People travel for many reasons, and one of the most common reasons is to experience other cultures and learn about the world. I’ve always said that’s one of the reasons I travel, too, but the truth is that I’d never left North America before this year. The closest I’d come to experiencing other cultures was the 2 days I spent in a national park in Quebec where most people spoke French but everything was in English too, so it didn’t feel much like a foreign country.
So I’m not sure I fully understood this aspect of traveling before this year. I mean, I knew every country was different. I knew these other cultures existed. But I’d never actually experienced them. After visiting both Central America (for a wedding) and Germany (to visit Pat’s brother and sister-in-law) this year, I can definitely look back and see that I learned some important lessons from my travels.
1. I felt a lot more out of my element than I expected, especially in Costa Rica
I speak some Spanish (more on that shortly), I had things all planned in advance, and I’ve been traveling the US since I was too young to remember, so I figured I’d be able to navigate Costa Rica without too much trouble. And thanks to the fact that most people in the tourism and hospitality sector speak English, we didn’t have too many issues. The front desk staff at the hotel and a local friend very kindly helped us work out a zip-lining snafu, the guided tour we’d signed up for was in English, our hotel had WiFi, and taking an Uber doesn’t require much conversing.
But despite my research and planning, this was my first ever trip to a place where English wasn’t an official language, and I spent most of the plane ride extremely nervous. The nerves also reappeared anytime we found ourselves in a non-English-speaking situation. I never knew what to expect in these cases, and it turns out I’m maybe not quite as good at stepping out of my comfort zone as I thought I’d be.
2. I’m not nearly as fluent in Spanish as I thought I was
Don’t get me wrong. I never actually thought I was 100% fluent. But I did think I knew enough to get by in Costa Rica without having to resort to speaking in English.
How naïve I was.
I can actually read Spanish pretty well, and I can speak it kind of decently. But listening to someone speak Spanish to me is a whole other ballgame. One I was not at all prepared for. Turns out my Spanish listening skills are pretty abysmal, and I never made it through more than an extremely basic conversation (ordering at a restaurant, for example) completely in Spanish.
3. Most people are good and kind and willing to help
Deep down, this is something I always try to keep in mind. But at times it can be very difficult to actually believe this when we hear so much bad news and encounter rude people on a daily basis.
But the truth is that most everyone we met while overseas was good. People we interacted with in Germany were kind and considerate and very willing to answer our questions. We spent some time traveling on a train with Pat’s 6-month old nephew and no one glared or yelled or made a big deal of it when he started crying.
Our Uber drivers in Costa Rica didn’t try to rob us or kidnap us or any of the other horror stories you might hear. Workers at stores and restaurants were very patient as we struggled to find the right change and order food in a foreign language. The hotel staff were super helpful when – as mentioned above – our plans for a ziplining excursion went up in flames.
Right after this happened, I ran into my Costa Rican friend in the lobby of the hotel. As I was explaining what happened, she and the 3 people she was with immediately whipped out their phones and began searching for another place we could go ziplining. They found a reputable location, made sure the guides spoke English, called and arranged it for us, and my friend even offered to drop us off on her way home. I was super upset when our plans fell through, but thanks to their incredible kindness the day was salvaged and I got to cross this off my bucket list!
4. The US is an extremely wasteful nation
I mean, I kind of knew this already. I teach nutrition, and part of what I teach my students each semester is about food production systems. We talk about food waste in the US (40% of all food we produce is wasted, in case you’re wondering), the cost of transporting food across the country and around the world, and the enormous ecological footprint of our nation as compared to the rest of the world. So I wasn’t clueless.
And then we arrived in Germany.
Right away, the true resource usage of the US became readily apparent. Air conditioners and clothing dryers aren’t the norm there. Cars in Germany are small and fuel efficient. Bicycling is viewed as an ideal mode of transit rather than “that annoying person getting in everyone’s way.” It’s normal to walk to the grocery store. Pat’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t even own a car when they were living there. They walked or biked or rode public transit (which is highly functional) everywhere and would only occasionally rent a vehicle if they really needed it.
But it was more than that. Food is purchased frequently in fresh rather than processed and packaged form, and plastic grocery bags aren’t even available. Everyone recycles every single one of their plastic bottles. Recyclables never ever go in the trash. There are just so many little aspects of daily life that are so much more eco-friendly.
Would it take some getting used to if we were to make all these changes here? Absolutely. I definitely complained about the lack of air conditioning while I was there. There were some hot nights. Getting around via public transit is a lesson in patience, because you can’t always leave exactly this minute and end up exactly where you need to go ten minutes later. You have to do some walking and some waiting.
But I’ve found myself trying to incorporate these things into my daily life since we’ve returned, and they aren’t the huge inconveniences that so many of us make them out to be. I take the light rail to work, and even though I have to walk a little bit and wait a few minutes on each end (and sometimes it’s a few minutes late), the train moves faster than traffic and I probably get there more quickly than the cars do most of the time. Plus, I save on gas and reduce my carbon footprint!
We live 2 blocks from a grocery store and we walk as often as possible. In fact, I find myself feeling guilty on the rare occasions we do drive (when it’s raining, for example).
I was taught to recycle and be eco-friendly from a very young age, but I feel like I’ve been even more conscious of it the last few months as well. I’ve stopped using straws, I’ve started saving chip bags to be recycled through this company, and I’ve educated myself on all the types of soft plastics that can be recycled at grocery stores (very helpful link here, if you’re interested).
5. So many aspects of how the US is run are just – well – so stupid
This is another one of those things I already knew, but actually seeing and hearing about all the differences between the US and Germany was astounding. Obviously every nation has its own set of issues, and I wasn’t in Germany (or Costa Rica) long enough to truly experience any of them. But the upsides of these differences were definitely noticeable.
Taxes are higher in Europe. I think most people know that. But I think most people would also be willing to pay more in taxes if they actually saw results of the government’s usage of their money. Good infrastructure and transit systems, for example, which Germany seems to have.
Or inexpensive health insurance. Pat’s brother and sister-in-law have 2 little kids and they paid less per month to insure their entire family than I pay per month just for me (and I receive a monthly subsidy, so if I were paying the full price of my relatively low-quality plan – which, by the way, has increased in price for 2019 – I’d be paying at least 3x what they did).
Or better family services. While we were there, Pat’s sister-in-law was on her 1-year maternity leave, during which she got paid at least a partial salary (I think it was 70% of normal). Their 4 year old was in preschool, which was completely free. This allowed her to stay home with the baby without putting tremendous financial pressure on their family.
I’m not saying everything that works in Germany will work in the US and I’m not trying to start a political argument here. We’re a different nation with different issues and challenges. What works over there isn’t going to be a magical cure to all of our problems here. But it has made me realize we should get off our high horses and admit we haven’t necessarily figured out the best way to do everything. I think we could learn some lessons from other nations about what might work and what might not and how we could reasonably and sustainably solve some of our problems as we move forward.
Anyway, this post ended up being much longer than I anticipated. If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me!
I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or the most important travel lessons you’ve learned! Feel free to share in the comments below 🙂