This morning I climbed a steep rocky mountain trail at dawn, hoping to watch the sunrise from an ancient Aztec pyramid.
Unfortunately it was a holiday and the gates at the top of the mountain were locked, so back down the steep trail I went. Just hours later, the previously sunny skies erupted into dark thundering clouds and it down-poured for hours, turning the stone streets of Tepoztlán, Mexico into rivers.
I shudder to think about trying to get down that mountain in those conditions. I can’t help but believe the pyramid was closed for a reason, and know how lucky I was not to have been up there when the rains began.
The travel gods are impressive teachers, and have ways of giving exactly what experiences are needed when they are most vital, even if their motives may be at first unclear. Highs become higher in new worlds, and lows are lower without the comforts of home, but both highs and lows have their own lessons to give. Without challenge, days, weeks, months and even years can pass by without any real variance.
Not so during travel. Many life changes can occur within an extremely tiny window of time that alters the way the world is viewed.
I have realized my own strength through putting myself in situations that many, including my prior self, would consider frightening. It is powerful to conquer fears and discover hidden pockets of strength. Through each hardship I have grown. I have learned how to navigate public transportation in Bangkok, ignore incessant machismo advances in Italy, live with the earth in Costa Rica and feel a peace within wherever I go.
I used to be frightened to be alone. Now I am content with my own company (or if not, I know I can make friends anywhere). I realize now language is just another form of communication and much can be shared with smiles, gestures and laughter.
I love to find similarities and differences between myself and others from all walks of life. During my travels across Europe, Asia and the Americas, I have discovered one thing in common with everyone I meet: we are all people. We all breathe in air, eat food, drink water, fall in love, dream dreams and live life one day at a time. We were all born once and began this magical journey called life. As we grow, our worlds expand, we soak up knowledge, we begin to form opinions about the world.
Our capacity to learn is endless, but we learn primarily from those around us: our parents, teachers and peers.
We learn to like different foods, speak different languages, worship different gods or goddesses and treat others a certain way. Although we all walk different paths, we begin to form unintentional opinions about the way we are supposed to dress, speak and live, and the things deemed essential for a meaningful existence and fall into patterns.
For many Americans a normal day is getting up at 7 a.m., eating cereal, driving to work, working in a cubicle for eight hours, driving home, eating a hamburger in front of the television and then going to bed, ready to repeat the same cycle the following day. The people who live this reality have no comprehension of a Buddhist monk’s day to day routine in Laos, nor a tortilla maker’s at the market in Nicaragua.
We all have preconceived notions of what is normal to eat, based on what we were taught. In some countries and cultures it is unheard of to eat dog, beef, cockroaches, pork or any meat at all.
Is any culture right or wrong? Is a Catholic’s belief more valid than a Muslim’s or a Buddhist or a Pagan’s? In America we think it is child endangerment for a child to ride in a car without a car seat, but in Vietnam it is a common sight to see a full family of four on the back of a moped, speeding down busy streets.
Who are we to judge?
Whenever I travel, I catch myself making judgments based on how I was raised. “Eww! I could never eat that!” I remember squealing in Cambodia at the plates of deep fried bugs sold on the streets of Phnom Pehn. Days later, after a few drinks, I indulged, and they weren’t as bad as I thought.
I used to think a world without hot showers would be a cruel torture, but since then I’ve lived for months on end in Thailand and Costa Rica without. I used to think all Muslim women were oppressed, but spent hours on the streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia watching them bustle about smiling and laughing with their community, and found myself biting my tongue.
The main reason I travel is because I want my judgments to be tested.
I want to come face to face with all my prejudices and see which ones hold up, and which ones crumble into pieces. I want to remind myself that there is no single way to live. All lives are composed of the same basic pieces, but it is up to us as individuals to decide how we shape them. I want to test my principles. I want to know that the way I live my life day to day, and the way I treat and view others, are my own decisions and not just mirrors of those of others around me. I want to train that little voice inside my head to speak from my heart, not to regurgitate propaganda.
Another reason I travel is to put my own life in perspective. Problems that seem so large at home wither away on the road. I grew up on food stamps and have worked to support myself since I was 14. I moved out when I was 18 and have always paid my own rent. I’m proud of my struggles and would in no way consider myself wealthy in American standards. However, when I come face to face with real poverty, I recognize in a global perspective I am rich beyond belief.
In America I am the 99 percent, on planet Earth I am the one percent.
It seems so silly to remember complaining about wanting new shoes, a new cell phone or a fancy haircut when I am far away in countries like Cambodia and playing with children who are lucky if they have running water.
I feel inadequate, sometimes, comparing myself to friends who have college degrees and ‘real’ jobs, when I make my money waitressing, bartending and cooking. But the education I received for free in California up to 12th grade is more than most have the privilege of receiving. And through the word’s giant classroom, I am still educating myself constantly, even though I don’t have a diploma to hang next to a mahogany desk.
When I pick up and leave my home with nothing except what will fit inside my backpack and expose myself to all these other walks of life, I cannot help but examine my own and be proud. The longer I travel and the farther I venture away from what I know, the more I learn for myself.
I recognize that many of problems I think I have are only really problems inside my own mind, and are based on what I was taught I should want, not what I really need.
I recognize that there are people with real hardships in the world, and I am blessed beyond belief to always have had access to clean water, nutritious food, clothes on my back, an inquisitive mind and the ability to read, write and communicate. When I come back from a trip abroad, I am always inspired and ready to push myself farther and farther down the path I have chosen: a path that never stops climbing mountains.
And yet, months after I come back, I feel myself slip into similar patterns and inevitably become caught up in the same trite issues again. And as soon as I recognize this I start planning for my next trip.
I’m proud to constantly question my decisions and perspectives against a global norm instead of against an isolated American idea of wealth and happiness. I know what I eat, how I worship and how I treat others are conscious decisions I have made for myself, not just things I have been taught. I have discovered more about myself than I ever knew was possible through seeing the world.
Perspective is the most valuable lesson the travel gods have taught me and leaving the familiar is a sure way to find it. I never want to stop climbing mountains, conquering fears and searching for more, even if sometimes when I am almost to the top of a mountain, I must turn back around.
It is, after all, about the journey, not the destination.
Kyra Bramble is a writer, chef, teacher, and adventure seeker. She likes funny looking fruits, playing with fire, being barefoot, and wearing flowers in her hair. In between traveling she lives in San Francisco with her small dog, Goji Bear, and teaches community cooking classes to children. Check out her website KyraWrites.com for more.
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