The most important thing I’ve learned

As a traveller, the most significant thing I get annoyed at is seeing how many tourists behave with an air of superiority and treat locals condescendingly and with disdain. Perhaps they think that because they come from somewhere more “advanced,” more “developed,” or more “modern,” they have the right to look down on people from other cultures which are, in their eyes, less advanced, less developed, and less modern. I’ve seen people flaunt how much money they have and think that their monetary wealth should command them better treatment. It’s very off-putting to witness this.

Similarly, I find it baffling when tourists just want to get to a famous site or partake in the “must-do” thing without regard for interacting with the local population. Why travel such a long way and not take any interest in the people of the country you’re visiting?

You know, we’re over 7 billion people living in this world and sharing its beauty, and we tend to focus on our differences. Everything from religion, language, nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, skin colour, facial structure, educational level, occupation, income level, ways of life, cultural practices, societal norms – the list goes on endlessly – all these have been used to create division and prevent meaningful relationships between us from being formed.

I’ve travelled to 42 countries the past few years, mostly on my own, and the most profound memories I have are the truly wonderful interactions I’ve had with people from all walks of life. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that when I look into the eyes of another human being, despite all the (perceived) factors that may create distance between us, there is a common, undeniable bond in our humanity – and that’s reason enough to treat the other person with dignity and respect. I keep in mind that I’m looking into a pair of eyes of a fellow human, whose heart beats with just as much strength and passion as mine, a fellow human being who also loves, hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, wonders…

I’ve been the recipient of dignity and respect countless instances in my travels. I’ve been afforded immense hospitality and generosity from people of all religions and skin colours, people who spoke languages I did not understand, people who wore designer clothes and people who wore rags, people with PhDs and people who have likely never set foot in a classroom, perfectly healthy people and people who have likely never received any health care, people who live in grand mansions and people who live in modest shacks.

I’ve spoken to a 91-year old woman in Nicaragua who lived on her own in a shack at the base of a volcano. I was offered multiple helpings of sliced fruit from an elderly woman on a train in Taiwan. I was given very exact directions to the airport by a nearly toothless man standing in front of the bus I’d be taking in Sri Lanka. I had a taxi driver in Georgia take me to a secluded monastery and proceeded to give me a full tour of the complex – in Russian! I was received with an encouraging welcome by a fellow hiker when I reached the top of one of the Alps in Austria after hiking up with a GI infection. I’ve been the object of many photographs taken in Armenia. I’ve been lost more times than I can count and have found my way, usually because a local took it upon himself or herself to help this foreigner out. Most recently, on my 9-day trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary, I was befriended by more than a handful of porters that took an interest in me when they saw I was trekking alone.

It’s astounding how much love and goodwill there is in our world when you take a chance and open up. Don’t let our perceived differences unknowingly create a self-imposed barrier and prevent you from interacting with some great people in this world. You might even end up counting some of these people as your friends.

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