Lessons from TravelVolume I

I try not to date what I write, but I must mention that I’m writing this in the year 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which people in the future will call by the same name I first used to refer to the 1918 H1N1 pandemic: “There was a pandemic?”¹

I mention this because the COVID-19 pandemic has all but eliminated the possibility of travel, which has caused me to reminisce on past travels and realize that some of the most important lessons I’ve learned, I owe entirely to travel.

So, since many of us can’t (or shouldn’t) travel until further notice, I decided to write down and share some of those lessons.

Here are eight lessons I’ve learned from travel:

Lesson 1: Ask people for directions.
Lesson 2: Don’t generalize.
Lesson 3: Consume less media and have more conversations.
Lesson 4: Avoid discussing religion and politics.
Lesson 5: Find common ground.
Lesson 6: A government is not its people.
Lesson 7: When in Rome…
Lesson 8: Be a citizen of the world.

Travel has taught me to ask people for directions.

You can’t go to a foreign land and look up directions to everything on the internet. Actually, you can; you absolutely can. Still, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do. I think it’s best to ask people for directions.

When you’re abroad, asking people for directions can save you from walking through dangerous areas that the internet might not know of, reveal to you amazing local spots that the internet would have missed, and allow you to connect with real human beings.

Moreover, I think it’s best to ask people for directions even when you’re not traveling.

I remember growing up in the Republic of Panama (pre-smartphones) and having to ask people for directions when I couldn’t find some place. This forced me to talk to people and become aware of my surroundings. In hindsight, this was a great thing for me, and I feel lucky to have grown up when and where I did.

Now, most of us can just get directions online, whether abroad or at home, which means that we can find any place without needing to engage with anyone but artificial guides with creepily neutral voices that live in our devices and tell us where to go.

Yes, it’s more convenient, and it can be useful, but it can also be a crutch that allows us to not engage with new people in a new place as we bend our necks down and ask a tech company where to go.

So, if you’re in a new place, and even if you just have a question in a familiar place…ask people for directions! It’ll enrich your experience.

Any time we hear someone start a sentence with “men are” or “women are” or “Colombians are” or “Americans are” or “people with that skin color are” or “people who like cats are” or “artists are” or any other combination of words that throws countless individuals into one same bucket in order to shower them with one same lazy judgement, an alarm should go off in our brains to warn us that the rest of that sentence cannot be accurate.

The same alarm should go off when we say or think similar things.

To clarify, I’m referring to actual generalizations and judgments, not to historical facts (“many Chileans suffered during the military dictatorship”), nor to groupings done constructively for the sake of clarity and brevity (“the people in my team are cool”), nor to jokes (for example, Galician jokes are just jokes, and they’re great, regardless of the fact that my ethnicity is largely Galician).

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges:

Sólo los individuos existen, si es que existe alguien.²

This translates into: “Only individuals exist, and that is if anyone exists.” A little bit cerebral at the end there, but that’s just Borges being Borges, and he does have a point.

Groups are abstractions. Sometimes helpful abstractions, yes, but often harmful abstractions. Better to, whenever possible, avoid these abstractions altogether and treat each unique individual as, well, a unique individual.

Travel has taught me that it’s inaccurate at best and unjust at worst to make broad statements about a group of people, as if that group of people wasn’t composed of unique individuals.

Don’t generalize.

Galician joke alert: Why did the Galician man stare at the juice carton? Because the carton read Concentrate.

Travel has taught me to value conversations with real people over the consumption of media.

Before I had some opportunities to travel, I had many ignorant beliefs about peoples and cultures that were foreign to me, simply because my only interactions with them had been through media and never through real-life conversations.

For example, I used to believe that people from Germany were all extremely serious. This was until, at an open mic night abroad, I played a cover of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” in broken German and gibberish (mostly the latter), which prompted four guys from Germany to stand up and, beers in hand, scream the lyrics in German while doing the wave. A four-person wave. In a six-person audience. Afterwards, I had a hilarious conversation with them about Nena and German ’80s music, and I realized that my belief about people from Germany was extremely ignorant.

This is a fairly innocent example of an error of perception caused by too much media and too few conversations, but things in this regard are getting worse.

Thanks to the advertisement-driven business models that are becoming more prevalent in our society, and thanks to our collective agreement on the questionable notion that we should never have to pay for information, much of modern media is incentivized to do one thing: get attention.

And, what gets the most attention? Stereotypes, fear, sensationalism, materialism, immediacy, base instincts, buzzwords, controversy, gossip, conflict, drama, and the like.

For example, I titled this piece “Lessons from Travel”.

I like it. I think it’s clean.

Now, imagine I had given this piece the title of “8 Reasons for the Cure to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Blockchain, Allegations, A.I., Drugs, Stocks, Crime, Supermodels, Tech, Death, Fame, War, Disruption, Ban, U.S., China, Money, Big Data, and Celebrities — Here’s Why”.

It would be misleading, it would make no sense, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep for a week from being so embarrassed by it…but it would likely get more attention.

A professor I admire once said in regards to media that “the truth is hard to sell.” I see his point, but that doesn’t mean that all of us should settle for buying anything less than the nuanced (and sometimes slightly boring) truth.

And, the best way to get closer to this truth is through having conversations with real people.

We are responsible for what we let into our lives.³

So, consume less media and have more conversations. It’ll give you a clearer read of our cultural differences and, more importantly, of our shared humanity.

When I was a kid, my dad always advised me, in Spanish, to avoid discussing religion and politics.⁴

It took me going through several heated and pointless debates to realize that he was right: religion and politics are contentious subjects, and they can turn any conversation into a confrontation.

His lesson is even more applicable when traveling…but most of us already know this. When we travel, we usually know better than to bring up religion and politics. Yet, for some reason, when at home, we immediately ask someone we just met, “who did you vote for?” or, “what’s up with those gods of yours?”

When it comes to discussing religion and politics, unless you’re having an open-minded conversation with a close friend or loved one, act as if you were traveling.

It’s perfectly fine to ask curiosity questions (“that’s interesting; so how is this religion organized?”), but it’s not okay to imply that you’re right and they’re wrong (“oh…so that’s what you believe in…cool…”).

Better to focus on common ground (continue to Lesson 5) than on the contentious, confrontational grounds of religion and politics.

Travel has taught me to find common ground with people.

It’s nearly impossible to have a good or even tolerable time in a new environment if you can’t connect with anyone around you.

The best way to connect with someone new is to find common ground. This is true both abroad and at home.

One way to do this is to think about your interests and see if they’re connected in any way to this new person.

For example, if you love the work of Anton Chekhov and you meet someone from Russia, you might consider expressing your admiration for Chekhov’s ability to write natural dialogue. Even if this hypothetical person from Russia hates Chekhov and dialogue, they will at least appreciate that a foreigner genuinely admires a part of their culture.

Another way to find common ground is to try to speak the language of whoever you’re interacting with. The key word there is “try”. Trying will do; it communicates that you care about their language.

If you bump into the same person from Russia (are they following you?), all you have to do is say, Dobroi nochi, and then they can say something in Russian that sounds like, “Wow, you speak Russian!” and then you can say, “No,” and slowly walk away.

One last way to find common ground is to ask lots of questions: What makes this place special? What’s your favorite thing about living here? Least favorite? Favorite spot? Can you give me directions to go there? What makes your culture unique? Have you been following me? Who are you? Are you even Russian? Is that a sickle?

Finding common ground helps establish rapport with anyone, and it can teach you that this new person in front of you is not that different from you.

I won’t illustrate this lesson with specific examples because I’m too young to have my name listed on some government’s blacklist. Suffice to say that it is misguided to make a judgement about an individual person based on the government of the country that that person is from. Don’t do this. It makes no sense. Everywhere on the planet there are amazing individuals, as well as not-so-amazing individuals, and this has nothing to do with foreign policy or government.

P.S. Dear government that, for some reason, read that last paragraph written by this random young person, and, for some other reason, found it offensive: You’re really cool. Please don’t blacklist me.

…do as the Romans do. This is a cliché for a reason.

Travel has taught me that observing and following the customs of our surrounding environment is key to our being able to thrive in it.

There are limits to this, of course. Some places will have traditions that go against your inner sense of right and wrong. You shouldn’t compromise your values just to fit in…it’s never worth it.

You know, like, when in Rome, in the times of the empire, people would murder each other to gain power, only to be murdered themselves soon after and then be forgotten forever. When in Rome, you might not want to do that.

But, if you’re ever in the southern United States, for example, you might want to consider greeting strangers. There, strangers wave at each other from their cars and say “how you doing?” to each other when out for a walk. It’s polite, and any time I would fail to greet southern strangers because I thought I was someplace else, they would give me a look that told me they knew I was a foreigner.

My point is this: When in Rome, especially if you’re in an empire, don’t murder people to gain power; this usually leads to you also being murdered and then forgotten forever.

Also, do as the Romans do.

Galician joke alert: A Galician man was told that his wife was having an affair with his best friend. So he killed his dog.

Travel has taught me to be a citizen of the world.

In his De Exilio, Plutarch (a guy from Greece) paraphrases Socrates (another guy from Greece) as follows:

But Socrates expressed it better, when he said, he was not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world (just as a man calls himself a citizen of Rhodes or Corinth), because he did not enclose himself within the limits of Sunium, Taenarum, or the Ceraunian mountains.⁵

I have emailed both of these Greek guys for comment, and I look forward to their response. They seem smart.

To “enclose ourselves” within geographic, political, or cultural limits is to indirectly isolate ourselves from all that lies outside those limits.

Moreover, travel (and learning about history) has taught me that these limits are often manufactured.

The amount of unnecessary suffering we’ve created by thinking along the lines of “my place/flag/anthem/language/culture is better than yours!” is depressing, especially at this point in our history as a species.

Travel can teach us that we’re all citizens of the world.

In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us the same thing, if we’re willing to listen.

Being a citizen of the world doesn’t mean letting go of national or regional pride; I am extremely proud of the good parts of my heritage, as should you. It just means that we’re also extremely proud to be part of the larger community of humanity.

In summation, here are eight lessons I’ve learned from travel:

Lesson 1: Ask people for directions.
Lesson 2: Don’t generalize.
Lesson 3: Consume less media and have more conversations.
Lesson 4: Avoid discussing religion and politics.
Lesson 5: Find common ground.
Lesson 6: A government is not its people.
Lesson 7: When in Rome…
Lesson 8: Be a citizen of the world.

Travel can teach us lessons that can improve our selves and our lives, both abroad and at home.

I hope the COVID-19 pandemic ends soon so we can all have more opportunities for travel and the learning it allows.

For when that time comes…

Safe travels!

Many know Socrates as one of the alleged creators of the concept of world citizenship. Few know, however, that he was also quite suspicious at airport checkpoints: “What is your citizenship, Mr. Socrates?” “The world.” “Ah, I see…security!” This photo is a mugshot of Socrates taken after he was detained for suspicious activity at the Miami International Airport in 412 B.C.
  1. This is one of only two things I know for certain about the future. The other is that, in the future, humanity is still making Fast & Furious movies.
  2. Jorge Luis Borges, “El Otro,” in Cuentos Completos, 1ra ed. (Nueva York, EE.UU.: Vintage Español, 2019), p. 431.
  3. I remember learning in primary school about the four basic parts of any communication: the sender, the message, the medium, and the receiver. I also remember learning that all of these play a role in determining the quality of a communication. So, for example, if a “friend” shares some gossip with me, and I buy into it (and maybe even spread it) without stopping to find out whether the gossip corresponds to, you know, reality, then my “friend” is a gossiper, yes, but I’m not an innocent victim of misinformation: I’m an enabler.
  4. Here’s what he would say to me in Spanish: Con la gente no se habla ni de política ni de religión. And here’s how you say “the mango” in Spanish: el mango.
  5. Plutarch, “De Exilio,” Perseus Digital Library (Tufts University), http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0308%3Asection%3D5.



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