Four Life Lessons Traveling Taught Me

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Mark and his Duplo plane, Ottawa, April 2016

Mark and his Duplo plane, Ottawa, April 2016

Traveling isn’t just about drinking cheap beer, escaping cold weather and sunbathing on the world’s best beaches—there is an intellectual component to it as well. Indeed, if you explore new grounds beyond the safe boundaries of an all-inclusive resort, you will come to a few conclusions.

I certainly did.

Reading the Little Red Book and Marx’s Das Kapital fueled my ideological and rebellious teenage years but backpacking and immigrating to Canada shaped my current life philosophy.

Here are four life lessons I learned on the road.

Globalisation can be a wonderful thing

Globalisation is often portrayed as this sinister force that exploits the poor, makes the rich richer, deepens inequalities and is responsible for all evils today. It is true that it does have many negative impacts worldwide. Philosophically speaking, I wish we hadn’t become disillusioned modern-day slaves to the market, productivity and economic growth. Cynical shrugs from the 1% just rub salt in the ideological wound.

After all, I did spend my teenager years shouting anti-capitalism slogans and cheering every time a McDonald’s restaurant was dismantled (yes, this was a trend in the late 1990s).

But globalization is here to stay, it’s not something you can fight easily, although I do hope we can tweak it to be more compassionate, more human.

The impact of globalization is obvious to travelers. Franchises that stand at your street’s corner may greet you upon landing thousands of kilometres away, sought-after brands gained a foothold on all continents and I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t find a can of Coke. You can jump in a taxi in Kuala Lumpur and hear Justin Bieber’s latest hit song, shop at Carrefour in Buenos Aires, buy Chinese candies in Sydney.

And you know what? Sometime, as a traveler, it’s freaking awesome.

Maybe this is a selfish narrow-minded perspective, but there is something deeply comforting about the way we are all connected through common trends, blockbuster movies, pop tunes and shopping habits. It’s convenient too—I dare you to find a backpacker who hasn’t walked into a McDonald’s or a Starbucks abroad, just for the sake of enjoying something blandly familiar.

Globalization allows you to find modern conveniences in remote or poorer places. I’m happy to drink safe bottled water in China, I’m glad to see modern bathrooms in Guatemala, I understand why people around the world study English, the de facto lingua franca.

Beside, it’s funny to notice that whatever globalization exports is still different from one country to another. For instance, each big fast-food joint has local menu items: in China, you can have 油条 at MacDonald’s and Brazilian Starbucks offer brigadeiro-flavoured Frappuccinos. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Def Leppard’s songs interpreted in a Chinese karaoke!

“Exotic” food can be surprisingly familiar

Every country, every region has unique delicacies and specialties, but after traveling in several places, you start noticing a pattern. Indeed, we all crave sugar, we all eat carbs, we all cook the same veggies, fry the same stuff. Super exotic specialties with completely unknown ingredients are rare.

For instance, Chinese dumplings “jiaozi” are very similar to Japanese gyoza, to Polish pierogis and to Italian raviolis. Variants of empanadas (dough with stuffing) can be found throughout Central and South America and they are after all very close to some savoury Asian pastries, these bread rolls stuffed with ham, cheese, minced meat or onion. Rice is a staple food for half of the planet—the other half probably eats noodles or pasta. Many countries eat cheese, from the heavily processed Kraft kind in North America to half-rotten wedges of roquefort in France.

Next time you’re perusing a menu in a restaurant abroad, pause and analyze the various dishes. Yes, they are many unique ingredients, but you are likely to spot a few specialties that will feel very familiar!

The world isn’t such a bad place

I’m one of these Rousseau disciples who believes that human beings are naturally good and that we were perverted by society. I’m happy to report that by and large, my experiences traveling the world support this philosophy.

Despite newspaper headlines, I don’t think we should waste too much energy on fear of getting kidnapped, raped, mugged, killed, scammed or beaten everywhere we go. From what I observed in our travels, most people just mind their own business, they want to live their life, make money, take care of their loved ones, have fun once in a while. We aren’t that complicated, really.

There are bad people in this world—just not as many as we fear.

I’m not saying you should be completely careless; common-sense prevails. But learn to trust people cautiously. Don’t assume the worse, don’t shut everybody out and be a decent person yourself. You’ll be surprised how much easier life is. Yes, it could be as simple as that.

Being a visible minority is a humbling experience

I remember my first reaction when I stepped inside Beijing’s Airport in 1999: “wow, everybody is Chinese!” Well, duh—airhead moment. But I was 16 and for the first time ever, I was a visible minority. I was white and everybody was Asian. I was taller than most women, bigger too and I could most definitely not “pass for” Chinese. I stood out. And for the first time, I realize it must be how visible minorities feel.

You notice the stares, everywhere you go you are aware that you are sticking out, no face looks like yours. Clothes don’t fit you well, products aren’t adapted to your hair, your skin. You aren’t represented in commercials, ads or in the media. You will hear a few hostile comments uttered on the sole basis of your “minority” status (at least I did, this is the downside of speaking Mandarin…).

Of course, my short-term anecdotal minority experience can’t be compared to a lifetime of being a minority. I am not a Black woman in the Deep South, I am not an Indian man in Australia, I am not an Algerian kid in France, “minorities” who can face challenges, including discrimination, on a daily basis. Still, it was an humbling experience for me.

Added learning experience: not that I needed proof, but it goes without saying that I think racial bias and discrimination are just dumb. We are all beautifully different.

How about you? What lesson did traveling teach you?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

12 Comments

  1. Great lessons 🙂
    I learned that I have no sense of orientation, and that even though things sometimes go wrong (like my credit card being blocked when I have 2 euros left in cash, or the time I stepped of the ferry at the wrong stop) but things always sort themselves out.
    And while I agree that most people are good, as woman travelling alone I have had my fair share of “scares” and sadly I always feel the need to put my safety first

    • I would love to hear the full story on the credit card being blocked and getting off at the wrong stop (especially traveling on a ferry!)

      I am being careful, both as a traveler and as a woman, but I can’t say I’ve felt threaten or scared… not more than at home, anyway.

      • I’ll have to write about those sometimes lol it’s quite funny with hindsight
        And for some reason I seem to attract weirdos, whether at home or travelling. And because you are more vulnerable travelling (not knowing the way of the land) I guess I have felt more threatened?

        • Oh, I totally get this. Sometime I did freak out a bit, in the heat of the moment, but objectively I think the situation was fine. It’s hard to read them sometime abroad, the clues are different.

  2. I haven’t travelled as much you have, but I have traveled a bit, for work.

    People are awesome, barring 1%

    Do not, DO NOT go looking for Indian cuisine if you are, let’s say in Tokyo

    Always, learn atleast some phrases in the common tongue. It is so appreciated.

    I could go on 🙂

    • Do go on, I’m listening! 🙂 Your experience is very interesting to me because we have different backgrounds and explore different parts of the world.

      So… Indian cuisine doesn’t export well in Tokyo? 😉 I had Indian food in Ottawa (good and bad), in Perth Australia (good) and in the UK (very good but I suspect there was a British twist to it). Oh, and once in France… pricey and bland.

      • 🙂 I think Indian cuisine might have been doing very well, it’s just that I don’t see a point of adventure in that, I was in Tokyo and I’d rather have Sushi, and Sake and perhaps Soba noodles.

        Do you know, my wife and I have been to only one Indian restaurant, independently, since we have been to Ottawa. Another time we went with friends, they wanted to know what we thought of the Indian food over there, as a scale to mark authenticity 🙂

        • Good point. I tend to favour local specialties as well, unless I’ve been traveling for a while and crave something familiar.

          In Ottawa, Lights of India (in the Glebe, on Bank Street) used to be really good and quite popular. I haven’t been in years though. There is a small hole-in-the-wall as well on Merivale that gets good reviews. I didn’t have a great experience with the few Indian places around the Byward Market, but the area is a bit overpriced and so-so in my opinion.

  3. Traveling to countries where I did not know the language made me realize how difficult it must be to live in a country where you are not comfortable in the language. Now I also regularly think about what it’s like to be a tourist here—for example, when I am on the subway and an announcement is so garbled that I can hardly understand it, I think, how would a tourist who doesn’t speak English have any idea what was said?

    Traveling has also made me realize that people or events that everyone knows about in one country may have little importance in another. Like a revered sports star or a holiday like Thanksgiving. It makes everything seem less important, in a good way. It’s why when I am in a group of young Americans who have all watched a viral video that I haven’t, I don’t feel pressure to go watch it.

    • Both points are very true!

      Medias’ focus is so different from a region of the world to another, I noticed that as well. When we were in South America, we rarely heard about terrorism for instance, and I think I still can’t realize how affected Europe was with the latest attacks because, well, I’m not there.

  4. I learned how to hoard my change in Argentina, but besides that, during my travels, I learned that there are so many things that I take for granted at home: like a relatively stable economy (i.e. I don’t have to worry that bread might cost me half my paycheque tomorrow), hot running water, clean washrooms with a toilet (I still haven’t got the peeing-into-a-hole thing down) and a home free of cockroaches the size of my computer mouse. Travelling always makes me have that Dorothy moment: there really is no place like home 🙂

  5. Ça me fascine ce que tu dis, je m’étais jamais posée tant de questions sur la nourriture ! Et je plussoie, Starbucks, la boulangerie Paul et ce genre de choses ont un côté extrêmement réconfortant. Cela demande bcp d’humilité et de lâcher prise pour apprécier un endroit où tout est absolument nouveau : du langage aux publicités en passant par les odeurs, les postures et les paysages bien sur. Je n’arrive pas à savoir ce que voyager a pu m’apprendre, si ce n’est que j’aurais sûrement aimer être agent de voyage (j’adore toute la partie planification) et qu’on commence généralement un road trip en mangeant des sandwiches et qu’on le finit en suppliant pr qq légumes ! 🙂

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