I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, May 30, 2010

How travel changed me

One of the things I sometimes forget is how much my outlook on life changed as a result of my international travels. One of the things I had to do in my job was to set up 3- and 4-day-long gatherings of scientists from around the world in exotic places, such as Urumqi in western China. I got to experience places that other people rarely visit, as well as learning to cope with language barriers and cultural differences. This picture is taken one day in 20005 after our meeting had finished, and we were taken by our hosts to this bustling neighborhood of ethnic Uyghur, who came into the news not long ago because of an uprising against the Chinese government. An excerpt from Wikipedia about these people:
The Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China. An estimated 80% of Xinjiang's Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin.
We held two meetings in Urumqi, and this last one was held in 2005. It was not easy getting people from around the world into Urumqi, but I found that the people we worked with were incredibly accommodating and willing to go the extra mile to help me. I learned also most Chinese people never travel to this part of China. They think of this region in the northwest of their vast country as being the way we Americans must have felt about the "wild west" a century ago.

There were two reasons my boss wanted to hold these meetings in faraway places: first, to show scientists what different environmental problems exist around the world, and also to tempt them to take the time out of their busy lives to come to these places, funded by the United Nations or other similar groups. As the "worker bee" who arranged these visits, I spent months getting everything ready, working long hours making sure nothing was overlooked (although inevitably there were glitches), and then traveling to the place a day or two beforehand and staying a day after, getting everybody back out of the country.

For a long time, I loved this part of my job. It started in 1997 and continued until I retired in 2008. During that time, we held meetings in Budapest, Bangkok, Paris, Geneva, Havana, the Galapagos, Moscow, Macao, Saigon, Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing, and Macedonia. They were held mostly in Europe and Asia, and I was enchanted to learn how different the world is, how different and alike people are, in these myriad places.

What I took for granted as being normal or usual, I found to be a conceit of my American bias. I was often reminded of my provincialism when checking to a hotel room, to find unfamiliar beds, or bathrooms, and mysterious instructions in foreign languages. One thing my boss Mickey refused to do was to stay in an upscale hotel that caters to foreigners, which basically are the same in whatever country you are in. When we were in Moscow during a heat wave, we had no air conditioning and the windows had no screens. The outdoors came in while I slept.

Each country was always both hard to navigate, and exciting to experience. I would set up these meetings and travel to these places usually once a year, and sometimes twice. China became my most visited place: six trips over the years, once for an entire month. Many people envied my job, but I have to say it was stressful and demanding, and by the time I got ready to retire, I was ready to stop. International travel became much harder after 9/11, and sometimes I would spend two full days traveling to get from one place to another. Jet lag is very real, although Mickey never seemed to be bothered by it as much as I was.

Because of these travels, though, I think I am much more tolerant of the differences that exist between people. Some of my favorite memories entail "conversations" with people who spoke no English and I spoke not a word of their language. The desire and ability to reach across the cultural divide to the humanity that unites us now permeates my world view.

I am now content to stay in my new home here in the Pacific Northwest and get to know it better. Canada is just a few miles away, and if I want to visit Vancouver it's only an hour away. Being a large international city, Vancouver has vibrant ethnic communities, which I intend to explore over the next few years. That will be enough for me.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a changed person because of my international travels. These experiences are now a part of me, part of the way I experience my everyday life.


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

International travel should be on every college curriculum! Your trips sound enticing!

CiCi said...

That is a lot of traveling, and the way you describe it, exhilarating and at the same time draining. I feel like I know you well enough to understand that you took your work seriously and went the extra ten miles, always. So you were good at your job and the people who came in contact with you benefited from your hard work.
Does your ex-boss, Mickey, read your blog? You lived such an interesting life, professionally as well as personally. I am enjoying learning more about you.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

International travel is great, especially when you go into a very different culture, on your own, for an extended period. You really had a valuable set of experiences! I am often envious of the students at the college where I work, who might live with a family in Cameroon or Mongolia while studying there. They begin their adult lives with a world of experience.

The Retired One said...

I am sure you are a changed person because of this..any time you are exposed to a different culture and learn about it, any fear disappears.

However, I can't help but think of the money that company could have saved if they did video teleconferencing! ha they wouldn't have experienced and learned as much, but the money may have helped those communities more...so many companies now have stopped travel outside of their home sites due to the economy and do this instead. In some ways it is better, but you really do miss a LOT by not going there and doing face to face, shaking hands communication.

Anonymous said...

Everything you wrote about sounds interesting and exciting. However, I would have insisted on staying at a posh hotel, because I value my sleep and comfort.

That said, David's colleague mentioned that his aunt just returned from China, where she saw the maid dip her towel in the toilet bowl and proceeded to clean the bathroom with it. And this was in a first class hotel! haha! ugh!

Nancy said...

You are so fortunate to have had these experiences. So many of us know little about cultures that vastly different, but similar in all the ways that are important. I know what you mean about the difficulties of travel, however, as I can only do it for a while and then I want familiar surroundings.

Stella Jones said...

You have had a very rich and rewarding life in so many ways and I can quite understand how it is that now you are content to be at home in Bellingham and watch those embers glowing. Thank you for sharing your observations with us.
Blessings, Star

Whitney Lee said...

It must have been fascinating and exhausting! You have travelled to some really unique places, not the typical foreign hotspots. I imagine that there is no way to avoid being changed by that. What an incredible amount of responsibility you shouldered with the travel plans-I don't envy you that! What I always noticed when I travelled internationally is the history. There were times when I could literally feel the weight of the centuries of people that had stood where I was standing. It was an awesome thing.

You're right, travel changed drastically after 9/11. I can believe that some of that travel became more and more of a chore. I spent a great deal of my first 18 years in airports and now prefer to avoid air travel when possible. You must have some amazing memories (and pictures?)!

Lucy said...

Travel helps us understand others and lets us realize just how small we are in this huge universe. I have itchy feet and need the new and the different. But I have little interest in overseas travel and prefer to just run the roads of this continent. I crave what's over the next hill and hope I'll be able to rest and be content when I have to be. For now.... I'll still take the road!

CrazyCris said...

You'll get no argument from me that international travel really helps open our eyes to the world and question our preconceptions! And yeah, for travellers 9/11 has been a nightmare... I really miss travel conditions pre-that horrific event. :o( (I think what annoys me the most is the liquids prohibition!)

You're very lucky to have been able to experience all this, and I envy you having been to such "distant" and "isolated" places that are so different to our "western" sensibilities. Sounds like the kind of job I´d like to have... I helped organise several big marine mammal conferences here in Europe (in charge of coordinating student affairs) and I relished that sense of being in the middle of things.

But I can also understand you feeling glad to be still and staying put... I've got divided feelings of wanting to "settle down" but still wanting to move around since I'm not sure where I want to settle down! :p But I am tired of all the moving around, 6 countries is quite a bit...

Far Side of Fifty said...

It sounds exciting to me, since I have only been in North America..one of these days perhaps we will get adventurous. It must have been quite an interesting experience, and the perfectionist in you was probably always in charge! I know that can in itself be exhausting. I bet you met some very interesting people:)

Linda Reeder said...

You have traveled to some amazing and exotic places! While my travels abroad have been in Europe, usually where English was spoken, we did find that getting other perspectives was a good way for us Americans to get over ourselves.