7 Things Learned Through Travel

1. Things tend to fall in place a lot

Before I started travelling, I was always gripped by those two small words: What if?

What if this happens? What if I can’t understand what that says?

I remember when I began to realize these questions were useless.

The first three countries I visited that spoke a foreign language were all Spanish speaking nations. Today I can speak a fair bit of español, but back then I couldn’t even conjugate a regular verb if my life depended on it. It wasn’t until a group study program in the summer before my final year of my undergrad that I even got to experience the “what ifs” though. In Mexico and Cuba I spent my entire time in each country in a resort. When I stepped off the plane with my classmates in Spain, however, I was finally stepping out to see the real world. Granted, I was still with a group of people, and all the logistics had been taken care of by the head professor and trip leader. Still, you have to start somewhere. And when I looked up at those road signs in Spanish, without a clue as to what they said, I made the decision to let go of my worries and allow myself to enjoy the ride.

That was the easy part. When somebody else is in control of the lodgings, and transportation, and itinerary, it’s simpler not to worry. But what about when you’re the one planning? Or what about when you’re all on your own?

I quickly learned that it doesn’t matter who does the planning. It will all work out, one way or another.

Whether it’s been hitch-hiking across the Sahara desert, wandering upriver in the Amazon, or arriving in Hong Kong without a place to stay, it will always work out. Sure, sometimes you end up stuck in a tire yard that’s filled with sand and resembles hell on earth. Sometimes you wind up getting lost by yourself in the jungle, one bent stick away from never seeing civilization again. And sometimes you have to double back and sleep at the airport because every room in Hong Kong is booked. But you know what? I made it through all those things, and countless others, knowing it would end up being all right. Yeah, I still worry from time to time, especially when lost in the jungle, but I still always know that regardless of outcome it will all work out. I’ll always find my way through. And as long as “everything working out” remains a fluid concept, it will always be this way for everybody. The motto I’ve developed over the years is this: “It may not always work out how you planned it, but it will always work out.”

I’ve yet to be proved otherwise.

Several years ago the thought of staying in an Indigenous village along the Amazon river was scary. Now, it's a fond one. (Colombia)

Several years ago the thought of staying in an Indigenous village along the Amazon river was scary. Now, it's a fond one. (Colombia)

 

2. We all speak the same language

This meme

This meme

Have you ever seen that meme, with the two pills that Morpheus holds in the Matrix? It says if you take the red pill you’ll be fluent in every language, and if you take the blue pill you’ll be able to master every musical instrument. Most people I’ve talked to about it say they would choose the blue pill, but I think the red one deserves more careful consideration. It would be amazing to communicate fluently with every person on the planet. I think back to all my conversations in Spanish with people who didn’t speak any English at all, wishing that I had a better grasp of the language so I could better convey what I was feeling. But, and this is to the main point, I was still able to communicate. Even in places where I know zero words, like Malaysia or Indonesia (okay, I know a few words in those languages, as do all English speakers, since a lot of words [especially newer ones] in both those countries are based on English), I was still able to communicate. No, it’s not fluently, or even in any depth, but it’s still communicating. And sometimes, at some deeper human level, we can share heartfelt moments, hearty laughs, and moments of great insight with people whom we cannot “speak” to. Somewhere between 60%-80% of communication is non-verbal (or so I've read), and a lot of non-verbal gestures and movements are similar, if not the same, across cultures and continents. Micro-expressions in the face, hand movements, head movements, body posturing – it all communicates loudly as long as we pay attention and “listen.” So, while we may not all speak the same verbal languages, we all share a basic form of non-verbal communication, and it’s amazing what you can get across through charades and slowly-spoken single words.

I think I’d have to take the blue pill.

 

3. Most experiences are better if you have someone to share them with

If you’ve never travelled by your lonesome I highly recommend that you do. The freedom and serenity that can be found when you are able to take quiet time whenever you need, and are in charge of exactly what you want to see and do, is invaluable.

But when you’ve visited 20+ countries on your own, without a buddy sitting next to you on the plane, and nobody by your side to pass the inevitable monotony of waiting for a bus or train, it just seems a bit more…boring.

At first, travelling alone is enthralling as you conquer the tasks of navigating through foreign lands. It’s exhilarating in its own way to catch a chicken bus in Belize, to navigate the ferry system of Istanbul, the London Underground, or to find your way through Hong Kong using both ship and rail. The exhilaration lasts until you get good at it –and become just as adept at catching modes of transport or ordering food in the next country as you were in the previous. When this happens, using the transit system begins to feel like it would at home: more of a chore than an adventure. However, even then there is a slight difference. In Calgary, taking the C-Train can sometimes be a time to put on my headphones and take a little inward break from the surrounding society. While traveling alone, though, I’m already sort of removed from the goings on around me. I could spend an entire day interacting with nobody except the few servers and cashiers who stand between me and food, unless I make an effort to reach out and talk to strangers. So, the alone time that is appreciated in a familiar place is just more of the continual alone time in a new place. Again, it can still be enjoyable, especially if you haven’t traveled much by yourself before. And I still enjoy it a lot of the time – I will always make sure some of my travels occur alone, for several reasons. But even when I’m alone I usually seek people to share my experiences with. Making new friends is almost always a feel-good type of experience (almost always), and sharing the things I see, taste, and do with others, even those I only recently met, makes the entire experience better. It’s not about having to travel with somebody by your side (though I have come to realize it’s nice), it’s about connecting with other minds that are experiencing the same thing that you are, and sharing your thoughts and impressions.

Taking time out for yourself is immensely important. It should definitely be done and cherished. But for the rest of the time, it’s so nice to share what we’re going through – regardless if it’s positive or negative experiences.

A birthday dinner with brand new friends. (Brazil)

A birthday dinner with brand new friends. (Brazil)

4. Being uncomfortable helps you grow… to an extent

When I was working with Ecology Project International in Belize, my mentor, Alonso Mohedano, taught me something I already knew but never realized. He preached the wonders of the “magic zone,” the space immediately outside your comfort zone. I never named this before, but I understood it intuitively. I took it one step further though, as any good pupil would. I named the space immediately outside the magic zone the “danger zone.”

The thing about these zones is that they are completely subjective. Everybody’s comfort zone is different, and getting outside of it is an exercise that must be taken on individually. This made it difficult when leading EPI groups – it’s tough to guide twenty people into the magic zone, especially when they’re between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and extra-especially if they haven’t pushed themselves much before. It’s a little bit easier on TREE trips to help people find this magical place, mainly because TREE participants have been older than EPI students and because there are typically fewer people on a TREE trip. But the lesson remains the same: you need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. If you can push yourself just beyond your comfort zone you will grow and experience things that you never could if you didn’t get out of the zone of familiarity. However, the reason why I say you need to be comfortable with being uncomfy is that you need to know your limits – especially when deep in the jungle with no immediate medical help nearby. Some people are a little bit scared of the waterfall, and only need to work up the courage to jump off. After they jump they feel great, they pushed themselves and they get to reap the benefits of the magic zone. But some people are terrified of the waterfall, and if they push themselves to jump they will be pushing too far – they will be in the danger zone. If you’re more than uncomfortable – that is, you’re not comfortable with your level of uncomfortableness – then there’s a good chance you’ll hurt yourself. It was particularly difficult to cultivate this delicate balance with young males on school trips. Boys usually want to try and do what the other boys are doing, whether it’s for fear of looking weak, for looking bad in front of girls, or because they want to experience the same fun as their peers. Sometimes it was crystal clear, though:  some kids would slip into the danger zone and I would have to intervene. I would bring them back to the magic zone, that place that every individual must experience subjectively.

It’s amazing the kinds of experiences we can have when we step just outside those feelings of complacency and familiarity – and it’s scary when we step a bit too far. When we stick within the normal boundaries of pushing ourselves, wonderful things happen.

Crossing the Sahara was one of the best and most insightful experiences of my life. (Senegal)

Crossing the Sahara was one of the best and most insightful experiences of my life. (Senegal)

5. Everybody judges everybody based on outward appearance

If there’s one thing that the recent movements to expose and eliminate racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have taught us, it’s that these views are prevalent and firmly entrenched in society. This is true not only in North America, but all over the world. And nothing illustrates this more clearly than travelling to extremely different locales and witnessing the same basic human truth: we all constantly judge each other based on outward appearance.

What the anti-discrimination movements rightly tackle is unjust treatment based on these outward differences, which is definitely a good thing. I am clearly in favour of ending discrimination based on skin colour, gender, age, or anything else that can’t be helped, and even many things that can be helped. Where I seem to differ from many people is that I do not think it’s right to associate blame or guilt along with trying to reform the way we judge each other. The reason I hold this view is because I think it is very clear that human nature is to judge others based on what we can see, or what we can ascertain about a group of people. I don’t think it is right to do this – in fact, I am strongly opposed to tribalism, especially the more I travel – but natural selection has predisposed us to act in such a way. Therefore, what we are trying to accomplish is not only morally correct, in my view and in the view of many others, but also going against the grain of what had evolutionarily served us in the past.

Just because we all look different doesn't mean we can't all get along (Georgetown)

Just because we all look different doesn't mean we can't all get along (Georgetown)

There is a big difference between handing out nicknames based on race, as they do all over the Caribbean, and facing real oppression based on race, as is present in way too many places in the world. One thing I’ve really learned is that racism is not limited to Western countries, nor is it even limited to interracial groups. In several countries that I have been to, people are treated worse or looked down upon for having a darker skin tone, even if they are the same “race” or ethnicity (I don’t like to use the term race since it doesn’t technically actually exist; there are people of different ethnicities, but even that becomes conflated because there are so many people of mixed backgrounds – and that’s not even taking into account genetics that can make people of the same ethnic mix look drastically different).

My general feeling is that we are becoming more aware of our conceptions and actions and things are improving, slowly but surely. I just think that it’s important to understand the underlying reasons behind biases, unconscious and not, and not demonize people for having them – they’re simply not as open and understanding as the people that support and value differences. And it’s not only rich white males that judge others based on appearance; their judgments just seem to have the most power. Make no mistake: we all judge each other constantly based on how we look. It’s normal. It’s evolutionary. And it’s slowly changing to where it’s becoming less destructive.

As we travel more, the world becomes more familiar. And hopefully we become more familiar with each other, leaving the judgments in the benign category of nicknames based on skin tone rather than merit based on skin tone.

 

6. Basketball is a great way to make friends

You might think that soccer is the top sporting choice if you’re looking to make friends while travelling, and, depending on where you live, maybe also at home. But I assure you, basketball is a much better way to do this all over the world.

While soccer is the clear favourite sport worldwide, basketball is arguably next, and is growing in popularity every year. That is only part of the appeal that the sport brings, though – especially when it comes to making friends.

See, with soccer – or hockey, or even more so with football or baseball – you need at least a small group of people to play. If you are by yourself you can kick a soccer ball, or shoot a puck, or shoot a basketball. However, if someone comes along to join, basketball changes the dynamic most. It is the only team sport that scales down to a game of 1-on-1 that is nearly as enjoyable and competitive as a team game. Furthermore, you can play basketball with any amount of people, odd numbers or even. Three people show up? Cut-throat 1-on-1, where the person who gets scored on sits down after each bucket in a “king’s court” fashion.  Four people? Two-on-two. Six people? The playground favourite 3-on-3. Fifteen people? Three teams of five, full-court, winners stay on. Just writing these words is getting me amped up to join a pickup game! And that’s the beauty of bball: all you need is a hoop. If you find a hoop and bring a ball you have all the necessary ingredients for a competitive game to commence. If you don’t have a ball you can just show up to a hoop and wait for someone else with a ball. Then you have 1-on-1. When more people show up you scale it up. It’s so simple to set up that it transcends languages. I’ve joined pickup games at courts on four different continents, strutting onto courts in Montevideo, Georgetown, Belize City, Caye Caulker, San Ignacio, San Diego, Harlem, Hong Kong, Marsa (Malta), Barcelona, Florence, Santorini, Amsterdam, Bogota, Minot (North Dakota), and all over Calgary. The culture of basketball bridges differences and brings us all together, regardless of where we’re from. A lot of the friendships I made in Belize, Guyana, and Malta began with a lonely visit to an outdoor court – not to mention all the lifelong friends I’ve made through basketball growing up playing on organized teams. The camaraderie of basketball is different than a sport like football, especially the friendships you develop with players from opposing teams.

In the end, it’s just a sport. But the relationships and connections this sport has given me – as well as countless others – is much bigger than a game.

Outdoor 3-on-3 tournament in Malta. The six players on the court are from six different countries: Iceland, Greece, Latvia, Canada, the United States, and somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Outdoor 3-on-3 tournament in Malta. The six players on the court are from six different countries: Iceland, Greece, Latvia, Canada, the United States, and somewhere in Eastern Europe.

7. You never really get to know what a place is like unless you live there

Spending two days in a country can be fun, but it doesn’t shed much insight into what it’s really like. I don’t think you should avoid trips if they can’t be long ones – in fact, I think short trips are sometimes the most fun. I do think that if you’re curious about a country, though, and want to know what it’s really like – what the real culture is like, what the people are like on a daily basis – you need to spend a significant amount of time in one place. Even if you spend a while in one city you won’t get to know the national vibe. It’s hard to do, but fortunately it’s not white and black. There are varying degrees to how well you can know places. And spending time taking in all the information along the way is usually an amazing feeling – from my limited experience, anyways.

I remember writing about the city of Georgetown shortly after I first arrived in Guyana. Reading my own description of that city a mere three months later was so different from the city I had grown to know that it sounded as if it were a different city. Of course, the city hadn’t changed: only my perspective had. I went on to have similar experiences in Malta, Belize, and Brazil – and I hope that I have more, learning about places I have previously visited as my neural and social networks expand.

 

Is there anything profound that you have learned during your travels? Share with everybody in the comments below.