Travel Teaches Us

January 5, 2018

 

It's a new year. It's time to turn over a new leaf. A time to decide to make a change to adopt a new lifestyle. For most, it's a time to both reflect on the past and look to the future.

 

For me, the start of 2018 is inspiring. I believe this is the year that I'll try new things, push myself, and in effect, change myself. I'm feeling motivated and creative as we start this year; a year full of things that have never been.

 

I feel reminiscent as I reflect on the past, because 2018 marks 10 years since my first interview with Emirates Airline, my first job in the "real world". I also renewed my passport this year, which serves as a firm reminder that so much time has passed. Luckily, the US government let me keep my old one; it's 52-pages completely full of stamps, and it's my greatest souvenir.

 

It's hard to believe it's been a decade since I first made the decision to pursue a dream that would forever change me. I remember my first interview in detail; I flew to NYC and met with Rowena, an Australian recruiter at the Jolly Madison Hotel on the corner of Madison and E 38th St. This would be the first of several interviews spanning over the next 12 months or so before I took a one-way flight on EK 212 from Houston to Dubai to start my journey working with Emirates.

 

I would spend the next 3.5 years working in Service Delivery on the Airbus A380, as well as part of the global Emirates Business Promotions team. I worked with colleagues from all over, 90+ countries. It was quite a diverse 'office' dynamic. I also traveled to 60 countries and hit the million mile club several times over.

 

I completed my employment contract in 2013, and for the past 5 years since repatriation, have really only thought about my experiences in passing. A photo here, a memory there, perhaps a funny travel story over a business dinner. I haven't taken the time to sit down and really reminisce on my travels, and put down on paper just how much these travels impacted my life. And it's important that I do, as memories can fade over time. This is especially highlighted to me now as I sit and write this today. With each photo I pull from my photo album, I'm taken back to a time that seems almost forgotten, but so important to remember.

 

When you travel, learning happens naturally, you don't really have to try too hard. All you need to do is step out into your journey, and you will have lost yourself in the arms of a new environment. And the more you see, the more you learn about the world and about yourself, and where you fit into the mix.

 

Traveling is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

 

Traveling allows you to understand what others are saying, regardless of the language spoken. Travel is an excellent teacher.

 

Here are some of the different ways I've allowed travel to be my teacher.

 

Travel taught me to be open, to broaden my perspective.

 

Open to new experiences, open to new ideas, and open to meeting new people.

 

Nothing changes your life-view better than seeing first hand how others live. You develop a new sense of wonder and empathy for other cultures and other countries. As you travel, you have to learn to be open to be able to adapt.

 

My first leisure trip in the Middle East was a weekend getaway to Beirut, Lebanon. One of my forefront memories of Beirut was an image of the Al-Amin mosque that stood directly next to the Saint George Cathedral. Both the church and mosque are two prominent religious landmarks standing next to one another.

 

I also traveled alone to Istanbul and linked up with a local mutual friend who so graciously played tour-guide all day, showing me around the major sites, including the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. We had lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the Bosphorus that could have fooled me as being the South of France. We ended the day playing checkers, smoking shisha, and drinking black tea in a local shop in Besiktas. He provided me with a true first-hand Turkish experience. We're still Facebook friends today.

 

Playing checkers and smoking shisha in Istanbul.

 

There were a good share of "eye-opening" experiences from living in Dubai as well. One of the most influential things I did in my first month of living in the UAE was take a tour of the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai. At the end of the tour, the tour-guide, who was covered in full abaya throughout the tour, removed her veil to show us her face. She looked just as I looked; blonde hair, fair skin. She was from the UK, and had converted to Islam when she married her husband a few years back. It was a surprise to see her face and see that she was just like me.

 

Breaking the fast at an iftar dinner during Ramadan, Dubai.

 

Travel taught me how to embrace loneliness.

 

Or rather, learn to embrace solitude. Of the 60 countries I've visited, I'd say 75% of them were visited alone. I learned that solitude is good for you; it is good to connect with other people however it is also important to connect with yourself. Solitude is not being lonely, it is creating the space to reconnect with how you are and who you will become. It's also a great way to learn how to best get out of your comfort zone.

 

I had several weeks off work one spring and decided to backpack through Eastern Europe. 

 

I started in Croatia, and decided to take a night train through Bosnia and into Belgrade, Serbia.

 

After several days of minimal conversation, I wanted badly to find someone to talk with; I missed a human connection. I probably had 6 solo beers on 6 different occasions on that trip just waiting for someone to approach me and strike up a conversation.

 

 

 

Once I was able to accept the solitude as a moment to re-connect with myself, the "lonely" trip through Eastern Europe didn't seem so difficult. Traveling solo also makes you really learn to get creative when taking photos, as shown above and below..

Travel taught me to be spontaneous.

 

This lesson has two different parts that by chance fit together perfectly.

 

The first lesson in spontaneity was learned the day before my birthday. I planned to fly home to Houston, to see my family. I was a little homesick and really looking forward to a few days in Texas with my parents, sister and grandparents. Unfortunately, the flight from Dubai to Houston was oversold and for the first (and only) time as an airline employee, I was denied a seat on the only flight that day to Houston. I remember breaking down in tears at the boarding gate.

 

I learned the hard way that life is just life and things happen. The way in which I react is what determines my course and my mood. So instead of sulking in my sorrows, I took the opportunity to do something I'd always wanted to do.

 

I closed my eyes, pointed at the departures screen, and said that I would fly to wherever my finger landed.

 

Would you believe it landed on the beautiful city of Prague? And there was a flight leaving in 2 hours, with an open seat for me. 6 hours later, I was eating goulash in Old Town Square, next to the Tyn Church, in Prague.

 

Prague, Czech Republic.

 

The second part of the lesson in spontaneity also took place in Prague, 2 years later. I flew my mother to Europe for a "girls trip" to Paris. When she landed in Paris, however, I surprised her with tickets to Prague. 

 

On one of our days spent walking the hilly streets of Prague, we managed to find our way into a local pub for a beer.

 

We sat next to an Irish man who was living in Prague for work. He mentioned that we should go up the hill to an old monastery that was now a local brewery (The Strahov Monastic Brewery). More pivo? Sure, let's climb the hill, we said.

 

On our way back down, after leaving the brewery, we passed a small shop with music flowing out into the street. We went inside and it realized we had stumbled into an old instrument shop. The owner was playing violin, and was thrilled to have visitors. Right after us, a gentleman with a guitar came in for a tune up. The owner asked if he would play with him. And, from there, we had an impromptu performance in an old Czech string and horn shop.

 

This is one of my favorite memories throughout the years of travel, and even more special because I share it with my mother.

 

It's true, the best moments happen when you least expect them.

Travel taught me to value experience over things.

 

When my employment contract with Emirates ended, I faced the decision of where to move next: back to the US or onward to another expatriate opportunity. I managed to save a nice nest egg thanks to the tax-free, rent-free living in Dubai, and had the decision of saving it or spending it.

 

After careful consideration, I decided that I would take a small amount out and allocate this to my next adventure. How often in life are you single and free to move anywhere you want, to pursue anything you want? That money would be better spent making memories in France than it would in my savings account; I don't regret the decision today.

 

I enrolled in a French course at the French Institute in Paris, and rented a 200 sq. foot (single room) apartment in Le Marais, the 3rd district of Paris. It was small, and it was expensive. But it was Paris. I managed to get a one-year visa, a part-time job, and a group of new friends from my classes; we still keep in touch today.

 

The view from my flat.

 

My friends from French class, Larissa and Barbara.

 

I learned in Paris to stay curious, and always value experiences over things. This experience taught me that I am a life-long learner. Life-long learning is the "ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated" pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It enhances social inclusion and personal development, as well as self-sustainability. This certainly has better long-term value than possessions.

 

And being curious is essential to being happy, and being happy is more important than being rich.

 

Travel taught me that there are no strangers in life, just friends we haven't met yet.

 

When you're traveling, you can't help but meet new people. A traveler knows that even if you can't speak the same language, there is no language barrier.

 

I made friends on every trip. And I usually built these friendships much faster than back home. Perhaps it was the time limitations, or the adrenaline of being in a foreign land, but I found it much easier to strike up a friendship while traveling. These "fast friendships" were mysterious, as though destined.

 

Dinner with new friends in Bangkok, Thailand.

 

Learning how to drink mate in Argentina.

 

New friends in Mykonos, Greece.

 

Travel taught me how to go with the flow and live in the moment.

 

I spent a little under a month-long holiday in Brazil in 2010. This was the longest I've gone in my adult life without working. I suffer from the classic American "work-a-holic" syndrome.

 

But sometimes it's important to relax and detach. Instead of trying to control everything, I needed to learn how to enjoy nothing. Just coconuts, beaches, and feijoada (Brazilian pork bean stew). I needed to learn how to live in the moment, to be conscious, aware, and present, not dwelling on the past, or being anxious or worrying about the future.

 

One of my favorite memories of Rio de Janeiro was listening to a local artist perform at Veloso bar-café in Ipanema, where Vinicius de Moraes wrote The Girl from Ipanema 40+ years prior.

 

Sunday on Leblon beach, Rio de Janeiro.

 

Travel taught me resilience, and taught me how to be incredibly resourceful.

 

One of the most challenging memories I have from years of travel was trying to read a map in Moscow. And Kiev. And Belgrade. Ok, I'd taught myself the cyrillic alphabet, and the linguist in me was intrigued, but I still couldn't translate the actual words on the maps. Keep in mind, this was pre iPhone, pre Google maps (pre International Data packages, too).

 

Traveling taught me how to be independent and resourceful. Once I finally realized that I could figure out the metro system, and not starve (even if I didn't understand a word on the menu), I began to trust in my ability. I managed to transport myself across 6 continents successfully and (relatively) safely, and usually alone. This taught me the courage I can use now to apply for a new job, or perhaps start a new business. I believe in myself, and in my ability to navigate myself through life.

 

The Red Square, Moscow.

 

The metro station, Kiev, Ukraine.

 

And last,

 

Travel taught me to be grateful. To appreciate the things I have in life.

 

I spent a week in 2012 volunteering at a baby orphanage in Nakuru, Kenya. The orphanage was founded in 2004 by an Australian family, with the mission to raise orphaned children in a loving, safe family environment, offering them education and opportunities to become productive future members of the Nakuru community.  

 

The Nakuru Valley is considered to be inner Kenya, close to the Ugandan border and Lake Victoria. My home for the week was in a man-made mud hut, often falling asleep while I could hear the bugs and wildlife outside. I drank black coffee for breakfast, and ate a small meal for dinner each night. It wasn't fancy, but it was enough.

 

I met over 100 young kids who would forever touch my heart. I also met volunteers from all over the world, who I still keep in touch with today. We would travel into town to pass out cookies to the kids who weren't living in the orphanage. I was exposed to a level of poverty I'd never experienced before in any other country. And even a short exposure to a third world reality can change a mindset. Some of these children didn't even have a pair of shoes to wear; hearing this is very different from seeing it first hand.

 

We also made a stop by a local school, pictured below.

 

 

 

 When I think about my trip to Kenya, I instantly think of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference than you have lived, and lived well.

 

 

 So as we enter into 2018, I hope this inspires you to take a minute to smile as you think of the year that's passed, but at the same time prepare with excitement for the year ahead. And book a trip. To anywhere. And just go. Open your eyes and your heart, and go and learn.

 

To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life. - Walter Mitty

 

Alison

 

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As always, I welcome any comments or questions at additivealison@gmail.com.

 

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