How Overseas Travel Changed Me

Just some random observations on how international travel changed me forever. There are more. This will probably have a Part II at some point.

I’m more patient.

At one point I was traveling from Texas to Bangkok quarterly. Which included a routine 13-16 hour flight to Asia from the U.S. I’ve done that flight in last-row seats (#nonprofitbudget) that don’t recline or the aisle next to the odiferous bathroom many times. Somehow, being assigned a middle seat next to a gangsta-rap-loving kid who can’t seem to find his earbuds for 2.5 hours is no big deal.

I kill at killing time.

Six hour layover? (Again, #nonprofitbudget.) Not enough time to leave the airport, really, and you arrived at 2 a.m. on your sub-optimal, low-cost itinerary, so a sortie outside of the airport is senseless. And I can’t afford to buy into the airline club. So…..people watching in international airports is a sport. Cup of coffee, sitting on a floor where people can’t see you….I can spend hours gathering material for my first novel. Or playing my own version of Airport Bingo (“Person wearing garish inflatable neck pillow while running between flights”).

Back-seat-driver calm.

So I’ve been traveling nearly 48 hours and I still have to take a cab to a hotel, in a city few Americans can locate on a map. And I have a cabbie driving like a bat out of hell. I have learned that unless I can smell liquor on their breath (and yes, I check), just relax, close your eyes, and let them drive. There’s a whole world of alternative driving rules out there that work just fine. I once conversed with a taxi driver in La Paz, Bolivia (where I lived for four years) about driving in that city. “The Americans ruined things when they put in traffic lights,” he complained. “Traffic moved much more smoothly when we all just went by the rules before the lights.”

Ugly American is a choice.  

We do not, my blue-passport-with-the-eagle friends, have a good reputation as travelers. We are, in general, a loud, demanding, and entitled bunch. We always have a choice to prove otherwise.

My first morning in Bombay, at an Indian hotel restaurant with a Mexican theme (that 14 hours is a whole blog post in itself), I ate breakfast. It was good. When I first sat down, the very young waiter adjusted the blinds to cut the sun streaming onto the table. I explained it was just fine. I needed direct sun to fight jet lag. “Oh,” he said. “I have never had a customer with blue eyes. I thought the sun would hurt them,” he offered with complete sincerity. (Hint, I may have been the first non-Indian ever to stay at this hotel). When the breakfast order got a little mixed up, and I was served an entire loaf of toasted white bread, I…well, just ate as much as I could. A bit of a translation mix-up.

At the very end, as he handed me the bill, the waiter asked if I had trouble understanding him. “No, no trouble whatsoever, ” I said. He teared up. I mean, tears welling up in big, beautiful brown eyes. Broke my heart. “I’ve never spoken with a native English speaker,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever understand me.” I’d already decided not to quibble about the entire loaf of bread on the bill, and his tears made me realize, you never know when you’re committing ministry. And if you’re maybe the first American someone’s ever met.

You don’t know what’s going on. Get over it.

It’s rare that I’ve felt in danger traveling in places one friend described as “two bananas past the Great Commission.” I did however feel really “out there” while on a jaunt to Jijiga, Ethiopia, which is basically Somalia with better security. Checking into a hotel one night, with two other Americans, the hotel clerk announced he would have to keep our passports, which you routinely show to hotel clerks overseas so they can copy your data into the register. (Otherwise you spend 45 minutes spelling words they’ve never heard of This time, my heart sank when he said, “I have to give them to the police.” No luck retrieving them, he had the passports in hand, I didn’t, and we spent the night worrying we were trapped, unable to travel without our ID documents.

The next morning, Mohammed (for that was his name) was sweeping the hotel patio. We decided to invite him for an orange Fanta when he finished sweeping. And as we Fanta’d together he offered up that the police ordered him to turn over the passports. Because, we’d managed to pick a hotel that was the site of a government opposition rally. (Ah, I thought, that would explain the raucous chanting well after midnight. That wasn’t partying, that was political slogans in unison.) The cops forced him to hold our passports so they could check our backgrounds. We were not agitators, they had determined. Just a couple of American journalists and relief workers. He handed over our documents, we got on our flight at the airstrip, and I had a wonderful morning finding out what it’s like being an 18-year-old Somali man with dreams for his future.

Say grace like you mean it.

On that same trip where I met Mohammed, I traveled in areas ravaged by drought. The cows were dead, so eating anything made from beef was out of the question. Chicken seemed to be really hard to find, perhaps because people needed the eggs. (I had eggs for at least two meals per day.)

In Ethiopia’s Somali region, spaghetti is the big normal meal. (I guess it’s a leftover from when Italy invaded the region in the 1930s but I’m not clear on that for sure.) At any rate, the two meal choices were eggs and spaghetti, which were both eaten with bare hands. And there’s usually some meat in the spaghetti sauce. When I’d ask what the meat was, I’d see the waitperson’s eyes go sideways. They wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Ahhh…..goat?” (Question mark obvious at the end.) I have no idea, to this day, what I was eating. Colleagues said, probably camel. Maybe donkey. The most drought-tolerant and the last beasts to die from thirst. I learned to say grace with all my heart and ask for protection against whatever it was I was ingesting.

How about you?

Would love to hear what you’ve learned from traveling overseas. Feel free to comment!


1 Comment

  1. Penne McKee says:

    Thanks for the world travel log. I felt like I took a trip to exotic places without the long plane ride, fatigue and usually associated internal complications of eating strange food. I think you should write a book! Penne


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