Today is February 5th and that means that I have been gone from the United States for exactly two months now, and I find that rather remarkable; I was becoming such a homebody in Los Angeles. Since I’ve been gone so long I no longer have the need to do something touristy every day and I’m even getting to the point where just going to the movie may sound inviting. Besides, temperatures and relative humidities both in the mid 90’s do cause a general malaise.
But being gone two months, living in foreign countries, and being constantly vigilant of my surroundings have taught me a few things. Some are actual lessons others are just general observations.
It’s the Journey: Travelling is about a lot more than arriving at a destination and looking at all the sights that are there. Of course there’s that dimension, but it’s also about moving through space and time physically, psychologically, and emotionally. The time spent in the plane, train, or automobile getting to a destination is transporting you from one reality to another. Use that time to prepare yourself mentally for the new place by willing yourself not to judge the new location with preconceived notions from the last one. Wipe the slate clean.
Wander and Wonder: Too often when we travel we have a bucket list of things to check off to see. My beloved Ray was the worst for this. Yes, there are important sights to see but if we’re not taking the time to just sit at a sidewalk café, nursing a Coke or a coffee for an hour, and just watching the world go by, we’re missing (in my opinion) the greatest attraction of all: learning how our global neighbors go about their day-to-day life. Most civilizations on the planet are ancient, much older than ours…slow down and learn something from them. Put the map in your knapsack for just one half day and get lost. This is when you’ll find the most amazing things and make the most memories. I’m sure of it.
People will be people: And most Americans will be assholes. Sorry folks but I just call them as I see them. How is it that we have developed this me-first, I’m-entitled attitude? Over the past couple months I’ve been playing this little mental game with myself. Whenever I see someone who strikes me as obnoxious because they are cutting line, laughing loudly, or dressed a little to revealing I’ve been making it a point to try and over hear their accent. They’re invariably American. Maybe in the US raising your voice to get your way is a successful method to get what you want, in Asia it simply causes the person on the receiving end of the rant to “lose face.” That’s a terrible insult here. We’ve gotta chill out people or we’re going to rupture something.
Remain flexible: Things won’t always go as planned. My friend Joan, an avid traveller and who’s meeting me in India, sent me a quote that sums it up perfectly: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” So things didn’t work out like you thought: You have two choices, you can be upset, or you can take a deep breath and create plan B. See the “chill out” comments above.
Another part of being flexible is being light on your feet and this means resist, at all temptation, to over pack. I knew this when I left and I still screwed it up. Over the past couple weeks I’ve been sorting through all the junk I brought and if I don’t use something at least once every week, I’m finding a way to dispose of it. Being nimble will give you options when plan B involves catching a train in 20 minutes and you aren’t able to schlep your own luggage and throw it on the train as it is moving out of the station. Keep options open; don’t close doors because of the “things” you’re carrying.
Listen and Learn: It’s fun to talk to people. Do it. When you choose a table at a restaurant, try to select one next to a person alone. They’ll be much more open to a casual conversation. Today at lunch there were no tables available and a Thai gentleman sat down at mine. I was uncomfortable for a couple minutes, very uncomfortable; this just would not happen in America! But I just had to realize that different cultures have different concepts of “personal space.” Once I relaxed it was not difficult to figure out that we didn’t speak a single word of the other’s language, but he was able to recommend a dish this restaurant was known for and to point out the chilies on the table that went best with it. It was delicious.
I hope I don’t come across as being “preachy” in this missive, but these are things that I am trying to learn and live by as I go through this adventure. Travel should involve growth and not just being entertained and using up all the resources in a poor country.