Scotch. Scotch. Movie. Talk. Wake. Walk. Scotch. My first travel experience is still so vivid (despite the scotches). I was on a flight to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to meet my then new girlfriend (and now wife) Lisa who was on physiotherapy placement at the Bach Mai Hospital. I was nervous, and quietly excited, that being my general manner pre-any alcoholic beverages. I didn’t have any idea what to expect.
“Travel has changed me. As a person.”
I can confidently say that I had little empathy of other cultures prior to this experience. It just wasn’t important, up to that point I’d lived in country Victoria for 17 years, and Melbourne for 4 years. The closest I’d got to a culture foreign to my upbringing was walking down to Lygon St from my college campus for a $20 Pizza, Coke and Garlic Bread deal at the “Italian” pizza shop known as Intersection Cafe.
So, upon arriving in Hanoi, and being dropped in the Old Quarter and told by my taxi driver that the hotel was over there (pointing distantly across 7 lanes of motorbike traffic reminiscent of an ant hill I used to stir up out the back of the cricket club rooms while my father trained on the South West oval, some 15km West of a Red Cliffs), I experienced my first form of culture shock.
What was this place? Why was I here? How did it work? What were all these people doing? What was that smell? What is that dog doing? Is that kid doing a wee in the street? What does that sign mean? Why is the army driving through town with a loud speaker on the back of a truck? And what is that solider preaching?
My companion, Jane and I successfully navigated the 7 lanes of traffic, and the adrenaline and analogy of that experience is my best attempt at describing the beauty of travel.
I can admit now, for the first 3 days of that 42 day trip abroad, I wanted to return home. I didn’t like the food, the coffee, the people, the bed, the shower, the toilet . I spent a few hours sitting in an internet cafe pretending to send emails home, hiding from what was outside. The noises.
And then, over time, it grew on me. The 7 lanes of traffic, they were addictive. Trips to beautiful unknown places like Halong Bay, Sapa. Trains. Buses. Motos. And slowly, the challenges became surmountable. The toilets. The language barriers. The smells. I learned (and henceforth decided) that “they”, ‘it’, was worth the risk, whatever ‘it’ was at that moment.
And ‘that moment’ was also what I learned that travel (over any other experience) bought, ‘that moment’ that you couldn’t plan for, that didn’t exist until it arrived. When it did, it was in various forms: ‘that’ view from the 10th floor where you watched the ant hill from above and wondered how it all worked; ‘that’ person you met who you discovered had a world totally different to yours, that taught you things that no one person from my existing world, could teach; ‘that’ wrong turn or decision that led you to an area that wasn’t in the guidebook, but opened your eyes to a world that was previously hidden, a soccer match in the street, the street lined with shops selling brass parts, parts of countryside filled with people that didn’t see people the likes of you, people that gave you more time and generosity of spirit that you had ever experienced in your life, the life that had been conditioned to look for achievement, the next thing.
That moment. Those moments. These moments. That could exist without travel. I’d love to be able to recreate it on a daily basis. They do come sometimes, although fleetingly. Those moments that you don’t forget for a long time. That you share with others constantly. They come, but not enough.
Travel has changed me. As a person. Would I ever have become a teacher without travel? I strongly doubt.
Travel has given me courage. That you can take a risk and things work out. Perspective also. That you are incredibly fortunate, but you also know very little. Very little. That there are many different ways to live, be happy, enjoy life. For some that’s sitting on a small stool on the corner of Pho Hang Gai and Pho To Chi, watching your child play in the street while you sell sprite and toilet paper from your family’s house. For others that sitting on their tractor watching the sun go down before going in for a beer with their husband. For others that’s travel. And that’s cool. Really cool.