While it may seem strange for me to say this, considering my profession, sometimes the most useful lessons are the ones we learn outside the classroom. And when your senses are being assulated by a new environment, culture and language, some lessons are more meaningful than others. I’ve learnt a ton of stuff while traveling and living abroad. I used to be a very rigid person, but traveling has helped me loosen up and expand my worldview. I’ve pushed myself to the limit, eaten new food, climbed mountains, learnt new languages, tried to conquer my fear of heights, and challenged my established views. Travel has done this to me! In a way, my life experiences have destroyed my chances of settling down to a mediocre and content life but at the same time, why do I need to settle for contentment when I can have adventure? Here are a few things travel has taught me.
1. You meet the most interesting people while traveling. Sure some of the friendships are temporary and you say A LOT of goodbyes but once in a while you meet someone who loves Colin Farrell as much as you do and doesn’t mind when you steal their food right off their plate (Yes I am talking about you Bee!). And hey, even if you have to say those goodbyes, it doesn’t mean you won’t meet again; it’s just an excuse to crash on a couch when you visit their country.
2. Elephants, camels, horses, tarsiers, turtles, tigers and other animals I’ve met while traveling have been exceptionally unpredictable. From narrowly avoiding being charged by camels in Kuwait to flying down a mountain in Lesotho on horseback… its a miracle I have never been seriously injured while traveling.
3. Food can make or break an experience. Zimbabwe and Madagascar had awful food food options and that definitely contributes to why I would never return there. Whereas Hong Kong and Thailand are my top two foodie places and it probably explains why I went twice (and would go again). I really do want to be more adventurous about food but I couldn’t bring myself to drink snake’s blood or eat crocodile!
4. Comparisons are inevitable. Yes every country is different and should be judged on its own merits but come on- have you seen the beaches in the Philippines? They’ve ruined me for life! Every beach I saw afterward was a complete anticlimax (except Mauritius… Mauritius came pretty close). You learn to accept the disappointments and enjoy the experiences regardless.
5. People ask stupid questions- it’s unavoidable. I’ve learnt not to let it offend/irritate me anymore. The silliest things I’ve been asked:
“Are you sure you’re from South Africa?”
“You’re from Africa? But your English is excellent.”
“How do you speak South African?”
In general, people know very few things about South Africa (Nelson Mandela, Fifa 2010 World Cup, our cricket team, AIDS) which brings me to point number 6…
6. Travel is a great way to sell your country and educate others about it. I think the South African tourism board should start giving me a small commission for the advertising I’m always doing about my motherland. I love my country and I love talking about it which has definitely inspired people to visit it. I’ve also used the opportunity to dispel myths about South Africa (yes we wear clothes, no we don’t have pet lions, yes there are white people in Africa and no we don’t all have rifles or go hunting).
7. Weather affects everything. I’ve lived through it all… from 100% humidity in a Malaysian summer to dry fiery 45 degree heat in Kuwaiti spring not forgetting minus 20 in a Korean winter (the night I got engaged was the coldest night of my life). I’ve survived snowstorms, monsoons, typhoons, tremors and sandstorms. Weather is important and now I never forget to factor it in when I travel.
8. Don’t judge before you go. If you follow my blog regularly then you’re well aware of the ludicrous questions I got asked when I said I was moving to the Middle East. This is a misunderstood region, like many other parts of the world. I’ve noticed that people judge a country based on what the media portrays (utter nonsense sometimes), the country’s war torn past or what they assume. Take the time to read about people’s personal experiences or talk to them about it before you judge a place or write it off your travel list completely.
9. Use what you’ve got. And I’m not being sexual here. But seriously, tears got me into Qatar, a well placed $10 note got me out of Indonesia, my Hindi led me to pay local prices in India and my Arab colouring let’s me stand in the GCC citizens queue at immigration when I want to avoid the chaos at the foreign visitors lines. Travel teaches you that you have to do what you need to do. Yes principles are a good thing to have but they don’t help you when you’re a lone female in a country where you’re being yelled at by a group of burly men in a scary language, your bag is being searched and you’re being questioned about your father’s profession (?).
10. Don’t expect everyone to speak your language. How often do I see people getting upset when the locals in a country don’t speak their language. What’s worse is when the tourist in question starts talking louder and slower in English expecting them to understand. I saw this a million times in Cambodia. Hand signals, smiling, miming and a polite tone go a lot further than shouting loudly in your native tongue. And seriously, if you expect everyone to always speak your language then stay home!
11. Stop believing those articles you read online. You know the kind I’m talking about- best places for a solo female traveler, most romantic getaways for newlyweds, reasons you should never travel with your boss etc. I’ve traveled alone, with guys, with girls, with my husband and hey, each experience is different… last time I checked that’s what travel is all about right? Different experiences. Go wherever you want with whomever you want and travel however you want- budget backpacker, luxury resort lover or somewhere in between. You don’t need a partner to enjoy a “romantic” destination and you don’t need to be alone to find yourself. As long as you and your travel buddies respect the customs, law and culture of a place, you’ll be fine.
12. The grass is not always greener! Sure, living abroad and traveling frequently is amazing. But I still have to pay bills, fix clogged toilets, and recover from a nasty cold. Just because I am in another country – that may or may not look like paradise – doesn’t mean my problems will stay away and everything’s going to be a walk in the park (or the beach). The honeymoon phase will end – always, no matter where I am.
13. Life is truly better in flip flops and shorts. I know I am a beach girl at heart so I am biased but its true.
14. Nothing works out the way its supposed to. Sometimes you can’t see everything you want to in a country; you have an issue with your visa and can’t board your flight; your driver takes half his fee and leaves you in the lurch; you eat fast food for most of your trip and never feel the desire to sample local cuisine; you see your train flying past you on the platform, you plan to spend a trip being alone but end up meeting a group of giggling American girls that adopt you as their new BFF… I have learnt to just go with the flow instead of beating myself up when things don’t go as they should have in my head. The best moments happen when you least expect them.
15. Five star dining (not even at sunset at a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul) can never beat my mother’s cooking.
16. You never forget how to drive. I’ve gone for years with out driving (the Korean public transportation system is mind-blowing) and then got back into it. I learnt with right hand drive and now that I am in the gulf, I’ve made the move to left hand drive. Its surprisingly simple (except when you’re using a roundabout but that’s another blog post).
17. I don’t have a heaps of money, an Audi or Valentino heels but my head is full of gorgeous memories of seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise, going up The Great Wall of China in a moving swing, getting lost in Angkor Wat, meeting my high school science teacher on the top of the Burj Khalifa and sipping coconuts on a beach in Indonesia. After a disastrous few years in high school, I learnt that its my life and I will live it the way I want to… Those who try to bring me down are already below me.
18. Even native English speakers struggle to understand English people from the UK. What is a scouser? What do you mean, your flat is a tip? Once it took me a good couple of minutes to realize that a guy from Liverpool was speaking English to me. Don’t even get me started on how I cannot decipher a Scottish accent. I can’t be the only one?
19. No matter how many I see, I never stop appreciating sunsets or sunrises.
20. Home is not a place, its a feeling.
This list was inspired by fellow South African blogger, Janine from nineismynumber whose list was quirky and funny (and way shorter than mine!). Ultimately, when people ask me for a highlight from my trips, my mind goes blank and I start to panic. I usually come up with some story about zip lining in India or sand boarding in Cape Town that seems to satisfy them but doesn’t quite encapsulate the true highlight of travel which is the way its opened my mind up to the world. All at once, the world seems so vast and so huge- with so many places to explore and so many cultures to discover. But at the same time, the world seems so much smaller because with the right amount of money, a passport and a few flights later, you could be ANYWHERE. It is truly intoxicating and although sometimes I wish I had a less expensive hobby, I do love it. Comment and tell me what travel has taught you!