The Isolation of the American Traveler

In comparison to Canadians, Europeans and Australians; Americans as a society are not known for their traveling and love of exploring the world.  This does not mean none of them travel (obviously), but it the vast majority have not spent a great deal of time traveling to foreign places beyond Mexico, Puerto Rico or the occasional trip to Europe.  I have even met grown adults who don’t even have a passport (a scary idea indeed).  But to each his (or her) own, and everyone should choose to live their life how they’d like.  I do not think one is right and one is wrong, they are just different approaches to life.  In my late twenties a lot of my friends bought houses and got married.  While that was happening I explored as much of the world as my bank account would allow… For example, at 27 I quit my job after crashing at my brother’s house for over a year to go explore Argentina and Chile for three months.  

I chose to travel and that’s why I didn’t do some of the things that other people chose to do.  Yet I almost feel uncomfortable when I am in discussions about places I have been to and I get an astonished, “you’ve been everywhere”, making me feel like some sort of elitist who was “fortunate” to travel.  I chose to travel.  I don’t own expensive shoes or purses like some of my friends;  I also put off the commitment of marriage and home ownership (putting that off in NYC is EASY).  I worked my butt off and made my travels happen.  So let’s get that straight.  But again, as an American there is definitely a frustration in trying to relate to people when you have chosen to live this way.

DEPARTURE GRIEVANCES

Years ago when I was planning my trip to Nepal and India I telephoned my credit card to make sure they knew I was travelling and didn’t cut off my card at my first purchase abroad.  The lovely operator had a thick southern accent and was friendly as can be.

“India you say…Oh how exotic!”  Yes, I responded, I am very excited!  We sorted out the dates and the cities in India I expected to travel to.  Next up was Nepal.  This immediately led to a pause.  

Operator: Let me look this one up…. New Paul? Is that what you said?

Me: No…Nepal?  It’s right above India.

Operator: N…E…W…

Me” No…. N.E.P.A.L.”

We went back and forth as I kept spelling it out for her.  I was convinced she thought I was making up a country to confuse her.

Operator: Oh goodness… Okay there it is!  

We sorted out the details and then before I hung up, I remembered I was considering trying to stay over a night in Dubai on my way home as I had a layover there.

Me: One more place…. I would also like to list Dubai to file.

Operator: Dew..Bai?

Me: Uh yes.  It’s in the U.A.E. (Figuring she needed a little guidance)

Operator: You aye eeee? Is that in New Paul?

Yikes.  You get the point and we did get it all worked out.  I would like to say that that was an isolated incident but it has happened again (“Me and Mar?”).

HOMECOMINGS

Coming home from an exotic trip can be a very isolating experience.  I learned long ago that there is a category of people who will ask you “How was your trip?” and they are usually satisfied at “great!” without any details.  After returning from an amazing, life-changing experience, it’s natural to feel a slight disappointment in people’s disinterest or understanding of what you just went through.

When I returned from a trip spending a few months in India/Nepal I had a bit of this reaction but the hardest thing was the confusion surrounding Nepal.  I had a text a few days after I returned from an old friend Bill welcoming me home:

Bill: Welcome home!  How was Tibet?

I cringed at this mix-up because I literally had just spent the last few weeks volunteering with Tibetan Refugees at the Buddhist Monastery I was staying at.  I sat with them in tears hearing the horrors of their families being killed and the perils of escaping Tibet barefoot through the snow covered mountains.  But the world ignores the issues of Tibet so I knew I needed to be patient.

Me: Thank you! Nepal was great!

Bill: I bet it was so cool although you must be so sick of Chinese food!

Long pause…

Me: You understand Nepal is not in China right?  And I’ve never been to Tibet or will I ever go until the Chinese recognize their independence and let the Dalai Lama return home!!!  

Bill: Awesome!

A few days later I ran into a family friend at a party.  As we caught up I told her about the trip I had just taken, half waiting for her to ask if I learned to say anything in Chinese.  But I was pleasantly surprised.   “That is so great!” She said, “Did I ever tell you about the week I spent in a cave in Bhutan with a Buddhist Monk?”  I was not expecting that and was thrilled to finally have someone to swap monk stories with.  

Americans may not all travel as much as people in other countries, but the ones who do will surprise you.