A dear friend of mine is setting off on a grand international adventure. In the midst of travel preparations we have had several pre-departure conversations. Although most of these involved expressions of travel jealousy, one directed itself to self transformation and lessons learned. Being the eloquent person that I am, my answer was a stammering response that basically conveyed that I had learned very little beyond an appreciation for mango fruit shakes and public transportation. Only days later have I been to better craft a decent response, while my pal has probably (and hopefully) forgotten the conversation entirely.
My short answer that I had learned nothing was a deer in the headlights response, and this certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten that question. Surely in 3+ years of my life I learned some kind of life lessons. However, it is incredibly difficult to distill 3 years of vastly different experiences into a comprehensive and simple response. This is especially challenging because at no point in my life abroad did I have a moment of clarity. The growth I experienced was slow and sloppy, of the trial and error variety.
After a couple weeks of reflection and summarization, this is the best attempt I have to answer “what I learned while living abroad” question. My favorite thing about traveling is that it makes me feel blissfully insignificant. Stepping into a city and wandering the streets I become aware that life in the city has been going great without me there, and will probably continue as usual, completely unaffected by my brief stay.
This realization of insignificance doesn’t bring about feelings of self deprecation, but rather a overwhelming sense of freedom. Suddenly the huge pressures of home are put into perspective. The decisions that I put so much weight on, really don’t matter in the grand scheme of life, so long as I don’t hurt people along the way. This has opened me up to a trial and error approach to life. I’ll jump into things that seem like a pretty good idea, not completely sure of the results, knowing that there’s always other options in case one doesn’t work out.
I’ve also learned that life is incredible subjective. In fact our very idea of reality is warped based on perspective. We cannot fairly evaluate the actions of others without understanding or attempting to make ourselves aware of where they are coming from. So often I have witnessed other travelers and myself making judgements of other cultures from the lens of our own upbringing. We unfairly consider actions and traditions silly or shocking without taking into account the broad culture and history. I have carried this over into my life back in the homeland, by constantly striving to understand the point of view in which decisions were made before forming a judgment of other’s actions.
This is just my meager attempt at giving a articulate answer to a difficult and muddy question. Our travel experiences are as different as we are as humans. Several of my friends have had moments of crisp realizations, or have been able to focus and create a 3 year plan complete with specific steps. In the midst of my wandering and admiring humanity as a whole, I realized my competency in the midst of challenging and odd situations, as well as a few broader life lessons.