“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled.”
With this year marking nearly four years since I left England for my travels, I thought I’d reflect on a question that many people ask themselves after returning home from a long trip. What has travel and living in a foreign country taught me? Has it changed my personality? Has it changed the way I look at the world?
Since the idea of backpacking began, travellers have returned home with shaggy unkempt hair, a dozen bracelets on their wrist, perhaps a bindi on their forehead and proclaimed to their wide-eyed parents ‘woah man, Cambodia really changed me.’ I want to delve deeper into this statement and ask why? And how does it change you?
Rather than just an endless stream of eye-opening experiences, hedonistic pursuits and brand new activities, I wonder if there is more to it than that. How long is it after your appearance slowly returns back to normal and you get back into the routine of normal life do you start to forget everything that you thought you had learnt about the world during your travels.
Does travel really teach us anything in the long term?
On a basic level, you now know how to use a squat toilet without so much as a raise of the eyebrows, can make 100 baht last a week, have learnt to keep your cool in sweltering heat, can bargain the price of sarong down to what the locals would pay, can pick up the last three grains of rice with a pair of chopsticks and know that you should always get off on the right side of the motorbike.
Other achievements may include gaining your PADI certificate and being awarded with a license to dive, learning how to control a motorbike, overcoming your fear and learning how to rock climb… each one of you will have your own personal experiences. But all this is just superficial. Things that you have been forced to learn in the situe of travel, most of which will be rendered useless upon returning home. So what else? What lessons have you learnt that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life?
If we’re talking skills that you can put on your CV, you may like to say ‘patience.’
Anyone who has experienced an overnight bus journey, namely the 28-hour journey from Vietnam to Laos, can safely that they have become a master in the art of tolerance dealing with border crossings, changes in itinerary and ‘unexpected’ stops. Add to that, the ability to think on your feet, make the best out of a bad situation, and respond to challenges that may arise with an air of calmness, diplomacy and determination.
You’ve probably become more confident, assertive; have learnt how to handle yourself in any situation.
You can deal with confusing foreign transport systems, hassling salespeople and can follow the ‘walking tour’ in any Lonely Planet guide within an inch of perfection. Your senses have become hardened, as has your liver no doubt (especially if you’re traveling with the Irish) and your ability to eat spicy food. And you’ve probably picked up a few foreign phrases – haven’t you? Mai pen rai if you haven’t.
But what else is there?
What have we really learnt about ourselves and the world around us?
I’m looking for something deeper, more profound. I want to know what travel really teaches us.
As I delve deeper and deeper into the question, a phrase springs to mind, ‘The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know’ (Socrates) For me, travel has opened up my eyes in realising that there is so much I don’t know. Travel hasn’t so much ‘taught’ me, but ‘untaught’ me that the culture and society that I was brought up in has the right idea and way of doing things. It has given me new ideas, new perspectives and forced me to re-address the way that I thought was the ‘right’ way to live.
There are so many things, cultures, customs, foods and most importantly so many ways to live your life that I didn’t even consider before coming to Asia… and so many more things I have yet to learn. Just when you think you have a culture all figured out it can surprise you – believe me! That is how I feel every day living here in Thailand and the reason why I find travel so addictive.
The more you want to find out about the religion, politics, culture and history of a country – the more it poses further questions to the knowledge hungry mind. The journey is never-ending. They say travel broadens the mind and this is true. It challenges your way of thinking about things, what is right and wrong, social etiquette, customs, expectations and your thoughts about what you personally want to do with your life. Without overloading this article with quote after quote, I couldn’t resist this one to finish “Travel like Gandhi, with simple clothes, open eyes and an uncluttered mind.” (Rick Steves)
By Nikki Scott – Editor of South East Asia Backpacker Magazine