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Travel In Your Own Backyard

September 17, 2012

Becoming a global citizen is a lofty task, and in a country as large as the United States a lot of people tend to get lost in dreams of international travel without considering the wealth of cultures we have within our own borders. Global citizenship hinges on our ability to respect and embrace a variety of lifestyles, attitudes and philosophies, but you don’t need to leave the country to experience a different lifestyle. Today I want to talk about some of my own experiences within America that pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and helped me grow as a person by expanding my horizons.

All gussied up for some cowboy action.

After my first year at college I spent a summer working on a dude ranch several miles outside of Granby, Colorado. Though I had admittedly never been out of the state for more than two weeks at a time, I still had a fair amount of international travel under my belt. And my extended family is still made up mostly of farmers who I see all the time, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. And yet for all my supposed qualifications, that job was the first time I ever felt what I would later recognize as culture shock. The language might be the same, but as I put on my cowboy boots, plaid shirt and wrangler jeans, I felt like I might as well be donning a spacesuit to go explore some foreign planet.

At least, that’s how it felt at first. Sure, it was difficult to adjust to the diversity in lifestyle. In college you are measured by your eloquence and your résumé, but the ranch lifestyle was typified by the mantra, “a little less talk and a lot more action.” Anything else was just empty boasting, really. And a group of people who grow up with a different approach to those aspects of life is pretty much the definition of another culture.

Granted, some of my co-workers didn’t pay much mind if I started rambling for a little while.

It’s something that took a lot of getting used to, but by the time I finally went back to school those boots felt like a second skin, and I still catch myself humming some of my favorite country tunes and thinking about the friends I made. I didn’t erase who I was, but I took another culture’s attitudes and used them to supplement my old ones. It’s that level of personal growth that makes me love travel the way I do, but as I found out that summer, you don’t need to go to far to have that kind of experience.

A few years later, I would land another summer job working on a fishing tender in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Again I was tossed into an environment hundreds of miles away from “civilization” with people I might not normally have bonded with. Again I had long periods of time alone without cell coverage or internet access. Again I learned how to be alone – even amidst the company of others – and embrace it. Again I transitioned from loneliness to appreciation, where despite my early days of homesickness and depression, I did eventually come to realize just how much I still had in common with my more seasoned co-workers. Both those jobs taught me to keep my mouth shut once in a while. A lesson I haven’t perfected, I’ll admit, but at least it made me aware of my own habits. It weaned me off that gravitational pull between me and my computer in favor of long walks in the mountains or lying in a tiny bunk above the engine room, just appreciating the ambiance of the wind, the engine, the birds, or the distant clap of thunder. In many ways it planted roots for the skills I would have to learn during the months I would spend training in a Zen monastery in Japan.

In essence, these trips taught me virtually the same things every trip seems to drive home, and when I look back on my cumulative travel experiences, I count those two trips on the same level as any I took outside of the United States. Indeed I would probably rank them as more influential than many of my trips that were essentially ten-day guided tours.

So if you are looking for a life-shaping opportunity for growth and a way to expand your perspective and you happen to be reading this blog, then you have probably already considered travel as a good way to accomplish your goals. But before you start planning that trip to Thailand or Peru, consider how much we still have to learn about our own neighbors. I bet they’ll give you more than you bargained for.

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