For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go off exploring: to see beautiful places and meet people whose world-view is entirely different to my own. I blame my Dad for this. When I was growing up, he worked as a guide for Raymond & Whitcomb, a US travel company that has since gone bust. R&W offered cruises for rich educated Americans to learn about the world from erudite guides such as my Dad (a Roman historian and archaeologist by profession), all the while being safely ensconced in the comfort of a 5* cruise ship. As a child, my contact with my father was through his frequent postcards from foreign lands, hundreds of which are stored in a shoebox in Sheffield. Every time he came back to the UK, he would bring me a little present from his travels: a basket woven by the last two speakers of a particular indigenous language from Tierra del Fuego; a ceramic vase made in Izmir; a Persian rug; a small and beautiful weaving that had once decorated a Sultan’s palace. With all of these artefacts and his stories, how could I not grow up to be enthralled by all things foreign?
In 2002, aged 18, my school friend Holly and I decided to take a year out before starting university. Neither of us can remember the whys and wherefores of how we chose Latin America as our destination, but that was the choice we made. We both worked as waitresses to earn the money that would see us on our way. In January 2003 we set off, Holly aged 19 and me aged 18, leaving two very worried mothers behind us! It would be fantastic at this point to say that we spent the next 6 months volunteering our way around Latin America, but no, the trip was an extended holiday with the intention of improving our A-Level Spanish, meeting interesting people, visiting wondrous places, and generally having a great time.
Despite our embarrassing lack of altruistic ambition, the trip was life-changing for both of us. For Holly, it led to her meeting her husband-to-be, who she married in the summer of 2011 after having met him on her first night out in Sheffield after being away for 6 months. For me, it was the beginning of a great love for Latin America, this beautiful continent that would influence so much in my life: the courses in Latin American history and literature that I would take as an undergraduate; the decision to spend a year studying in Havana; the Master’s I would study in Latin American Development; and the continent that I would turn to when looking for work abroad.
I have always managed to feel entirely at home when abroad. I love learning about the local traditions, tasting new food, seeing beautiful sites and not-so-beautiful sights. I love the culture shock that comes with all of that. I have realised that I feel more comfortable in myself when I am out of my comfort zone. I enjoy ‘travelling’ because it is an opportunity to superficially experience somewhere out of the ordinary. However I much prefer trying to live in that somewhere out of the ordinary: dealing with the trials and tribulations that seem so insurmountable at first, and celebrating the sense of achievement when you overcome these many challenges.
Most of all, I love meeting new people and making new friends. I love the deep and meaningful friendships you make with local people, people who come from such different backgrounds, people who you never in a lifetime would have otherwise met and who end up being so important to you. And I love the intensity of the connections you make with other ex-pats like yourself, firm friendships that will last a lifetime, all of us trying to find our feet in a foreign land.
Originally published at lauraihbennett.com on March 12, 2015.