People often ask me what I love about travel and the answer, I think, lies in certain memories that stand out more than others.
Riding in the back of a pick-up through the Peruvian jungle—a hundred miles from the nearest village—I caught a glimpse of an ancient temple.
It wasn’t on any map. The mist dissolved before me and there it was—a palace of crumbling stones, laced with creepers. Howler monkeys cried from the treetops.
It was the kind of moment you live for, as an expat. The thrill of discovery was intense, and I wondered if the early explorers—like Dr. Livingstone—had felt the same.
On another occasion, high in the Peruvian Andes a farmer offered me a cup of tea. On hearing I was English, he rushed out to milk his cow. “I heard the English have milk with their tea”, he said. He’d read something about it on a scrap of newspaper used to wrap plantains. I remember this as one of the kindest gestures any human being has offered me.
I’ve been able to experience these moments of wonder thanks to a simple skill that let me fund my travels. Teaching English overseas is in demand all over the world. Over a 10-year period, having the ability to teach English has taken me throughout Latin America and the Asia Pacific region.
Snapshots like these remind me why I left home to begin with.
It wasn’t to escape. I left home to step outside my comfort zone. In the process—rubbing against other cultures, attitudes, and beliefs—I found out who I really was, and where I really came from.
Then there’s the emotional roller-coaster of expat life…excitement at the dazzling newness of things…frustration at the habits and attitudes we don’t understand…and insights about ourselves and others, once we overcome these frustrations.
I’ve been dazzled often…by the fish-markets of Hong Kong…Quechuan folk music in Cuzco….and the beauty of Buddhist temples in the Himalayas.
But there were times when I wanted to scream and pull out my hair. Chinese bureaucracy…the Beijing smog….and, when you first arrive somewhere, the language barrier.
Some expats don’t survive. Fed up, they pack it all in and head home. But those who stay—and let themselves be changed—are rewarded a thousand-fold.
These changes filter through to everyday life. Today, if I catch a cold, I’ll head down to the spice market for ginseng. I favor acupuncture over painkillers for anything from a sprained ankle to a migraine. I’ve learned the value of folk medicine.
Working in China for six years, I witnessed the frantic pace of change—up close and personal. It’s something I’d never have grasped without actually being there.
From my 20th-floor apartment in Beijing, I watched migrant workers build a gleaming skyscraper, from start to finish, in five months. Down in the streets, young millionaires in Mercedes fought for road-space against peddlers on rusty bicycles.
As I taught my way across two continents—rubbing against different cultures and beliefs—I learned more about the world than the BBC or CNN could teach me.
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