“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Girl in Peru herding sheep when she should be in school!
I am sorry to start this week at the end, but this is my last column in The Royal Gazette.
Why? I am told it is costs, so now your Bermudian wanderer will be found on her website www.robynswanderings.com.
For my last column, I thought I would leave you with some lessons I have learned from my endless traveling that began before I could walk.
I recently had the chance to completely embarrass two of my cousins at their school with a presentation on this very topic and how it relates to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are eleven goals the UN declared the world should be working towards.
These are good, vague goals such as empowering women and ending child mortality, however, the problem with many of these goals, is that they are based on very Western notions of “right” and fail to consider a family’s financial and cultural position.
So I introduced the 200 bored students to a six or seven-year-old girl I met while biking through the Peruvian countryside. She should be in school, but instead her family needs her herding sheep through the fields to survive. Luckily me and these sleeping students have gone to or are going to school so, we have choices.
Which is ironic when we come to my first lesson for you today and to these students: never let studying get in the way of learning! I have lived in New York, Florence, Rome, Arcachon, Istanbul, Prague and London. I traveled around India and Sri Lanka for three months in 2003 and in 2009 I took my longest expedition yet: 23 countries in 12 months.
And during these years, I also finished college with a double major, completed a masters in International Relations and a Journalist degree from the National Council for the Training of Journalists in Newcastle, England.
My studying was never sacrificed for my travels…..it became part of it. Florence was a semester abroad, London was too and New York was the base for my Masters degree.
Study in London? why not!
Travel, unfortunately, is too often seen as separate from “real” life or an escape from it, superfluous and indulgent. But travel, living or studying abroad should be seen as a requirement and valued because how can you feel compassionate about eradicating poverty if you have never actually seen poverty? How can you understand the complexity surround the MDG that states we should ensure primary education for children, if you haven’t seen my little sheep herder? Travel makes these situations a reality.
Travel will also teach you strength! There are really two types of strength: an inner strength that I learned while I was sitting with my head in a toilet in Egypt thanks to a salad!
Recovered from food poisoning and ready to take-on the world!
As I wished that I could die, or at the very least go back home to my mom, something inside me changed and I decided that I had to keep going. Two days later I visited the Pyramids and I got through the food poisoning.The second type of strength? Seriously,…do you know how heavy a 20 kilo backpack can get? I didn’t think so. Do you know how those 20 kilos feel when you have to walk a mile to leave a Greek ferry terminal and find your hotel?
For my third lesson, I draw directly from the MDG’s: the promotion of gender equality and empowering women. Sure, in Bermuda we have some work toward empowering women, but as I found myself traveling solo around the world, I also started recognizing how much being a woman truly mattered.
I began my travels with a travel buddy, but we separated in India so I found myself traveling solo throughout Southeast Asia and South America. At first I was scared and then I realized the world was not as scary for a single woman as I thought; it was easier for a single woman to find friends to travel with than a single man. Women are less scary.
But I also realized how much my safety was up in the air when I was on the back of a motorbike to go to a boxing lesson in Thailand and the driver went a separate way from the friend I was going with. I made him stop, I got off and I walked back to my hostel.
You learn that women in certain areas of the world have to be dressed from head to foot and if you are a woman in these countries, men will not speak directly to you. Empowering women is given a global perspective when you travel.
My lesson four came with some difficulty for me. I am a runner. It’s my stress release and conditioning, but when I began traveling I wasn’t able to run, so I had to find other ways to exercise, like hiking for five days through Patagonia, Chile!
Hiking through Patagonia (notice the famous towers behind me!)
Where am I going with this? Well I am telling you that travel will teach you in many ways, that you have to roll with what you have. Sure, initially I got annoyed at the lack of running, but then I found ways to supplement it by riding a bike through Vietnam or boxing in Thailand and walking….everywhere. I also realized that only foreigners were the ones working-out. The locals were like the teenagers in Battambong, Cambodia waiting opposite the restaurant I was eating in for scraps and it started to put some things in perspective.
Which brings me to lesson five and appearances. The more you travel the less you care and I don’t mean, not keeping yourself clean.
Well, unless you’re in the middle of the woods in Patagonia and the closest warm shower is not the glacier you sleep next to! Believe me, five days of dirt is better than an ice shower!
What I mean is that it does not matter is if you are wearing “Seven” jeans or Miu Miu dress or carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. Instead, you start to look at people as people. You start to understand how little other countries have and how that $1,000 bag is a year’s work for some families.
Sleeping next to a glacier? Probably not going to shower there!
And you start to learn my lesson number six: trust. Like I trusted a Laotian man who walked onto our overnight bus and told me and my Californian travel buddy that he knew we were going to the 4,000 islands and we were to follow him. We did and we had the easiest commute to these Laos-Cambodia border islands of any travelers we met.
Before you trust everyone, however, my lesson seven is as you travel you learn there is a balance to trusting and trusting your instincts.
Like the time I was in Varanasi, India and my travel buddy decided we should take the offer of guidance from an Indian boy to a hotel.
Varanasi sits on the holiest river perhaps anywhere, the Ganges. It is also an auspicious town where you are forever blessed if you die there because your body will be cremated on the ghats and sent back to its maker in the Ganges.
With this background, we were led, to my reluctance, by my travel buddy’s trust into a tiny hole in the wall where we were shown scarves and drugs, not a hotel.
I was out of the hole in the wall in a shot, marching far away from a situation that I knew would only go badly for us.
It’s a fine line, trust, that becomes trickier when you travel and you are trying to understand a new culture without insulting everyone you meet by running away.
Which brings me to lesson eight: do not fear different cultures. For this lesson I have to warn you against my kind, journalists, as well as, politicians (though I am definitely not the later). Often, minor conflicts in countries or strikes become national tragedies with a stroke of a pen.
Example? The Iraq War. I could have listened to George W. Bush when he lampooned almost every Muslim country in the world and launched an attack on Iraq, but I didn’t.
I moved to Istanbul, Turkey at the beginning of the war and was met my some of the kindest people I have ever met. The sky is pierced by minarets where the call to prayer echoes five times a day and the people on the ground will stop you on the street just to speak to you out of interest.
I am proud to be a Bermudian, too, but I also learned from travel not to be too proud to appreciate and try to learn from other cultures. These are sometimes frustrating differences, but they make life interesting!
Rome is not Rome until you live there
And the best way to understand is lesson nine: living in another country. Rome is not Rome until you try and run errands on your lunch hour. While the tourist areas of the city will remain open all day, where I worked was traditional and a siesta in the afternoon was the norm. So, study abroad (and my column on how to do that is on my website www.robynswanderings.com) and/or get your TEFL certificate and teach English and make money while you live abroad! What could be better?
And finally, let’s be honest: travel teaches you how truly beautiful the world really is. From the lush green tea plantations in Sri Lanka, to the highest capital in the world where women wrestle, La Paz, Bolivia, or the best steak you will ever eat in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a bone church outside of Prague in the Czech Republic or floating in the dead sea in Jordan, the world is a weird and wonderful place that you should not squander.
Tango in Buenos Aires!
We are really lucky we can travel to see all of this beauty. Many people will never be allowed to leave their countries. So, do not waste your time on this lovely planet, working or reading this column – get traveling! I will be on www.robynswanderings.com from now on.