The things you learn on the road

Over the past few years, I’ve spent what feels like a majority of my time being “on the road”. Whether it is being physically away from home, or dealing with the little (or sometimes very big) curveballs that life throws at you, life “on the road” has been an interesting journey of self-discovery.

You learn so much about who you are and the things that drive you when routine is stripped from under your feet and your day-to-day surroundings dramatically altered. Life as you know it is gone, and the only constant is you – your fears, passions.

You can never take all of your physical belongings with you everywhere, but you always take your resilience and capacity for change. A fresh pair of eyes, perhaps. The determination to keep on moving.

I recently spent the two weeks before Christmas exploring two very different parts of Asia: Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong. I decided to travel Hong Kong alone, which in hindsight turned out to be a wonderful experience (although I have learned that meals are much better when they are shared with others). Travelling alone gave me the opportunity to reassess my perceptions about the world around me, challenge my assumptions about the way things are, and to question the entrenched principles that we adopt in our lives. In doing so, I decided to try and live according to three “rules” that I hope will make my footprint on the world a more positive one moving forwards.

RULE #1: DO WHAT SCARES YOU

I am incredibly risk averse by nature. I was not, in the words of an entrepreneurial friend, “born with a faulty risk sensor”. My sensor is stuck on HIGH mode and there are few things that I find more paralysing than fear. This is both a curse and a blessing – a curse, because I (alone) am the creator of my own limitations, but also a blessing, because these limitations are things that I can do something about.

I often find myself too afraid to say hello to someone that I want to meet, too afraid to offer an opinion that might be shot down, and too afraid to commit to uncertainty. The turning point was coming to the realisation that the things that I’m scared to do are actually the things that I really want to do. If the thought of doing something triggers physical and mental inertia, then that’s a pretty good indication that I should probably go ahead and do it. 

The beauty of travelling alone is that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself. There is no one else to rely on, and nothing to hide behind. At some point you just have to crawl out of your shell and get on with it. 

RULE #2: FOCUS ON WHAT YOU HAVE TO GIVE

I always struggle with my moral obligation to help others in need as a tourist overseas. As a young girl visiting China with my parents, I was taught to ignore street beggars and charity collectors because they were likely to be “scams”. Although some degree of cynicism is helpful when you’re travelling through a foreign place, I now try to give to those who seem particularly vulnerable, and especially to the elderly. After years of walking past and ignoring (unless I really couldn’t bear the thought of not giving), my default position is now to try and help those in need unless there is a good reason why I shouldn’t.

My second dilemma, after getting over any initial distrust, arises when I walk past several beggars – equally needy in my mind – over the course of a single day. If I gave money to the first person I saw today, do I still need to help the others that I encounter? As a society I think we are taught to feel that we have discharged our moral obligation to give to the needy or to do the socially responsible thing when we think we have given “enough” or have done our “good deed of the day”.

Doing something good achieves the effect of letting people “off the hook”. But financial constraints aside, I now think that there’s a lot more to giving than just ticking off your good deed of the day (week/month/year) box. Instead, we should think about whether we are able to give each step of the way.

RULE #3: SHARE A SMILE AND A LITTLE KINDNESS

It’s easy when you’re passing through a place to think of people as being cogs in a machine. As someone who likes good customer service, I used to react quite badly to rudeness overseas. After a while, you realise that it’s just part of how things work and that it’s nothing personal. Swallow your pride and ego, and make sure to treat every single person that you come across with respect, whether or not you’re likely to ever encounter them again (and irrespective of how you’re feeling at that particular moment). Look people in the eye and say please and thank you. Smile.

Give people the benefit of the doubt and be slow to make assumptions, because we always think we know more than we actually do. Check your attitude at the door and don’t take yourself (or your culture or country) too seriously. The best friends that I have made on the road are those who know how to put asides differences and laugh together.

HK(Hong Kong, from Victoria Peak – 18 December 2013)

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

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