Friday, 3 January 2014

What I learned from 13 countries and 11 states in 2013

What a year for travel!  Pretty unbelievable- especially considering that I maintained full-time doctoral student status and worked another job during the year.  In wrapping up the Europe trip and starting a new year, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve learned from 13 countries (Brazil, India, Thailand, (Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and US) and 10 states (NC, TN, CT, MD, DC, VA, MA, CA, OR, WA, NY) in 2013.  All this travel makes me realize how little I actually know but my globe trotting has taught me a few things: (Warning: this post is long. You have my enthusiastic permission to read it over multiple occasions!)
11. Technology makes traveling easy!
There’s no way I would have been able to pull off a transatlantic trip with two days of planning 10 years ago.  Being able to research/ book flights, accommodations and other activities online makes it easy and quick to do yourself.  Exchanging money used to be a pain but ATMs solve that problem. Even if reading maps is a struggle, following the blue dot on my ipad has helped me navigate out of unchartered territory countless times.
22. Travel light
Especially if you’re city hopping, it doesn’t make sense to be dragged down by large luggage with failing wheels.  A hand towel can sufficiently dry you off.  Braids tame wildabeast hair better than straighteners and anti-frizz products.  I brought 5 outfits to Spain and I’m wearing the same cheap scarf, blue coat and clown boots in every picture.  Who are you trying to impress anyway?  I lugged around a sizeable first aid kit in Spain but the only medicine I needed (for my cold), wasn’t there.  I know I complained about not having my laptop, but I survived. In civilized countries, you can usually get what you need when you need it.  And if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Your feet, your back and your hosts will thank you!
Not much room for luggage on one of these things!
33. Keep an eye out for opportunities
People are always amazed how much I’ve been able to travel when a graduate student salary barely keeps you above the poverty line.  I’m lucky that specializing in science and science education, opportunities for fellowships and travel grants exist but I’m convinced that with some searching, you can find ways to fund yourself too.  When airline companies overbook planes, volunteer to postpone your trip a few hours and you’ll get a free flight somewhere else.  There are countless blogs about ways to travel cheap/for free- when there’s a will, there’s a way!
44.  Doing your job is the easiest part of working in another country
That being said, be prepared since getting things done in foreign countries can be a challenge.  Undergoing research projects in Brazil, Singapore and India and teaching in India has revealed what may be written in your job description (collecting data, educating/assessing students) is the easy part.  Getting used to how another country works (and having your salary depend on it), is much more difficult, especially since they don’t write instruction manuals for this type of thing.  Who would have guessed that cooties are still a very serious issue for Indian 7th graders?  That staircases in Singapore lock behind you, causing you to miss meetings as you hunt down a way to bust out?   That a working voice recorder with batteries is essentially too much to ask for in India?  If you are making presentations abroad, have some one from that culture preview it- when I was invited to speak at the “Republic of China” physics conference, I almost used statistics from the “People’s Republic of China” which would have made me look like an ignorant American, assuming Taiwan and China were equivalent.  I already looked a little ridiculous, bragging about how 66% of American students go to college right after high school, when nearly 100% of their population gets a college education right after secondary school.
Some of my class in India- boys in front, girls in back
55. Don’t be afraid to travel alone
Yes traveling alone can be scary, inconvenient (having my huge backpack follow me everywhere I go drives me nuts, especially in dirty bathrooms) and sometimes more expensive.  More than half my international travel has been mostly independent and it’s incredibly liberating to do what you want, when you want to do it.  More important than that flexibility, traveling alone allows you to more fully immerse yourself in a culture.  Without worrying about engaging someone in conversation, you can people-watch without distraction, food-gasm without interruption over your Portuguese pastry and generally, makes you more fully engaged in the present.  When you have to figure out what you are doing, you notice things, strike up conversations that you won’t otherwise and more easily take advantage of opportunities that arise.
66. But then again, you’re never alone
Almost everywhere I’ve gone, people have gone out of their way to help.  Yes, I’ve used couchsurfing to broadcast my pleas for advice and assistance, “Hey! I’m here! I have no idea where to go, what to see or how to order a coffee in this crazy place”.  Typically, way more people want to meet up than I have time to accommodate.  But even strangers in the metro who miss their train to point you in the right direction, people who exercise broken English to make you feel comfortable and unfathomably generous people who welcome you into their homes to share food or their families with you.  I remember spending Chinese New Year with Professor Pao’s family, eating a chaotic Sunday dinner in Brasilia with two dozen members of Henrique’s family, learning to make dumplings in Singapore with the random lady who asked directions to the train station.
I found a second set of parents when I traveled to Brazil- I still talk to Reva almost weekly!
77.  Pre-planned travel buddies are also amazing
Although there are advantages to traveling alone and it’s nice to make new friends around the globe but sharing special moments with long-time loved ones is really special.  This past summer, I went on a West Coast road trip with two of my best friends from college and its nice to have people who know you and love you so you don’t have to be Miss America Posterchild 24/7.  You indulge the history buff at the American History Museum and they let you go to the Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco Chinatown.
88. Transplants make excellent tour guides
Always say yes when locals offer to show you around but I’ve found that people who move to a city later in life do an even better job.  When you are born and raised in a certain place, there’s a lot you don’t notice and you take for granted.  Transplants are often more likely to seek out cool places and better articulate interesting facts about a city.  I know even with myself, it’s easier to show people around Raleigh than my hometown because you are more attuned to what may be cool or different about a certain place.
99.  Make your country proud
For a surprising fraction of the people I’ve met abroad, I’m the only American they’ve ever met.  It’s partially because Americans don’t really travel as much as Europeans or Australians who have vacation time that better accommodate big trips and there’s also plenty to explore within our country without having to go through customs.  However, its important to recognize that many people (at least young-ish ones) from other countries see our movies, listen to our music and the common consensus seems to be that life in the United States is like American Pie.  Crazy college parties, lots of sex and generally speaking, anything goes.  I find the image of America that makes it overseas pretty embarrassing- McDonalds, gossip columns broadcasting the drug and marriage problems our celebrities and a consuming materialism.  I try to represent the best of what America should be- an open-mindedness to diversity, welcoming different ways to do things and a belief in equality and freedom of opinion.  I’m hoping to help people realize there’s more to America than Big Macs.
110.  Travel karma is serious stuff
What goes around, comes around.  The world is smaller than you think and being hospitable and generous now will probably benefit you later on.  As a non-profit, Couchsurfing basically operates on this principle and hosting people in Raleigh has already opened a lot of doors for me.  I hosted a Turkish guy for four back in September and now I’ve got a place to stay, travel agent and tour guide for ten days in Turkey later this month.  Some girls watched my bags at the JFK airport, we got reunited in Madrid and I invited them along on a free trip to Toledo with another couchsurfer.  This isn’t limited to couchsurfing- I photographed some Brits riding elephants and Thailand and now I’ve got free places to stay in London. 
Discovering new fun places near Raleigh with Orhan who I'll be visiting in Turkey

111. Collect memories
      I’m not a materialistic person and usually the only souvenirs I buy abroad are postcards and maybe something for the person watching my hedgehog or my ride to the airport.  Nothing with a price tag could possibly compare to the experiences I’ve had abroad.  But with all collections, it’s important to be able to share and showcase what you’re passionate about.  It takes effort for me to disconnect from a moment and pull out my camera to capture it, but I’m infinitely grateful to have it recorded later on.  Blogging is important to me for the same reason.  With action-packed trips, bouncing between cities on little sleep and typically little time to process what’s happening, it’s easy to forgot amazing things so document it somehow.
112. Enjoy the journey
When planning the West Coast road trip previously mentioned, one of the first versions of the itinerary had us making the 11-hour drive from San Francisco to Portland overnight.  Sometimes we’re so focused on getting from point A to point B that we forget to savor the in between.  The cities were neat but my favorite parts of that trip were watching the fog-filled hills of San Francisco, twist into a coastal drive over powerful Pacific waves, evolve into wine country with gnarled grape vines and making us feel miniscule in the majestic forest of the giant redwoods.  Planes are nice to get us places quickly but sometimes its worth a bus drive to see what life looks like in “more ordinary” areas of a country.
Shannon and I inside a Redwood- hardly ordinary but still a notable stop on the way to Portland
113. There’s a whole world outside your front door
Obviously, I’m a huge advocate of traveling but I’m also convinced that you don’t need to travel far for international experiences and you should thoroughly explore your own neighborhood.  Hosting people from other countries and writing for Epicure and Culture has encouraged me to find neat places and give me a new perspective on things that seem ordinary to me.  I’ll never forget how the Brits’ sole request for visiting Raleigh was a trip to Walmart- watching them roam the aisles felt like witness a baby’s first Christmas.  In addition to enjoying your own culture, if you look, there’s usually communities of people from other places that can’t wait to share their heritage with you.  Tonight, I’m getting a gourmet cooking lesson from an Italian in my yoga class.  The Turkish cultural center hosts free Sunday potluck brunches where you can stuff your belly full of deliciousness while learning something new from the guest speaker.  Going dancing at Columbian night at Carmine’s is a different universe- no conception of personal space and not an ounce of English to be found.  Even walking through my apartment complex, you find yourself in a cloud of curry, surrounded by people speaking Hindi where complete strangers are willing to teach you how to put on saris, for you when are appointed “the sari guide” at Desi housewarming gatherings.
Sari guide success!  Thanks to some last minute lessons from my Indian neighbors