Friday, September 21, 2012

The Thirtieth Tale: Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist

Recently, my friend Kate asked me to contribute some quotes or my thoughts on traveling in order to help her give a presentation to a group of high school kids about traveling.  She informed me that most of the kids have never been outside Missouri, and she is trying to stimulate their interest in traveling. 

Originally, I was thinking of grabbing a few of my favorite quotes and jotting down some stories from my travels.  However, there's so much that encompasses all that I've been through within the past few years that I figured I'd share just a little bit of everything.  Now, I'll share it with you.  Here's my little unintended (slightly cheesy) op-ed.  Enjoy! :)

“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” 

When I went to Paris by myself for the first time, I was lost.  No, not just mentally, but physically-- I was lost at Charles DeGaulle Airport.  I was frantic, pouring sweat, carrying what seemed like 300 pounds of luggage while running like a rat through a maze of never-ending hallways.  And, I was about to cry.  

It seemed that the shuttle bus that I was told to take to my cousin’s apartment was no longer running after 10pm, and I had to take the R.E.R., or late night train.  I had never taken the subway before, and I had never been alone in a strange city at night by myself halfway across the world without an easily accessible cell phone.

Suddenly, a group of giggling girls appeared from behind the corner, and I distinctly recognized an American voice. I leapt at the opportunity to ask for help.

“Hey, so sorry, you wouldn’t happen to know where the late night train is?”, I asked.

“Oh girl, we sure do--we just came from there.  It’s just down that way, keep goin’! It’s so easy and the people are so nice.  Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.”  The girl smiled, the brightest, most wonderful smile I had ever seen.

“Thank you so, SO much,” I said.  “Where are you from?”

“St. Louis, Missouri.”  She replied.

For me, that felt like divine intervention.  I eventually found that train, and even made it to my destination with a lot of help from others.  Since that time, I have been pick-pocketed in Italy, had bedbugs and broken my arm in Korea, almost been thrown up on in a plane by an anciently old German man on the way to Greece, gotten lost in Japan and in scary neighborhoods in England, had a roommate who snorted his boogers on my shampoo in Spain, and cried in just about every country.
Needless to say, as someone who has traveled and lived in eight different countries, there have been numerous challenges.  There have been many, many times where I felt homesick and lonely and culturally isolated and horribly miserable, but through everything, I have survived.
Not only have I survived, I  have LIVED.  I have lived through the generosity of the people I have met; through the profound kindness of strangers, and also through learning how to trust myself when things simply don’t feel right.  

        Sometimes, I am sitting around doing something (or nothing) and it just hits me: the life I have lived so far has been amazing.  Absolutely, fantastically amazing.  It may sound a little like conceit, but I am so proud of myself for getting through these challenges and learning, through them, how to be independent and truly care for myself.

When I think about my life so far, I am often reminded of a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Good Will Hunting”.  In the movie, Robin Williams plays a therapist who is upset by something that his patient, an orphan and an abuse victim named Will Hunting, says to him.  He says, “I thought about what you said to me the other night, about my painting.  I stayed up half the night thinking about it.  Then something occurred to me, and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and I haven’t thought about you since.  You know what occurred to me? You’re just a’ve never been out of Boston...if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on just about every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him...but I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in The Sistine Chapel; you’ve never actually stood up and looked at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.  If I asked you about women, you’d probably give me a silver sea of your personal favorites...but you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.”
Traveling and living abroad is like that.  You can look at pictures and read books about places and imagine what they might be like, but until you experience them, the amazing things along with the bad, you have no idea what they’re truly like.  

        Even I can’t tell you exactly, but this is what I can say about my own experience: I am so grateful that I have seen the sparkly sapphire blue mediterranean and felt the white stones tickle my sensitive feet in Greece.  I can’t believe that I discovered a gorgeous, yet isolated temple at the steps of a mountain which seemed to lead directly to the sky on a cold, grey day in South Korea.  I am amazed that I tasted real, greasy and wonderful Spanish tapas and wandered the crowded, drunken streets at 3 AM in Spain.  I was honored to teach students from all over the world in England and learn from them about their countries, their experiences; to hear the passion or disgust in each of their voices about things I never, ever knew or could have imagined being or happening in this world.  

         I am a traveler, not a tourist.  When living in a different country, I have the responsibility of being an ambassador for my own culture every day.  Every day, I learn something new about the culture I live in and the people whom I meet.  Yes, I may be an English teacher, but the people I meet along the way are the real teachers.

Don’t trust me?  Fair enough.  Find out for yourself.  Or, better yet, find yourself.

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