As an adjunct instructor at a university, I try to instill in students the importance of learning something new every day. Learning occurs in the classroom and while reading—but the more I explore the world, the more I recognize the greatest life lessons are learned while traveling.
Several years ago, I led a group of 10 college students to South Africa. That journey was amazing for many reasons: (1) We were far from home, on the other side of the world. (2) The students and I had not met prior to gathering at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. (3) We came from 11 states. (4) We were visiting a country vastly different from the United States in its culture, language and economics. (5) We experienced another lifestyle, if only briefly.
I asked two students, Krittika and Courtney, for their input on lessons learned during this trip. Their enlightened knowledge reminded me why I continue to lead student travels.
Be open-minded. First and foremost! Take off those rose-colored glasses. Stop comparing everything to the American way. Be willing to see things from a new perspective, which may mean kneeling to be on the same level as the person to whom you’re speaking. Courtney talked about spending a day in an elementary school classroom in a rural village, sitting on the floor and interacting with the children so they wouldn’t be intimidated by her size. She learned we are all the same, no matter where we’re from. We all seek affection, security and enjoyment in life—no matter our age, ethnicity or poverty level.
Get to know your fellow travelers. As soon as possible. Since we lived in different states, our travel group didn’t have time to get acquainted before departure. It was important to Krittika to reach out to everyone within the first few days. She alternated who she sat beside on the mini bus to Johannesburg, who she roomed with and who she interacted with during free time in Cape Town. By day three, she felt comfortable with her travel mates. Yes, she spent more time with some than others, but she learned a lot about her group, making her travel experience more personal.
Focus on the uniqueness. This could be viewed in terms of photographs and souvenirs. Courtney and Krittika found it important to not take mass quantities of photos and selfies, instead focusing on quality, unique landmarks, landscapes and people. They photographed African women walking the dirt paths, carrying items stacked on their heads; the Big Five (lions, elephant, rhinos, buffalo and leopards); Nelson Mandela’s prison cell at Robbin Island. They took video of South Africans playing the drums. With souvenirs, buying something made by a South African was worth more than a T-shirt. They realized that by purchasing handmade products, they supported the locals; it made more sense and was more personal to buy local products. Among their souvenirs were hand-carved tables, hand-painted artwork on canvas, and silver necklaces in the shape of Africa—items with meaning, then and now.
Live in the moment. Travelers are often so caught up in the hustle and bustle of exploring that they don’t take it easy, slow down and live in the moment. Krittika recalled when we lived in grass huts at a bush camp. She loved to sit outside of her hut and see a leopard walk by her. She sat near the dried-up river and listened to monkeys howling in the trees, while elephants and giraffe meandered aimlessly through the savannah. She smelled boerewors, a sausage prepared by the bush camp cooks. By taking in her surroundings, she learned to appreciate all things in the bush; even those she couldn’t see.
Experience is the greatest teacher. While visiting Soweto, in Johannesburg, we saw people living in shanties; we immediately felt like millionaires. At one point, as we entered a home with a dirt floor, limited furniture, no running water, and no electricity, our tour group stood in shock. How could these people live in this environment? As we looked around, we noted the men were using bottle caps to play checkers. Children were playing soccer or banging on a drum made from a bucket and a stick. Mothers carried large buckets of water on their head back to their house, so they could hand wash their clothes. Everyone was smiling, content with their life. It was the biggest eye-opener for us all. As Americans, we desire so many things to achieve happiness; these people had nothing and appeared to be living a full life. Seeing them with so little, yet happy, reminded us we should be more appreciative of what we have. Krittika and Courtney agree that of all our experiences in South Africa, the visit to Soweto truly spoke to their heart and soul.
Listen more. Krittika and Courtney learned to be quiet and listen to the South Africans, rather than be on their phones. Whether it was our tour guide Kenny sharing facts, a local speaking Afrikaans—or Xhosa with its clicking sound, a video in the Apartheid Museum, or the bush camp guide, it was important to absorb the knowledge being imparted. When we had free time, Courtney and Krittika didn’t stay in their room and sleep; they took advantage of opportunities to explore, interact with the locals and hear what people had to say.
They knew that when you seek people with different beliefs and views of the world, you learn the most.
Hearing Krittika and Courtney talk about the South Africa trip reminded me that the most valuable lessons in life must be experienced. Traveling, in a group or alone, is the best education one can have.
Stop reading about the world. Start traveling, living and experiencing it.
This article originally appeared in Teach & Travel.