No matter where I travel to, from rural villages in Thailand to picturesque mountain-towns in Switzerland to laid-back islands like Aruba, I always seem to make some philosophical and personal revelations about travel, life, and myself. Here are some of my top lessons learned from other cultures and places during my travels.
A simple drum beat is all it takes to bring a group of people together. When volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana, it always amazed me how the kids could be kicking the crap out of each other one second and then, as soon as the music came on, dancing together like best friends. And it wasn’t just the children; the entire country seems to be nothing but happy and carefree as soon a good drum rhythm can be heard. By the end of my stay, whenever I was in my room and heard music coming from the orphanage I couldn’t resist running over to join in on the fun.
Okay, so I learned a lot in Ghana. In fact, I could probably have made this “14 Things I Learned in Ghana.” I’m going to just stick one more lesson in here and say just because a culture has less resources than yours does not make your culture “better”. Coming from America and working with others who were also from The States, I found that there was a common negative perception about Ghana because it was a poorer, more rural country. Working in an orphanage, there was also an idea many had about needing to “save” the children and transport them to other countries. How sad would that be, though, to take the future of Ghana out of Ghana? While many of the people live simply, most of them are still quite happy and enjoy dressing in traditional clothing, eating fufu and banku, playing drums, attending church, and participating in Ghanian traditions and customs. No other culture is better; it’s just different.
A peaceful mind is your greatest asset. When visiting Thailand I learned a lot about the Buddhist way of thinking and saw how happy the people were, even those who economically had very little. I became so enthralled with Buddhism that when I returned home I began attending classes at a local center in New York. Click here to read more about this spiritual journey.
Giving and helping others is priceless. When I traveled through China I skipped the popular cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing and instead trekked my way through rural villages in southern China. There were countless times when the generosity of these people, many of whom had practically nothing, brought me to really reconsider my own altruism. For example, while hiking through the Longji Rice Terraces I noticed many minority woman working in the fields. Around lunch time, one of these women actually invited me into her home and literally picked me lunch from her crops. She barely owned a single possession, yet she was willing to share what little she did have with an American girl who, monetarily speaking, had more than her. Another time when I was hiking, a woman invited me in for tea and to chat (Luckily, I was with someone who spoke fluent Chinese as I could only make small talk). I noticed the woman was a bit crippled and had a very severe hunchback, leaning over as if she were a table. After our visit my friend and I began making our way down a giant hill to return to our guesthouse, when all of a sudden a screaming woman came sprinting down the hill. Apparently I had forgotten my umbrella, and this hobbling old woman cared enough to return it to me! She seemed overjoyed that she had caught up with me, and I couldn’t help but feel grateful yet sad that now she would need to painfully make her way back up the hill. She didn’t seem to mind at all.
Doing adventurous things can help you realize you’re capable of more than you thought. Before visiting Cairns I never believed I would be able to conquer my fear of heights, and to be honest, that didn’t bother me in the slightest. However, when my friends made my join them in trying the adventurous offerings of the city, like bungy jumping at AJ Hacket Tower, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, skydiving, and cliff diving, I realized that there was so much out there I was missing out on. While I’m still terrified of heights, it no longer stops me from trying new things and saying “yes” to daring adventures.
A carefree spirit is a good look on anybody. While visiting Aruba, I was amazed at how laid back and at ease the locals seemed to be. Of course, they are living on a gorgeous island where the weather rarely drops below 80°F, but I still think there’s a lesson to be learned. As an anxious New Yorker, I envied these people, who didn’t seem to let anything worry them and always wore friendly smiles and always made time to enjoy life. Whenever I’m feeling stressed, I try to mentally transport myself back there and think about how life is too short to be anything but happy.
Foods do not taste the same in other countries, and that’s a good thing. So you think you’ve had good pesto? Unless you’ve been to the Cinque Terre, you have not. Because of the area’s location on the coast, the sauce contains a more flavorful, basil taste, and now that I’ve tried it, pesto in New York just doesn’t taste the same. I also felt this way about omelets in Thailand, pizza in Naples, sausage in Germany, and Swiss Cheese – which I usually hate – in Switzerland.
Not everyone who acts like they’re trying to help you is really looking out for your best interests. When I was in Naples I was attempting to board a bus to find my hostel. While I knew exactly which bus I had to take and which stop to get off at, I wasn’t exactly positive how to purchase a ticket. The bus pulled up and I pulled out a 10 Euro bill and showed it to the bus driver, who beckoned me onto the bus with a smile and a nod. Moments later, I found myself holding a citation for about $100 U.S. dollars and a warning that if I didn’t pay up the police would be called. When I finally made it the hostel, upset, angry, and $100 poorer, they told me that it was a common trick the bus drivers pulled on tourists. Click here to read more about this rough experience.
One man’s snack is another man’s fortune. Okay, so I’m aware there are different types of mushrooms, and that a truffle is not your average shroom; however, I almost fell off my chair when visiting an organic wine and balsamic farm in Chianti when learning just how valuable this plant could be. Apparently, the owner had a special truffle hunting dog that he went out with at 3AM (so nobody knew where he got his beloved truffles) to find the most amazing truffles to make into oil. He actually was paid $30,000 for one truffle…and that’s not even that much for this type of thing. Now, whenever I eat truffle oil, I make sure to really savor the flavors and think about how valuable my meal is.
Simple living is a breath of fresh air. Literally, not only is the air cleaner is these small cities, it can really slow down your heart rate and make it easy to relax. Instead of investing in an expensive spa treatment next time you need to calm down, try visiting the small mountain village of Gimmelwald, located high in the Swiss Alps with nothing to do besides hike, buy eggs and cheese from Erica, “the cheese lady”, and drink bottles of delicious Swiss wine while staring out upon mountains so picturesque they look like a Bob Ross masterpiece.
Eating small plates of various foods is a lot more satisfying than having one big meal. While this can be said about all of Spain, Tarifa happened to be my favorite city for indulging in Tapas touring. Why only have spicy meatballs, sweet seafood salad, or savory croquettes when you can have a little of each? I now try to do this when I make meals at home and, not only are my taste buds happier, I’m less likely to be left wanting more.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. I’ve been to Barcelona multiple times, and on each visit I can’t stay away from the inspiring architecture of Antonio Gaudi. It’s truly inspirational how this man wasn’t afraid to go against mainstream ways of thinking and use his creativity to come up with new, innovative ideas. Now, his buildings and park are world renowned and an iconic part of Barcelona.
When traveling, realize you shouldn’t just be learning about the culture you’re in from locals, but also sharing the culture you’re from with them, as well. When in the tiny, Rhine River town of Bacharach, I stopped for gelato at Eiscafe Italia 76 for some of their famous Riesing Gelato. The area isn’t exactly touristy, and the shop owner was so excited to have a foreign visitor that he sat down with me while I ate and asked me myriad questions about America and New York. In response, I also inquired about life on the Rhine. By the end, I felt like I had made a very fair and worthwhile transaction (and I had).
Some of the most important lessons you’ll learn on your travels will come from a place of darkness. When visiting Munich, I took a day trip to Dachau Concentration Camp, a place with an extremely disturbing history of death and torture. While the visit wasn’t exactly easy, I definitely felt good about my decision to visit the site. I learned so much about history, social pressure, and psychology in relation to the Holocaust as well as received a lot of information that I had not known before, like that big companies like BMW and Porsche had an idea of what was going on in the concentration camps but for commerce reasons had to support the Nazis (Hugo Boss actually made their uniforms!). Moreover, prisoners weren’t treated as individuals but as a group, meaning if one person didn’t make their bed another inmate could get tortured for it, giving the Nazis mental control. While horrifying, it’s important to learn about sites like these to move to place of goodwill towards men on Earth and stop events like this from ever happening again.
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