Finally, after years of telling myself "I'll spend this summer in Europe," I got my act together and went for a monthlong trip to Northeast Europe. Not only was it a great experience, but it also reminded me of the power of travel to heal the soul and expand the mind. Here are 10 ways it worked for me:
1. You increase your patience.
As Americans, we're used to instant gratification and attentive customer service. However, the rest of the world may not necessarily share this ethos.
So when it's 7.50 am and the trainee at the only open ticket counter of the Warsaw Central Station doesn't speak English and is taking on average 22 minutes to take care of each customer, it's a good time to practice your meditation technique.
And when the train's stopped in the middle of Nowhere, Lithuania, for no discernible reason, breathe in and breathe out, because getting righteously indignant won't solve your problem but might give you an ulcer.
Remember that you're only traveling because you've got time on your hands. So relax, take a look around you, and know that what you call a problem now will be a funny story later. A mind at ease is more likely to find you a solution in any case. Which brings us to...
2. You become more resourceful.
At home, you know where to get good Thai food, set a dislocated shoulder or post bail - all in English. Not so in Vilnius, Lithuania, especially when you have no phone and no car.
So instead of the soft, coddled ball of unimaginative pudge that you've become, you need to get creative. Get a map and figure out where you are. Learn how to count, say hi, please, thank you, do you speak English and beer in the local language (especially in Poland -- damn good beer, I tell you). Find an internet terminal and search for cool things to do in town. And make sure you check the other side of the Warsaw Central Station to discover the ticket counter with no line.
And, if you're feeling really daring, make friends with the natives. They're better resources than any guidebook and the key to turning a good trip into an epic one. And then...
3. You open your heart to strangers and get better at giving and receiving love.
When you're abroad, you feel like a guest wherever you go and thus have a kinder, more open comportment. Especially when you travel alone, you have no choice but to make contact with strangers -- to get directions, decipher a menu or just have company. Necessity becomes the mother of connection.
This allows you to break out of your urban hermit shell, reach out to other human beings and find out that not only do most of them not bite, they even welcome your gesture of friendship. Trains, tourist kiosks, and park benches are just three of the places I've made long-standing friends on trips. Every friend you've ever made was a stranger the second before the first hello. So dare to say hi -- and perhaps discover a new friend.
I've also noticed that most people have a much tougher time receiving kindness than giving it (myself no exception). On this trip, complete strangers took me on guided car tours of their towns (thrice!), treated me to dinner, cooked for me at home, and took me on picnics.
It was difficult for me to accept all this unsolicited grace. But since it was even harder to say no, all I could do was accept and offer my gratitude -- and promise to pass it on.
4. You lower your expectations -- and end up happier.
Let's face it: we Americans are pretty spoiled. We want attentive customer service and we want it now; we want our accommodations spotless and super-convenient; we want stores to be open every day, around the clock; and want it all in English, preferably with a Midwestern accent.
Well, as it turns out, the majority of the planet does not operate that way. There is Italian time (slow), Spanish time (slower), and Rio time (slowest). There are communication barriers, scheduling irregularities (whaddya mean the museum's closed on Monday?), regulations and customs that will make snags inevitable.
That's okay, since the point of travel is not to know what's going to happen next. So develop a habit of going with the flow. I love this quote from Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching:
The Master's power is like this.
He lets all things come and go
Effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results;
Thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed;
Thus his spirit never grows old.
One of my teachers, Tulku Lama Lobsang, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, told us that the cornerstones of all spiritual practice are reducing fear and expectation. So feel free to think of your next vacation not just as a joyride but also as a legitimate spiritual exercise.
5. You suspend judgment, becoming more tolerant.
Last week I saw a kid at a Santa Monica coffee shop with metal hoops in his earlobes big enough to put a baby's fist through, and thought, "That's freaky." But when I saw that on a Berlin hipster last month, I thought, "Local custom -- cool!"
And so you can chalk up pretty much everything to local custom and suspend judgment indefinitely. This allows us to see the world as it is, not as the mental construct we usually impose on it which we often mistake for reality.
Perhaps people harbor their most potent prejudices when it comes to language. How dare others speak differently -- and how peculiar their tongues! Yet to them, it's the air they breathe and just as natural a part of their world.
With the pervasiveness of American media and English as the world's lingua franca, it's easy to fall into an ethnocentric trap. So maybe it takes a language like Mandarin -- with over 600 million native speakers and a fiendishly difficult script -- or Pirahã -- an Amazon language of about 400 speakers, ten sounds and no words for colors or numbers -- to snap us out of our ethnocentrism and make us appreciate the existence of other equally valid worldviews.
That's the first five ways. I'll give you the other five next week (with pictures!), so stay tuned.