Friday, April 2, 2010

Things I Have Learned While Traveling the World

1. I am incredibly fortunate.
My life is ridiculously comfortable.  I have always had more of everything than I could ever need.  I can vote, I can pursue any career I choose (even a traditionally male-dominated one like engineering), I can speak up when I disagree with my father, my husband, my government.  I can afford to travel the world and meet people everywhere who struggle to have enough to eat, who don’t have equal access to education, who don’t have a voice against injustice, and who have few options to better their life.  I must remember every day to be grateful.  I must decide how to give back.

2. Travel is important.
I just finished reading “Half the Sky” by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn.  The husband and wife team argues (with evidence from scientific studies) that we are moved to action most by individual stories, by personal exposure to poverty and injustice.  In contrast, we are typically overwhelmed and numbed to inaction by statistics and news of mass suffering.  As Americans, our sense of charity and justice is often limitingly local; we’ve been stuck on the abortion debate (and have been withholding certain international aid as a result) for decades while much more egregious and widespread horrors kill multitudes more children around the world.

I feel strongly that international travel is important to increase understanding, empathy, and social conscience.  This doesn’t mean comfortable vacations in resorts in Aruba or Baja Mexico.  We should all push ourselves to experience locales that stretch our comfort limits; Cambodia, Nepal, Central America, Africa.  Otherwise, our only knowledge of the world’s ongoing challenges are the mind-numbing statistics we tune out on the evening news or in the newspaper.  Mohit and I vow to travel with our children, not just to Italy and Australia, but to Columbia and China and other places where many people are less fortunate.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that I recently read Greg Mortenson’s inspiring “Three Cups of Tea”.  I am intimidated and moved by Greg’s willingness to sacrifice his own comforts in life to help others.  His achievements should not be counted by the children that he has helped to educate, but by the generations of their children and grandchildren who have already been given expanded opportunities.  It’s unlikely that Greg would have pursued such a path in life without having traveled to Pakistan (for an indulgent mountain-climbing adventure), where, incidentally, he also came to understand the challenges faced by the people living in the mountains.

3. To consider vegetarianism.
While traveling, I’ve come close to being a vegetarian.  While in Indonesia, India, and Nepal, I went almost ten weeks without eating meat.  Partly it’s been a safety strategy; the cleanliness of the markets and the kitchens we’re eating from isn’t always par with what we’d like to see, so I defer to the veggie dishes for fear of food poisoning.  But it’s more than that.  In most of the countries we’ve been traveling through, there’s much more intimacy with meat than we’re used to at home.  Butcher shops have live sheep tied up out front or cages filled with chickens waiting to get their necks broken.

If the meat isn’t still alive, then it’s often disturbingly dead.  An entire cow hanging from a metal hook in the ceiling, skinned and with chunks already carved out of its flesh.  Or a severed pig’s head plunked down on the counter, its tongue lolling out, its eyes staring blankly ahead.  Early in our trip, I read “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, who argues that meat in America is too abstract, too sterile; neatly trimmed and pre-packaged into Styrofoam trays and cellophane wrappers, it’s too convenient to overlook the animal that gave up its life for our meal.  I’m not saying that I will never eat meat again, but I know that a meat-heavy diet isn’t sustainable, and I have a renewed respect for humane animal farming and sustainable agriculture.

Since I don't want to get too preachy, I''l be honest, I’ve also learned some more mundane lessons:

4. Tolerance for dirt and grime.
In Aqaba, Jordan, we stayed in a hotel room that had clean sheets and a clean bathroom floor, and we had hot water.  I was happy.   I chose to overlook the dozens of clearly-visible smushed mosquitoes on the yellow walls, even though their last blood meals were also clearly visible in the splatters all around our bed.  I will also sit down pretty much anywhere now.  After walking for hours, I will happily rest on a curb on the side of the street, even if it’s coated with crusty bird poop.  This, after all, is why I have been wearing only brown and black pants.  As long as my hands are clean, the rest of the dirt is not that important.  And I will live if I don’t shower every day.

5. To appreciate the squat toilet.
I am proud to say that I am now the queen of squat toilets.  If you haven't experienced one- I'm talking about a hole in the ground, usually with footprint-shaped grooves on either side of the hole.  In public places, squat toilets are ALWAYS preferable to the western-style toilets, since it’s much easier to avoid touching anything when the facilities are less than pristine.  For this reason, I think squat toilets are a wonderful thing.

6. To take a bucket shower.
In India, there is always a big plastic bucket and a smaller handled cup in the bathroom.  This is how the majority of India bathes- you fill the big bucket and then pour cupfuls of water over yourself.  I was a slow convert, used to my luxurious (and water-wasteful) high-pressure shower head at home.  But we found that even when a shower head was available (in India, Nepal, Guatemala, and Jordan), the water pressure often sucks- sometimes it’s barely more than a dribble.  And the small rooftop or in-bathroom water heaters used in most countries aren’t equipped to supply the quantity of hot water that we waste showering in America.  I finally broke down and tried a bucket shower as the last resort to rinsing conditioner out of my hair in an especially feeble shower.  It was a revelation.  Sitting on the plastic stool provided, pouring cupfuls of warm water over my head, my bucket shower was perfectly comfortable, and it worked.  It was a whole lot better than the dribble from the shower head, and I was helping to conserve water.  I bet my dad is reading this (he used to turn off the hot water in the middle of my looooooong teenage showers) and laughing…


There are so many other things I’ve learned too.  That there is a benefit to not planning everything out in advance, and to not always taking the “normal” path.  That there are more similarities than differences in cultures.  That there is so much beauty in this world.  That I’m pathetic for only knowing one language.  That life is too short and there is so much more to see.  That I still haven’t figured out what my purpose in life is.  That plastic is evil and is coating the planet.  That I can spend every day with my husband for three months straight (and still going!) and we still aren’t sick of each other.  That I am incredibly thankful to my employer (sending a shout out to !!!) for allowing me the time to discover, question, and wonder how things could be different…


  1. Great post Kate! Thanks for the book reviews and perspective. Enjoy the rest of your trip!

  2. Really inspiring Kate... reading your post renews my sense for charitable giving and self improvement. I've been weaning off meat for the last month or so and now you're post has reinforced my decision to reduce meat in my diet by 95%. Can't wait to read the books that you recommend!

  3. Your bath bucket experience is making me laugh. You're right dad still questions why we waste so much water and energy with long hot showers. If we really care about environmentalism, then we need to change the way we waste natural resources in our everyday lives.

  4. Loved this post, Miss Katherine. Enjoy the last month of your trip... we'll be chatting over Hornitos in no time!