Travel is a relentless teacher.
There are no bathroom breaks, no question and answer sessions, and no weeks off for study or review.
We jump in, and there we are. We learn on the fly, or we fall on our face. Or, we fall, and then we learn to fly.
Whatever the order of events, we learn, and we learn fast when we get out there. These are a few of the life lessons I’ve found travel teaches fastest:
1. Let Go of Expectations.
That time you think you bought an apple pastry at the Finnish supermarket, but when you bite into it the orange mush inside is anything but apple—and it might be tuna fish. The time you order the cheapest thing on the menu at a rural Kenyan restaurant, and of course it turns out to be beef tongue. When you board your train to Rome, and find out you’re heading to Geneva…
Yes, life is full of surprises; never more so than when we don’t speak the local language, or are in too much of a hurry to ask questions. At some point, I realized I’m more surprised when I do get what (or where) I wanted than when I don’t.
Welcome the unexpected.
2. Eat the Food.
I’m not vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, vegan, low-fat or high anything else. While I’ve met many brave souls who stick to their dietary restrictions while on the road, I’ve learned it’s a hell of a lot easier (and maybe healthier) to eat whatever’s available. Not to mention unique culinary-cultural experiences don’t usually follow our rules. I frequently choose to eschew the privilege of choice (the eschewing of which, yes, is a privilege in of itself) in favor of honoring a friend’s hospitality or sampling a street snack I’ve never seen before.
Eat the food. Maybe we regret it the next morning, but in the balance, it’s worth it.
3. Be Flexible.
Would you sleep in a boat? Would you sleep on a coat? Would you sleep on the floor? Would you sleep while they snore? It’s not Dr. Seuss; it’s a night in the life of a traveler. Parks, boats, train hallways, packed dirt, wooden pallet, moldy shack, noisy dorm—if you can name it, I’ve probably slept there.
Flexibility is a skill, not an inbred talent, and one which I’ve cultivated over many years. Be it food, sleeping quarters, hygiene or travel arrangements, I’ve learned—had no choice but to learn—flexibility is king of the travel kingdom.
Travel will teach us to be flexible like a ballet class on steroids.
4. The World is your Toilet.
Lest this be misconstrued, I’m not suggesting you relieve yourself in your friend’s bedroom or the public gardens. Rather more in the vein of number three, we don’t always get to be picky about our WC. London city street at three a.m.? Hey, everything’s closed, and the next bus is an hour away. Edge of a Himalayan field? The alternative is the middle of the village road.
Bottom line: we can’t be prissy about where we piss, and sometimes we have to get creative.
5. Technology Won’t Save You.
Sure, Google Maps is super handy for getting from point A to B in a new city, but it has never helped me get back when my phone dies. I’ve seen enough power blackouts and internet outages to firmly believe we can never rely on technology. It may disappear without warning—or it may not be useful once we drop far enough off the map.
We have to be resourceful—without any resources.
6. People Will.
When you’re outside the service zone, a friendly shepherd will give you directions, and he and his three dogs and two dozen goats will accompany you for the next kilometer of your journey. When you’re stranded on the side of the road, well-meaning strangers will (usually) stop and pick you up.
When emergency strikes, technology won’t save us, but the human beings around us will.
7. No Fear.
When I said yes to a stranger’s invitation to dinner in Nepal, she became a friend, and her family’s hospitality gave me one of my most memorable experiences of the trip. Jumping on another friend’s motorcycle for a two-day ride from Mustang to Pokhara tied it for first. Wherever I go, I try to say yes to every (reasonable) opportunity.
Not everyone will agree with my “yes-woman” policy, but I stand by it. From hitchhiking to midnight swims, and mountain climbs to backstreet wanders, it has led me to a treasure trove of adventures—and no regrets.
In short: leave fear behind, along with the high heels. Where we’re going, we won’t need them.
What did I miss? Please share your travel-taught lessons—I’d love to hear them!
Originally published on elephant journal.