27 Lessons from Every Country & Territory I’ve Traveled to So Far
It’s important to note that these are my life lessons. Some of them will apply to you, and some of them won’t. Some are minor life lessons that have nothing to do with the country where I picked them up, and that’s okay. Travel isn’t always about digging up the most life-altering experience imaginable, but it does always seem to be about personal growth.
1. Canada, 1995
Forever a nerd.
Michael Keaton’s role as Batman was very influential to my childhood, and I guess my entire life, because I would still get excited about finding a bat symbol on a wall today. Although, 27-year-old me would be a lot more discerning about the quality of that graffiti than 8-year-old me was.
I offer this photo from 2009 as proof that these are indeed lessons I’ve carried with me.
2. Mexico, 2001
If the opportunity presents itself, seize it.
Also, send your kids out over the open ocean hanging from somebody else’s liquor-themed parachute, because why the hell not? They’ll love it.
This lesson has always served me well. When approached with chicken-butts-on-a-stick at a night market in Taiwan in 2014, my response could only be, “I’ll try anything once.” (They were fine.)
3. Germany, 2004
Travel, even when you don’t have the nerves for it.
As soon as I got to Germany for a student exchange as a junior in high school, I wanted nothing more than to leave. It wasn’t homesickness as much as it was crippling anxiety about being in an unfamiliar home in an unfamiliar culture surrounded by a language I only had a rudimentary understanding of. I have fond memories of this exchange, but they all have more to do with my fellow classmates than Germany itself. At this point in my life, I didn’t think exotic travel was my cup of tea, but I credit this emotional disaster for teaching me how to deal with adjusting to new places, and giving me the confidence to pursue my next big adventure.
4. Bahamas, 2007
Making hasty decisions that change your life forever are always worth it.
I knew I wanted to study abroad in college, but I didn’t know where. I was studying German as a second major, but had already been to Germany. Twice, in fact. I toyed with the idea of spending a semester in Cape Town; I don’t remember why. I stumbled upon Semester at Sea, an international sampler platter of cultures and geography on the most unique campus ever conceived. As a bonus, one of the stops on the upcoming voyage went to Cape Town.
But I was a sophomore in college, a procrastinator extraordinaire. By the time I’d discovered Semester at Sea, I had to submit my application by overnight mail if I was to make the next voyage. When I was admitted, I felt both extremely excited and entirely unsure of what I had just hastily committed myself to.
I didn’t care for Nassau. All I could think about was that blue and white ship in the harbor, and how it would be my home. This seemed absurd, given that just a few years previous I was having anxiety attacks just because I was going to Germany for three weeks. Now I was going to live on a ship for three months.
Whatever happened, I resolved to make the best of the experience, recognizing that it was an unparalleled privilege to live on a ship at sea during college. I took my father’s Pentax dSLR, and began to hone what had theretofore been a very passive interest in travel photography.
5. Puerto Rico, 2007
Globalization has already happened. There’s no need to dwell on it anymore.
Globalization is great for local economies. Westernization ruins local cultures. Starbucks are a great place for travelers to find wifi but their presence sickens us. Whatever your view, that ship has sailed. Local cultures have not died, but you may need to put forth a little bit of effort to have what most would describe as authentic experiences, especially if you’re traveling to an international metropolis. Seeing this Doritos truck in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico at age 19 made me realize that the world is an awfully small place.
6. Brazil, 2007
Trust the locals. Usually. Sometimes don’t.
Nobody knows your destination like a local. I believe that humans are innately good, but sometimes your race, your gender, your foreign-ness, or some other attribute will betray you and make you a target. In Brazil, I had a fantastic time at Carnaval surrounded by hundreds of thousands of locals. A friend in our group was also robbed at knife-point by a man who had offered to lead us to a restaurant we were looking for.
When it comes to trusting humans, learn to trust your gut.
7. South Africa, 2007
Appreciate local wildlife.
Whether gawking at endangered rhinos in South Africa, being pestered by a feral cat in Lebanon, or spotting whales from the highway in Alaska, I have always enjoyed watching the wildlife around me. Wildlife is an indicator of many things, including your own innate empathy. Their fate is almost entirely in the hands of humans, and rarely is their future looking better than their past. Very often their fate is in the hands of travelers and tourists, specifically. Wildlife is a part of local culture too. Wildlife is a resource. Love animals.
8. Mauritius, 2007
When the MV Explorer docked in Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, I felt conflicted about using the entirety of our brief stay to rent a cheap mountain villa with friends and forego exploring the tropical geography. Honestly, I still question whether it was the right decision, but we were burned out from a rigorous semester of constant movement. Sometimes a quiet retreat, a long meal with lots of laughs, or even just a nap are worth the time away from exploration.
9. India, 2007
Kids are the same everywhere.
In every classroom in every country around the world, kids are bright, inquisitive, and enthusiastic. This is a lesson I have relearned many, many times while running City X Project workshops, but it never ceases to amaze me how well we would all get along if we approached things the way kids do.
10. Malaysia, 2007
Do not feed the monkeys. Ever.
I had already been robbed and threatened with a knife in South Africa, but no part of Semester at Sea filled me with more fear than when a hissing, snarling macaque began chasing me at the Penang Botanical Gardens in Malaysia. Believing I had food, it tried to harass me into giving it something to eat. I had nothing to give, and was keenly aware that these monkeys could knock a man out with a punch, to say nothing of their bites. I got away shaken but unscathed, filled with sudden anger toward the tourists that feed these animals’ aggression by feeding them food that’s unfit for their consumption to begin with.
Move forward with confidence.
Many travel writers before me have marveled at the process of crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City, a municipality comprised mostly of dense moped traffic. One simply takes a deep breath, looks straight ahead, and walks forward at a normal pace. The trick, here, is that the drivers go around you. For this reason, it is key that you keep a steady pace, lest you get swept away by a motorcycle that couldn’t anticipate the change in your stride.
This lesson applies to many unpredictably chaotic life situations.
12. Hong Kong
Skyscrapers always impress.
I have a childlike fascination with these marvels of engineering, these pillars of design, these monuments of humanity. It’s true that on my desk at work I often build little LEGO skyscrapers with idle minutes.
One of the very best parts of wandering anywhere new is observing local architecture. It’s remarkable how much archways, patios, windows, lights, and layouts can reflect local economic and cultural qualities.
The Summer Palace, like many touristy landmarks in Beijing, was absolutely swarming with people. It was nigh impossible to get a good view of anything, much less take a quality photograph. In one of the pagodas there, I became so fascinated with the bright painting all over it that I just stared upward for a while, trying to take a symmetrical photograph. I forgot about the swarms of people chatting around me, lost in the brilliance of this art.
Get overwhelmed by memorials.
Some of my most introspective moments have happened in the darkest of places. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, a concentration camp in Germany, the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam, the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. The sheer quantity of monuments reflecting the darkest chapters of humanity indicates to me that we, collectively, do not spend nearly enough time reflecting on the horrors of the past.
“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you dont want to repeat what happened.”
15. Spain, 2008
Always visit friends abroad.
There is no better way to experience a place than with a local guide. There is no better way to test a friendship than to travel. There is no better way to learn about the people you love than to see them in a new home that they have been unable to share with family and friends.
16. New Zealand, 2009
Do whatever makes the better story.
The Department of Conservation told us not to hike the Milford Track. Conditions were icy over the mountain pass, avalanches had been reported. With considerable trepidation, and only after asking for as much information as we could get from a variety of sources, we rented a mountain radio and ventured on our three-day hike despite their warnings. It ended up being one of the most beautiful and spectacular experiences of my life.
17. England, 2012
Make the most of long layovers.
Because I was redeeming miles for separate one way flights across Europe to get to Russia, I ended up with a 20-hour layover in London. Alone, with no plans, I wandered around in the rain for hours, just enjoying someplace new.
18. Russia, 2012
Don’t let the media inform your view of cultures.
There is no place in the world where politics or culture are black and white. There is always more to discover. Empathy would take us all a long way.
19. Panama, 2012
Hasty decisions that change your life forever: still worth it.
As with Semester at Sea, this lesson served me well again later in life, when my boyfriend and I spontaneously decided to spend a month in Panama, working for a hospitality company we had found on helpx.net. The decision to go was made four days before we left.
20. Costa Rica, 2012
The Internet is an unpredictable place.
This photo never struck me as particularly remarkable. I included it in a series of animal photos on my blog from the Puerto Viejo Jaguar Rescue Center on the coast of Costa Rica, and nearly a year later, someone asked me if they could use the meme version of the photo in a novelty app they were making. They were talking about this. It also became the far more inappropriate this. BuzzFeed included them both in their list of The 25 Greatest Sloths the Internet Has Ever Seen.
21. Lebanon, 2013
While traveling in Lebanon with IDEAco, we ended up running a City X Project 3D printing workshop in a mountain village outside of Beirut. This SOS Children’s Village housed some of the warmest, most friendly folks I could ever hope to meet. The mothers — single women who commit to celibacy and singledom to care for up to six children in their homes at a time — were especially inspiring, not just because they were objectively extraordinary people, but because they expressed so much gratitude for the privilege of taking care of these children and being a part of this community.
22. Hungary, 2013
Wes Anderson forever changes the way you look at things.
I don’t know how else to explain how, as a photographer, I become so enamored with mostly-symmetrical tableaus with particular color palettes.
23. Singapore, 2014
A little grit is good.
I hate to suggest that Singapore is anything less than beautiful and a wonderful place to visit, but these things are true in the same way that visiting “countries” around Epcot is fun, even knowing that they’re highly idealized. After visiting this oddly quiet, disturbingly clean metropolis, I felt grateful to return to Chicago’s industrial ruggedness, having a strange appreciation for the bits of my city that haven’t been prepared and optimized for the 21st century.
24. Taiwan, 2014
Travel by way of food.
I will never be able to commit to vegetarianism or a gluten-free lifestyle simply because I must always avail myself of whatever local foodstuffs are presented to me. At a Taiwanese night market this included the grilled peppered squid above, along with duck tongue, chicken hearts, chicken butts, chicken stomachs, and pig’s blood cake — all on sticks.
25. Denmark, 2014
Your iPhone is still a damn good camera, so there’s rarely an excuse for missing a photo.
I spent almost two weeks in Denmark, and even with my Nikon D5100 with me for most of the time, this is still the only photo from that country I truly like, and I captured it with my iPhone 5.
26. Sweden, 2014
Take the day trip.
It is often worth a trip-within-a-trip to explore a place that will consume an entire day or three. While I was in Copenhagen, I took the train over and through the tunnel-bridge that connects Denmark to Sweden at the curious little city of Malmö, home of Calatrava’s Turning Torso skyscraper, pictured above. It was a delight to explore another city after over a week in Copenhagen, and to realize that Scandinavia is not quite as homogenous as you might expect.
27. Colombia, 2014
Tell your stories.
I write often about the weird world of digital storytelling that we currently inhabit. It seems to be a golden age for travel writers and travel photographers, so much so that the fierce competition in the travel arena can be daunting. Still, if you have a way with words and pictures, don’t just post on your own blog and on Instagram, I implore you to post on Medium, post on Maptia, post on Storehouse, always tweet, and carve out a place that is your own. A wise friend once told me that travel writing is a way to process your thoughts on an experience, and without that documentation we lose sight of why travel is so important.