At some point in your travels, you’ll have the overwhelming feeling that comes with realizing how radically different others’ ways of life are from your own. Perhaps it’s a sadness or guilt after seeing underprivileged children living in filth and squalor in the slums of India. Maybe it’s envy–or disgust–after witnessing a tiger chained up in the trunk of a gold-plated Escalade in Dubai. No matter which persuasion your culture shock takes, the only way to truly peel back the blinds on the world we live in (and the life we could be living) is to venture as far out of our comfort zones, and away from the familiar as possible. Here are some possibilities:
1. Falling madly in love with someone who can’t speak a word of your native language.
It’ll happen in an instant — you lock eyes across the bar at a bumping club in Barcelona. Maybe it’s the thrill of being in a new place, or maybe it’s the three sangrias you had with dinner, but you manage to work up the courage to introduce yourself only to discover that they can’t understand a damn word you’re saying. Disappointed, you resign yourself to exchanging names, and reluctantly submit as they lead you by the hand to the dance floor. And it’s there that you have an intimate, all-night conversation in the only language you two share: dance. When the night is over, you don’t even bother asking for their number — it’d just ruin the moment, and they couldn’t give it to you even if they wanted to.
2. Finding the one thing you’re not supposed to do, and doing it anyway.
For me it was hiking from the Grand Canyon rim to the river–and back–in a day (which countless signs littering the trail caution you against). To do this you have to rise at 4:30 AM, when the trail from your campsite to the rim is illuminated only by stars. You arrive at the head of the South Kaibib trail, hugging rock along the narrow switchbacks. The sun breaks over the horizon, creeping down the side of the canyon. You can feel the warm rays loosening up your stiff and sleepy limbs. But shortly thereafter you realize the sun’s been out for less than 20 minutes and it’s already uncomfortably hot… and the race down the canyon begins. It’s the trip down to the Colorado, chased by the sun that’s the easy part. It’s getting back out over the south rim while feeling like an ant under a magnifying glass that’s the grind.
3. Eating the scariest thing the locals are eating.
It’s late in the evening on the Koh San Road in Bangkok, and your day of seeing sites has taken its toll. The smell of oil fryers and exotic spices comes wafting down the street, seducing you toward a busy ramshackle stall surrounded by people shouting words in Thai and holding up fingers. So you follow suit — and to your horror are handed a browned, crispy fried scorpion on a stick. You as you watch the locals munch happily on the beasts… and as you bring the trembling stick to your mouth, you close your eyes and bite down. Your teeth sink into the scorpion with a sickening crunch (exactly as you were dreading it would), but then you get to the meat and convince yourself that: hey, it’s really not so bad.
4. Getting underwater…with sharks.
The first thing you’ll learn after your unplanned shark encounter while snorkeling or scuba diving is that yes, you can still scream underwater… and yes, it will be deafening. But no, no one but you can hear it. It’ll be your first time in the clear, glassy waters (be it off the coast of Catalina island, or the Maldives, or South Africa), and you’ll have finally relaxed your breathing into a steady cadence after you’ve fully immersed. The sun will dance playfully across your skin and the sea floor, lulling you into a false sense of security. And as your eyes adjust, you’ll follow a little yellow fish along the sea floor, turning just in time to find yourself face-to-face with a 6-foot tank of a shark, which swims past with such force that you can physically feel the pressure of its whipping tail in your chest.
5. Getting lost on your very first day in a new place.
After a long flight across the globe, you’ve finally arrived in sunny, humid Rome. With your iPhone moments away from death, you plug it in in your hotel room — and completely forget to bring it along with you when you leave. The Colosseum towers in the distance, and you amble carelessly toward it thinking “hey, as long as I walk in a straight line I should be able to find my way back.” But out of the corner of your eye you catch an incredible fountain down a side street, and then you’re lured down another alley toward a cute little cafe, and beyond that some ruins. Before you know it, you are utterly and hopelessly lost with no way of getting back to your hotel. And it’s only then, when the panic subsides and you start engaging the city and its locals, that you actually start to get acquainted with a place.
6. Descending a powerful river.
On calm days, it’s easy to forget that a truly powerful river like the Colorado carved the curves and valleys of the Grand Canyon… but paddling or rafting on its whitewater rapids will force you to consider how very small and feeble we all are compared to mother nature. When the foamy waves shoot up and over the sides of the raft, crashing down overhead and choking you off for a split-second before another wave crashes down — you’re guaranteed to question why you thought this was a good idea. Until you and your raft-mates pull out into a calm spot, and you’ll realize that though you’re soaked to the bone and more-than-a-little-shaken, you just made it through a little piece of the world most people never get to see.
7. Throwing caution, and yourself, into the wind.
Roughly 5% of the world’s population has a debilitating fear of heights, which is exactly why you’ll decide to parasail in Mazatlán, zipline in Juneau, and cliff-dive in Crete. Because only the bold and the birds know how quiet and peaceful the world is from above, with little more than the wind rushing past your ears and tickling the cold sweat on your brow. And regardless of whether you’re secured by a parachute, a guidewire, or nothing at all, you’ll find that as that knot in your stomach slowly unclenches during the experience, with it goes your fear of falling.