Six weeks ago I left on a journey. While my intention was to spend the whole time in India, I listened to my gut when after three weeks, it felt like that leg of the trip was over. My friends in Italy welcomed me with open arms, and gave me respite to process everything I’d seen and done. And then a quick visit with family in London prepared me to come back to the real world, my life at home.
I’ve been reminded that travel is essential to human understanding. It doesn’t have to mean taking a trip to a foreign country. It could simply mean driving to a neighboring town or visiting a church that isn’t your own. You’ll be surprised. Just veering slightly from your daily routine by exploring different gas stations and grocery stores can provide the opportunity to open your mind.
Some other things I’ve learned or have been reminded of along the way:
In general, people are the same wherever you go. They want good jobs and fair wages, safety and health for their family and friends. They have dreams, big and small. And despite our current administration, people around the world still have hope and love for America. So ask people questions, truly listen to them, and you’ll find you have more in common than you can imagine. Case in point, the doctor whom I saw in Agra for my dysentery has a daughter who lives a few miles from me!
You may not be able to make it better but you can always make it worse. Spending time in a developing nation can give those of us who won the birth lottery all kinds of ideas about how things could be done better there. It’s easy to look at good hygiene, for instance, as a no-brainer. But when a country has had decades, or centuries, of culturally accepted behaviors, its going to take a lot more than a middle aged white lady with a big mouth to change things. Be respectful and hear all sides of a story before sharing any thoughts.
Take only what you need, everything else will be provided. I can’t tell you the number of packing lists for India I read online. I can, however, tell you that half of the things I packed, I didn’t need. Yes, its important to feel comfortable… I packed my just-in-case medicines, I brought an old Valentine’s Day card from my husband to remind me of home, and I used my travel yoga mat almost every day. What I didn’t need was the mosquito net, water purifying tablets, water filter, multiple pair of sandals, permethrin treated clothes, and sun hat. Consider the season – is it winter? Do you need 10 travel size DEET dispensers or just one? Are you staying in a hotel or hostel or homestay? Do you get a sunburn when its only 70 degrees? Not having a particular item can also encourage you to get friendly with your neighbors and fellow travelers. Or in my case, when I arrived in Europe to an arctic storm wearing tennies and linen pants, I got to take advantage of 70% off winter sales.
Pet peeves don’t disappear when traveling. Here are a few of my least favorite: People talking on phones or having the volume up in quiet or small spaces like museums, art galleries, planes – unless you’re an on-call doctor, turn it down or off even if you’re old and hard of hearing. Many cultures find it acceptable to cough without covering their mouths, blow snot out of their nose while they’re walking next to you, or chomp on their gum, lips smacking, while talking to you. Bottom line? Annoying people are annoying everywhere. And finally, the bathrooms in airports and public spaces say a lot about a state or country, so pay close attention to your first introduction.
So now that I’m home, what happens next?
My previous career already seems like a lifetime ago. Last year, in the past. Now I’ll focus on writing projects that I’ve put on the back burner for years. I’ll try and make some new friends out here, strengthen my other relationships, and stay healthy.
Its tough to keep the fear at bay, though… the catastrophizing that comes along with taking risk and not knowing the future. But isn’t that always true? We can’t predict what will happen but we know that some things will never happen if we don’t act. Now. Life is short. It feels more like a clock is ticking now, I’m halfway through my life already. And beyond having the people I love know that I love them, I want to come to the end of my days and know I made an impact, that I have ‘done love‘ as Jennifer Pastiloff says, that I created something that resonated.
So. To fresh starts and new beginnings. Onwards and upwards!