Growing up in the yuppy beachside town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, I had the distinct impression that Americans were better than every other nation at most anything. From sports and culture to politics and guns, us Yankees ranked first (at least in my naive opinion). Thankfully my inaugural voyage abroad awoke me from my ignorant and biased stupor. Once I started realizing I’m not better than anyone else, I actually began to learn much more about myself and the world around me.
How Realizing I’m Not Better Than Anyone Else Made Me a Better Traveler and Person
My Childhood of Ignorance
As a child I distinctly remember believing that as an American I was far superior to other nationalities. We did it bigger and better from larger cars and homes, to more luxurious jobs and exceptional education. Perhaps my assumptions made me feel better about myself and my nation. Regardless, at some point once I left US soil, reality was going to hit me harder than butting heads with a bull.
My moment of reckoning came at the young age of sixteen while spending my first time abroad as a summer exchange student in Spain. I distinctly remember thinking I was going to show these Spaniards how to play tennis. Even thinking about this now makes me chuckle in the wake of current world number one tennis player and Castilian, Rafael Nadal. However at the time, Nadal was very much a child just like I was.
Soon after arriving in Spain with my racket in hand, I played a few of these Spanish savages. To my amazement, they all beat me. What a surprise! Needless to say, slowly I began to realize maybe Americans weren’t superior at everything.
The Period of Enlightenment
Over the years as I’ve matured and traveled to forty countries, I’ve realized that I’m really not better than anyone else. I have my strengths and weaknesses like any other. Just because I may be better educated and a better tennis player than some, that does not determine my value as a human being. By the same token, I’m inept when it comes to power tools or maintenance. In fact, I almost cut off my finger working a table saw. Does that make me an idiot?
Everyone of us contributes to society in our own distinct ways. That’s what makes the world work. What you do well compensates for my inefficiencies.
For example, Mexicans place tremendous value on siestas. As a sleep lover myself, I can definitely appreciate their love of laze. Mexicans have most definitely mastered the art of sleep.
However, an an American resting conflicts with my urge to be a proficient and effective worker. Dozing in the daytime is taboo north of the border. Even a University of Pennsylvania study revealed an alarming one in four Americans develop insomnia each year. Perhaps Americans are indeed incompetent at something.
Yet the human body functions supremely better with adequate sleep. Why do we strain our bodies in hopes of acquiring more financial wealth than our neighbors? Collectively we need more rest.
Mexico helped me appreciate the value of day time naps. Life is about balance, not just about work. Perhaps if I never maintained an open perspective, I may have never enjoyed this epiphany.
Learning From Others
Now that I listen more, the world has become a much more interesting place. Traveling is like cracking open rocks by the creek, hoping to stumble across a bright and beautiful geode with its shimmering crystals. The further and more often I voyage, the more diverse and interesting the planet. Each new country and culture holds a whole host of unique customs and conventions that can enlighten and enrich. They are just waiting for you to discover them.
On any given trip if I only return with photos and a tan, I’ve really done a disservice to myself. What piece of history did I miss? What new idea could I have obtained?
The Culmination of My Wayfaring
I’m currently sitting in a quaint restaurant in Palenque, Mexico as I write this article. Allan and I flew here this morning from Playa, and decided to stay a few days to see the Palenque ruins and waterfalls before flying on to see friends in San Cristobal.
As our first activity today we spent an hour hiking through the jungle under the direction of a local Mayan guide. To say I was out of my comfort level would be an understatement. Donning sandals, we navigated through snake infested selva, exploring yet to be uncovered ruins. Over fallen trees, through thick brush and over streams we circumvented a good portion of a barely touched nature reserve.
During our journey, the indigenous guide illustrated the curative features of the plants we passed. He also explained the alarming sounds of the jungle, like the howling sound of monkeys and piercing buzz of crickets. And when we stumbled across termite nests, he explained how they seal their burrows to protects the eggs from rain.
As a city dweller, I feel inadequate traipsing around the forrest encountering the wild and unfamiliar. But yet here I was, being taught herbal medicine by a native Mayan. Even though part of me wanted to turn around and head back to the safety of my car, thankfully I kept going. Perhaps even this city slicker can learn something from a native who lives in the woods.
Has traveling helped you come to any self-realizations?
Please let me know in the comments!