“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
The other day I was looking through my blog’s stats and noticed that one of my most-read posts was the one I wrote a few days into my two month adventure in Asia: 36 Hours In Shanghai. I decided on a whim to click and read through what I’d initially written, hoping to gain some insight into which of my rants people were liking.
And I kind of wanted to slap myself.
It isn’t just that the post reeks of naiveté, though I did roll my eyes at my idiocy more than once. What really struck me was how little I knew then compared to what I learned in such a short amount of time afterwards. I look back and think about how I knew nothing about how to be a respectful, knowledgable, budget-conscious international traveler.
First off, I spent money like it was my job. $75 a night for a hotel suite? I had gotten a great deal if you compare it to what the same room would have cost in LA, but all it did was make me feel lonely. Ultimately I would have been happier in a hostel or guesthouse where I could have met fellow travelers, and still had my own room.
I’m also bothered by the fact that I got really excited about the bacon at the hotel breakfast buffet. Even though I was timid at the time, I should have ventured out and looked for a restaurant serving local food. Not that I don’t love bacon (who doesn’t?) but I can get bacon at home. If I were to go back, I’d definitely get out and try some of the street food, or asked the girl at the front desk where she would eat breakfast with her friends.
And I belly laughed at the shock I had at seeing squat toilets for the first time. Little did I know what kind of facilities I had in my future trekking through Sherpa villages in Nepal!
I also used words in the post I would avoid now, like “strange” for instance, when observing the culture of the locals. As my friend Adam corrected me in Thailand – “it isn’t strange, it’s just different.” Now, I know better. I try as best I can not to judge, and instead just observe and try to understand and appreciate other ways of life. Just because something is new to me, doesn’t make it weird or strange. Embrace the difference and learn from them! (This lesson was always carry toilet paper with me in my day pack.)
And don’t even get me started on falling for the tea ceremony scam. Not only is this scam well documented and I could have avoided it by doing some research beforehand, but what the hell was I doing paying so much for something so simple like tea? How did it take me so long to figure out my four new “friends” were scamming me? If I’d just taken the time to stop and double-check the exchange rate, or looked around and noticed just how dirt cheap everything else was in China, I wouldn’t have just forked up over $100 to a random tea house. (Don’t worry, I got my money back and an apology from one of the scammers. Because I’m really good at shaming people via email, apparently.)
Ultimately, I made no real attempt at any culture understanding or immersion in Shanghai. I stayed close to the most touristy sites, had no interactions with like-minded fellow travelers, and had little good to say about those 36 hours. Except that I had some bacon for breakfast. What I did make a lot of assumptions – “I realized that the Shanghainese (in my opinion) are pretty reserved….” I’d only been there 36 hours and hadn’t talked to anyone except a group of con men. Who the fuck did I think I was making a sweeping judgment about an entire population of people?
But after giving my previous idiot self a solid mental lashing, I realized something important. Becoming an experienced, kick-ass traveler only comes after going out into the world and fucking up enough to realize there was a better way to do it.
I may have been naïve, but I had guts to get on that plane and go somewhere I knew little about. I had the desire to see and appreciate another culture, even if I didn’t understand yet how to go about it. I learned so much through my experiences on that trip, both through making mistakes and talking to dozens of other travelers who gave me invaluable advice.
But I also realize I still have so much left to learn. I love knowing that in the future, I’ll understand more. I’ll embrace more and engage more, in life and in my travels, because experience and mistakes are the only way you figure anything out. Savvy adventurers aren’t born, folks, they’re made.
I’m far from savvy, but I’m miles ahead of where I was a year ago. And I really hope that a year from now I’ll look back on this post and say “What an arrogant *&!% I was, I knew NOTHING!” Because I’ll be even more of a kick-ass adventurer by then.
And that is what life is about – constantly growing.
What are the lessons travel has taught you?