My rule each year is to use my passport at least once to travel someplace. Preferably to a place where English is not the native language. Of course that’s not always an easy feat, but the rewards are worth the effort.
Initially when my family moved to Canada, and we had limited funds to splurge on vacations, we would pack our old Honda full of towels, blankets, bathing suits, sandwiches, boiled eggs, and thermoses filled with tea, and head for Long Beach or Lake Simcoe in Ontario for a low-budget vacation. Wealthier Canadians would travel to Florida, Mexico, or the Caribbean Sea to stay at a fancy all-inclusive resort in Cancun or Punta Cana. And after a couple of months of the cold Canadian winter, such a sunny getaway can indeed be the perfect cure. I too hoped that one day I would be able to vacation in a similar fashion.
Eventually, as I got older and my vacation budget expanded, I did end up at one of these places where all you needed to do is find a comfortable place under the sun and sip on Margaritas. And although it was relaxing and the views were magnificent, other than a glowing tan and a few pictures of me holding some decadent drink with a miniature umbrella stuck in it, the experience didn’t imprint anything profound on my mind.
Moving our everyday bubble from one place to another, helps us feel safe, but prevents us from having deeper experiences
After all, even though the resort was on the Caribbean, within its walls it felt like I haven’t left Canada. Despite being in a Spanish-speaking country, inside the resort most people spoke English and were either from Canada or the U.S. The menus, food, and activities were catered towards the Canadian and U.S. clientele. Even the dollar was used as the currency. Things were running smoothly at the resort, someone was always there to carry your umbrella and bring you a cocktail, the landscape was manicured to perfection, the buildings had a fresh coat of paint, and there was an abundance of everything. But, on the outside the locals had to scramble for basics, the buildings looked worn out and the infrastructure lacked maintenance.
Step out of the familiar space and be open to experience the real world
Somehow, these two contrasting worlds, divided by a wall, and existing right next to each other, disturbed me. Perhaps because I was aware that the world within the resort walls was a pretend world. Available only to the paying and privileged customers from the north. And I was not fully experiencing the country I was visiting, but rather consuming an extension of the North American culture with an island-feel twist.
It was safe. The resort walls protected me from any unsavory situations, keeping me in a convenient and familiar world. But the price for all this convenience was that I returned home uninspired. I was certainly rested and more relaxed, but within a few days, my life was right where I left it, and along with my tan, the fantasy paradise quickly faded.
Our destinations should contrast the places we leave behind
After sampling the beach resort experience, I concluded that this flavor of travel was not for me. I craved more from travelling than just a tan and a pretty view. Certainly, a carefree escape is nice from time to time, and we all need it sometimes, but it can’t be the only purpose of travel. At least not for me. I like to think that the purpose of travel is to expand my world rather than keep me isolated within the one I already know. I don’t want to travel 3,000 miles just to find myself surrounded by the very same people I interact with daily or eat a hamburger when I can have a Pupusa.
I want to walk to a local market, hear the native language, watch locals interact and go about their day. I want to see the unpaved road or that worn out building with unusual architecture or concealed sculpted figures above it’s entrance. I want to sample that fried fish from the street vendor and walk into a hidden courtyard tucked away from the street noise and the bustle. I want an element of surprise in my travels and savor things I don’t usually get a chance to experience in my day to day routine. I want something different because I want to return home feeling like I learned something new.
Don’t hide from richer experiences just because it takes effort
To experience a different culture, occasionally there will be discomfort caused by unfamiliar surroundings, unusual tastes, smells, or sights. But it’s the discomfort, the inconvenience, and the unknown that push us towards finding creative solutions, to try out a different approach, and to discover something new about ourselves and the world. Or, even appreciate more what we already have, like coming to a warm home after a long walk on a cold winter day.
An adventure requires some risk. Sometimes you just need to leap in and see where the path takes you. You never know what you’ll discover along the way.
I remember the time when my family and I travelled to Cappadocia in Turkey, and we were walking for a long time, getting lost in a terrain that looks like something from outer space. The experience of planting my feet along the same paths where once an entire civilization roamed and hid in these cone-shaped like huts, moved me. We spent hours discovering various formations with hidden entrances and rooms; even occasionally stumbling upon old frescos. I was mesmerized. But also didn’t realize that we were walking for hours and started to get very hungry. Not to mention that our feet started to get blisters. Being captivated as we were, we wondered quite far into the valley and there were no places to eat nearby, so we became desperate and had to find some food—and fast. Luckily we stumbled upon a local young man who happened to be selling dried dates, figs, and nuts. We bought some of each and indulged in these delicacies. I never thought that dried dates or figs could taste so delicious. Normally I would not make a meal out of figs nor dates. But finding ourselves outside of our regular routine, we had to get creative and make the best of what we had.
That evening, we sat perched on a rooftop of an ancient building in Cappadocia, watching the sunset, eating figs and dates for dinner, while resting our bare feet in the breeze as we smiled and felt happy despite some discomforts we had to overcome to find ourselves in this magical moment. That was an experience I will never forget. Unplanned and full of inspiration.
After this day, figs and dates became part of my regular diet and many of the pictures I draw include the little mounts that were inspired by my visit to Cappadocia.
I think it’s healthy from time to time to get away from ourselves. To find ourselves surrounded by what feels strange to us and to push ourselves out of our own comfort zone. To take that risk and learn that different isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different from what we’ve been exposed to. The more we expose ourselves to new situations, the more flexible we become and the easier it is for us to adapt to unforeseen situations. Because, after all, no matter how much we plan, life has the tendency to throw at us a few surprises here or there. And it helps to get some practice beforehand on how to handle the unexpected without loosing our footing.
About this illustration: Exploring the Unknown Waters
In this picture I painted a scene of two friends embarking on a journey. They are leaving the land and traveling on a small boat into the unknown waters. One boy is curious about the sea and observes the fish jumping happily and freely in their own world. The other boy is looking back at the land, pondering for a moment if he’s doing the right thing by leaving the safe and familiar world behind him. He’s hesitant, but his curiosity is stronger than his need to feel safe. He looks at the red balloon, as the boy on the land releases it into the sky. The balloon symbolizes the letting go of something we want to hold on to, but can’t any longer because it’s weighing us down and blocking us from moving forward.
A girl sits on the tree looking longingly as she is seeing her friends go. She does’t want them to go, but she doesn’t want to leave her home to join them on an adventure either. She is stuck in a place where she dreams of being somewhere else, but doesn’t know how to let go of her current situation to get someplace different. Because what she has now, although dissatisfying, seems better than the possible disappointment she might come across in the unknown waters. And she fears disappointment more than predictability, so she is stuck in a place of longing instead.
The two dragonflies symbolize growth and maturity that result when we push our boundaries. And as the two boys step onto the new territory, the challenges they will face will help them grow, learn more about themselves and come closer to self realization. This will be their reward for being brave and taking their journey onto the unknown waters.