For CheapOAir.com. June 2016.
I love to travel, but I grew tired of the same “stay in a hotel, eat at a tourist trap restaurant” routine. After traveling to dozens of countries as a regular tourist, I found that my experience was getting rather repetitive. I wanted to return with amazing stories instead of bringing back cookie cutter photos of me posing in front of archaic monuments.
In 2011, I decided to turn my blog Go Eat Give into a nonprofit organization that would offer volunteer, culinary, and cultural travels, all rolled into one. I took small groups of travelers to visit places only the locals knew about, and to eat authentic food at restaurants and host family homes that were not listed in guidebooks. We took lessons in the local arts and culture (such as batik painting and salsa dancing), and stayed at 4-star sustainable hotels (because it’s a vacation after all!).
On each trip, we partnered with a local grassroots nonprofit organization to volunteer at, raise money for, and support throughout the year. It was fun, educational, and felt good. Most of all, such meaningful travels shaped my personality and changed my outlook on life.
Here are a few things I learned along the way…
1. Communication is more than just verbal
After traveling to 60+ countries, I don’t get intimidated by a destination where I don’t know a word of the local language or they don’t speak English. From haggling in the medina of Fez, driving around with my Japanese waiter in Oita, to ordering food in remote parts of Russia, I know that somehow everything will work out. Google Translator helps too!
“After visiting a village in Nepal that had no running water, electricity, or even toilets, no one can really complain much about their budget hotel room.”
2. Humans share the same problems everywhere
I will never forget the conversations I had with the women at a mental health institute in Russia. These women were living like prisoners because they had had a painful love affair, suffered from trauma after a parent’s death, or failed to overcome a painful divorce. These are common psychological problems that many one of us would likely face at some point in our lives, but I couldn’t imagine that they would lead to these women being locked up in a place with tattered beds, communal showers, porridge meals, and no counseling.
3. There are others worse off than me
Each year, I sit down with the women at a safe house in north India and go around the room asking them about their stories and how I could help them. Because I speak Hindi, they are able to easily open up to me. Sex trafficking, ugly divorces, abandonment by relatives, property disputes, domestic violence, labor exploitation – I’ve heard so many heartbreaking reasons why these women ended up on the streets. After listening to them, I find that I cannot really find many reasons to complain about my own life.
4. Things get consumed, memories last forever
When I first started teaching English at a women’s empowerment center in Rabat, Morocco, my students were baffled why someone would take time out from their vacation, spend thousands of dollars, travel across the ocean, only to spend time in a classroom volunteering. After three weeks with them, on my last day, they brought me farewell gifts of tea, cookies, and family recipes to say “thank you.” While the cookies and tea are long gone, I will always remember their stories, our time together, and many of the insights they shared with me.
5. Life is too short to worry about small problems
The mothers who we met in Mexico City were part of a support group of parents with children who had cancer. Tears rolled down their cheeks as they spoke about their little ones not being able to go outside and play like the other kids. The Go Eat Give volunteers fulfilled the wishes of each child and raised money to provide them with real hair wigs. At that moment, I realized how unpredictable life is, and that we had no other choice but to be happy for as long as we were alive.
6. Never take things for granted
After visiting a village in Nepal that had no running water, electricity, or even toilets, no one can really complain much about their budget hotel room. The Nepali people were warm and affectionate, always with smiles on their faces and never thinking twice to invite us for tea. They were content with what they had. Our visit helped me realize how much I take such necessities for granted. During the course of the day, I never think twice about if I have a working toilet, clean drinking water, or a comfortable bed to sleep on.
7. It’s the size of your heart, not your house, that matters
Teresa lives on the first floor of a dilapidated building in Havana, Cuba. But when she found out that I was in town, she invited my entire group of 10 volunteer travelers to dinner at her home. Her husband, son, sister, and mother greeted us into their tiny patio, where we feasted on the most delicious authentic Cuban food prepared with lots of love and very little resources.
“Through these experiences, I have emotionally matured in the sense that I am able to keep calm through tough situations. I don’t get agitated when things don’t go as expected.”
8. We must put others ahead of ourselves
In Bali, I met some of the poorest, yet happiest people in the world. On the last day of our volunteer vacation in Bali, my friend tipped $100 to the young lady at the hotel who had been serving us all week. When he asked her what she would do with the money, she responded, “I will buy books for my younger sister, give some to my mother, and deposit the rest in my bank.” My friend and I couldn’t fathom how a 22-year-old girl chose to put her family first instead of running off to the nearest mall to buy a new outfit.
9. What matters most in life is being close to family
The 60- to 90-year-old Russian women I met at an elder daycare facility in Yaroslavl told me that they came to the facility to play games, get health checkups, and stay socially active. The youngsters had moved to the city for better career opportunities, not realizing that the only thing that the aged wanted was to be close to family. I was deeply touched when one of the ladies insisted on cooking dinner for me as she missed her daughter so much.
10. Meaningful travel opens your horizons
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to travel and see how people live, what they value, and how they deal with obstacles. Through these experiences, I have emotionally matured in the sense that I am able to keep calm through tough situations. I don’t get agitated when things don’t go as expected. Most of all, once you make friends with someone from a completely different culture, you see their point of view and learn to accept it. This reminds me to always keep an open mind, no matter what.
Did you experience a life-changing moment during one of your trips? If so, please share them in the comments section below.
Appeared on CheapOAir Miles Away blog in June 2016.