Readers of this blog have brought it to my attention recently that I have not contributed any posts yet. Well, actually, I wouldn’t say that they brought it to my attention as much as they reminded me of what I already knew I was doing (or not doing, to be more accurate). The truth is that BreAnn writes all of the posts because…well, she is just a better traveler than I am and really cares about helping people. Her goal with this blog is to educate people by sharing her extensive experience and to help them become better travelers: more cost conscious, understanding of other cultures, etc. She spends hours writing, formatting, and coding the blog because she wants to share her passion for travel in an exciting way and is a pro at this stuff. Around week two of this journey, I quickly learned I was not a pro and it was hard for me to share any of my knowledge for other travelers because I was just trying to keep up. In other words, she was the smart kid in class doing the extra credit assignments and I was getting tutoring lessons from her while holding up the rest of the students.
However, in the last few months, my traveling mindset has shifted and I’ve gone from a C- to a solid B/B+ average. I titled this entry “Have YOU traveled internationally on your own?” because one year ago this time, MY answer to that question was simple: “No, not really.” Most people that read this blog have done some traveling with a tour group or with aid from a friend as I have, but never totally on their own without the support of some sort of safety net. My hope is that the following novice perspective will provide some insight as to what you are missing and why traveling internationally on your own is important…
Growing up, my extended family and family friends (around forty to fifty people) took an annual vacation to Santa Cruz, California every first week of August. The tradition started with my grandparents almost sixty (yes, I said SIXTY) years ago and has happened every year since then. It’s hard even for me to imagine how my grandparents and their friends have provided that much consistency and foundation for their children, their grandchildren, and now their great grandchildren. I feel very fortunate to have grown up with that level of tradition in my life, but that one trip each year really has been the extent of my travel experience as a child. International travel was never in the cards for my family so this trip has really opened my eyes and caused me to reflect upon what I keep calling “my past life” in the United States.
A Broader Perspective
So there I was at the ticket counter at the Yangshou bus station in mainland China. The day before, a fellow English-speaking traveler told us we could get a bus directly to the train station in Guilin which was where we needed to be in order to catch our overnight train to Zhangjiajie (that connected through Liuzhou). Confused yet? Good. So was the Chinese woman behind the ticket counter in Yangshou because that ticket did not seem to exist and she didn’t speak a word of English. In order to get out of town and catch our train, I had to go through this woman. As I stood there using hand gestures and trying to muster what little Chinese I knew from our research, the line of impatient locals grew behind us and the woman yelled at us to go away. As I walked away from the counter defeated (in the rain with thirty pounds of backpacking gear), a local police officer who witnessed the scene walked over to us and tried to help me by using the very little English he knew. He also used hand gestures and managed to help translate to get us to where we needed to go.
I tell this story (as opposed to any one of the dozen stories I have had like this recently) because it is an easy scenario for anyone back home to understand. I’m well educated and articulate, but somehow I managed to piss off a group of impatient locals as I tried to speak their language while I used small words and hand gestures. I must have looked like I had half a brain as I laughed nervously in between failed communication attempts. And after all of that effort, it was the generosity of a local police officer who barely spoke my language that changed the course of our whole travel day
Now, in the days to follow, I honestly had one thought in the back of my mind: I realized that while going through these day to day communication struggles, all I was trying to do was sight-see and travel for my own personal enjoyment. I wasn’t trying to find work in China or make a better life for myself by leaving my native country. While I did have all of my belongings in my backpack, I could easily throw it on the ground, grab my passport, and catch the next first class flight home with the clothes I had on that day.
I guess the point is that travel on my own has given me a broader perspective of other people’s point of view. In the train station that day, I experienced what tourists or immigrants may feel in our country, which was more influential than any other experience or lesson I had in my high school or college education. It has allowed me to walk at least half a mile in someone else’s shoes. Furthermore, the generosity of the man who helped me find my way in the bus station makes me appreciate and value his time. Whenever I return home, I imagine I will be more patient and less frustrated by language barriers because I know what it’s like to try navigate a culture that is totally foreign to me.
International travel, in my opinion, is worth it. I’m a more cultured and patient person as a result of my experience thus far. So if you haven’t traveled and been outside of your comfort zone of a half full DVR, a fridge full of food, and knowing how to catch a local bus like yours truly, then do it. It’s worth it.