Saturday, 25 September 2010

10 simple lessons from a year abroad

Living overseas can teach you a lot about yourself, and every soul-searching, curiosity driven, wandering spirit knows that. However, living in a foreign land outside your comfort zone can also put you in some terrifying and interesting situations that eventually unveil themselves as lessons in this crazy ride we call life.

I've been back in Toronto for a month today, and figured I'd spend some time reflecting on the past year of my life abroad. Here are the results of those meandering thoughts through my mind -- a list of 10 lessons learned in the 12 months I spent in Seoul, Korea. Please bear in mind that these lessons have stemmed from personal experiences and encounters. They, in no way, shape or form, reflect the thoughts of other travelers. But I do hope you enjoy the list!

1. Keep an open mind -- Don't just say it, live it! Almost everyone you meet while traveling the blue marble will say they're a "free spirit" or describe themselves as "open-minded". But saying it and living it are two entirely different things. I've met many people on my travels who've described themselves as such, but have had absolutely nothing to show for it. Sure, they've traipsed from one country to another, switching through hemispheres and seasons with ease. But when it came down to letting a culture absorb them (yes, don't absorb the culture, let the culture absorb you!), they were anything but "free-spirited". Judgment came quickly when presented with various cuisines, traditions and customs. In my opinion (as an example), if you're in Korea and someone offers you live octopus as an entree for dinner, unless you're allergic to seafood or are a vegetarian, eat the live octopus! If you hate it, then so be it... but at least you can say you tried live octopus in Korea. There's not a lot of people out there who could say that!

2. Pack light -- This was a big lesson for me. It's so tempting to stuff suitcases with items that you think you won't be able to live without while traveling. You tend to think ahead and assume that at some point in your adventures, you're bound to need that blow-dryer/diffuser that works so perfectly with your curls. But guess what? Almost every hotel/hostel/inn/dorm/motel comes equipped with a blow-dryer in the room. And if not? Perhaps it's time you considered going au naturel. You are traveling after all... being a free-spirit! Just pack the basics like a pair of jeans, a warm sweater, a few t-shirts and small items. Almost everything else that you need can be picked up along the way. Toiletries, underwear and seasonal clothes can be purchased in your country of choice, and can be bought at reasonable prices... if you're a reasonable traveler. Plus, you'll be glad to have extra space in your luggage when you stumble across amazing souvenirs and treats that you're sure to collect on your travels.

3. Listen to your surroundings -- Whether you find yourself at the local watering hole, or laying on a beach under a blanket of stars, take a few moments to tune out your inner voice and thoughts, and pay attention to the sounds around you. It's such a treat! One of my favourite moments over the past year took place in Krabi, Thailand. It was nighttime and I was laying on a hammock that overlooked the private beach our hostel was located on. I had a stream of thoughts passing through my mind about how grateful I was to be there... counting my blessings. Then, in the following moments, I let the sounds of the surroundings take over me. I heard the soft waves rolling to the shore; the hermit crabs click across the flat sand beds under a moonlit night; the residential dogs, with their paws hitting the cement pavement whimpering in the background; the fireflies buzzing around the mosquito lantern; the easy hum of the wind blowing through the palm trees... and through all that, I heard peaceful silence. The moment sent me into sensory overload, but it was such an amazing feeling. It seems to me that if you let it, your body documents and records the feelings associated with your surroundings. In this way, if it feels good, you can always go back to the memory, and remember exactly how you felt in that moment. It's a surefire way to bring a smile to your face, regardless of where you find yourself in the future!

4. Let yourself laugh -- Seriously! Humour and ease go a long way when traveling. More often than not you will find yourself in situations beyond your control, and you'll be at the mercy of people you're not sure you can trust. When you feel hopeless and think, "This isn't happening!" please remember to laugh. Scientists have proven that laughter sends bursts of endorphins through your body, which can eventually help you think more rationally in times of crises. If you find yourself spending the night at a hostel run by a toothless Thai woman who isn't sure if she's 68 years old or 92, and you're not sure how you ended up there, and in the shadows of centuries old ruins, you see her doing a bewitching, traditional dance to Madonna songs... go ahead and have a laugh! Chances are the night will be over before you know it, and you'll be on your way to your next adventure. And then, she and the creepy hostel you stayed at will simply be a faded memory... a story that you'll be able to share in the future. Laughter helps ease the crazy. I promise! No matter how absurd it seems, or how worried you are, if you laugh, it won't seem as bad and you might actually enjoy yourself!

5. Indulge in story-time -- Whether they're yours or someone else's, make sure you take part in an exchange of stories. There are so many fascinating people on this planet, and in traveling, you're one of the fortunate few who will get to meet people outside your immediate network. Mind you, some are worth staying clear from, but generally, travelers all have interesting experiences to share. Personally, I was always inspired by what I heard. Whether it was in talking with the Dutch man who sold all his personal possessions after a bitter divorce and decided to stumble through the world as the "lazy traveler"; or if it was the American teacher who's Korean had gotten better than his English after spending so many years in the Land of Morning Calm... they each had these unbelievably fascinating stories to tell of their encounters and perspectives. When you travel, you will find a kindred spirit. That's a guarantee... even if it's momentary. Allow yourself to listen a little and share a little. It's great for the soul, and you always leave feeling more enriched than when you started.

6. Language exchange -- Yes, I know that the literal idea of a language exchange is to sit with someone from a particular country and practice your respective languages. My take on this (over the past 12 months) went like this: If I was out with my Korean friends and I heard key words that seemed to work with the waiters or other Koreans, I would ask what they meant, then spend some time practicing the words. They would do the same with English. Basic things like "where?" or "washroom?" or "please" and "thank you". Small phrases and words in the local language go a long way and can make life a lot easier. And besides, you'll be proud of yourself when you realize you can say a certain word in the language of almost every country you've visited and then some... "Yeah" "Neh" "Kah" "Oui" "Ha" "Woi" "Hai"... In English, these basically mean... "Yes". Who knew?!

7. Get lost in translation -- I still remember the same 68 (or 92)-year-old bewitching Thai lady who kept screaming "boat tip" into my ear. It took my friends and I a few hours to figure out she was asking if we wanted to go on a boat trip. It turned out she was definitely getting some sort of boat tip, as the original price of the long-tail boat ride nearly doubled when she quoted it. Highly suspicious! In Korea, I would often have older men and women say "Megook?" to me. And for the longest time I thought they were asking if I wanted a certain kind of soup, because the Korean word for soup is "guk". I couldn't quite figure out why everyone was asking me this, until I learned the Korean word for America was "Megook". I felt silly for a bit, but then started laughing when I realized I had twelve more months of misunderstanding adventures to experience. A year later I can say it was absolutely worth it!

8. Be spontaneous -- This one's a given, right? One of my favourite experiences in Korea happened within the first couple of months of me moving there. I was out having dinner with a friend, and we ended up at an outdoor barbecue restaurant. He asked for the menu, which arrived completely in Korean, with no pictures to support the text. A bit apprehensive at first, we decided to take a risk and pointed to three random items on the menu. A few minutes later a waitress walked up to our table and spread three platters of oysters, muscles, scallops and cuttlefish for us to cook on our fire pit. It was a delicious dinner that we never would have known about had we not taken the risk. Sigh, just thinking about that meal makes want to smack my lips!

9. Ditch the camera -- It's so hard to travel without wanting to capture every single, solitary moment on some sort of camera. This was the case during a great part of my time in Korea. I eventually learned to leave my house with the camera, in the odd occasion that something bizarre happened and needed documentation, but I didn't always use it. Sometimes it's best to leave the camera in the bag and let your eyes and mind take the pictures for you. You'd be surprised at all that you miss when you're stressing behind a lens, focusing on smaller details. Sure it's great to try and capture National Geographic type photos, but you shouldn't let that overwhelm your trip. Treat your senses to the real 3-D! Let yourself revel in where you are in time and space on this amazing planet!

10. Purchase Skype credits -- you may not use it all the time, and you might find it leaves you too connected. However, Skype is amazing in times of lows and emergencies. If you need the quick-fix sound of a loved one to get you through a difficult time, or if you need to call your bank overseas, Skype can let you do that with ease. Sometimes you might just want to share a story in present time rather than write it all out in an e-mail. Or perhaps a visit to a particular place might remind you of someone in your life. Skype is an affordable way to get you through the lulls and dulls. Consider it a vitamin for your travels -- it's not essential, but it's a good idea to have it on hand.

So there you go! Ten pretty obvious lessons that I'm sure most of you are already aware of. Tag these along to the tips you've read about the country you're visiting, and you're bound to have a fabulous experience that's sure to enrich your life!

Cheers and happy travels!



  1. Great advice and I would agree, especially on your point about having an open mind. Hope you enjoyed your time in S.Korea. I lived in Tageu but never get used to the kimchii as much as I tried :).

  2. Some fantastic tips to live by. I didn't adhere to as many of those as I perhaps should have in my two years abroad - but definitely think I'll put a few of these into practice when I head back overseas next year.

  3. I understand what you guys mean! These were lessons I had to learn along the way. But I'm glad I did. I guess that's the thing about traveling ... as long as you learn something, you can use the lesson on your next adventure! :)


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