t know were possible.
I only knew that I would never view traveling and other cultures the same way again. It was no longer something that I would do for pleasure but it instead became a way for me to get to know people from backgrounds that were so vastly different from my own. People who didn’t speak the same language or view the world as I did. It showed me that I am but one person in a huge, diverse, and beautiful world. It showed me how insignificant I am but at the same time, it showed me just how much of a difference one person can make in the world in which we live.
However, I feel that I am in the minority when it comes to other travelers who are out traipsing across the world as I type. I let travel change me and I am far better off by letting it.
I travel slowly.
I learn languages well enough until I feel the words that I speak to my core, to the very depths of my soul. I talk to locals and ask for their advice and recommendations. I want to know where they would go if they were visiting the city for a few short days and not just depend on a guidebook or a few online reviews. I prefer to spend long stretches of time in a city or a country until I form a routine, find a favorite café or the cashiers at the supermarket or local shop owners begin to recognize me and bring me my “usual.”
Not everyone welcomes this type of slow-paced travel. While I would normally say, “that’s OK” or, “to each their own,” a recent travel experience that went sour has forced me to think about the many different ways that you can travel.
Teaching English abroad here in Spain and traveling on the weekends and during paid time off, have shown me that there are dozens of different types of travelers. You can meet an endless amount of personalities on the road. I’ve met plenty of wonderful people and I have had so many interesting conversations with people from all over the world in the past decade. I’ve been invited into their homes to share a meal or join them on a day trip or make plans to do a longer trip to a destination we both would love to experience.
Some of these conversations and moments with said wonderful people have blossomed into long-lasting friendships. Some of them only lasted for a season and then life forced us to go on our separate journeys. Both types of relationships have enriched my life and I am grateful for them.
On the other hand, life is all about taking the good with the bad.
Not every travel experience will be your favorite and make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when you reflect back on the memories. There will be many that you will wish had never happened or never turned out the way they did.
There will be words you wished you hadn’t heard and ones you wished you had never said.
Images you wished you could erase from your mind but instead they linger, though thankfully some of the details blur and they fade away with time.
You still can’t change your experience and in the future, you will be just as grateful for the bad experiences as you are for the good ones.
That is, if you learn from the bad ones and move on from them, first.
I can relate to this because a recent negative travel experience has left both a bad taste in my mouth and an ache in my heart. These things will fade with time and disappear but the effect it had on my travel style and my compassionate, wanderlust-driven heart may last a bit longer.
How much longer, I don’t know but perhaps only until I learn from the situation and move on from it without looking back.
And until I accept the fact that not everyone experiences travel the same way I do.
In a way, it’s a hard truth to accept.
If you’re reading this and you truly want to get the most out of an experience that you can, follow these guidelines while you travel:
Don’t consume travel as if it were a product and then stop using it when it isn’t working for you. Instead, use it as a means to grow as a person and learn from the people you will meet along the way. Each person has their own unique story and perspective on life and if you just stop and get to know someone who’s different than you, you will learn simple yet profound lessons.
Don’t put unrealistic expectations on everyone you meet and everything you see. Instead, accept people –flaws and all- as they are and try to put yourself in their shoes before you even consider judging them. (In fact, don’t judge them.) I’m not perfect and I do not demand perfection from anyone else. Living or traveling abroad is messy and frustrating. If you can work through the problems and the messiness, you won’t come back from the experience unchanged.
Don’t simply learn languages just to know the words or be able to ask where the bathroom is. Instead of having head knowledge of one or more languages, let that intellectual understanding move down and settle in your heart. Meet someone whose first language isn’t the same as yours. Let them show you their perspective on life! I learn languages so that I can understand another way of thinking and people whose mother tongue is completely different from mine. You may have to learn a new language before you can make friends with someone who would later become your best friend. It happens more often than you think while traveling.
Don’t take advantage of a culture and place so that only you can benefit from it. I understand that a major part of experiencing other cultures is to learn to give and take –and to be respectful of their customs. Just as one wouldn’t deface a UNESCO World Heritage site, you shouldn’t only come to a place to enjoy the things it has to offer but you should get to know the culture and the people, too. If you want to travel more deeply and let it change you, you should instead prioritize experiences and people over material things and consumption.
After a lot of reflection and dissecting how I personally travel and take experiences in these past couple of weeks, I’ve finally been able to identify what type of person tends to not let travel change them. It’s the type of person that I have been at one point in my own life and the type of person I encounter on the road and would rather pretend doesn’t exist so that I don’t have to speak English to them, haha.
Well, if you consistently do any of those things that I listed above while you travel that I recommend you not do, I hate to say it but…you are a tourist.
You are not a traveler. You may try to convince yourself and everyone else that you are indeed a traveler with more stamps in your passport than possessions in your house.
You may have all of those things and appear to be a traveler to the outside world but I think even you will eventually realize the type of “traveler” that you are. There’s no shame in being a tourist from time to time (we all are at some point) but if that’s the only role you assume in the places that you live, you are sorely missing out on a more fulfilling and enriching travel experience.
If you come to terms with how you can’t always live inside a bubble where everyone speaks your language, everyone knows and follows the customs of your country, then you will have assumed a new role and your perspective will change. You as a person will change and grow because you have voluntarily assumed the role of a traveler. Someone who searches beyond the “top 10 things to do” lists and tries to dig deeper and discover the culture that’s shining and bursting forth around them.
If no one has ever forced you to change or rethink the way you live your life and then you go all over the world, you won’t be able to embrace all the beautiful cultures and people around you. They won’t ever change you because you simply won’t give them permission. You choose not to let them into your life and past the walls you’ve built up.
It’s safer and less complicated.
Besides, you can easily and quickly continue on your way once you’re finished with a place. No harm in doing that, right?
Well, I think it’s wrong.
And that, my readers, I believe is the most foolish and saddest decision you can make while traveling.
Do you let traveling change you? Why or why not? If yes, how deep do those changes run? I’d love to hear your thoughts!