After I finished my master’s degree and got my first grown-up job, I decided to reward myself with a trip. I had been focused in college, trying to get through as quickly as possible to cut expenses. Perhaps overly focused—I took classes year-round, dedicating summer and winter breaks to study, as well as to working to pay for school. I’m not sure I would do it the same way if I were to go back in time—maybe I wouldn’t push so hard. Maybe I’d take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. At the time though, travel wasn’t something I could afford.
The first trip I took was to Europe. Since then, I’ve gotten to go to other places, like Australia and Puerto Rico. That first excursion was different though—I was on my own for the first time, halfway across the world. Well, not quite on my own. I signed up with a tour group, expecting to meet up with other travelers in their twenties. Instead, I landed in Amsterdam and discovered my fellow travelers were all of retirement age. After the initial awkwardness wore off, I had a wonderful time. It was like traveling with two dozen affectionate grandparents. I still stay in touch with one of the women I met. She’s now in her nineties, and sharp as ever. From her, I learned that having style is more about confidence than what you wear. She had so much charisma, it was easy to forget her age.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that trip is the world is not a theme park created for my amusement. I wasn’t in Disneyland. I was visiting real countries with real consequences. This was most evident to me in Venice. Our group was headed to dinner, and somewhere, dazed with wonder walking those beautiful labyrinthine streets, I fell behind. For one panicked moment, I was lost. I didn’t know where I was, or where we were headed. I knew no one (though some of the men in the streets seemed awfully eager to get to know me). Suddenly, the world seemed dark and dangerous. Luckily, our guide noticed I was missing and backtracked to find me. I was fortunate someone was looking out for me. From then on, I took pains to stay with the group.
Another important lesson from that trip was this: people think differently, and that’s okay. Growing up in America, I was unaware that people in other countries are not as squeamish about nudity. Eager to use the hotel’s pool in Munich, I donned my suit, grabbed a towel, and opened the door to the recreation area. An old man sat just inside the entrance, a white bathrobe draped over his shoulders. I’m not sure why he had the robe, because he sure wasn’t using it for its intended purpose. I got an eyeful. Old man full frontal. Shocked out of my naivety, but determined to try to fit in with the locals, I resisted the urge to run back upstairs to my room, and swam anyway. I wasn’t ready to shed my own suit, nor will I ever be, but I realized my way of thinking wasn’t representative of the rest of the world. I think that’s a good thing, because I learn more interacting with people who are different from me.
Then there was my trip to Australia. One night I gazed at different constellations than the ones I knew, and watched as a fruit bat sailed past the face of the moon. I met scuba divers from all over the world in the Great Barrier Reef, played underwater paparazzo with a shark, fed kangaroos, sat in on lectures at a university, and discovered that beets come standard on burgers in Australia. I’m not a fan of beets, but I loved learning that ketchup is called tomato sauce in the land down under. Even better, child safety seats are called baby capsules, which sounds much more exciting. Like tiny flying saucers for babies.
I also learned that the United States is on a world stage. At the time, one of the Bush daughters was getting married. Most Americans I knew could not have cared less, but I remember watching the news in Australia, which covered the story. Over b-roll of collectible plates featuring the young couple, the reporter claimed the nuptials of the President’s daughter were “as close to a royal wedding” as America gets. That aside, the Australians I spoke with knew more about American politics than I did.
One day a cabbie asked me about the upcoming presidential election, and whether I planned to vote for Obama or McCain. He favored Obama because he felt world relations would fare better under his leadership. I was surprised he had an opinion about it—I knew nothing about Australian politics, other than what I’d seen on the news during my stay. I realized how we vote in America doesn’t just affect the United States. There are global implications. I knew this, in theory, before that conversation, but hearing it from someone with a different worldview underscored the point.
As I’ve followed our current presidential election, I’ve been thinking about that cabbie a lot lately. I wonder what he thinks about this round of candidates. I hope, as a country, we do right by him and our other international neighbors. I hope we vote wisely for all of us.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016