Five Things I Learned Traveling
There are certain things you learn while traveling the world that you might never otherwise understand. When you visit a place, completely unfamiliar to you, you are forced to look at your surroundings through a different lens. I have spent a bit of time in four of the seven continents, met the most wonderful people, tried some of the strangest foods, and slept in the most uncomfortable conditions. But to me, a great adventure is when you’re at least 50% terrified of the unknown and at least 50% excited to explore it!
So here are a few things I have learned:
1. Eat to nourish. A home, where there are many options, we mostly eat to please. What sounds good for dinner? But when abroad, if you don’t exactly know where or what your next meal will be, you eat to nourish. (And McDonalds is not the same in every country, so order with caution.)
I remember the days in Honduras, coming into the orphanage where we were staying, so hungry for dinner but thinking, “Not rice and beans. Again.” But I ate it and enjoyed it, because it provided nourishment. Or the afternoon we arrived on Dinagat Island in the Philippines after traveling numerous hours on a packed ferry boat across the ocean. The wonderful family we stayed with at the local church had provided us with what they might have considered a great feast, complete with fresh caught fish, eye balls, scales and all. And as I picked the meat out from in-between the bones (something I had never done before), I was presently surprised with how satisfying it was!
It’s also a good idea to bring your own snacks, if eating is as important to you as it is to me. For last year’s mission trip I took a whole box of my favorite protein bars, for snacks and “just in case” situations. But what I didn’t take into account was the enormous amount of fiber in each bar, and the fact that we would be places without toilets. I learned my lesson there. But I have also learned to try new things! I am what they call a “picky eater,” and not a very adventurous one at that. But I have discovered more delicious, strange-looking fruits than imaginable!
2. Skin color is still segregating. And of most the places I have been, my fair freckled skin was the minority. With the exception of Austria and Germany, of all the countries I have visited, I was one of the only Caucasians around. Now when I say, “segregating,” I do not mean it the way many Americans might think. I have never been treated poorly because of my skin color, but different certainly.
Especially my experience in South America and Asia have taught me, local vendors always want to charge double if you are white. Mostly I think they assume that we have more money so we can afford to be charged double what they charge the locals. Like the time we were on Mindanao Island in the Philippines, our translator and friend had prearranged all of our transportation needs prior to our arriving and settled good prices for us. But the minute the driver saw that we were white and Americans, he wanted to up the price. We were shocked, though we probably shouldn’t have been, and after a little renegotiating we got everything settled.
Also in South America and Asia I have felt an undeserved appreciation and overwhelming gratitude when the people and children would rush out of their huts to just catch a glimpse of the “white people.” The regions we visit play a large part in this reaction, because where we go are greatly impoverish, and these small villages associate white people with aid. For instance, in Honduras they knew we were bringing food brigades and medical clinics. But mostly I love when the beautiful little children just run up and hug you. You don’t speak their language, but then again love is a universal tongue. Because my skin was different, they wanted to be near. If only they knew how their difference was the reason I traveled all that way.
3. Bargaining is universal. When we go to stores, since most are corporate chains, there is a price and you decide if you want to pay it. But when you visit local markets and vendors, your purchase is their livelihood. And although you’re white and they may try and charge you more for it, they might just be willing to take less rather than none at all.
Now I do not mean to encourage ripping off people in third world countries who are just trying to feed their families. What I mean is, if you determine an item isn’t fair price or is more than you can afford, tell them. My husband is excellent at bargaining, he thinks it’s a sort of fun game. But there is a skill to doing it well, being respectful but firm, fair but looking for the best price. Most all of our international travels are mission related, so honestly, we do not have a budget to overpay for items or services.
But then there was the time I was shopping in Old Jerusalem, in the Muslim Quarter, trying to negotiate a price on some beautiful bag I wanted. And the shop owner began asking questions about our current president at the time (Bush), and immediately I began to panic. I’m an American in the Middle East, and I have no idea how this guy feels about our conservative president who advocates a war against radical Muslims. If only I had been content to pay whatever price the shop owner was asking.
4. Americans are high maintenance. Now don’t frown at me, I know what you’re thinking. I do not intend this in a negative way, but more of a cultural influence. When your everyday environment is so consistently familiar, change and jet-lag cultivate a sometimes “picky” American.
My first journey to Europe was during the summertime, and let me tell you that it is hot in Germany in August. Yet air conditioners are no common feature, like they are here in Texas. We were staying at the dorms of a local college, and working at a world conference during the day. Thousands of college students were gathered from all over the world to volunteer, and then sleeping on cots at night and sharing a sort of giant port-a-potty with showers inside. I remember thinking, “I have never sweat this much, even in Texas!”
I will never forget the night we were sleeping in an old Baptist church in a small community in the Philippines, and our dear friend and guide was just trying to help me make a comfortable sleeping arrangement. I had a wooden pew, the cement ground, or a hammock to choose from. It was towards the end of our journey, I was extremely exhausted, and none of those options seemed to “work” for me. For at least an hour he tried to rearrange my sleeping bag and mosquito net to something I would like. He was so patient and kind, though I know it seemed ridiculous to him!
5. Flying is its own adventure. I always look at the flying part of our journey as its own separate adventure, mostly because it often takes a day or more to get to where we’re going. There is no sense in dreading it, because it is inevitable. So try, if you can, to make it fun! When you pass as many time zones as I have in one flight, you can create a science fiction time travel sort of world.
I remember my first international flight, all the way to Israel. It was a smooth journey there, but returning home something happened and we had to spend the night in Madrid (poor us, right?). And then there was my first flight to South America, where the customs officer was inquiring about our personal opinions on our current US President (Obama), in a very serious and intimidating way. We thought perhaps we might be arrested if we gave the wrong answer! There was also my longest flight experience, with so many layovers and time changes we hardly knew what day it was! We flew from Dallas to San Francisco, San Francisco to Honolulu, Honolulu to Guam, Guam to Manila, Manila to Butuan. On the way there we lost half a day, but coming home to gained half a day. Wait, wasn’t it 9 am on Wednesday when we left, twelve hours ago?
Now I love to fly, and have since I was a little girl. I love airports, and packing, and the little airplane food. It’s such an experience, what with so many people from such a variety of backgrounds, all traveling to completely different places in the world for any number of reasons. I find myself looking around, wanting to know everyone’s story. Sometimes you’re lucky and the lines aren’t too long and you get a window seat. But sometimes security lines are backed up and you’re stuck sitting next to the stinky man four times your size. But when your ears pop as you’re flown to incredible altitudes, just remember that before you know it, you will arrive at your destination and a new adventure can begin!
“The world is a book and those who do not travel only know one page.” (Saint Augustine)