I have a lot of people tell me that I’m brave for traveling around the world.
I feel a lot of things, but brave isn’t one of them. However, it got me to thinking about the character traits that do make for a good long-term traveler.
It seems like this would be one trait inherent to every traveler, but that’s not always the case. In Bangkok, I met a Swedish woman who was just starting a six-month trip around Southeast Asia. She wanted to join me for dinner, and I recommended a great street cart nearby. Her response? “Oh, I don’t like Asian food.” Can you imagine how difficult the next six months will be for that poor girl? I’m not saying you have to lose all your inhibitions and give every experience a shot — I’m specifically thinking about that ashram in India where they have big, freaky orgies — but at least inch your way out of your comfort zone. Start with a plate of pad Thai and move on from there.
I am appalled by the travelers I meet who are condescending, even downright mean, to the local people. A good traveler is respectful and understanding. They realize that every culture is beautiful, even if it differs dramatically from their own. Also, please and thank you make a world of difference when you communicate with others, even when you do it in another language.
At home I know how to mail a package, order food, visit the doctor. On the road, however, even simple tasks take major effort. Sometimes you will seem like an idiot. Sometimes you will feel like a child. Sometimes people will laugh at you. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially for those of us who like to pretend we know it all, but you’ll just have to suck it up. Also, now you know how it feels when someone visits your home country — and I bet you’ll be a little more understanding.
Sometimes you have to make do with what you have. Switch to a different bus. Arrive in a strange country at 4 a.m. Take a bucket shower and towel off with your yoga pants. Sleep in a room with strangers. Accept the fact that you got ketchup instead of marinara sauce. Drink the warm beer.
My rigid, military dad would hate the bus schedule in Mbale, Uganda, for the sheer fact that there is no bus schedule. On the day I wanted to leave town, I stopped by the station at 9 a.m. and asked for the next bus. I was told there were no buses that day. I asked again. I was told there might be a bus. Not sure. So I said, “If there is a bus that left today, what time would that bus leave?” “Maybe noon. Come back later.” At 10 a.m. I returned. That’s when I was told there was a bus, but it would leave at 2:45 p.m. I decided to hang out on a bench and wait — and that’s why I was able to catch the bus, which actually left at 11:25. I have no idea why the bus didn’t adhere to a schedule, and I am still perplexed by how Africans do this on a daily basis. I just had to go with it and sit around until I got what I needed.
Once upon a time, I turned on the tap whenever I used the restroom because I didn’t want anyone to hear me pee. I puckered up with stage fright if anyone even walked down a nearby hallway. Cut to a rainy night at a busy corner bar in Kigali, Rwanda. I had to use the toilet, which was basically a hole in an alley, surrounded by a few tipsy pieces of corrugated tin and some cardboard. There was no roof, and the rain was coming down hard and cold. One of my English students took me by the hand, shielding me with a pink child’s umbrella. Another student braced herself against the metal sheets, keeping the tin from falling over in the nasty wind. Squatting and giggling in that alley, I realized I had become less high-maintenence and slightly more audacious. But in a good way.
In Ethiopia I came across this phenomenon where I would ask for directions, and the person would tilt their hand from side to side, often moving their finger in a circle. Sometimes I had to ask 14 people the same question just to get down the block. It demonstrated the necessity of asking a lot of questions to get the answers I needed, something that applies to a lot of travel situations.
Repeat after me: There are more good people out there than bad people. The good people are generous, they like to show off their city, they are interested in learning about you, and they are quick to help. When you turn yourself over to a place, open yourself to the people there as well, and you will be rewarded.
It’s not like you have to solve a huge humanitarian crisis. You don’t even have to volunteer if you don’t want to. Simply taking the time to educate yourself about a nation, a city, a village and the issues they face is enough. Maybe it’ll inspire you to help someone out with a kind word, a helpful hand or a dollar. Or maybe you’ll pack your stories away to inspire someone else someday. Either way, showing concern for others will help put your travels in context and give you a deeper, more meaningful perspective of the places you’ll go.
Of course this is the big one. If you don’t want to know more about something, anything, everything, you should probably stay at home.