Life Lessons from Time Spent Circling the Globe
Physically making your way around the Earth these days obviously isn't the monumental accomplishment of centuries past, although for many, it is merely a fantasy. If you have the money and the passport, you could do it rather quickly. However, spending months out in multiple countries and continents on a tight budget is an experience that should teach or reinforce several powerful human qualities.
Being out in the world, if you're not an idiot, teaches one of travel's primary lessons - you are a very small part of a very big place that has a history and diversity that you may never fully comprehend. As a foreigner, you hopefully learn very quickly that life does not always go as you believe it should. There are barriers, injustices, and fundamental differences. Certainly this scares a lot of people out of never venturing out, but if you stick it out, you learn that there is a whole intricate world that will function with or without you.
You can have the best travel plan, but if you are out in strange lands long enough, something will go wrong... or just not as you had intended. Travel is all about experiencing new things, and one of which is that you are not always in control. It could be that a storm cancelled your ferry or perhaps a restaurant closed for a private event; there are so many variables out there that you begin to learn that an unforeseen option is sometimes crucially better than what you had in mind in the first place.
As a child you were likely taught to wait your turn and to be polite. There are a lot of places in this world where (unfortunately) those are seen as weeknesses or maybe just not as highly prized. People in some other places don't do lines (or queues, not the drug reference). I can't count the number of times someone stepped ahead of me to get a ticket or a sandwich. Not to advise one eschew all manners of polite society to look out for number one, but often in other countries you have to be a more active participant in securing your desired destiny. Just watch your pockets, and don't forget to smile.
Remember how I told you things may go wrong? For every misfortune or bad actor out there, there is some local who will surprise you with a favor that you had no right to expect. I have had families in the Philippines feed and house me for a night, and I had a restaurant owner treat me to a multi-course meal and wine in Barolo, Italy. I could write a book on the kindnesses of strangers while traveling. You were probably also taught as a child that you should be kind, but world travel instills in you why you owe it.
Try showing up to the train station just one minute too late in some circumstances, and you may actually experience true regret. You are dependent on so much while traveling that being late can really, really ruin a day (or more). Of course, if you are in the Philippines, you may have more of a cushion (we'll discuss "Filipino time" another day), but in other places time is not so forgiving; tardiness can cost you a lot of money or some great opportunities.
More than the ability to change plans on the fly, being the foreigner requires the mental fortitude to accept different ways of approaching life. Immersing yourself in a culture, you will open your mind to realization that people have different traditions, expectations, values, and histories. The distinction between right and wrong or what is appropriate may have shifted, and you will have to adjust. In the end you don't have to betray your conscience, but rather gain an understanding and appreciation for disparate points of view.
One question I get asked a lot is, "where are you traveling next?" To the questioner, you may just be checking off boxes on your bucket list, but a true world traveler comes to realize that each new discovery brings answers, yet further questions emerge. Even revisiting the same destination can continue to be revealing if you have the curiosity to seek new truths. A journey with a curious mind is an exploration.
There's a lot of waiting in travel, even from day one getting through the airport. You will be tested. If assertiveness gets you what you want, patience is the virtue that allows you to measure the value of what you want. There are only so many Instagrammable moments in travel; the rest is what is required to get you the opportunities.
My earliest international travel was to Mexico, and one of my first lessons seeing poverty for the first time was that not everybody has what I have. Driving through the city in India, I saw families sleeping on the center divider between traffic. In Manila, I have seen children picking through garbage for rotting foods. Unfortunately, this planet has millions of people who do not even have basic needs met. Many face loss and deprivation that is impossible to fathom. Seeing this as a traveler makes you appreciate what you have. Realizing there may be nothing you can do to change it makes you appreciate that life does have the capacity to endure. On the other hand, discovering you can actually act and participate in good in the world lets you truly appreciate the concept of hope.
People find purpose in other people and some greater good. Certainly you can do that in your own neighborhood, and you don't need to commit to a year living out of your backpack to find it. However, in this seemingly ever-increasingly self-centered world, it is often difficult to hear your true calling amidst a routine that tends to take a life of its own. On my first international disaster response in Peru with what is now All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response
, I used my last day to document the real devastation
of the horrible earthquake that brought us there, and then I cooked an Italian dinner
for my fellow volunteers back at base - about seventy very hungry young workers. I have fed people professionally since 1993, but this moment was an opening to the possibilities of feeding people as a means to recovery or development aid. Two years later, I urged my own chef Jose Andres to go feed people in Haiti after their earthquake, and he went on to found World Central Kitchen
, that does primarily what I had imagined. I later volunteered with them briefly in Puerto Rico and Indonesia, but have turned my focus to reaching out in other ways, mainly in the Philippines. World travel helps bring the "how" to your "why."