Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Top Life Lessons that Travel Teaches

To me, travel is a great university. Now, I'm a big fan of regular universities too, but I love travel because it teaches us so much about how to get along in this world, whether we're at home or afar. Of course, travel expands our horizons, introduces us to new cultures and different ways of doing things. But more importantly, I think travel reminds us how to be good global citizens - and teaches us lessons about living, whether you're one mile or 10,000 miles from home.

So, from the economy cabin on United flight 901 SFO to London Heathrow, here are the top things I've learned - and continue to be taught - by travel.

1. Accept the unexpected.

I'm a planner, and I don't handle change well. Which is ironic, given the fact that my chosen profession is all about embracing the new, moving from one project to the next. I've had a lot of practice with change, and yet it still completely freaks me out. But travel teaches that change crops up unexpectedly all the time. Transit strike? Change of plan. Canceled plane? Another change of plan. But the lesson learned is that change simply presents a new challenge. A problem to be solved, which keeps us on our toes and makes our lives interesting. I would slit my wrists if nothing ever changed. I think we all would. And by embracing the unexpected in life, we open ourselves up to new adventures.

2. Always be nice.

There are three times in your life when you shouldn't be nice: if you're being raped, robbed, or attacked. Then you should fight like bloody murder (and even then, only depending on the circumstances). But if your life, or the life of someone around you isn't being threatened, then chill out, cool the engines and be nice. Offer assistance, say please and thank you. Smile a lot. Follow local customs, learn the polite words. Flying into a temper only upsets yourself and the people around you and makes the problem worse. So do as your mother taught you, and be kind, thoughtful, generous and patient.

This is hard-won advice, as I almost took on a group of twelve tourists when they butted in front of us in line at the Vatican last month. Assholes are everywhere. Don't be one of them.

3. You have no control.

You can't fly the plane for the pilot. You can't make the line go faster, or the train wait for you at the station.

This is one I have trouble with, because I really like to think that I have some kind of ability to affect my destiny, and while we can line things up to *hopefully* work the way we want them to, we are always at the whim of others and the will of the universe. But once you accept that, life actually becomes much easier. It's really, really hard to do - but that's where travel can be a very good training ground, as this way of thinking becomes very concrete when you're flying at 37 000 feet. There truly is nothing that you can do, so might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.

4. Trust other people.

When you're traveling, you absolutely have to rely on the good will of others. And the farther you travel out of your comfort zone, the more you need to trust the local people and the people you're traveling with. We live in such a climate of distrust in North America that this lesson is pretty tough. I'm not saying you need to take unnecessary risks - like you probably shouldn't pick up hitchhikers or trust that the man who is hovering too close at the train station isn't up to no good. But I do think we need to give people the benefit of the doubt, give them the opportunity to help, and they very likely will. We put our trust in people all the time without really appreciating it - we trust the chef to fully cook the chicken, and our mechanic to not screw with our brakes. So I think making a more conscious effort to be trusting - and trustworthy - makes us better citizens.

5. Remember that everywhere you are is somebody's home.

So don't litter, don't be noisy, follow local rules and always be respectful.

I think it goes further than this, though, and this one has particular resonance for me. I live in Edmonton, Alberta. To me, it's a fantastic city filled with wonderful people. It's got an amazing arts scene, a top research university, great economy, opportunities galore for entrepreneurs, and is gorgeous to look at. But not everybody feels this way. Lots of people see it as a blue collar town, a bit rough around the edges, with long, cold, terrible winters. A couple of years ago, it had the highest murder rate in Canada, earning it the unfortunate moniker, Dedmonton.

But I absolutely hate it when people say bad things about my town. It actually pains me somewhere around my heart, and I've gotten to be pretty sensitive about it. So I can imagine other people feel that way too about their own home towns. So wherever you are, I think you need to be mindful that somebody lives there and probably loves it. Even if it's a scorching featureless desert, it's still somebody's passion. And the world looks much better when you look for the good in a place, rather than just seeing what might be an unattractive (to us) surface.

6. Focus on the task at hand, and worry about tomorrow another day.

Driving on a twelve lane highway in an unfamiliar city can be overwhelming, especially if you're looking at the big picture. Interchange after interchange, high speed and no GPS is about the most terrifying driving you'll face. But instead if you focus entirely on the task at hand - keeping  the speed limit and staying in your lane, the task becomes easy and doable.
I have high anxiety. So high, that I sometimes have trouble focusing on simple tasks because I am amped up about a perceived biggie for later in the week. Often, it's about something I have very little control over, which makes the anxiety even worse. But I found if you can break down large tasks into small simple one, and stay focused, the anxiety goes away, and the task gets accomplished in its own time.

And driving in a strange city becomes remarkably doable and fun.

So those are some of the things I've learned, but this list is far from complete. What are some of your favorite lessons from the road?

And randomly, just for fun, here is a photo  of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just because. Happy traveling, everyone, both at home and afar.


  1. Yes, I agree with your thoughts on travel. Interesting what you come up with while sitting on a plane with nothing to do but think. Looking forward to other ideas you may come up with as your adventure continues. I will try to remember the lessons you have learned and put them into practice, even at home.


  2. Marliss, what a great adventure. I am really enjoying your BLOGS. Safe travels. Once you are in Africe, I will send more comments.

  3. So THAT's what the Golden Gate Bridge looks like. Great post. I especially like "Assholes are everywhere. Don't be one of them." didn't see that coming. And I see EVERYTHING.

  4. Such a seredipitous treasure you are to have landed in my circle. Happy trails - looking forward to the next installment :)