As often as possible, go someplace you’ve never been before. Experience new places and new things. You might find yourself with someone or somewhere that makes you much happier than your previous circumstance. The Earth is so vast with unique and beautiful places, why wouldn’t you want to go explore them?
– HH Dalai Lama
My “do something different” annual goal is coupled with another goal my wife and I have had for the past decade: visit two new countries each year. We’ve sort of blown that one out of the box – averaging three or more new countries each year, totaling over sixty so far.
I thank my parents for giving me the travel bug. In early 70s, with two young kids, dad quit a great job (perhaps it runs in the family?) and took our family to live in Peru, a military dictatorship at the time, to work for the Peace Corps. Eighteen months later the Peace Corps was kicked out for supposedly being a front for the CIA, but dad switched to work for the US State Department and we stayed for another six years – basically all of my high school years.
There were nearly 40,000 Americans in Peru at the time, but most were with the oil and mining companies, and therefore a significantly different economic status than we were in our Peace Corps time. Not the best situation for an impressionable kid, but humbling in hindsight. The military, coupled with technological limitations at the time, meant communication outside of Peru was difficult. I remember waiting a month for Time magazine to arrive and having to schedule calls back to the U.S. days in advance. Although there was a large and very good American School, going out in the evenings wasn’t something you did as a school kid.
While there my parents took my sister and I, usually kicking and screaming, to countless museums and cultural events. I’m now thankful they did. I’ve visited Machu Picchu countless times. We took a month off one summer and drove our mustard Chevy Suburban south through Chile, across through Argentina, then up through Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. We also visited Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. We crossed rivers on railroad bridges hoping a train wasn’t coming, drove in the rain some incredibly narrow unpaved roads carved into mountains hoping no one was coming from the opposite direction, and were stopped by cops asking for immediate payment in cash for not having the supposedly mandatory fire extinguisher in our car. Crazy, scary days. I miss those days.
With each country I visit I learn something new and unexpected that changes my perceptions, challenges my biases, and adds to my worldview. I find it very scary how many folks in the U.S. haven’t been outside of the country, or perhaps Mexico and Canada, and therefore have a worldview driven purely by news sound bites compounded by the biases of their similarly narrow-view friends.
In Japan I learned about a culture steeped in respect for their family and fellow citizens. In India I discovered a people that were incredibly dedicated and industrious, but hampered by infrastructure. In Morocco I experienced the very peaceful and friendly side of Muslims that runs so counter to what many believe. Thailand must have the happiest people on earth, as everyone is always smiling. The infrastructure, health, and social problems associated with hypergrowth are very evident in Tanzania.
I understand there can be a significant financial barrier, but when possible invest the time and money in seeing other parts of the world. If possible, go places outside of the mainstream that are in different cultures, for that’s where you’ll learn the most. When you visit, be sure to take the time to see the reality in addition to the usual monuments and museums. How do people live? What do they struggle with? What are their perceptions of the rest of the world? Maybe you can help change that. My wife and I always ask for tours of regular neighborhoods and other non-touristy areas, and we will often spend a day giving back at orphanages or shelters. A year ago Christmas we brought and handed out gifts at a women’s shelter in a dangerous part of Colon, Panama. Humbling and very meaningful.