1. Seeing how differently violence is perceived in the world when it happens to a Western country
After the recent Paris tragedy, many expressed their feelings by adding the French flag to their profile shots and shared nostalgic pictures from their last trip to the Eiffel Tower or enjoying a croissant at a café on the Champs-Élysées. It’s a Western country. Familiar. We understand it. But the media doesn’t support that same wave of solidarity for the bombings in Beirut a week earlier, or an explosion in Turkey a month prior. We don’t understand the issues of non-Western countries in the same way. Visiting other countries, like Colombia, has opened my eyes to issues such as drug war violence in the 80s and 90s. You can’t get the nuances of a situation through the media.
2. Realizing how Western work life is slowly killing us
I was an unwilling participant in an overworked, stressed, and unhappy society in North America. I worked 12+ hour days. I arrived home tired, stressed, weary. Visiting Latin countries like Mexico or Argentina, businesses and shops close at least 2-3 hours in the afternoon for a siesta. At first, this seemed absurd and unproductive to me. I couldn’t get any shopping done during that time, a materialistic habit from my Western upbringing. In reality, siestas allow people to rest, recharge after lunch, and to take a break from the hottest hours of the day. The Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (SEMERGEN) have proven a short sleep after lunch reduces stress, increases alertness and memory, and improves cardiovascular functioning.
3. Getting quality, lower-cost, and better healthcare
I assumed that our technology and health care was more advanced than other countries. In my travels, I’ve been a patient in clinics in Panama City, Vietnam, and Indonesia. I never waited in line for longer than 20 minutes. These clinics were modern, well-equipped medical facilities significantly better than at home. In Panama, I had routine medical tests, and within hours received test results via email. The doctor scheduled a free follow-up visit to explain the tests in detail, instead of rushing through his diagnosis to get to his next patient. For this incredible service, I paid a medical bill 1/3 of the cost of any clinic at home in Canada.
4. Learning to deal with impatience in slower paced cultures
In many countries, life operates at a much slower place. In Laos I was impatient waiting for dinner in restaurants, late bus arrivals, and long lines to see sights like the Pak Ou Caves in Luang Prabang. Getting frustrated with the pace is a complete waste of energy. Not only will impatience and complaining speed up the situation, but it also positions foreigners as annoying and disrespectful to the country we are visiting. I want to leave a place knowing I left a good impression of my country and I am perceived as a decent global citizen.
5. Meeting happy people who have very little possessions
Traveling around the world helped me internalize that happiness is completely unrelated to what you own in life. In Myanmar, a country that has gone through political turmoil, violence, and poverty, I met children playing outside with a handmade ball and stick, laughing and having fun. After staying in a basic village with a family, I witnessed them attending calmly to their daily chores, visiting with their village neighbors, and dressed simply with sparse items in their homes. When I asked a local woman what makes life good, she answered in her words, “My family, my community and appreciating what I have, not what I do not have.”
6. Finding safety and being OK in places I thought were dangerous
In the Western world, our fears are perpetuated by negative news stories in the media. In the past, I have been afraid to experience new things for fear of getting hurt or in danger from what I hear on the news. My best travel experiences have been visiting countries marked with warnings in my government travel advisories, including Myanmar, Laos, Colombia, and Turkey. Often issues are isolated, no different than in our home country. I use common sense for my own safety, and ask for local information. If I had left my decisions to what I see in the news, I would have never experienced travel to these incredible countries.
7. Discovering delicious, quality food at a fraction of the price
My favorite and most memorable meals include a steak dinner I cut with a butter knife, free of tenderizer and BBQ sauce, with a complex glass of Malbec wine. It was a meal served in a cozy family restaurant in Buenos Aires for $8(USD). I’ve savored fresh Pad Thai served from a roadside food cart in Bangkok for $2.00(USD). In the West, we justify quality with white tablecloths, star-rated restaurants, and an attentive sommelier, for a price tag equivalent to a short haul flight.