I was seventeen years old the first time I heard the now-familiar thud of a Passport Control employee stamping my pages-so-crisp, brand new passport. The country was Guatemala, and I was there with my youth group for a two week-long service trip.
It was there that I first learned how different everything seems from the lens of another country. I was fascinated by the shift in perspective taking place within me, even though we were only there for two weeks. Being exposed to severe poverty, experiencing a language barrier, and observing Guatemalan culture taught me more about that part of the world, the US, and myself.
Although this was my first time overseas, it impacted me so much that I developed a theory: every country I ever visit will change me or educate me in some way. Obviously, the more frequently one takes shorter trips to other countries, the less this theory is true. For example, weekend trips to Dubai (rather common here in Kuwait) are not, by any means, life-changing (but they are fun!) However for me, there is no reset/ upgrade button as effective as thoughtfully and mindfully experiencing a new country.
The lesson that Guatemala taught me was to be grateful. At the time, my family was going through several years of financial insecurity, and the stress affected all of us. My notion of wealth and poverty was shattered when I saw how Guatemalans lived and realized how much my family actually had. Even though the Guatemalans I met were living at a level of poverty I had never seen before, they seemed to be happier and more grateful than the majority of people in the US. I returned to the US with: a. an incurable case of wanderlust (obviously) and b. a slightly guilty understanding of how good my family really had it and a newfound determination to enjoy the blessings that are best and cost nothing.
Since making the theory that the world is one big university and each country is a different course, I have been fortunate enough to have more stamps added to my passport, to take more “courses,” and I have come to the conclusion that you do learn something with each new trip you take.
The first time I visited Belgium with my dad and met my not-that distant relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, I learned more about the culture and place I come from.
Six months of volunteering in Ecuador taught me about what it means to be a part of a Latin American family. I also learned Spanish! And by focusing on volunteer recruitment and administrative tasks at Teach, English, Volunteer!, I discovered that I was passionate about helping people expand their horizons and volunteer abroad.
When I go home each summer, it’s not uncommon for people in the US to ask if I’m really safe in Kuwait. I kind of do a mental eye roll, smile, and assure them that it is safe in Kuwait because it REALLY is. However, there are obviously places in the Middle East that I’m afraid to go. Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq… I had a trip planned to go see my cousin Jackie, who was (and still is) studying abroad at AUB in Beirut. Two weeks before my trip, there was a suicide bombing targeting a Shia neighborhood in which 43 innocent people were killed. As I heard the news, I momentarily reconsidered the trip I had planned. Fortunately the thought didn’t last! I’m so glad that fear didn’t keep me from visiting Lebanon because it is the most beautiful country in the Middle East. It was also one of the most refreshing, fun long-weekend trips I have ever taken. So the lesson Lebanon taught me was there’s more to a country than what you hear about in the news (which is pretty true for the entire Middle East).
I just enjoyed a week in one of my very favorite countries, Spain. The last time I was in Spain was over the summer of 2013 when my Spanish culture lessons came from my host: the hilarious, politically incorrect, 71 year-old, perpetually shirtless Antonio. Back then, I spent most of my time on a farm situated in the Sierra de San Vicente Mountains where I learned the true meaning of farm-to-table eating. I visited Marbella, Granada, Toledo, and Madrid, but I never made it to Barcelona. Fast forward to 2016, and my friends and I planned our trip to Granada (one of the most charming cities in the world) and Barcelona. Although I had already spent six weeks in Spain and learned a lot there, it had more to teach me.
For starters, I learned that foreign languages must be maintained! I was shocked to find that, especially for the first few days, my Spanish was incredibly rusty. When I left Ecuador four years ago, I remember my host mom Reyna complimenting me on how much my Spanish had improved. By the time I left Spain after my summer on the farm, I still experienced some frustration with communicating, but I was pretty conversationally fluent (más o menos). This is why I was bothered on this trip by my difficulty formulating sentences, finding the right vocabulary word, and conjugating verbs. Knowledge of a foreign language needs maintenance. Whether it comes from reading two pages of a Spanish book everyday, watching a Spanish TV show or movie every now and then, or (my favorite idea) taking a trip to a Spanish-speaking country once a year, it’s important to practice reading, writing, and speaking in some way, or the truth is it could become a language you used to know.
The second thing Spain taught me this time around came from a famous Barcelonian, Antoni Gaudi. During his lifetime (1852-1926), Gaudi became a renowned architect and left his mark on Barcelona and surrounding areas. My friends and I visited four of his creations while in Barcelona (Park Güell, Casa Batlló, Casa Milà, and one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen, Sagrada Familia). Gaudi’s style is so unique. It’s nature-inspired, colorful, whimsical, modern, and seems to effortlessly combine practicality with beauty. His passion for what he did is apparent in everything he designed, so being in Barcelona and seeing how much he impacted his city was absolutely inspirational. His final piece of work, the Sagrada Familia, which he focused solely on from 1910 until 1926 when he died, is still being built. His plans for it were so ambitious that he had to have known it would not be completed before he died. Still, he chose to stick with his vision so that one day in the future, it would stand as his offering to his maker, a place to be enjoyed by people from all over the world. This made me think about passion and purpose, how each of us contribute to our communities and our world, and what we will leave behind when we leave this world. Like Gaudi, I want to zero in on my passion, excel in it, and contribute positively to society.
The photo on the left is of Casa Batllo, and the one on the right are the creatively designed chimneys on the roof of Casa Mila (also known as La Perdrera)
Here are my beloved teach and travel buddies at Park Guell. The lizard on the left is characteristic of Gaudi’s work, and it is now iconic to Barcelona.
And here you have the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral so breathtaking, you need to see it yourself. Pictures don’t do it justice, and honestly it will look much better once those cranes are done with their work and then get out of the way!
Finally, this time in Spain, I was with a large enough group to eat the tapas way, and I learned that it is superior to the one-meal-per-person way of eating (it just is). At every meal, most of us would choose one to two tapas, so once the food came, we each had a glass of wine and ten delicious plates to share. Dear world, why can’t eating always be this much fun? After Spain, regular meals seem so monotonous. Why can’t I enjoy a smorgasbord of toasted tomato-smothered bread, Jamon Iberico (Iberian ham), lox, cheese platters, foie gras, olives, grilled goat cheese salad, and chorizo for dinner whenever I want? But honestly, pairing the tapas with velvety Spanish reds and dear friends made everything taste so much better.
Like many of the journeys I’ve taken since getting my passport twelve years ago, Spain changed me for the better. I returned to Kuwait with a bit more joy in my heart, a few stamps on my soul.
I know that there are financial constraints, visa requirements, busy lives at home, jobs, children, and pets that keep us from even looking at flight on Expedia, but if possible, do yourself a favor and buy a round-trip ticket. Or a one-way ticket! There are a lot of destinations in this big, complicated world, waiting to to enlighten us in their own ways. As Saint Augusine said more eloquently than I can: