Integrating back into our lives back home has been a beautiful process of reflection. There have been at least a dozen times Brandon and I have looked at each other and said, "Did we really do that?" Some days it feels like it never happened. Then we start talking and we'll send each other a photo, and it all comes floating back. It was definitely real, and it was one of the more real things we'll ever experience.
Admittedly, there was a bit of reverse culture shock. I was prepared, but a month or so in and I'm still feeling weird about driving, and reeling over the cost of the simplest things. The first trip to the grocery store was both frustrating and surprising. Had I forgotten how much a block of cheese cost? No, I just now value $6 as the cost of a private beach bungalow on Koh Tao, Thailand (on principle, I wouldn't buy the cheese).
We've indulged in a few of our favorite things: a much needed haircut, local pizza & Buffalo wings, and fast, reliable WiFi. But overall, we're still very much in a "less is more" mindset. We're so grateful for the lessons we learned, and the money and time we spent will never be missed. Here are a few of the big lessons we learned:
1. Regularly communicating with people face to face makes you a more compassionate human.
Travel requires you to speak to other people face to face (a lot). Until I was on the road, I never realized how many times in daily life we can avoid actually having to speak to another person in the states. Stuff like emails, drive thrus, self checkouts have all made it possible to avoid another human for a really long time. Then when the time comes to communicate, we tend to expect a lot. Every time I've been in a line (or 'queue' for my foreign friends) since I returned, someone has been huffing and puffing or shaking their head, because GOD FORBID they had to wait their turn. Not once was there a worker who wasn't doing everything they could to keep the line moving. Point is, exchanging a simple greeting forces a connection on some level. You see beyond postal worker #4 and start to see a mother, a husband, a student, etc. We all feel less entitled when we see ourselves in another. Force yourself to speak to strangers. Everyone has a story to tell and your life will be better for knowing it.
2. It's cool to be capable.
Being away from home tests your limits, but nothing you encounter is unmanageable (aside from maybe Malaria, so use mosquito spray). There are limitations in our minds that we've developed from God knows where, but it's important as an adult to know you can push through. The list of irrational fears (boats, bed bugs, hard mattresses, etc.) is easy to succumb to (trust me, I know). One of the scarier things about travel is knowing you have no one to hold you up except yourself; you're on your own darling. Even when you travel with friends and family, the realization of how far from home you are is a constant. Navigating foreign regions should be your opportunity to show yourself you're able to take care of yourself, and you'll learn you can handle more than you give yourself credit for.
3. Not everything has to be aesthetically pleasing to be functional.
Americans love pretty things. We insist on it, actually. We feel entitled to things that are visually pleasing. I can understand this, but not at the cost of functionality and usefulness. That's where we go wrong. We will spend insane money and strive for things that don't actually make any sense. It was comforting to see a culture of people using items out of functionality and efficiency. Design is something we should appreciate, but good design also needs to have a purpose.
4. The "American portion size" is real; it's huge, and it's unnecessary.
I don't care if you don't believe me, or choose to ignore it, but this is a REAL THING. Brandon and I lost 33 pounds on the road, collectively, by simply eating less (not necessarily better) and keeping ourselves active (not necessarily "working out"). Granted, we ate more veggies than at home but that's not a weight loss secret in itself. The secret was all in the portions. When you ordered a serving from a restaurant it came out roughly half of an average American restaurant portion, and there were rarely any sides. And unless you were ready to order another portion, that's all you ate.
5. Kids benefit from being a part of their community.
Parents in the US today have a terrible burden on their shoulders. Blogs, morning talk shows and the general public love to make sure sure parents know about every possible thing that could happen to their children. The question not enough parents ask themselves is, am I going to forbid my children from experiencing their world on the bet that shielding them will keep them any safer? The communities we stayed in were overrun with kids (unattended) learning how the world works for themselves. It looked like these kids were on their own, but after further observation, there were actually numbers of other parents and family members looking after them, as a group and as a community. What a wonderful support system for other parents. What a wonderful world for the kids to grow up in. Being a part of a community is a gift, and something that needs to be nurtured and supported. And that usually starts with a helping hand.
6. Air conditioning is a luxury and should not be abused.
When you consider air conditioning uses approximately 5% of the electricity produced in the US, and releases up to 11 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, you (if you're a decent citizen of the world) start to look at it differently. Air conditioning (and heat for that matter) should be utilized only when necessary, not when it's comfortable and convenient. I can confidently say that after experiencing a tropical climate like I did, I don't believe I will ever install another air conditioner in my home if I continue to live in Western New York.
7. Fresh water is a luxury and should not be abused.
One of the scarier "oh shit" moments occurred at the end of our trip in Cambodia. We decided to camp on a secluded beach on an island (two small "stores" were at either end of the beach; approximately an hour and a half walk in either direction). Fresh water was an issue throughout the island so our reliance on bottled water was pretty serious. Our group brought a few 6 packs of water bottles and two large jugs. Upon choosing our campsite, one of the jugs sprung a leak. This wasn't too much of a concern, except that we had just lugged these, along with our packs and food for camp, waist deep through the ocean off the boat and about 45 minutes down a beach in the scolding sunlight. We didn't consider how quickly the fresh water would go as we cooked and kept ourselves hydrated in the tropical climate. I've never had to ration water in my life, and the concept was terrifying. The next day, a 3 hour walk at noon under the sun was how we replenished our supply of food and water. I consider myself rugged, and I can live off very little, but not having immediate access to water was life changing. So many people in the world do not have access to fresh water, and they travel for miles and days at a time to find it. And what's worse is that I know that what I saw in SE Asia is only the surface of the problem. Water bottles are not meant for people like me. They are made for people in Cambodia who, when it doesn't rain and their pipes run dry, they have something else to rely on. It is not our right to run the tap, and take long showers, and water our lawns. I am much more conscious of my water use, and will continue to encourage others to be as well.
8. Most fear is learned.
So much of what we fear, we've been taught to fear. It is an important distinction, identifying learned (irrational) fear from instinctual (rational) fear. Fear has the power to consume, and controls more of the humans in this world than any government or authority. So many experiences on our trip forced me to go deep within myself to find the ability to overcome my learned fears. The process can be trying, but the outcome is by far the best reward I've ever experienced. Knowing that today, I can look back and say, I destroyed that fear.
9. Convenience and comfort make us people we don't want to be.
The moment we get comfortable is the moment we stop exploring, stop wanting more, and stop improving. ***This is the most important lesson and it took me the least amount of words to express it.
10. A house is not a home without a hammock.
The world is a happier place if you have a hammock to rock your cares away in.
If you liked this post, read some more of my thought-provoking dialogue here: