By Miriam Hammer
I know that I am not the only one who has seen the many Elite Daily or Huffington Post articles about traveling abroad (“Traveling truly becomes your most treasured experience,” “Traveling in your 20s is the best way to enhance your perspective,” “15 things I learned from traveling the world!”).
When I stumble across these articles, I usually skim them, reading through their many points — for they are almost always in the form of a numbered list … a format that I can’t help but feel defines our generation, thank you BuzzFeed! — about the importance of traveling when you are young, going outside of your comfort zone and seeing the world beyond your front door.
These articles are always well written and can contain some powerful and truthful philosophies about the importance of traveling, but I often come away from them with the subtle feeling of being patronized.
I didn’t realize it until recently, but these articles can be unintentionally condescending.
First of all, traveling is hard. It can be lonely and frustrating and does not always hold up, at least immediately, to the complete sense of nirvana and self-realizing happiness that the articles are so quick to preach.
Second of all, I am starting to see that many of them contain shallow and flippant points about living abroad that do not even scrape the surface of the joys of traveling, or that do so in vague, metaphysical ways that are hard to relate to.
There are a lot of cool things about traveling that are difficult to articulate, but for some reason these articles seem to do so in a distant and insincerely romanticized way.
For me, one of my favorite parts of traveling has been meeting new people.
Aside from trying new foods (fertilized duck eggs, anybody?) seeing breathtaking views (Night Over Angkor) and learning about new cultures, I have met some awesome and totally interesting people.
To feel truly welcomed and not a little bit judged by complete strangers is really fucking cool.
When I first got to Siem Reap, I was pretty insecure about how I was going to make friends.
I knew that the previous fellows came back from their time abroad with lots of genuine and wonderful new relationships, especially those who lived in Cambodia thanks to the massive ex-pat community that resides here, and I couldn’t really understand how — rightly so, based on my experiences interacting with and meeting new people in the past.
I mean, not only was there no need for me to make new friends the past couple years of my adult life (after all, I have the most incredible friends in the world), but the environments that I found myself in simply did not lend themselves to meeting new people.
First of all, I would never, ever have considered putting myself in a social situation in which I would be completely on my own.
Going out to a bar or party by yourself is just not something that anybody I know my age would really ever do, and even if I did, there are many factors I can think of that would have prevented me from getting to know a perfect stranger.
I will admit that I am the first to judge when meeting somebody new.
Even getting introduced to friends of friends can inspire a rouse of assumptions and criticisms that have no foundation whatsoever.
People have their guards up when they meet somebody for the first time, so concerned and aware of how they come across that it’s rare to be exposed to who they actually are.
This especially holds true when you are out with close friends or people that you already know.
There is simply no point in taking the time to get to know someone or have a stimulating conversation when you are already surrounded by people for which you are not required to put in that extra effort.
All of these elements are stripped away when you travel.
You have to let your guard down if you want to meet new people, and if you do, it is practically impossible not to connect on a deeper level.
You kind of just learn to be yourself, to be open and friendly wherever you go.
As someone who has been a loud and obnoxious extrovert her entire life, I realize that I am nearing that patronizing territory I referred to earlier, but this is not something that I just walked in knowing — this is something that I have learned since being here.
The first couple weeks after arriving in Cambodia, I would go out to lunch or have a beer by myself and would be terrified to strike up a conversation with someone I did not know.
And this was okay, because I didn’t have to!
I didn’t have to because, without even asking for it, people would come up to me and begin a conversation.
They would invite me to their tables, introduce me to their friends, ask me about my story and actually try to get to know me.
When you are traveling, everybody is on the same page — everybody is new, or was new at one point, and unlike when you are at home, people are always, always looking for new friends.
It does not matter if the person is five years your junior or 30 years your senior.
Age does not exist in this context. I have connected with adults my parents’ age as though we have grown up together.
It has been awesome and, I have to say, aside from building a relationship with my students at the Global Child, the most rewarding part of my time abroad so far.
I will never forget, when I first arrived in August, Sam and I took a yoga class at one of the resorts and had a brief conversation with the teacher.
Only a few hours later, we were friended by her on Facebook and invited into a group conversation with her and a bunch of other ex-pats.
I was, admittedly, a little alarmed.
I felt like an outsider in the group.
I was self-conscious that the other people, people whom I had never met, would question who I was and why I was involved in their plans.
Yet, immediately upon arrival, my doubts melted away.
I remember being in awe at how friendly people were.
How genuinely interested they were in getting to know me and how much I genuinely enjoyed getting to know them.
I have since made an effort to pass this comradely behavior on to anyone and everyone that I near.
If someone is sitting alone or looking lost, I try to go up to them and introduce myself.
More often than not, they are just passing through, but even so it is nice to get to know them, if only briefly.
To learn about where they are from and where they are going.
You’ve heard it a million times before, but it’s true what they say: A smile goes a long way.
Having a conversation with someone you’ve never met is exhilarating.
It is gratifying and exciting, and something that I hope to take with me when I come back home.
You don’t have to travel across the world to adopt this lifestyle (again, I hope not to sound patronizing here!)
I have friends from home who, throughout high school, would, wherever we were, go up to strangers and literally become their best friends.
Her extremely outgoing personality was always a running joke between my friends and I, like, “Oh, where is Kelsey? Probably playing with that little boy in the sand or learning about that old man’s arthritis or hitting it off with that breastfeeding mother,” but I realize now that, all along, she knew where it was at.
And to my friends who have left the familiar behind and moved to new places (D.C., L.A., Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, Tel Aviv, San Francisco … I’m talking to you) I know you can relate as well.
I know that when I get home in April, I am probably going to want to cling onto my friends and never leave their sides, but I hope to continue this anthropological exploration.
And, it is cool to think that I am going to be able to take these new relationships with me wherever I go.
Now I know that I have a place to crash if I am ever in Austria or Ottawa, someone to look up if I find myself in Sydney or Seattle.
And they know that they are always welcome to visit me wherever I am, as well.
Through these new relationships, it’s like I am no longer just a Bostonian or an American.
No longer just a student or teacher, but rather a citizen of the world.