This past year, my husband, ten-year old son and I set off for a year-long adventure around the world. Our travels took us to Europe, the Middle East and north Africa, most of Southeast Asia, central America, Canada and Iceland.
Here are my top takeaways after spending a year on the road:
1. God hates women’s knees
I’m not kidding. He apparently really despises them. I’m also sure that God is a man because he has no problem with any part of a man’s body.
From the Buddhist temples of Thailand, to the churches in Italy, the Hindu temples of India, and the mosques in Jordan, everywhere we went, I was told to cover my knees.
Now, you must understand that I’m not the “butt cheeks peeking out” type of gal. That ship sailed years ago. My clothes always hit about half an inch above my knees. Contrast that with my husband and son who basically lived in shorts at least 3–4 inches above knee level. Every “house of God” we visited, they breezed right in, while a swarm of women descended upon me, wrapping me in various garment, while tsk tsking unapprovingly and covering my unsightly knees.
It was so frustrating that at a Thai temple I finally asked why my husband wasn’t required to cover his knees. The guard shrugged and said, “his knees, ok.” Are mine just ugly?
This was particularly rich in Hindu temples where groups of mostly naked “holy men,” with only their genitals covered roamed inside the temples. But a woman entering a house of God with her knees exposed? For shame!
So, rest easy people. Sexism is alive and well all over the planet.
2. Hating other nationalities is a worldwide pass time.
It should be self-evident that there are good and bad people in every country, right?
Well, it isn’t. This past year taught me that people have a deep-seated need to hate at least one other nationality. From the Swiss dive instructor in Thailand who told us he likes all people, “except the rude Indians,” to the Bhutanese waiter who said he appreciates tourists except the Chinese who are “over entitled,” to the Czech driver who was shocked that we weren’t “obnoxious” like all Americans, xenophobia is everywhere. I don’t think we visited a single country where at some point, a hatred of another nationality failed to rear its ugly head.
Rejoice America, we’re not alone!
3. The infrastructure in the United States is worse than most other countries.
Where we are alone, is the appalling state of our infrastructure. From trains, to planes, to public transportation and roads, the United States lags behind almost all other countries we visited. The fact that the richest country in the world still doesn’t have a bullet train is a national travesty. Ok, maybe I exaggerate but it’s close to that. Almost every country we visited has invested heavily in their infrastructure so that there are bullet trains, airlines that don’t treat passengers like chattel, clean, abundant and efficient public transportation as well as safe roads.
Coming back to the United States after a year of using these services all over the world was truly a shock. It was as if we had blinders on while living in the United States and they were ripped off as we traveled. To now live in the U.S. without the benefit of those blinders has honestly, been quite challenging.
4. China is already King.
In the U.S, we tend to think of China as a developing, smog-filled country, teeming with people and plastic tchotchke-making factories, struggling to find its footing on the international stage.
While China may be some of those things, it most certainly has already found, and in many instances surpassed the United States, on the international stage. The influence of the government of China and its people around the globe is unmistakable.
Everywhere we went, Chinese tourists, who are now more abundant than any other group of tourists worldwide, were treated like kings. This may have something to do with the fact that according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Chinese tourists overseas spent $277.3bn in 2018. In contrast, American tourists spent $144.2bn.
Almost every menu we perused, whether in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere, had Chinese food offerings. At a few temples in Thailand, we couldn’t join any tours because most of the tours were in Chinese. The English language ones were few and far in between. We landed at an airport in Cappadocia, Turkey and were met with an enormous “Chinese Welcome” banner. We made a point to ask at each location where their number one largest group of tourists originated from. The answer, almost without exception was China.
The Chinese have now replaced Americans as the group of tourists everyone kowtows to.
Add to that the fact that the Chinese government is pouring tens of billions of dollars in aid to governments all over the developing world, as the U.S. withdraws into its “America First” policy, and it’s easy to see why our perception of China is not shared by most of the world.
5. It was a lot simpler than we thought.
I remember when traveling required traveler’s checks, long lines at entry points, exchanging currency, difficulties in communicating, etc.
Most of those things have vanished. Traveling through Europe was a breeze, thanks to the European Union (Brexit, I’m looking at you). There was no difference between traveling from France to Estonia than there is going from Los Angeles to New York. As long as you were coming from another European country, no need to exchange money, no visa requirements and no customs check. Things have become so efficient and uniform that this was mostly true in most places outside of Europe too.
But one of the biggest recent conveniences is that English is now the de facto language of travel.
Anyone who traveled to France before 2010, will tell you that the French became very uppity if you spoke English to them. Well, no more. I didn’t even have to break-out my shockingly mispronounced 50-word vocabulary of French. I simply spoke English and nobody cared. Whether in a Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka or the old Bazaars of the Middle East, everybody now speaks English.
6. It’s wasn’t as expensive as we thought.
We decided a few years ago that we really wanted this adventure in the near future. Not when we were too old to do all the bold things I imagined, like triumphantly scaling Mount Everest…ok, this never actually happened but still. So, we started financially planning for the adventure. When Christmas rolled around, and I really wanted that 40-foot blowup Santa that only cost $39.99, I sadly kept pushing my cart past all those lucky people shoveling decorations into their carts. Those fuzzy slippers that were all the rage a few years back? Didn’t buy them despite my toes screaming out for them
. A lot of small sacrifices led to a nice little travel fund.
We also timed our trip with the end of a car lease. The savings on the lease and insurance payments, gas bills and maintenance were substantial. Add to that savings from not having our son in piano classes, baseball teams, etc., as well as not having large electric bills, water bills, suspending insurance on our second car and we had substantial savings.
On the traveling side, a lot of things are now cheaper. You can Airbnb a small unit for half the cost of a hotel room. We used ride sharing services for a fraction of the cost of a taxi. Low cost carriers and trains whisk you everywhere at rates that are jaw-droppingly low. There are healthy fast food options everywhere. Add in the strong dollar in places such as the Middle East, north Africa or southeast Asia and it really didn’t cost us nearly as much as we thought it would.
7. It was the most satisfying thing we’ve ever done.
I consider myself lucky in having lived a full and at times, quite colorful life.
But this trip was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was delightful, exhausting, exhilarating and terrifying all at once. As Anthony Bourdain so aptly said, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body.”
So, if you’ve ever dreamed of doing this, a little piece of advice: do it. It will change you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.