Language, left hands and mixer taps…
How travel changes your mind and how you see the world
In the 1980s I spent three weeks in India. At the time I’d never been to Asia let alone a country as disorientating as India can be. It left an indelible impression on me that remains to this day.
At the time it was the most ‘different’ place I’d ever been, and I returned home from that trip seeing my life completely differently too. Not only was the experience a stark reminder of my relative good fortune in life, but the lessons it taught me about making the most of my life are ones I will never forget.
Stepping beyond your own backyard, whether it’s to the other side of the world or to the other end of your street, can provide experiences and connections with others that profoundly affect your life.
So let’s explore 9 ways travel changes your mind…
1. It reveals the common threads between us
We’re all human, for starters! And all humans have language. Language is a wonderful way to recognise the long-established links between countries.
For example, I’m currently learning Danish. I already speak German, and English is my first language. I can see the strong similarities between those three languages, and they reveal the roots that people share.
Given that the countries we know as the UK, Denmark and Germany were also once part of the same land mass, with no separation by sea, and given the historical migration between them, those links are perhaps not unexpected.
Moving further east through Europe, language changes and yet there are still many common threads to be found. The main divide is simply that of changing geography – and, from time to time, changing political borders.
2. It teaches you about your home country
Travel introduces you to new ways of doing things, including the small day-to-day practical things that you may not even think about.
For example, it was only when a Dutch friend several years ago told me how strange it was that many houses in the UK have carpet in the bathroom that I even stopped to think about that. Most other countries have hard floors in the bathroom – for practical reasons of course.
Similarly, it was only when an Australian friend mentioned the separate hot and cold taps in UK buildings (as opposed to mixer taps), that I even noticed that! Now I notice it all the time – and realise how separate taps can make it difficult not to burn or freeze your hands.
Noticing the funny things about our home country – and being able to laugh at ourselves in that way – helps us notice things about our lives.
3. It acts as a mirror
Travel shines a light on all sorts of things, not least the way things are done in certain places – etiquette and cultural norms. When we travel with an open mind and heart, we begin to understand why different people do things in different ways.
For example, in many countries using the left hand to eat with is considered unclean and offensive (because the left hand is reserved for matters of personal hygiene).
Blowing your nose in public is also considered very rude in many places across the world.
It’s extremely easy to offend if we don’t appreciate the etiquette of other cultures, countries and communities – including those in our home country. But by proactively noticing and learning these things, we sow the seeds for greater harmony and understanding between people.
4. It makes you more able to help newcomers to your own community
When we understand how perplexing it can sometimes be to understand the way of life in other places, we become more aware that newcomers to our own community maybe finding things equally difficult.
Travel opens your eyes to the things in your home country that may seem strange or bewildering to others. It makes you more able to help them. I love this particular result of how travel changes your mind.
It also shows us that our hopes and fears and dreams are not so different; they’re just expressed in different ways.
5. It increases your confidence
Travelling through the world, both near and far, makes you more resilient, more able to quickly calculate risk – and think on your feet.
While walking in the Alps in Europe with a friend once, a man stepped out from the side of the path and exposed himself. I clearly remember my thought process in those first few seconds: 1) there were two of us (myself and my friend); 2) the man was wearing normal day-to-day clothes and shoes, not running shoes; 3) it looked as though we could probably fight him off if we had to.
So we ignored him. I also knew that there were some other walkers not far behind us, and so I figured that he probably wouldn’t risk doing anything else aggressive.
This is one small example, of course, but when we put ourselves in new situations that require new reactions, it strengthens our ability to do this in day-to-day life no matter where we are.
6. It makes you notice things
We experience every new thing through the filter of every other thing we’ve ever experienced in our life to date.
So by having new and different experiences with different people in different places, we can continually adjust that filter and allow ourselves to experience the world around us in new ways.
It opens our minds to new ways of interpreting things. It broadens our perspective and helps us to engage more personally with the people and places in this amazing world.
7. It leads to wonderful new friendships
If I look at a list of all the people I consider to be my friends, I can see that a good number of those are people I’ve met on my travels, including in the countries I have lived in.
I particularly love travelling solo because of the conversations I have with people one to one – and the way many people outside my own backyard have embraced me as a newcomer. I love that. So much!
Some countries in the world are currently adopting a stance of isolationism and nationalism, and it’s something I find really sad. When we embrace ‘the other’ there is so much we can learn. It benefits us all.
8. It reveals the gaps in your education
Having spent a lot of time travelling through countries previously colonised and occupied by my original home country, the UK, I have learnt a lot more about the horrific things the British did to indigenous people in those countries.
These are things I was never taught at school. If I had not travelled to those places, I would still be none the wiser.
The way history is presented depends on who’s recording it and who’s reporting it. Our knowledge of very recent history, even what happened yesterday, depends on what we choose to read and listen to, who’s writing it and how we choose to interpret it.
When we head beyond our own back yard and discover for ourselves the stories and accounts that people have to share about their lives, we can begin to lift the veil on why we see the world the way we do – and start to question it. Travel changes your mind in that respect.
Travelling to new places helps shake us out of entrenched patterns of thinking. It also allows us to make a more informed and open contribution to social and political debate both at home and abroad.
9. It shows us that most people are peaceful and kind
The stunning kindness of the cabin crew on an internal flight in Cuba after I heard my mum had died… an unexpected gift of watermelon in a desert in India… strangers coming to my aid in Vietnam… the man in a post office in Denmark who gave me his place in the queue…
My travel journals are full of wonderful stories of human kindness and connection. For me this is the essence of travel – whether it’s somewhere far away or very close to home. It enriches every part of my life.
Do you have a story to share about how travel has changed something about your life? Or how it’s changed the way you see the world? Leave a comment below.