Obligatory post on what I’ve learned.
A blog is most effective when it makes its points through experience, and there’s perhaps no better experience for me to discuss than the 3 months I spent traveling abroad, from Tokyo to Casablanca, Bangalore to Chicago. There were a few different motivations for this trip, but they included the urge to see something different, the desire to understand the world a little better, and to test a hypothesis: that other places might just have something to teach us.
“I don’t know what you’re going to learn from these countries,” a friend told me bluntly when I listed a few different stops. Well, while I had nothing that might qualify as an epiphany–most of what I did learn, in the end, was about myself–I have to say I learned plenty. What I found was that really, the grass is greener. Sort of.
- You’re not missing anything by traveling. I had a conversation with at least one expat abroad who said that initially they were worried about not being around for events at home–and then we both agreed, “What exactly is going on at home?” Do you want to do something you’ve always done–go to a sports event, hop around local bars–or do you want to do something different–climb in the Andes, party in Shanghai? Do you want to go on an epic vacation? You’re already doing that. Barring any huge changes, the stuff at home will generally still be there when you get back. Even I was able to both make my trip and make a good friend’s wedding after my return.
- 3 is the golden number for days in a city. I’ve stayed in cities for as long as 10 days and for as short as 12 hours. I really got to know a city around the second or third day, and after the fourth or fifth day I began to feel like I was living there permanently–which is not so much fun if you are running out of things to do. On the other hand, anything less than 2 days is not enough to get properly oriented to the city’s map, quirks, good eats, and people.
- The exchange rate is NOT how expensive a country is. I heard people say a few times, upon hearing that the exchange rate (say, to the dollar) was 10 to 1, or 100 to 1, “That’s so cheap!” It bears stating…the number at the exchange window does not tell you how pricey the country is. You have to look at the prices of the things you’re buying–for example, a hostel bed in Japan might cost 2,600 yen. You have to convert that into your home currency (about $26) and then make judgments about whether things are cheap or not. A country can become cheaper or more expensive (in the short-term) if the exchange rate moves significantly in one direction or the other.
- Don’t let the small things get in your way. I had plenty of annoyances, like trying to get change in India when the ATMs only gave large bills. Even bigger ones, like not being able to see the interior of Alhambra because I was late, shouldn’t disrupt your day or life. I was extremely irritated about it for a couple hours, but a few days later I had completely forgotten it, and today I’m losing no sleep about it, instead caught up in the trip as a whole and the better moments.
- Mistakes will be made. A fellow traveler told me this early on. “For example, I wore these very white shoes,” he said, “and wasn’t expecting to be walking through all these dirty places.” That was on the smaller scale of things gone wrong. It’s when you make the bigger mistakes that you come the closest to regretting your trip, wishing you could be at home; but it’s also how you learn, both about how to do better and about yourself. What comes to mind here is my disastrous 1-day (yes, really) trip to South Korea, but I can say that I never came close to repeating that sort of mistake in the 2 months after.
- But so will brilliant choices. A lack of proper planning can cause those disasters. But the same lack of planning can open great possibilities. For example, I wouldn’t have thought to visit the area surrounding Guilin, China, until several travelers mentioned how great it was; when we hear about big places like Beijing and Shanghai it’s easy to forget the places in the interior of a country, and nearly miss highlights. Similarly, under my original plan–which was to visit only Japan, China, and India–I wouldn’t have thought that I would’ve seen the Andes by summer’s end. And on the micro level, I had several days where I saw so much more by going with the flow than if I had planned hour by hour. It’s through effort and listening carefully to the gentle push of the winds that you get the most out of the journey.
- You have to pass on some countries, for now. I made a huge jump between countries when I went from India to Morocco, passing everything from Greece to Turkey to Russia. There are so many countries in this region that I’m dying to visit, but I had to accept that timing and the current environment would make it particularly difficult to make it happen this time around. I had to be happy for all the new places that I was going–and there were a lot of them–and look forward to future adventures.
- Other religions had valuable lessons. When I observed other religions in practice–worship at shrines, hearing muezzins in the early morning–I aimed to show respect, but I wasn’t thinking I’d learn anything. My cousin, a Hindu, as he hopped on his motorcycle before we went into town, made some motions towards his house. I stared at him; he said, “I prayed to god. For a safe journey.” “Oh, that’s a good idea,” I said, before praying to God myself. And when I was in Morocco or areas of India with mosques, it was impossible to avoid the calls for prayer emanating from the minarets. I can’t help but admire and seek to emulate the devotion entailed in Islam’s five prayers a day. In Colombia, a very Catholic country, people signed the crucifix upon passing a church, and I want to have that kind of focus on the Cross.
- It’s obvious, but the best way to make the language stick is immersion. I realized I had never used my 4 years of Spanish education until I went to Spain and Colombia, and that’s when it all came back and became really useful. Similarly, I was picking up Tamil rather quickly the more time I spent with my relatives. It’s quite nice to speak the local language, for more than just convenience; the best way I can describe it is as jumping into a warm pool of respect and familiarity, as opposed to the colder water of choppy English and being straight-up foreign.
- The biggest problem traveling alone is not… When I tell people I’m traveling by myself–whether they’re at home or traveling with me in a group–they often express some reluctance to do it themselves. Typically the concern is being lonely. That shouldn’t be the concern. First of all, loneliness is a state of mind, and you can be alone and quite content (although that might depend on personality type). More importantly, I made so many friends along the way, people more than happy to hang out with me, great people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. In fact, it was when I was traveling with a group of friends in one of the countries, when I met the fewest new people. In addition, traveling with a group puts a filter on what you’re experiencing, both in the experience itself as well as how you interpret it. A group will in many ways limit your interactions with the local people and culture, and your opinions will be shaped by what your group is saying rather than your own observations and reflections.
- The biggest problem traveling alone IS…doing it all yourself. Yes, the most annoying thing is that no one’s going to do the planning for you. When I go to India with my parents, or when I go another city or country with friends, I can at least lean on others for support in this category. But this is a unique challenge that you can rise to given the will. I have to say the last 3 or so weeks flowed quite easily in this regard, no doubt due in at least part to my improvement of this skill. The most prohibitive challenge when traveling alone, though, is safety, and again, not quite what you think. I have to be a little more cautious than if I were in a group, but that has not stopped me or even several young girls I met from traveling alone. One went on to me about how welcome and safe she felt traveling all over India, despite the scary things that grab the headlines. What does make me nervous is what I discovered in my last week of traveling, when I ran into problems with Colombia’s immigration, who insisted on believing my passport was a fake. When you’re detained by the authorities like that–especially when you haven’t done anything–you’re not entirely comfortable being alone. After this happened a second time with a police officer, I understood that sometimes you’re in more danger from the authorities than criminals (#BlackLivesMatter?).
- But we only have ourselves to work with. One of the reasons I traveled alone was because no one else wanted or was available for this. I couldn’t count on anyone to join me for most of the countries I visited; I couldn’t even count on my own family to join me in India. Sometimes, you just gotta do you.
- It’s strange, even painful, to hear about developments in your home country. I can’t count how many major shootings took place while I was gone, and there are few embarrassments greater than having to talk about your country’s gun problem with people from other countries. Similarly, the first question I usually got when people found out I was American was “So, is Trump going to win?” Though I wanted to be away from America for a little bit, the words on my passport said differently. Your passport is your life was pragmatic advice while abroad, but my life said in bold letters The United States of America, and held all the inspiring and uncomfortable implications that came with that. And America is everywhere, from the familiar brand stores to the Civil War ad I saw in the middle of China.
- You will get sick. And that’s part of the experience. I thought I might get a cold or two. But a week in Shanghai (thanks, alcohol and greasy food) destroyed my digestive system, which made me much more cautious about what I consume, and in India I got a stomach infection, probably from some unclean water, that left me puking and unable to keep even small amounts of food down for a week. These were horrible experiences that left me in some doubt about the ability to finish my trip. However, I I learned a lot about what my body could take (and couldn’t), and am much more grateful for its proper functioning. I met a couple of American dudes who said they wouldn’t want to visit any country where it wasn’t safe to drink the tap water. But that’s part of the experience, to understand and feel–right in the pit of your belly–the extent of conditions that at least a billion people live in. To go without knowing is to not live in the real world.
- Every new day is a blessing. The above experiences obviously made me a little more grateful for another day. In fact, there were numerous times that I came out thinking, That could’ve turned out worse, such as when I got sick, when I was scammed, or the ridiculous turbulence my small plane had in Colombia. And when these things happened, I didn’t think, If only I had stayed home… I thought, Nothing was going to stop me from doing this, and if this is the way it turns out, then so be it.
- In each country I’ve had to look past the charm of a country to see it for what it really is. That’s a line direct from my journal, probably with Japan most clearly in mind. It’s an amazing place, and one I frequently say is my favorite out of the places I visited this summer. But that doesn’t mean I can be blind to its problems, ones it certainly needs to fix. That doesn’t mean these are my problems to fix; in that regard, I can’t turn a blind eye to the problems in my own country.
- People across the world differ mostly by education, rather than “race” or culture. I felt that people with more education tended to act the same, as did those with less. For example, I had very deep conversations with people in Japan (when language wasn’t a significant barrier), a testament to the level of education and awareness in that country; meanwhile, conversation with some of my own aunts and uncles in India had to be at a much different level. I found people on the streets of Morocco annoying because they kept insisting that I was from India, and I couldn’t be bothered to explain my more complex background. Later a Moroccan girl at my hostel explained that people are in serious need of education; she described a concert where Stravinsky was played and people became bored and outright obnoxious about their dislike for it. In India, people are even unaware of their own country’s diversity; for one, in northern parts folks couldn’t understand that I spoke zero Hindi even though in the part my parents hail from I’ve never heard a word of Hindi; similarly they have trouble accepting that some of the more “Asian” looking Indians are actually just that.
- There is a different standard for non-white travelers. There’s no getting around it: you’re just going to be treated differently if you’re not white and traveling, though that’s not always a bad thing, and varies from place to place. As I said, in Morocco I was by all perception an Indian, and the same, perhaps predictably, was in India. In Japan, I got some extra attention, which tended to be a benign curiosity and made me some new friends; in Colombia, doubtless some of the skepticism about my passport stemmed from the way I looked. This isn’t a reason not to go; I learned a lot about the way I’m perceived through these experiences.
- I thought I’d get away from 2016 politics…ha. Unfortunately, Trump is the talk of the town, the world over. That said, I had plenty of time to ignore it; my friend and I began watching the presidential candidate’s acceptance speech at the RNC only for me to pass out a few minutes in, thanks to jet lag from the 10-hour flight I took earlier.
- Some things are unquestionably better in other countries. Japan’s transportation is frankly astounding; the health care I got in India was somehow 1,000 times better than some of my experiences (and prices) I got in the U.S. The mentality in America is that we have everything here, and it is patently false. We don’t, and rather than trying to make America great again, we ought to be making America greater than it ever was.
What I’ve learned is that the grass is greener, in patches.
- Everything is connected. I’m a big believer that what happens there matters here. I woke up to Brexit while in India, noticing that its stock market, along with most around the world, tanked. Referendums are making splashes from Greece to Britain to Colombia. Authoritarianism is on the rise from America to Europe to India to China. Everything that has happened in the Americas in the last 500 years would not have happened had a powerful set of dynasties not emerged in North Africa and taken over Spain, and had Spain not pushed those countries out. A war based in Mysore, India made a big difference in American independence.
- America is a strange country, but familiarity has the strongest pull. I had a fair amount of culture shock upon returning to the U.S. (granted, I was entering through Florida). It’s not hard to put into words, but I’m leaving it to you to go abroad, return, and see for yourself. Not everything we do makes sense, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop doing it. When I visited India in 2012, I saw a country that was rapidly changing, and was sure I’d see a hyper-modern country in my lifetime; when I went this time, I saw that some cultural attitudes and inefficient processes were going to die hard. It just isn’t that easy to change a country’s ways, even from within. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. What I’ve learned is that the grass is greener, in patches, and that alone should have us looking over at our neighbors to see what we can learn.
- Just do it. I hopped on the plane, didn’t really look back. It was a little scary at first, but once I focused on moving forward, all the distance from home fell away. And now that I’ve done it once, it’s going to be a good deal easier the next time.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this possible for me, and thanks for reading.