Tom: This is a guest post by Betsy Ramser, the creator of Live a Greater Story, where she shares her travel adventures and teaches 20-somethings about the importance of living out your ideal story, creating community and adding more fun and joy to everyday life.
2013 was the experience of a lifetime for me.
Over the course of 11 months I traveled to 11 different countries throughout Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Although I had already finished college and graduate school, those 11 months shaped me and changed me in ways that 24 years of being in school had been unable to.
Traveling the world is an amazing experience and I would love to be the first to cheer you on. However, if that is not an option right now then explore your own little part of the world more fully.
Regardless of whether you are an extensive world traveler or have vast experience in your home country, I would love to share a piece of what I learned in each country that I visited. My favorite way of connecting is one-on-one with a deeply roasted cup of coffee. So, settle down with some tea or coffee and I will share with you 11 tips from 11 countries around the world.
Country #1: Honduras
Community is everything. You can have fun doing anything if you surround yourself with the right people.
While living in Honduras, I was working in a phenomenal team. There were two men and four other women and and we really loved living life together.
Our first project was digging a tilapia pond for local Honduran farmers. Not a glamourous way to kick off our journey around the world. We moved rocks that would more appropriately be called boulders and waded through a foot of mud mixed with water and poop. The elevation was high and our SPF 80 did little to stave off the heat.
Nonetheless, our spirits never waned. Why? We knew how to have a good time together. From learning more about each others lives, to storytelling, to singing and dancing. We knew there was no place that we would rather be than up in the mountains of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Country #2: El Salvador
Overcoming your fears is scary, but always worth it in the end.
I am afraid of heights and I am afraid of water…and while the little waterfall in El Sunzel, El Salvador was breathtaking…I really didn’t want to leave my comfortable view of it to jump in the water.
However, when my teammates one by one stepped off the ledge and into the pool of water below, something in me knew that I had to do it. I knew that I would regret saying no.
I think that most people would agree that regret is one of the worst and most paralyzing feelings in the world. I do not want to be a person who lets fear get in the way of doing amazing things in life and I hope that you do not either!
Country #3: Guatemala
Don’t say that you can’t do something until you’ve actually tried.
My month in Guatemala was spent living in the small Mayan town of Xenocoj. Each day my team worked at local schools both teaching and making tortillas. In the afternoons we would visit a handful of the 200 plus widows living throughout Xenocoj.
The first week was pretty awful for me and can only be summarized with the words “struggle bus.” I had never liked working with kids nor did I have experience with the elderly, particularly those who only spoke the mayan language of cakchiquel (which to us sounded like catch-a-cow). However, I soon realized that I was simply insecure because I was doing things that I had never done before in a language very unlike my own.
Regardless of how well we performed our responsibilities, the local women seemed to enjoy our company as they taught us the art of tortilla making, which is a staple in the Guatemalan diet. Our technical skills weren’t really that important when in fact, the girls simply wanted someone to hold their hand and the boys wanted an older boy to play ball with them.
Looking back, I’m so proud of myself for being vulnerable. I chose to be involved rather than sitting back and letting my more extroverted teammates take the lead.
Country #4: Albania
Working hard is never a waste of time.
My time in Albania was spent doing manual labor tasks at a summer camp for kids. Now, depending on what imagery is evoked when you hear the words “manual labor” and “kids,” you might think this sounds like a lot of fun or the worst job ever.
We painted fences, moved rocks and did quite a few other things that I had never imagined myself doing – for instance, drinking Turkish coffee with locals, riding through the Albanian streets in the back of a wagon or falling in love with the man who will soon be my husband.
Although the schedule was busy and my body ached, I felt a sense of fulfillment as I stepped into the shower after a day of hard, physical work.
Country #5: Bulgaria
Truly walking a day in someone else’s shoes can change everything
This advice applied as much to my relationships with my team members as it did to the locals that we partnered with in each country. During my year abroad we worked in teams of 6-7 and from months 1-4, I was part of a co-ed team that worked really well together. In Bulgaria we switched teams and I suddenly found myself living and working with five women that could not possibly have been more different.
My team started to bridge the differences by having one-on-one coffee dates with each team member. More than anything, we made the decision to be intentional about getting to know each other and finding ways to allow our differences to complement one another.
Growing up, my family had always had a sponsor child so I thought that I understood poverty around the world. However, experiencing it firsthand on a daily basis for an entire year is not something that I was prepared for. If you’ve already experienced poverty on a local or international level, then you understand what I’m describing and if not, I would encourage you to find ways even in your own town to get involved.
Country #6: Romania
Everyone has hard seasons in their lives. Even while traveling the world, I was not exempt.
I think that almost anyone who has traveled reaches a point where the traveling gets really hard. Especially when you are traveling for months at a time and away from family, friends, and all that is familiar to you.
Although the country of Romania was incredibly beautiful, the 107 degree days of working outside was challenging. Then, after a long day in the heat we would be served a hot broth based soup and a slice of slightly molding bread. Combined with missing our families and being away from home, the month taught my team members and I so much about perseverance when life is difficult.
The best thing that I found to do during those times was to accept that things were hard but to think through all of the wonderful times and experiences that I had already had. There were definitely more good times than bad.
Country #7: Kenya
Don’t end your life with your story still in you.
Sometimes in life we are afraid to do something because we don’t feel ready. After a great conversation with a dear friend of mine named Alex, I was reminded that there is purpose to be found in each situation.
While in Kenya I used my love for teaching, coaching and learning to coach my teammates and tutor the local Kenyan children.
For you it might be a job, going back to school, a relationship, or the book you’ve always wanted to write. Regardless of what you are doing today, use it as an opportunity to start living your own story.
Country #8: Uganda
Being completely present really is the best way to live.
Sometimes it’s scary how much of our time we devote to thinking about the past and the future. I’ve found that my life gets increasingly better as I spend more and more time focused on where I am right now.
The best experiences and memories are the ones where we can still smell the sweet fragrance of the flowers or admire the beautiful light blue tint of the sky. These details are only recalled when we have taken the time to use our senses and be deeply present in each moment.
Country #9: Rwanda
Be understanding – the concept of time varies around the world.
After three months of living in Africa, I can’t even count how many times I heard the phrases “African time” and “Americans are people of the watch.”
At first it was frustrating to me when we would have to wait an hour or two after the scheduled start time to begin working. However, by the end of my three months in Africa I realized that I couldn’t fault the Africans any more than they could fault me for sticking to a tight schedule. We were each raised with different ideas regarding time and we could probably learn from each other.
Country #10: China
Try a new food, take up a new hobby, learn about a different culture. You won’t regret it, I promise!
In China, I lived in a small town outside Beijing. Aside from watching a few TED talks and learning some important words from Chinese friends, my understanding of Mandarin left much to be desired.
Each day was an adventure as my teammates and I would venture out in search of food. There was always some uncertainty about what we would end up with but we found that the uncertainty was part of the fun. Never allow the insecurity of not knowing what you are doing keep you from tasting something different.
Country #11: Philippines
We need a lot less than we think we do to be happy.
The Philippines was such a special place for me for several reasons. First, it was my last month abroad before returning to the U.S. Second, the typhoon hit the islands while I was in Manila so my team and I were given the opportunity to fly to Tacloban and do relief work about a week after the typhoon hit.
The devastation in Tacloban was unlike anything that I had experienced in my 10 previous months of travel. My first day was spent removing more than a foot of water, feces, and toys from an orphanage. The children had been relegated to their beds and had been there 10 days as they awaited the removal of the debris.
My team and I also helped with mobile feeding programs throughout the city where locals would gather and wait in long lines for the promise of one meal a day for their children. Families would recount story after story of their experiences, loss, close calls with death, but most importantly their joy to simply be alive.
Nevertheless, the most memorable part for me was the optimism and gratitude of the Filipinos. From the moment I stepped off the airplane, I was greeted with smiles from men and women thanking me for helping their people.
While in Tacloban, I lived with families who had literally been stripped of every single possession they owned and many who were the only person in their family still living. However, their days were still filled with peace and their smiles constantly melted my heart.
Now that you’ve heard my stories I would love to hear some of yours! What exciting experiences have you had or would you like to have in the future? What have you learned from your own travels?
I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment and let me know.
Photo Credits: Andi Moore, Freweini Ghebreselassie