10 THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT PEOPLE BY TRAVELING
The human animal easily distinguishable from other species, largely based on our use of cell phones and the clothes we wear. I have no problem distinguishing humans when I’m at a zoo, or on a hike.
Once you’ve identified a human, there are many ways to learn about human behavior. You can study it at a university; you can go to a nightclub or a playground; you can even make (with some teamwork) little humans of your own.
The way I most enjoy learning about humans, or “people”, is by traveling. People are different everywhere, in each country and continent. Discussing cultural and behavioral differences in people is fun. But, no matter where I go in the world, some human characteristics remain the same.
Here are ten things I have learned about people in my travels:
WE GET OUR PICTURE TAKEN IN FRONT OF THINGS
When someone tells me they have traveled somewhere, I generally believe them. I don’t need to see a picture of them standing in front of it.
As a solo traveler, I am constantly asked to take photographs of people. People in front of things. And, I do enjoy taking photos of strangers at these sites- the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, the Golden Gate Bridge. These strangers trust you to capture a moment in their life. It’s a great way to begin a conversation and an interesting way to gauge what visitors see as important landmarks in a destination. In front of Starbucks? No.
WE LOVE DUMPLINGS
Humans around the world have hundreds of different names for them. Essentially, they are the same thing: dough wrapped around a filling of minced meat and vegetables.
In Ethiopia they are called tihlo. In Italy- ravioli. Latin America has the empanada. Indians enjoy samosas. The Chinese have about 10 different names for their various styles of dumplings. Steamed, boiled, fried, whatever. People love them everywhere.
Growing up in a family with some Ukrainian heritage, we often had pierogi, the Russian form of dumplings. They were versatile, filling and unhealthy in about 40 different ways. Having traveling around a bit now, I can always find a bit of my home flavor in any country I land in.
WE HAVE AN AMAZING CAPACITY TO FORGIVE PAST ATROCITIES
The patterns of human geography are complicated, at best. The political boundaries that we see on the globe today are a result of thousands of years of aggression, killing, bombing, fleeing, genocide, invasion, and so on. It’s no wonder these lines need redrawn every few years.
Despite all of this past violence, people have a resilient resolve to welcome travelers peacefully. I have visited the Jewish museum in Berlin. I have worked on a design project in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii with a Japanese architect. I have lived in Vietnam, where my own American government committed terrible atrocities less than a half-century ago. In the context of all of these sensitive juxtapositions, people tend to get along. We understand that soldiers make bad decisions when they put faith in their leaders. We know that some leaders will thirst for more land and power. Yet, we are still eager to share and explore cultures unknown. 99% of the time, our respect and good nature will be returned by those strangers, even if just decades ago, or even currently, our governments were/are at war.
WE ARE DRAWN TO THE OCEAN, EVEN THOUGH IT DOESN’T WANT US
We came from the water. Just look at Darwin’s little fish with feet. We have come so far, yet we love to travel back.
Regardless of the country, those with the means to travel will invariably choose to travel to the beach. Traveling to a foreign country and exploring its capital city, or climbing it’s highest mountain make sense. However, playing in the water just beyond it’s land often does not- especially if you consider that the constant waves just push us right back up to the shore. In addition, beach towns worldwide tend to adopt the same kind of flip-floppy culture and amenities. There will always be better destinations than beaches, yet beaches will always be on the minds of those planning a vacation.
WE LOVE TO BUY NEW THINGS
Every city has it’s shopping districts. Particularly, Asian cities are often physically delineated by what the people are selling.
Electronics excepted, nearly everything I have bought second-hand has been better than something I’ve purchased new. A watch that is working after 20 years is likely to be working after 40 years. A messenger bag that has made it since the 1960s will keep going until the 2050s. However, most things we buy today are built quickly and cheaply, it’s manufacturers knowing that we just need to satiate our taste for spending. They won’t last. We don’t build em like we used to. For proof- visit Paris, then visit Las Vegas.
YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING FROM EVERYONE
From Canadian friends I learned about a game played on ice called “hockey”. From a Japanese friend, an introduction to the art of flower arrangement. From a new Chinese friend in the 4th class “hard seats”, I learnt how to open a 600ml bottle of beer on a train windowsill. A South African friend taught me how to do an “elk call”. From an English friend, I now know that ‘trainspotting’ is a hobby and not an addiction.
One of the joys of travel is learning from those you meet along the way. If you’re in a foreign country, do try to make an effort to get to know the locals. If you’re fortunate to live in an “international” city such as Los Angeles, Bangkok, London, Singapore or Dubai, having a group of international friends can broaden your horizons and challenge you to think differently.
AIRPORTS MAKE US NERVOUS
We know that flying is safe. Very few people are afraid of flying to the point that they change travel plans. If we have to fly, and we have the luxury of paying for it, we do it. However, I’ve only met two people who really enjoy it. Seems everyone is nervous in and around the airport and airplanes. Long-lost friends are nervous to be reunited at the arrival gate. Brisk walkers are nervous to miss their planes near the departure gate, people in line are looking over shoulders at the ticketing booths. We’re all tapping our feet impatiently at the security check. Did we save the hotel confirmation code? Did that guy in the fedora stuff 20 kilos of cocaine in our bag when we weren’t looking?
I’ve flown over 150 times in my life and I’m still a bit nervous each time. God bless the airport bars of the world.
WE GO TO FESTIVALS
We don’t always like them, or even enjoy them, but we go to them. Almost always, it’s about those people we go with, or the people we can see there. It doesn’t so much really matter what the festival is about. It’s just nice to see people come together and enjoy our public spaces. The exception, however, are beer festivals. Then, it’s 50 beer / 50 people.
And that leads me to…
WE LOVE BEER
Most likely, you don’t need to travel to find this out. However, the more you travel- the more you see it. Guinness in Ireland, bia hoi in Vietnam, Kingfisher in India, Corona with a slice of lime in Mexico; beer is everywhere and always in demand. Taking time out of the day to watch the crowd go by and cool off is one of the great necessities of travel. Doing it with a beer in hand, one of the great pleasures. Meeting some beer-swilling locals, one of the most memorable experiences. Gumbei, Sante, Proust, Cheers.
BE RESPECTFUL AND INTERESTED IN OTHER PEOPLE, AND PEOPLE WILL BE RESPECTFUL AND INTERESTED IN YOU
Young men are constantly hearing about the financial and social benefits of being the “alpha male” (i.e. ‘top dog’, ‘leader of the pack’, ‘highest authority’). We’re told to get women, money, respect, etc. we have to take control immediately and assume power wherever we go. By all means- do this when you’re at ‘the club’ in Dallas, not when you’re in a foreign country. I can’t think of a worse attitude when pursuing experience and wisdom than assuming you’re the ‘top dog’. Instead: be humble, ask questions, show interest, learn something new every day.
My first year in Asia, I found myself on a Kuala Lumpur food tour with some people from my guesthouse. One traveler was from Iran, a government Americans have considered to be our “#1 enemy” for quite some time (and vice-versa). I know little about the life of an Iranian. I had some unease initially, as I’m sure he did, but once we got to talking, our passports became irrelevant.
Get over preconceptions, fears and competition. Regardless of nationality, race, class, etc., travelers just want to have a good time and learn something in the process. Remember, you’re never #1, but rather 1 of 7,000,000,000.