Six Things I Have Learned from Three Years on the Road: Perspective

Perspective is a cliché in travel writing. Those who travel, the writers say, have a broader perspective and are supposedly more tolerant of their fellowman.

This is not true.

I currently live in Mexico, where Gringos regularly express intolerance for their adopted culture. Barry Golson, in his book “Gringos in Paradise”, tells a story told about a Gringa who lived next door to a church. Anyone who has ever lived near a church in Mexico knows that they are noisy places. Golson writes that the lady was tired of the noise and decided to do battle with her water hose, soaking the congregants as they left church.

Douglas Bower, in his post “When Gringos Attack”, writes of another Gringa who blasts her neighbors with a compressed-air fog horn whenever their parties get too loud.

Here in San Miguel, a woman recently told me that she picked up poop on the street from her neighbor´s dog, put it in a plastic bag and hung it on his doorknob. (Poop scooping is not a Mexican tradition.)

Complaints about fireworks are a perennial favorite on the Civil List, the most well-known Yahoo group for Gringos in San Miguel, and in the past week Gringos have been grousing about dogs barking. Someone suggested that they start a petition to get Mexicans to reign in their barking dogs.

When pigs fly.

Travel is definitely no guarantee of a broader perspective. Rather, it depends on HOW one travels.

Tours, cruises and luxury hotels certainly make travel safer and easier, but the curated experience is a bubble that does not provide much insight into how people live. Fast travel, with a “bucket list” of places to visit at lightning speed, may enhance one´s social status, but will do little to change one`s perspective.

It is also possible to live years in an expat bubble in elite enclaves, not speaking the language, interacting with locals only through maids, waiters or taxi drivers, with 100 percent of meaningful interactions limited to other Westerners.

What I have learned in three years on the road is that enlarging my perspective takes real commitment, a willingness to take risks, spend time outside of one´s comfort zone, learn the language and the culture, and establish relationships outside fellow travelers and the expat community.

All of this takes time, which is why I travel slowly.

And here`s the payoff.

I can roll with the flow. I will eat what is put in front of me and say thank you, sleep through fireworks, and bark back at dogs.

I have learned to operate on the fly, get things wrong, and keep trying until I get it right. I´ve learned to smile, ask for help, have a dictionary at the ready and communicate with hand signals.

We Americans are notoriously impatient. One of the way we identify newcomers here is how wound-up they are.

I have learned to wait in line with grace.

Until my bones turn to ashes if I have to.

The road has taught me that Americans have a lot to learn from other cultures, in particular, social skills like good manners and hospitality.

The road has taught me that the common thread that ties us together is that we all love our kids and want them to have a good life.

Also, pretty much everybody likes cookies.

Traveling emphasizes the value of experiences over things and has made me appreciate the people who make things with their hands, repair what is broken, dance their joys, create art from fear and write about the world they see.

Most of all, I have learned that I do not travel alone, but with the support of family and friends back home and in far-flung places.

You know who you are. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.