You know what they say, "If you want a diploma, go to college. But if you want an education, go travelling."
Okay, I don't know if anyone actually has ever said that.
But they should.
I recently spent one year getting myself an informal education. I travelled to 12 different countries, and in each of these countries I attempted to find ways to be helpful. I assisted a raw vegan farm in Costa Rica. I tutored English in northern Laos. I volunteered at the Festival Fringe in Scotland. I painted cottages on the seaside in Goa. All of these experiences have added up to a massive bundle of memories and lessons.
Permit me to share some of them. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from my journey.
1. It's important to eat a bit of everything.
If you're in Peru and refuse to sample a bit of roasted guinea pig because you think it's "icky" or "weird," then you might as well stay home with your TV dinners and the numbing glow of your favourite reality TV show. As a human species, we have eaten basically everything that walks, crawls or grows. Besides, turning your nose up at culinary offerings is deeply rude. Try a morsel. It won't kill you. Why? Because it's already dead. Dig in.
2. I am fortunate to be able to cross borders with ease.
Citizenship is a determinant that I hadn't given much thought before travel. But as I have crossed borders, the privilege of my nationality becomes apparent. To be able to tour the world does take some financial saving, but it also requires a passport that reflects diplomatic neutrality. Travel often shines light on our own privilege.
3. Use protection when you crawl between the sheets.
I'm not talking about condoms here (although those are important also). I'm talking about a silk sleeping bag liner or anything else that will protect you from bed bugs. We have a global pandemic happening, and even the cleanest of establishments is not immune. Those little bastards are hungry. I was victimized in Buenos Aires and Luang Prabang. You don't have to be. Use protection.
4. Humour is one of my greatest tools to build trust.
I'm generally a big goofball. This is never more apparent than when I'm standing in front of a class, teaching an English lesson. I am a complete ham. Why? Because speaking a different language is scary -- we fear looking stupid. Being a jester is a strategic way to lighten hearts, both in and out of the classroom. I'll feign masculinity for a laugh. I'll dance like a buffoon for a giggle. I'll attempt to speak local languages. Think of it this way: A person's sense of humour and his or her trustworthiness are often correlated.
5. Short-term international volunteer work is highly romanticized and rarely impactful.
Chances are your three-week stint in a Ghana orphanage is more about fulfilling your own agenda then actually saving any children. Unless you have a year (or more) to give to a social-based development project, it's doubtful that you'll have long-term impact. This doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't participate in short-term volunteer projects. But go forth with realistic expectations. And clear ideas about who's really benefiting.
6. Sometimes it's best to put the camera away.
I am guilty of wanting to share every awesome detail with my family and friends. But each time I reach for the camera, I switch from "being in the moment" to "documenting the moment." It's okay not to record everything. Be there.
7. It's okay to look like a tourist.
I'm allergic to groups of westerners waddling around with fancy cameras and safety belts. But guess what? I'm a tall, pasty white man, and most folks are going to put me in the exact same category as the waddlers. So maybe I should get over my ego and surrender the ideal of flawlessly blending in with the locals. I am what I am. You are what you are.
8. It's helpful to have a map -- a paper map.
In my experience, many folks around the world can't locate Canada on a map. I have the choice to become offended or to share a quick geography lesson. I choose the latter. I've learned that people love looking at maps. It is a great way to connect with locals.
9. The cheapest ticket is not always the best option.
I purchased a dirt-cheap ticket from Lima to Buenos Aires, which happened to include an 8-hour layover in La Paz, Bolivia. Little did I know that, at 4061.5 meters of elevation, the La Paz airport is one of the highest airports in the world. I slept on a cement floor, and then spent the next two days recovering from altitude sickness. Splurging an extra $100 for the direct flight and sidestepping the sickness would have been the better option. Not all costs are financial.
10. When I trust, my trust will (more often than not) be returned.
If you've never engaged in long-term, low budget travel, allow me to inform you of a giant secret. There is a giant karmic pot to which you will be depositing and from which you will be withdrawing. This includes a delightful series of free meals, late night conversations, travel tips, book exchanges, glasses of beer, personally guided tours, work exchanges and couches to crash on. I give to the system. I take from the system. And when I put this trust in people, I am rewarded.
If you appreciate Daniel's lessons, you might also appreciate his book, The Traveller: Notes from an Imperfect Journey Around the World.
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