If you’d like to be a traveler, you could learn about history and geography, focusing on what is similar and what is different on this strange, beautiful planet.
You could learn languages, in an attempt to ingratiate yourself and show respect for the culture you’ve dropped in on as an outsider.
You could learn about photography or videography, and find a way to document your memories for others to enjoy from afar.
All these things are fine and useful pursuits. But as you move from aspiring vagabond to global explorer, here are a few suggestions that might help even more.
First, learn to wait.
The life of a traveler is one of delayed adventure. You must accept that there will be many “hurry up and wait” opportunities. You’ll wait for extended, uncertain periods of time at bus stops, train stations, airports, terminals, and more. If at first you’re not good at waiting, don’t worry—you’ll receive plenty of practice. In fact, as you venture further and further to more unfamiliar destinations, your waiting time may actually increase.
Sometimes you’ll sit, but other times you’ll wait standing up. The queue is a faithful companion of the traveler, appearing when you’re trying to leave somewhere (security queue) and trying to get somewhere (immigration and customs). Americans call it a line, Canadians call it a lineup. Whatever you call it, you’ll need to learn to stand in it. When I learned to speak my terrible French, one of the first phrases was On doit faire la queue—one must queue.
If you live your life believing that “time is money,” traveling is not for you. You can try to put some of the waiting time to good use, with books, notebooks, and various Apple accessories, but you must accept that much of your time will be spent doing nothing but waiting. To avoid this, don’t travel.
Second, learn to accept that not everyone has the same logic as you.
You might assume that logic is universal, since it is supposedly based on facts instead of opinions. But you would be wrong, as travelers inevitably discover, and the sooner you learn that logic is inseparably tied to culture and context, the easier your journeys will be.
In some countries people will give you the wrong directions to a place rather than tell you they don’t know how to get there. Does this make sense to you? To me, it doesn’t. If I don’t know how to help someone, that’s what I’ll say. But not everyone thinks like me, and in some cultures, it is embarrassing to say you can’t help someone, so better to give the wrong answer than none at all.
Speaking of help, in some cases people will offer to help you because they want something from you; other times people will go far out of their way to help you while repeatedly refusing any reward. In some cases you may think a problem is small only to find out it is insurmountable (and naturally, the opposite is true). In some cases “no” means “ask three times first.”
How do you learn to interpret different situations and relate them to what is true to you? Well, experience is the best teacher. Unlike waiting, interpreting culture does get easier over time. But first you must understand that logic is hardly scientific.
Lastly, you must learn to reframe your experiences in a larger context.
As you think about why you do things and what you’re working towards, it helps to know why you travel. Are you traveling to find something? To lose something? To be alone? To meet people? Because you are compelled to collect memories the way other people collect clutter?
All these reasons and more are perfectly acceptable. But without a sense of purpose, you may find yourself frustrated, stuck in the traffic and missing the sunset at the beach. Not everything about travel is amazing; in fact, some things are downright unenjoyable. But if a traveler is what you are meant to be, you must learn to reframe and contextualize your experiences.
In this case, reframing means putting a series of encounters in balance. I like a lot of places in the Middle East, from where I’m writing, but I don’t like perpetual jetlag or taxi drivers who rip me off. It takes a long time to get to Jordan and Egypt from where I live, so I’m going to be jet-lagged when I finally make it. Since taxis are the main form of transport around here, I’m going to run the risk of rip-off in those (otherwise great) countries.
So I reframe and think: look out my balcony here in Amman, Jordan. There is a great Lebanese breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Last week I went to Tripoli and ran along the Corniche. I have new countries to go to and old ones that await my revisitation.
And so I learn to be a traveler again, learning to wait, remembering that not everyone has the same worldview as me, and putting it all in perspective. I forget most of the words I learn in various languages, but I try to remember these things wherever I go.