Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Nameless Women Who Shaped My Travel Perspective - March 2016

As I sat staring out the airplane window, I heard the thud of a large backpack landing in the overhead bin above my head. A woman with short dark hair shoved into the seat next to me. She sighed loudly and began talking to the seat back in front of her, "I can't believe I made it. The flight from Belize City was delayed two hours, and I literally had to run to catch this plane."

Belize City, I thought. That sounds cool. I was tired but decided to take the bait and engage in a conversation. "Why were you in Belize?" I asked. The woman explained that she and a friend had planned a week-long vacation to the Central American country but at the last minute, her friend had to cancel. My seatmate went on to tell me that even though her friend bailed she decided to travel to Belize on her own and had a fabulous time exploring ancient ruins, lazing on beaches and making new friends.

I studied the seemingly-normal-looking 20-something woman and asked in disbelief, "You traveled to another country by yourself? Weren't you scared?" She shook her head shrugging off the questions, and for the next hour described every last detail of her exciting, solo adventure. As I drove home from the airport that night I thought to myself: It's perfectly acceptable to travel by yourself. Be fearless; you may even make some new friends along the way.

Fast forward to three years later. I'm in my office staring at the computer. I've made up my mind that I'm quitting my job and am already enrolled in graduate school on the other side of the world. The email in front of me is from an American student at the university I'll be attending. It reads something like this: "Everything in Australia is different than it is back home. My parents send me care packages once a month with my favorite foods and much needed supplies. Make sure you bring plenty of soap, shampoo, make-up, and all the brands you like from home because they don't have anything like it over here. Everything is really expensive, too. Bring your own sheets and a lot of warm clothing. No one believes it, but it gets cold here in the winter."

Worried about the new frontier I'd soon find myself in, I bought a monstrously large suitcase and loaded it with all of the goods I would need to survive for the next year. I packed everything from bar soap to blankets, and threw in four tubes of my favorite brand of toothpaste for good measure. But wouldn't you know it, upon settling into my new city, I learned that they had grocery stores just like ours at home. Rows after rows of shelves with bar soap, blankets and toothpaste. Even though I didn't see all of the brands I was accustomed to buying, I found what I needed and I survived. That girl from the emails who I had never met taught me a valuable lesson: Travel light. The differences between where you go and home are part of what makes traveling an adventure. Embrace the culture around you and be open to trying something new.

Still on the other side of the world a couple years later, I got to talking with another woman while playing pool at an outdoor bar in Thailand. She was from Sweden and had a shocking nest of blond curls perched on top of her head. "How long are you on holiday?" I asked casually. "When do you head back to Stockholm?

"I'm not going back," she smoothly replied and pointed to a man playing cards at the bar. "That's my husband. We live here." Covered in tattoos and with a permeating white smile, she shared her story about how she had come to Thailand on vacation with friends, fell in love with a local and got married. They had been together for quite a while, and she had no intentions of going back to what she described as a boring and cold place miles away from anything worthwhile. Wow, I thought. How bold of this girl to travel so far from home to a place so different and bravely establish a new life for herself. A vivid example to support my building suspicion: Home is where you want it to be. Home may not always be a place or the country where you are from, but can be anywhere you feel comfortable and are surrounded by those you love.

As we travel through life, countless people cross our paths and influence our decisions. With each of these women I shared only a passing exchange, but they left impressions on me that would shape my travel perspective for a lifetime. Though I may not remember their names, these women's experiences continue to inspire me to this day. 

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