I am currently sitting on a plane flying from Zurich to Nairobi, and have nothing but appreciation for the multi-cultural experiences I have learned from in the past 5 years of my short life. I have moved 12 times in the past 5 years (with a move constituting a period over 3 months) living in 5 different countries during those moves—Canada, Ecuador, France, USA, and (soon !!!) Kenya. Beyond these 5 countries, I have been fortunate enough to visit another 6 countries on backpacking trips between the moves, in total hopping 11 countries across 4 continents in 5 years. Here’s a list of the top 5 things I have learned.
1. People are *pretty much* the same everywhere.
Even though daily life can look extremely different from Chennai, India to a rural fishing village in Brittany, France, all people live their realities with certain common attributes. People build their lives around other people. Whether this is family, or friends, or even strangers, people plan their lives according to the people they strive to be around. From Cuzco to Montreal, all people want to be accepted, hence all people need other people to accept them. We all experience emotions, and we all can feel love and pain. From Cambodia to Iceland, people listen to music and have their favorite foods. Although that music and those foods might be different, the need for human connection through the enjoyment of these things is constant. All people laugh, all people cry, and all people need to be comforted sometimes.
2. Living with a host family (while learning the language) is the most enriching way to know a place and a culture.
Don’t get me wrong: I was shaking with nerves when I arrived in Ecuador without having ever taken a Spanish class and knowing I would be living with a Spanish-speaking host family for eight months. But turns out, my Ecuadorian host family experience was the most fulfilling and heartwarming travel experience I’ve ever had. Fast forward three years, and I have been back three times to see these people who quickly became so important in my life. By completely immersing myself in a family home, I understood Spanish in 2 months and could speak the language fairly fluently in 4. Yes, I was particularly lucky in the case of Ecuador, where my host family essentially adopted me, and made me feel like I belonged in every family birthday party, and every salsa-dancing and tequila-drinking outing. That being said, the host family / language experience in France was also what I remember most fondly about that experience, precisely because it is the human connections that make travel so invigoratingly beautiful. I imagine my Kenya experience will be that much more genuine for the same reasons.
3. People will flow into and out of your life, and you must put effort into keeping the friendships that matter most.
You can learn something from every person you meet, which is why I enjoy meeting people wherever I go. One time in Porto, I was backpacking with a friend and we met a great group of interesting people at the hostel we were staying, which led to fun shenanigans we still laugh about. The point of this story? The people we met made the experience what it was. Especially during solo journeys, meeting temporary friends can make experiences more memorable. When I hiked Rainbow Mountain in Peru—the most beautiful place I’ve ever been—I shared the adventure with strangers from New Zealand, Thailand, and Paraguay. I never saw them again, but the moments were more meaningful because they were shared. All of this to say: It’s okay that people flow into and out of your life. This being said, even the craziest globe-hoppers need some kind of stability, and it can be challenging knowing friendships can be temporary. The tricky balance is knowing which friendships to let go of, and which friendships are worth maintaining. Often, this happens naturally. Over the past few years, I have learned that apart from my family, I can count my best friends on one hand. Even though they live across multiple continents, and although it might not always be practical or easy, I have decided these friendships matter to me, and it has been worth putting in the time and effort to making sure they continue.
4. “Normal” doesn’t exist.
Human beings have an incredible ability to adapt to new situations. I am always amazed by how quickly routines can change when living in different places. The “new normal” eclipses the old one faster than I believe it can. I’ll give you an example to clarify what I mean. Before going to live in the Amazon Rainforest, I would have never imagined that it would become routine to take a canoe across the river to get to the bus. But like every routine, repetition breeds habit, and within two weeks I didn’t think anything of it. Although adaptation periods vary, I find that routines can sometimes take root in just a few days. Have you ever been in a hotel for a week-long vacation, and accidently said “we can do that when we get home” referring to the hotel room as home, and not your house back home? Humans adapt quickly. Taking baths in the Aguarico River was once part of my daily Amazonian routine, just as in Montreal it is part of my routine to get to my classes 30 seconds before they start. Reality changes so quickly from place to place that one "normal" can be incredibly abnormal for somebody else. It’s fascinating to be able to question what normalcy is, especially after seeing that different realities can all appear normal after a few months.
5. Travel refines your sense of self.
I used to think my identity was tied to my habits, and who I surrounded myself with, and, perhaps most dangerously, my achievements. Over the past 5 years, I have learned that no matter where I go, or who I am with, or what qualifications I have, the truest form of my identity does not change. In other words, the essence of who I am is constant, and travel has allowed me to understand that better. In other words, the more I travel, the more I have learn that my unique character as a human being is the only real version of me. Although I can have different social circles from one city to the next, that should not change my sense of self. I suppose I believe that only by striving to be myself in every capacity of who I am can I fully embrace my identity in the most wholesome manner possible. Today, I know who I am better than I ever have.
*It may not have been possible for me to learn any of these lessons if it were not for the undying emotional support of my family, who accepts me exactly for who I am, and encourages me to achieve what I set out to achieve. Thanks mom and dad.
WHERE I HAVE LIVED:
Sept 2014 - April 2015: Kingston (Canada)
April 2015 - April 2016: Quito (Ecuador)
1 month backpacking in Peru & Bolivia
June 2016 - August 2016: Burlington (USA)
September 2016 - April 2017: Peterborough (Canada)
1 month in Ecuador to visit host family
May 2017 - June 2017: Sherbrooke (Canada)
June 2017 - July 2017: Grenoble (France)
August 2017 - December 2017: Trebeurden (France)
2 months teaching skiing lessons in Burke, USA
March 2018 - June 2018: Quito (USA)
June 2018 - August 2018: Saint Johnsbury (USA)
3 week backpacking Sweden, Denmark, Iceland
2 week family trip to Cheticamp, Canada
September 2018 - April 2019: Montreal (Canada)
2 week family trip to Cancun, Mexico
1 week family trip to Arizona, USA
May 2019 - August 2019: Nanyuki (Kenya)
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