Travel has been known to change lives. In books like Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, a personal journey is possible only by physically getting away and discovering the world. Travel can be the catalyst that changes your life forever.
There’s no guarantee travel will change your life. I love to travel, but I didn’t come back from Japan a Zen monk, I didn’t return from Cuba a salsa dancer, and I didn’t convert to Islam in Morocco.
What travel did, is help me see myself differently.
I see how wealthy I am
The first time I saw someone living in a shack, it scared the heck out of me. It was my first time in Thailand, and it looked like something out of a movie. It didn’t seem real. I was used to people living in houses, not shacks.
To me, it looked to me like the Thai people had nothing, and that made me feel self-conscious. I hadn’t realized there was such a difference between a developed and an undeveloped country until I saw it with my own eyes.
My way of living suddenly seemed unbelievably excessive. I had never thought of myself as a “rich” person, but compared to what I saw around me, I came from a pristine utopia.
I returned home, with a new view of my standard of living in the world, and a new appreciation for my wealth I didn’t know I had.
I see how I took speaking English for granted
Speaking English is something I take for granted big time. I didn’t meet many English-speakers traveling through Japan, and struggling with hand signals and body language to communicate was incredibly frustrating.
Not being able to communicate in the local language was difficult and embarrassing.
In my own country I’ve seen people get frustrated to the point of anger when dealing with a foreigner who doesn’t speak English fluently. It always makes me cringe, because I remember how patient people were with me, and how they tried to help me, despite my terrible language skills.
Before I traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t realize how difficult it was. Now that I have, I’m more considerate with people who don’t speak English. Now instead of seeing it as an inconvenience, I see myself as someone who’s giving them an opportunity for practice and encouragement.
I see my nationality as part of myself
The things I took for granted living in Canada, are things that make it unique: forests, outdoor sports, four seasons, and small towns. It was hard to see these as anything other than “normal”, but once I traveled outside Canada, my perspective changed.
When other travelers would ask me “What is your country like?” the answer was (and still is) difficult. I didn’t know where to start, or what someone who’s never been to Canada would want to know.
Now that I’ve traveled outside Canada, it’s easier to picture seeing it through new eyes. I can see how Canada is different from other countries and I know what makes it unique. I can see how Canadian people are different from other people, and that my “normal” isn’t normal for everyone.
I’ve put my identity into perspective and I can see myself not just as a person, but as a Canadian person.
I know how important I can be in someone’s life
When I was teaching English at a children’s school in Japan, I was an authority figure, a teacher, and an ambassador for the English language itself. While I was doing the job, it was hard to see past the games, the misbehaving, and the frantically trying to fit everything into a one-hour lesson.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem like the most important part of my job was to teach English after all. I was there to teach students about myself, about foreign people.
Maybe after talking with me, they pwon’t be intimidated by foreign people, maybe they won’t dislike our differences, and maybe they’ll even try speaking English.
At the time it seemed like living and working in a foreign country was making a difference in my own life. Looking back, I think (and hope) that I made more of a difference in the lives of my students. I see myself as someone who can change lives, even if that’s not in my job description.
I see how much potential I have
Living in a developed country, it’s easy to forget how many advantages I have. It seems like everyone’s got a university degree, everyone’s got a bank account, and everyone can get a loan if they need money.
If I didn’t get a job working for a company, I could open my own business. I thought I had a pretty good idea what it would be like to start my own business from nothing, but I didn’t really understand what “nothing” was until I traveled to Zambia.
When I think about my home country – with help available to business owners, groups that support entrepreneurs, and banks that provide loans for small businesses – I have a renewed respect the Zambian entrepreneurs. They’re making a living without any of these resources.
In Zambia I saw entrepreneurs with no money going out and making it, by pitching ideas and talking to people.
Now when I think about myself, I can see how many advantages I have: education, finances, and a support network. I already have more than the African business owners, and they’re making more with nothing than I am with something.
Travel may not have changed my life the way it does in an inspiring memoir, but it changed the way I see myself: my opportunities, my national identity, my impact on the world.
I believe it changed me for the better.
I’m still traveling, still finding my place in the world. The more I change, the closer I’ll be to finding it.
How has travel changed you?
Photo by Mario Mancuso