Six things I've learned after circling the globe with 4 teens

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I've learned hundreds of lessons from travel: Under certain circumstances, squash CAN explode in your rental car.  You don't want a squash explosion if you can at all help it!  Russian Officials DO NOT mean prescriptions when they ask if you are bringing any drugs into their country.  The ancient city of Pompeii allows some overnight guests – a pack of stray dogs who can be adopted.  There are two airports in Rome and yes, you need to check your ticket so you don't take your four teenagers to the wrong one. How to get the cheapest airfares. How to order in restaurants where no one speaks English.

Well those are all fine and good, but the lessons that resound in my head day after day, now that the trip is over are the bigger life lessons.  How to get the cheapest airfare…that’s interesting, but you can find lots of advice out there on that.  I’d rather talk about what can make a difference in your life whether you ever travel outside your home country or not.  So here are a few things I’ve learned along those lines:

Everyone wants happiness, but those with the loudest and most pervasive voices seem to be advertising companies.  What they have to offer can be pretty darn cool…but does it lead to the happiness they promise?

I don’t want to sound like another materialistic-gone-spiritual person with unpractical and extreme ideas about life, but I have seen so many people around the world who 1) are happier than I could have imagined and 2) have less than I could have imagined.

I know, I know – ho-hum – we hear that all the time…you don’t need things to be happy…money doesn’t make you happy.  But, hey, there may be more to it than you think.

So many of us are working more than we would like to in the name of financial security…or is part of it just so we can have more, cooler, better stuff?  Do some of us feel we are struggling when we actually have enough, because we don’t have as much as others?  And how much of our precious time and energy gets spent thinking about what we should buy, shopping for it, dusting, sorting, storing, cleaning, comparing, talking about…piles and piles of stuff?

In many places we visited, they simply don’t have many things.  Not having so much stuff to acquire and care for really seems to free up time and energy for enjoying friends, family and neighbors, for laughing, talking, and simple things like learning songs and dances and performing them for each other.

I don’t mean people should be poor, and hey – I do like my stuff…when I am in a thrift shop or a sporting or outdoor equipment store, I am like a kid in a candy store. But there’s something to be said for attempting to reorder our priorities and some of our thoughts about “stuff”…maybe starting with our definition of “enough”.  The likelihood of being happy gets a huge boost when we spend more time enjoying simple pleasures and less time desiring, acquiring and caring for things.

Travel is cheaper, easier as well as more enriching than you might think

I remember sitting in Bonn, Germany (after only having been to a handful of cities…most all of them in Europe) thinking that I had experienced a whole new set of values and way of life.  It’s hard to describe, but it was like there was literally a whole world out there that had been hidden from me…and it wasn’t the scenery, the monuments, it wasn’t even the people (most everyone says that it’s the people!)…it was the variety of attitudes and approaches I had never encountered that opened my eyes to the world and fascinated me the most.  And we were only in Europe…imagine what I had yet to encounter in places like India and Kenya!

I’ve been exposed to new ways of thinking and doing.  Now that we’re back, not a day goes by that I don’t see ordinary things in a new light after living with orphans in Bulgaria and Kenya, dancing with Maasai tribespeople – they loved it when we taught them the Macarena J, and talking with teens in Calcutta about everything from their hopes and dreams, to arranged marriage, to how they plan to care for their parents when they get older.  Life is a rich, wonderful experience, and it believe it or not, your own personal happiness and satisfaction doesn’t even depend on your life circumstances, it’s all about your attitude.

Think you can’t afford to travel?  Consider this…a plane ticket to the place you’ve always dreamed of going may not cost that much, especially if you consider the cost of that ticket spread over a long period of time spent in that area of the world.  You can get a great deal if you are flexible on travel times and don’t mind making multiple stops when it means a cheaper airfare.  We’ve had great luck with www.cheapoair.com Oh, my gosh, I guess I did end up talking about cheap airfares! Pick a developing country to visit and food and lodging are cheap, and so is most everything else, including all those adventure sports you’ve always dreamed of trying.

Travel can be even cheaper if you volunteer for an organization like Nyumbani that just needs you to reimburse their cost of housing and feeding you.  They charge volunteers $145/month for room and board…try living on that at home!  The secret for us was not only to cut way back and save before the trip, but to eliminate all expenses at home while we traveled…no bills, rent, utilities, etc.  Not everyone can leave their home like that, but there are many ways to make it work, so get out there and go for it!  You’ll be glad you did.

Relax!

Or in the only English words known by one of our guides while riding horseback through the mountains of Bulgaria for three days, “Everything is okay.”  It didn't matter that his boss only taught him that phrase because it seems to makes American's relax, or that he uttered it even when Alex's horse took off on a wild gallop in the wrong direction, the truth is, everything IS okay.  And even if it isn't, it will be, and it will be sooner if you relax and go with the flow.  Miss the train, take the next one.  Have to wait out on the sidewalk until morning for the next train, enjoy the adventure…you'll have a story to tell.  All of life's little (and big) trials and tribulations are better when you relax!

Discomfort is NOT a bad thing

I know it SOUNDS like a bad thing…after all, most of us put a lot of effort into making ourselves and others as comfortable as we can.  It wasn’t until our year of travel was almost done that a Buddhist Monk made me consider another possibility…

After days of silent meditation in classes where no one spoke English, I was frustrated with people who were breaking my concentration by packing up in the middle of a meditation session.  Anyway, I moved to the far end of the room and tried to think of the bag-rustling-zippering-unzippering-(repeat, repeat, repeat)-people with loving kindness rather than with frustration.  When I reported this to the English-speaking monk who checked on me once a day, proud of my proactive and loving self, he wasn’t enthusiastic.

Ah, that is what you usually do whenever you don’t like something, yes?  You try to change IT…or get away from it.  I could see he wasn’t likely to use the word “proactive” in his praise of my behavior…“uh, well, yes”, I mumbled.  He continued…before long it was clear that I am much better at making changes (even huge, life changes) than at accepting things (even little, tiny, insignificant, but annoying things).  And he wasn’t talking about begrudging acceptance, he was challenging me to see the possibility of peaceful, loving acceptance.

Thanks to his simple guidance, I actually learned to meditate that afternoon!  I just didn’t give in to the discomfort…my legs went numb, I was bored, I wanted to get up, but I just kept at it for another minute, and another, and then five, and then an hour, and then two hours.

All my life I thought avoiding discomfort was a good thing…I worked hard so I could be comfortable, bought things to be more comfortable, solved problems to be comfortable, and I am pretty good at it most of the time…but discomfort is just another part of life, and you can’t always avoid it.  On the other hand, if you can learn to just notice and accept it, but not stop what you are doing – wow – a world of new possibilities (not to mention peace and happiness) opens up to you.

I took up running a few weeks ago.  When I don’t want to do it, I do it anyway and then I smile thinking of my old self, who would have stopped by now, and think of how much more I can achieve now that I know I have the ability to keep going.

We all have the power to change the world

Another obvious lesson – could be that I was just unusually ignorant of these clichés – or maybe that I chose to ignore them until I was hit over the head with their meaning while traveling.

This is as much about helping and enjoying yourself as it is about helping others.  Giving feels good!  It builds confidence, connections, personal empowerment, feelings of well being…and if the Buddhists are right…good Karma!

We can ALL give.  This lesson hit home when we watched the orphans and grandparents who care for each other in the Nyumbani village in Kenya take up a collection for children in another village who were not as well off.  I believe they raised about $10 in total; donations don’t have to be large to make a difference.

Now I can’t explain the circumstances of the kids who were “not as well off” because I didn’t meet them, but let me tell you about the kids we lived with for a month who were giving the support.  Many of them don’t own shoes because they can’t afford them.  They have almost no concept of toys.  They have a few articles of clothing and that’s about it.  They don’t have running water or electricity in their homes. In the short amount of time they have before their school day begins at 6am and ends at 7pm, they work to grow vegetables for their new blended families.

We watched 50 of these kids pile into the back of the village’s truck on their one day off to go sing at a benefit concert for another charity.  Proof positive – anyone can give.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a lecture…it’s actually good news.  I think we all want to make a difference, and we’re sad or feel like less if we think our personal circumstances don’t allow us to do that.  Regardless of what you have or don’t have, or what your skill set is, there is something you can do to give to others.  Whether it’s donating your time, or your money.  Even offering a genuine smile to everyone you meet makes the world a better place.

I know that most people do give to others, and I don’t want to imply otherwise, I just want to emphasize that I saw so many “poor people” changing the world during our trip.  I saw first hand what a difference just a few dollars can make when given to the right charity.  I also came away from the trip with a firm belief that we are all connected and that practicing generosity in our day-to-day lives is an essential part of the human experience.

Everything you seek is right in front of you!

This is a tricky one though, because most often, you can’t see it until you look in a gazillion other places.  Read enough stories about people going out of their way seeking one thing or another…answers to the big questions in life, personal satisfaction, ways to make a difference in the world, and they often end up finding that what they were looking for was with them all the time.  Yes, it is the same with me.  I ended up traveling to 23 countries, staying everywhere from fancy hotels to the inside of an old shipping container, living with people from all backgrounds and circumstances and figuring out, by learning from so many of the people that I met, that the real keys to most of what I sought are inside of myself.

If there is a way for you to find the answers to your big questions without circling the globe, you won’t even need to find the cheapest airfares…but then…where is the fun in that??

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Posted on: August 21, 2011 | Categories: meditation, Travel Tips, What travel has taught us

 

3 comments

  • AJ says:

    Thanks for this interesting account of your final travel thoughts….it is so true that it is inside ourselves what we are looking for but the journey all around looking for it sure can be interesting and fun. Yes, even small gifts can make a difference, this is so worth remembering and practicing. I have enjoyed so much following your family’s travels this year. Thank you. At this point in my life I can’t image taking on such an adventure but sure enjoyed it from the comfort of my armchair….I do have a comfortable executive chair at my large screened computer. Enjoy this next adventure in your life.

  • Emily says:

    Great summation of your travels and giving and simplifying…
    (So glad to hear you are running too!!)

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Thanks, Em We miss you!

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