When I think about the benefits of traveling the world as it relates to open-mindedness, I think of this 5K race I attended last November. A friend of mine, a like-minded woman from England who shares my passion for running, suggested we do a race in the country on the outskirts of town.
I agreed without hesitation: a morning doing something active and outdoors usually trumps any other plans I could muster. Plus, I had been in Ecuador for three months already and had yet to join in on any aspect of the running community. When I eagerly said yes, my friend warned me: we're probably going to be the only foreigners there.
Race day rolled around and as we got out of the car at the side of a dirt road, I could tell my friend was correct. This was quite a small race and most other runners were either from the city or this small rural community on its outskirts. We walked along the pebbly road towards the church which (unsurprisingly) marked the start line and I could see why my friend even bothered letting me know about this detail in the first place.
As we joined the crowd, many turned to stare quite obviously. The rest of the day included streams of curious questions (Where are you from? How long have you been here? Why are you in Ecuador? Do you have kids?) and more curious looks.
Finally, when I finished in second place, I found myself on stage standing next to platters of cuy (guinea pig) while the race director shoved a microphone in my face asking to tell the crowd where I was from. I distinctly remember thinking to myself: "This country can be so weird."
At the same time, I think that these moments of being immersed in a totally different culture play a key role in allowing travelers to develop a more open mind.
This is, without a doubt, one of the biggest benefits of traveling the world.
People who travel will probably agree: experiences abroad change your mindset... for the better.
Here are a few examples as to how.
How traveling makes you more open-minded
1. You recognize different priorities in other cultures
I hadn't been in Ecuador long before I was able to pick out notable differences between Ecuadorian culture and my own (Canadian). In seeing those key differences, you recognize that not only do people in other parts of the world do things differently, but often times they do it better.
Regardless, when shown an alternative, people who travel at least question what they've always known and in doing so, they become open to other ways of doing things. In this way, travel is a pure form of education.
For example. I see that Ecuadorian people prioritize family time above all else. Back home in Toronto, I often see families and relationships coming second or third to things like career and financial success. Where I opt to do errands and shopping alone, Ecuadorians see those chores as extra time to bond and spend time together. I have to give it to them: that's probably the better option.
One of the lesser-heard answers is that you become aware of your own impatience towards others. Hopefully, the self-awareness also leads to change. I have to admit that at times, my impatient side comes out. People don't walk hastily in the streets as they do in Toronto. Cab drivers don't always know the streets by name. Processes are generally much, much slower.
When I get annoyed by these tiny things in the moment, I have to realize that that reaction says a lot about me and the fact that I'm a product of my fast-paced, stressed out culture. I chose to leave that behind for a reason...
3. Travel forces you to try new things you may not have tried at home
Ask any travel person: spending time abroad will encourage you to get outside of your comfort zone and try things that you probably wouldn't have thought to at home.
I've tried more new types of food than I can count. Early on in my time in South America, I tried a hike along the steep, spiny ridges of a mountain range and I fell in love with the thrill that comes with hiking and running along really difficult peaks. I go to bars I wouldn't have bothered with back home.
Back in Canada, I would rarely bother to travel for more than a couple hours to a destination by myself. Here, an all-day bus journey alone across the country is not a big deal.
4. Staying in your established social circle isn't an option
I think many people get stuck in an established social circle at home and easily go years without meeting anyone new or making a great, new lifelong friend. That's a shame no matter how awesome your friends may be. Those tight-knit friendships are great in many ways but oftentimes, when people settle into a comfortable social circle, they're not as open to meeting new people.
That's not an option for people who travel. Learning the art of making new friends while traveling alone is a must. My friends are all from different countries and range in age, their interests and their experiences. I've learned so much because of that. For example, I've seen wonderful people recover from broken marriages and relationships. I've heard interesting perspectives on topics I had not given much thought to prior. I've learned about different travel styles.
Best of all: the women who have been here longer than me have become role models for an alternative way of life that I hadn't been exposed to at home. In seeing them boldly live out there dreams, I've been inspired to do the same.
5. In noticing where you're different, you learn something about your own culture
Earlier this week, I showed up to a women’s mountain running group for my first of many very vertical runs. I couldn't help but notice that the only other North American woman and I were the only two people holding steaming travel mugs filled with coffee at 7:30 a.m.
When you stand out, even if it's just for something small like having a to-go cup of coffee, you realize something about your own culture. In that moment, I couldn't help but think about the fact that so many North Americans are reliant on that caffeine fix to kick-start their day.
That makes sense in a culture that is focused on making the most out of every single minute of the day and where morning time is your cue to hit the ground running. In a more laid-back country though, those other women didn't have that same need. They looked rested and happy and ready to hit the mountains trails... without the coffee buzz.
6. Traveling makes you better understand the plight of newcomers at home
The benefits of traveling the world come home with you. I think when we talk about the pros of traveling, we often think about the period of time spent away from home. When we're talking about how travel makes you more open-minded, those positives apply to your return home.
Canada is generally a very diverse and welcoming country but now that I've been spending time in countries that aren't my own and speaking a language different from my native one, I have such a better understanding of what the immigrant experience is really like. I've struggled while ordering meals, when being asked basic questions, when trying to give directions, etc.
If I've been frustrated by those experiences, I can only sympathize with newcomers at home who maybe don't have the option of returning to their homes and who, along with language barriers, also have to adjust to a harsh climate, culture shock and high costs of living.
7. Travel gives you perspective into what relationships look like in other countries
In other parts of the world, people speak, eat, work and socialize differently. The way they interact with each other is also different. Yes, people who travel to different lands will find that their perspectives change and their minds become more open.
One area where that's likely to happen: relationships. Visitors to a new country will observe the way people interact and socialize with each other in that country and will have their perspective challenged. In many cases, you may find yourself appreciating societal standards at home.
For example, in a country where gender norms play a very significant role, I'm thankful that the playing field is closer to even at home. On the other hand, you also note the things that do work and can make an effort to bring those elements into your own relationships.
Here in Ecuador, I admire how dedicated folks are to making Sundays a special time with their family. That element of showing up, setting aside work and being present with family and friends is something I will take with me.
8. Your idea of personal space will probably be redefined forever
You can forget all the ideas you have around your precious personal space because guess what? That personal bubble of yours is going to be burst. Changing ideas around personal space is a test on open-mindedness for many Europeans and North Americans.
In places like Latin America, people won't stand for a stiff handshake as a greeting. They will hug you, touch you and kiss your face and you better get used to it. This goes for living spaces too. Where I'm thankful to finally be able to rent a space of my own, I'm not ignorant to the fact that many Ecuadorians think that's isolated, sad and awful. For them, living with both immediate and extended family is a happier setup.
Neither way is wrong. This perfectly illustrates how ideas around personal space can become redefined out of necessity while abroad. Being open-minded about that will make the process easier.
Yes, sometimes I find the culture to be strange. But you know what? It's also pretty awesome. By living in South America, I've been able to see where the culture is different from my own. With that, I can cherry pick what I like of Ecuadorian values, leave what I don't like and challenge ideas that I blindly accepted before.
That, in my opinion, is what it means to exercise open-mindedness and in turn, makes for a more well-rounded life.
At that Sunday race back in November, I may have looked around and thought about the absurdness of aspects of the culture here. But there were other things I saw too: the way the neighbors cooked roasts on their front lawns and cheered on the runners; the way no one was in a rush to head home after crossing the finish line; the way strangers eagerly offered help and the way they managed to include a dance party and fireworks for the kids.
These differences abroad count for a lot. When you're more open to them, you're more likely to realize the ways in which these locals may just have the right idea.
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