Three Life Lessons From: Traveling

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Somewhere in Beijing, CN, 2014

I traveled through Europe and Asia after graduating from college. I visited Sweden, Ireland, England, then Denmark. I wanted to continue south and east, but a family matter brought me back to the US. I had earned some money and received a graduation gift to travel from my grandmother. After arriving home, I had some money left over. So, I went to China for five weeks, then Thailand for two more weeks.

Traveling was AWESOME. I felt full of creativity, energy, and drive. Going in, all I wanted was to find an epiphany about my purpose in life. Instead, I learned three lessons:

1. There is no epiphany

Nothing came to me in a dream telling me how to live my life. Instead, I decided I must build upon experiences, step by step. Staying open and hungry will allow me to form myself into what I’m meant to be. Deciding what to do without a guide is the longer, harder, but more meaningful road than following a pre-determined path.

2. We are more similar than we are different

Throughout my travels, I met so many amazing people. I could easily communicate with most, but with some there was a language barrier making it harder. But I still made a variety of friends. One of the most meaningful experiences was befriending a man visiting the Terracotta Warriors outside of Xi’an, China. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Chinese. Typically, I would avoid him because understanding each other would be too difficult. But somehow we gestured and smiled our way through the entire museum tour together. We ended up having lunch together after. He showed me pictures of his daughter. I showed him pictures of my family. It was deeply meaningful. I cherish that memory.

3. I yearn to learn new things

When I put myself into an environment without a plan, I found out what I value. Each day is a blank slate, ready for any possibility. I realized that I love to walk and explore, rather than skipping to a destination. I explored back alleys, met up with strangers, and climbed mountains. I downed a fifth while watching fishermen clean their catches in Wuhan, China. I cheered on a hurling match in Cork, Ireland. I created my own log-lifting and rock-carrying workouts in Öland, Sweden. I biked for hours and watched the planes take off in Copenhagen, Denmark. Every moment brought myself closer to living the present and realizing that I love to encounter the unknown.


Here’s the full list of my notes from Europe:

Sweden:

  • There are free salad bars at many restaurants.
  • Carbonated water and coca cola rule the beverage industry.
  • Swedes tend to be less pious (with exceptions), and the family I stayed with had not as much knowledge about Christianity (of which I realized I had ample knowledge).
  • The school system is free.
  • The political parties are much “lefter” than American parties. The two big coalitions are the conservative liberals (incumbent) and the social democrats.
  • Aside: I have now deemed “Swedish workouts” all workouts involving only large rocks or logs.
  • There are a ton of bikes and clearly marked bike lanes. Very few helmets. Even saw a girl with high heels biking in Stockholm.
  • The only place from which one may purchase alcohol over ~4% alcohol is a government merchant store named “System Bolaget.” One must be 16 to drink beer and 18 for wine and spirits, and must be 20 to buy alcohol.
  • There are two major supermarket chains (ICA owns about 50% of supermarket market) and COOP, and there are only a few others.
  • There are potatoes or potato products with practically every meal.
  • There aren’t many police officers patrolling around. On the other hand, there are more public cameras.
  • Similarly, I never saw an officer on the road with a speed gun, but there are speed cameras with conspicuous signs indicating their presence and admonishing drivers.
  • Kids learn English in school starting in the first few years.
  • It rains a lot.
  • Swedish people are generally really attractive.
  • There are many more VWs, Volvox, Audis, and Mercedes Benzes, for whatever reason.
  • Public transit is fantastic. The trains better shield outside noise.
  • There is public land in the non-cities. This should not be confused with the type of land that a government or corporation owns but is named “public.” This legitimately public land is just land, and sometimes cattle range throughout these areas that are surrounded by electrical fence and gates openable with opposable thumbs.
  • Öland looks like the child of Kansas and Maine. Alternately, it looks like what I imagined Rohan would look like.
  • Alcohol has much less of a negative or sensitive cultural stigma.
  • There are Blood Donating centers ubiquitously located throughout Stockholm and in higher-populated towns.
  • Stockholm beggars are predominant Old Romanian ladies.
  • Swearing is allowed on the radio. English swears are generally uncensored, from what I noticed.
  • There is less censorship. Shops and pictures show nudity, and sex shops are not veiled from prying streetside eyes.
  • Many simple services are automatic. That’s not unique to Sweden of course, but I’ve never bought movie tickets from a self-service machine at the theater before.
  • Many things throughout Stockholm’s history have burnt down and been rebuilt.
  • People in Stockholm walk slower than those in most American cities.
  • Many of the statues in Stockholm are stylistically Greek. Some depict Greek and Roman figures.
  • There is a seemingly universally Swedish vocal expression: A sharp inhale “huh” (onomatopoeia) meaning “yeah” or “okay.”

Denmark:

  • Tivoli- both Stockholm and Copenhagen have an amusement/theme park inside the city. And they’re amazing. We went to Copenhagen Tivoli, though.
  • There’s no law prohibiting open containers of alcohol in public areas.
  • Anyone may walk through the palace square.

London:

  • People drive on the left (a revelation).
  • London is noticeably diverse.
  • Speaker’s Corner at the northeast corner of Hyde Park. Anyone can speak openly here, and listeners and hecklers alike come to browse, behold, and engage in verbal intercourse with the orators. Most of the conversation is passionate, radical, eloquent, and intellectual. True Sophists and Socratics at work. I more enjoyed the pure awe I felt at the power of rhetoric than the content of the speeches. Such social dynamics were incredibly entertaining to witness. I asked one soap-box about overpopulation and he took the conversation on a magical journey of speech and language. It was amazing. I almost missed my flight because I was so enamored with a scene of a proclaimed fascist dressed in purchased military garb with a Hitler mustache arguing in support of state, institution, and racism. But it was more than that. It was a beautiful argument. And other speakers entered the fray, making both form and content of the discussion so rich and complex…

Ireland:

  • Dublin:
  • Pubs all last names
  • Rains all the time
  • Live music and drinks all day served in Temple Bar
  • The Irish are a hard people- stoic. A hard-working people. Those with experience, who can bear the load.
  • Music is usually covers of popular songs. Generally in an Irish rock style.
  • Green plots of land, rock walls, rock buildings, cows, sheep, horses, vines, rolling hills, mountains in the distance…it’s beautiful.
  • Galway:
  • Want a pint custom
  • University cheap
  • Narrow roads in city, or wide
  • 12 point system of speeding
  • Police known as the Garda or Gardi
  • Off License stores sell alcohol
  • Lashing = pouring
  • Crack = good time (gonna be a crack)
  • Mad = crazy
  • Boot = back of the car

Europe:

  • Cheers while looking at one another in the eyes

Doolin, Ireland:

  • Everyone waves and greets

Killarney, Ireland:

  • Something about Irish music. From Doolin.
  • Elbow pipe, strings, songs about work and hardship
  • Irish time, Irish distance.
  • Multiple spellings?
  • Many local, old traditions! Pilgrimage, goat worship… Etc
  • Irish sports are HUGE: GAA big organization keeping Gaelic and community alive- Irish football, Hurling, Soccer, Rugby

Cork, Ireland:

  • Signs signifying space or fullness of parking lots way prior to the lot
  • Paddy at the hosel talk… Ireland was very religious until the 1980s. Britain counterpart, Gaelic, Boston Irish/Italian, religious still (Catholic)
  • St Patrick didn’t bring Christianity, he brought Rome to Ireland. Christianity was in Ireland 200 years prior.
  • Everyone celebrates St. Patty’s day!
  • Ireland is a country searching for its identity. It has typically championed everything non-British, but now, what do they have?
  • Everyone knows where the best pubs are. And the music!
  • Ireland- pay 20 cents to use bathroom at bus station???
  • Ireland is closer culturally to countries like Spain and Italy because of the Atlantic winds and boat travels
  • All of Ireland: cars will be “clamped” = towed?
  • Belfast (could be most Europe): Street signs on buildings only
  • Parking on the sidewalk in the burbs
  • Humps for ___ mile
  • Picture of deadend: “T”
  • Northern Ireland still going through conflict about being in the UK. Streets in Belfast separated by a peace wall. Loyalists vs Republicans. Last attack in 1997 after a truce. Any small thing could set it off.

Liverpool, England

  • Scouse is the type of person from Liverpool- hard to understand.
  • Beatles shit everywhere- milking it
  • Vegetables is “salad”
  • Football is HUGE here
  • Young people in Liverpool- 3 big universities
  • Won cultural capital of the world 2008
  • Won ugliest building built in 2009
  • Shipping is huge
  • Liver is the city bird, but doesn’t exist
  • Titanic built here or Belfast?
  • Merchants contributed to slave trade
  • Liverpool has been the key to the Atlantic
  • Way more socialism here and Australia
  • People wait for crossing signals
  • Scotland is voting for independence on the 18th of September

Wales, UK

  • There are more sheep than people
  • Requirements for a town to become a city: cathedral and university

Copenhagen, DE

  • Biking in Copenhagen is the most fun ever. So nice
  • Copenhagen metro is unmanned, automated! Every 4 minutes. And recently opened.
  • Metro – clipcards for zonage, or “check ins”, and metro police and fines (risk but worth the card?)
  • New bike bridge
  • Polite but free and open people
  • Laws are VERY liberal. Open containers, pee anywhere (but decently)

Throwback to aphorisms from Bali, part 3

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Personal protection has always been cool – Bali, 2019

During this unique time, I’m missing the freedom to explore, among other things. Travel is an escape from the mundane routine. This is a throwback to our escape to Bali last summer for part 3 of the lessons we learned.

A little tip goes a long way

Money from the West goes far in some other countries. People work hard everywhere. Leave a healthy tip when you’re pleased with the service. Remember that while you’re on vacation, residents are still working. They deserve to know when you appreciate good service.

“Nothing can be built higher than the coconut tree”

There is a fascinating concept that states no building can exceed the height of a coconut tree. Apparently, this isn’t completely true. But it’s a nice story that’s been around for so long because it would make sense if it were true. Regardless, there is a deep respect for nature on Bali.

A store is a home

Often, vendors live and sell in one place. You’ll find the whole family in the store sometimes. Treat it with respect, buy something, and play with the kids. It’ll make their day.

Bali and Indonesia went through some shit

The tsunami absolutely wrecked the island. The debris and leftover destruction are still there. But the Balinese rebuild stronger and continue living with honor.

There is no fee for any ATM withdrawal

Seriously, every ATM we withdrew from did not charge us a fee. My wallet supports whatever program enabled this to happen.

You’re not obligated to buy from a vendor even if you feel like it

This is like the tug of guilt you feel when you walk out of a store without buying anything. Vendors will ask you to take a “quick look, but no need to buy.” They know that looking makes you more likely to buy. Your act of compliance makes you more likely to comply with a future request coming soon: “Why not just buy one?” Then later, “Why not buy another?”

If a universe can be imagined, then it exists

There are many possibilities out there.

Aphorisms from Bali – Part 2

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Jatiluwih Rice Terrace

 

Here’s part two of the things we learned in Bali on our honeymoon; enjoy!

 

Learn how to say thank you and greetings

Sometimes it’s the little things that make it easy to connect to other people. This is an easy way to turn from tourist to friend. Get by on smiles and gestures. Then, use a translator app for everything else. “Terimah kasih!”

Follow the sunset… and the sunrise

Looking for something fun to do? Find the best place to watch the sunset or sunrise. Chances are, you’ll find someone else doing the same.

Know when to turn back

Especially when climbing a dangerous, wet, dark mountain without a trail and without other people.

Don’t dive while sick

Then again, Bali has some of the best diving around, and you can see manta rays. But, the pressure you feel is no joke once you reach a few meters underwater. You have to unlearn some of the basic instincts of survival. If you freak out and you’re 10m underwater, you must surface slowly, not quickly.

Learn how international business runs

It’s fascinating how the real estate market works in Bali, as it is so popular for tourists and ex-pats to settle down. Similarly, there’s a lot of education focused on hospitality since there are plenty of opportunities in the service industry there. Careful though, because you should still only invest in what you know. There are no consistent get-rich-quick opportunities in reality.

Fresh is best

There’s nothing as renewing as sipping on a fresh coconut. And the fish is best eaten when it’s still on ice from the morning. Bananas have a real shape – hint: they’re actually quite small when they aren’t genetically modified to look like a girthy school bus.

Bali is a reminder that you should be increasing your healthspan, not just your lifespan

Most advice is bad, potentially including mine. But this is important. Fill your life with meaning and spirit rather than extending the cold, dead shuffle. Allow me to generalize to say that Balinese have figured this out. They work hard when they work, but they value family, relaxation, and conversation for the meaning of it.

Aphorisms from Bali – Part 1

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My wife Sahyli and I honeymooned in Bali for 3 weeks this summer after our wedding. We had an incredible experience. We learned a lot about the world. We learned how to fill the hours in each day with life. We learned how to travel together.

Here are some more knowledge bits from the road:

Look straight ahead, because you’re responsible for what’s ahead of you.

Indonesian driving laws give responsibility to drivers for anything that’s ahead of them. If you’re driving and someone else turns out ahead of you and you two crash, you’re at fault. When surfing, you must look straight ahead, or else you’ll lose your balance.

200 meters or 500 meters, no problem, same thing.

Numbers are often estimations. We received walking maps without distances. 10 minutes until a right turn, 20 more minutes until the waterfall… it’s all the same. You’ll get there.

Honk to show your position.

Honking while driving is not rude. It’s useful to alert others of your position. If you don’t honk, you practically don’t exist. This is crazy to American drivers.

Everyone is brother or sir.

The beach is chill, brothah. And anyone can be sir when there’s a chance for business. Vendors and taxis love to flatter foreigners for a sale.

Hustle to get bargains. Check multiple shops.

If you see it and you want to buy it, you can probably find another one down the street. Or next door. Vendors in a certain area sell similar stuff.

Haggle like you can walk away.

Assume the price they offer is at least 3 times what they’ll sell it for, and 5 times what they bought it for. Offer a low price with respect and kindness. Walk away and then you’ll get that price.

Go where the crowds aren’t.

Bali has gone through the Instagram reactor. More tourists are showing up to the popular photo opportunities throughout the islands. Ask the locals for the little-known spots. Instead of driving, try walking from A to B to see a whole lotta C.

Start early.

Crowds gather at destination locations starting at 9:00 am. Book a driver the day before. Get up at 5:00 am and get out by 6:00 am. You get hours of secluded enjoyment by sacrificing a bit of comfort.

Sleep early.

See every sunset you can see. But then after that, get sleep. Maybe a hot stone massage in your room before bed. You’ll value the serenity of the morning light over the mountains more than the bumping and grinding of clubs that you can find anywhere. However, ignore this if you go night diving or sunrise hiking because that stuff is cool.

Befriend your drivers, masseuses, etc.

People are amazing. We met the nicest people by talking and asking about their lives. Local people are much more interesting than tourists.

Say hello.

Do it, even if you’re not buying what they’re selling. Especially the kids. Everyone is so nice and it lifts your spirits. People just want to have a good time.

When in doubt, just ask!

You could find your way, but what better excuse to ask the local people? They know the best ways. Often, those best ways are not coded into Google Maps or Apple Maps just yet. Watch, learn, and ask, and you’ll find some hidden treasures. Hidden beaches, waterfalls, or cuisine.

Get massages. Full body, feet, and reflexology.

If it hurts, it’s working. So worth it.

It’s impossible to clean sand.

Enough said. Separate the sandy clothes from the rest and pray.

Cockroaches aren’t actually deterred by light.

They’ll come out whenever they want. But sleep with the lights on anyway if it makes you feel better. The more you know.

Refill your thermo water bottles.

The tap water is not safe to drink. So, you’ll buy a lot of plastic water bottles. Use every opportunity to refill thermo water bottles with clean water whenever possible. Look out for the environment one sip at a time. Plus, thermo keeps water cooler than plastic.

For every song that exists, there’s a chill, acoustic version that is played in Bali.

The modern island soundtrack includes every song that exists. I mean EVERY song.

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Part 2 coming soon. Terima Kasih!

What traveling teaches

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Day one in Vietnam, 2018-11-18

Walk in a straight line at a consistent pace and do not hesitate. Eat eat eat. Smile a lot. Show respect. Be aware. Explore side streets. Ask questions.

Most importantly, take responsibility for yourself and conduct yourself appropriately, no matter the surroundings.

But my favorite: do something new and uncomfortable each day.

These are some things that traveling teaches. Lest we forget that every day is an adventure, no matter the surroundings.

One Night in Beijing

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Photo by Lisheng Chang on Unsplash

When I was backpacking alone through China in the late 2014, I did not know any Chinese. So, I responded to every bit of English I heard.

In the evening twilight, one night in Beijing, I was approached by two Chinese women who asked, in English, where I was from. Glad to speak with anyone, I replied and continued the conversation.

As we talked, I was 100% focused on asking them about their backgrounds, remembering their names, understanding their stories, telling them about myself, and making connections among our interests. I was so focused that I hadn’t noticed that we had walked down the stairs into a tea shop. That we had entered into a room and I sat down at the table furthest from the door. That while one was telling me about her graduate school, the other was ordering tea and wine and nuts and chips and fruit from the menu.

I looked down at the prices and saw they were absurdly expensive. Immediately, red flags went off. I stopped talking. This didn’t feel right. A pit grew in my stomach and my vision got blurry and I stood up and pushed past the women and ran by the waiter and flung open the door and sprinted up the stairs onto the street to safety.

They had set me up. They would order a bunch of expensive items then “forget” their money. I’d be forced to pay. They would split the earnings with the tea shop owner.

What went wrong?

I could have blamed it on them: they were evil and I was trying to be nice. But to what degree was I responsible for that situation?

By reflecting on this event, I noticed a new tendency in my behavior: I focus hard on making a good first impression with new people by giving them my full attention. But for this, I sacrifice situational awareness.

I don’t often feel concerned about my physical danger because I’m a stocky guy. But clearly, maintaining 100% attention on others is not sustainable, because I could find myself in a different type of danger.

So, I decided to change my behavior. Now, I always maintain situational awareness, even when meeting new people. This allows me to make a good first impression while protecting myself.

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Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

I think it’s important to always be improving like this. I think of this process as a 4-Step Self-Improvement Engine:

Reflect -> Learn -> Evaluate -> Change

  1. Reflect: Open my mind through prayer or meditation, and focus my attention on my life choices and events (think about the Tea Ladies).
  2. Learn: Find trends in behavior, character, thoughts, or actions that were previously unidentified (note my 100% focus on attention).
  3. Evaluate: Determine the worth of the identified trend continuing. If it adds value, justify incorporating into my behavior. If not, then justify squelching it (it’s bad to lose situational awareness even in new social interactions, because I could find myself in unknown, dangerous situations).
  4. Change: Both incorporating and squelching involve adjusting behavior (next time I communicate, note where my attention goes and practice noticing my surroundings more often).

Self-improvement enables the character to be better. For me, my best self is good and honest toward myself and others. Being good and honest is positive, sustainable, and repeatable, and should be encouraged. Every day, I should get closer to being good and honest.

But some days, it seems like I don’t get closer to my best self. So why do I sometimes feel off the mark? What else is happening?

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Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

To answer this question, I conducted an exercise. Each morning, I wrote the best thing I experienced on the previous day. I ended up writing about people I met, knowledge I gained, unique things I tried, mistakes I made, new places I visited, or things I discovered about myself.

Each “best thing” was new to me and required that I adapt to unknown information. The experience of each involves testing the abilities of my pure character without prior knowledge. These exercises underline the value of my character if I succeed and unearth what I’m missing if I fail. Similarly, a machine algorithm is not valuable if it can accurately crunch only the training data sets it’s already seen. It’s valuable if it can accurately crunch new data sets it hasn’t seen. Since I often fail, every encounter with the unknown enables me to discover something new about myself.

By analyzing the set of my responses to new experiences, I can measure the growth or decline of my character over time. But whether I improved or did not, I always learn something.

Improvement starts with reflection, but relies heavily on learning. Over the long term, the quality and frequency of my learning drive the degree and direction of character growth: better learning -> better measuring -> more improving. If my attitude is prideful and ignorant, then I may not identify anything worth changing in my reflection, and my character does not improve. However, if my attitude is open-minded and honest, then I can address a subtle pattern of destructive behavior that my ego had ignored.

Improving to the most good and honest self requires feeding the self-improvement engine with quality learning. It’s like launching a rocket to reach Mars without knowing any laws of physics. All I can do is start small, compare myself to my goal constantly along the way, and make little adjustments to my speed and direction by firing rocket boosters along the way. In other words, answer the following: “what am I doing now and how does that compare to what I could be doing?” Then, “how do I close the gap?” And then do those things.

Aiming for a goal but not feeding quality learning into the improvement engine is like launching with a hope, but never firing the rocket boosters on the journey. We are guaranteed to stray from the path and miss the mark.

Some people don’t care about reaching Mars, fulfilling their best potential self, nor having any noble aim at all. They are content by passively floating along through life without proacting. I don’t know if that’s ok, but that’s certainly not me. I am happiest when I’m seeking noble aims, learning constantly, improving my character to be the best it can be, and avoiding sketchy Beijing tea shops.