Wednesday, February 27, 2013

10 Travel Experiences That Changed My Life

Every trip is important, no matter where we go or what we do.  For me, travel is an extension of every aspect of life, and it reinforces the fact that regardless of different languages and cultures, we are all essentially the same, and we want and cherish the same things.

Travel transforms us in ways that aren’t always apparent, and most often, we don’t even realize its effect on our lives until long after we’ve returned home.  I’ve been traveling for almost two decades, and every travel experience I’ve had has transformed me in the way I view the world, especially the world around me.  However, there are certain travel experiences that not only impact our lives, but change core of who we are.  These adventures are rare, but most people can look back on their trips and point to the experiences that changed their lives.

Here are 10 travel experiences that changed my life.

1. Learned the joy of traveling as a family on a road trip in California

I remember driving into a local baby store few weeks before our little boy was born.  With the due date quickly approaching, my husband and I were feeling very anxious and overwhelmed, and we were keeping ourselves busy, “nesting”, to keep our minds off of what seemed to be a monumental change in our lives.

When we walked into the store, the sale person looked at us with a puzzled expression on his face and asked, “Is that your car?” pointing to the Mini Cooper Convertible that was parked outside, and when we told him that it was indeed our car, with an all-knowing smirk he said, “You’ll be back with an SUV soon.”

The sales person, like everyone else we’d met since then have always taken the time and the initiative to tell us how (much) a child is going to change our lives.  How we’re going to have to get a bigger car and will never be able to drive a sports car again; how we’re never going to be able to do the things we’d enjoyed as a couple; and that we were never going to be able to travel like the way we used to.

I was determined to prove them wrong.

So, almost a year of being home bound after our son was born, my husband and I decided it was time to get back on the road … literally.  As recent transports to California, we wanted to explore and discover more of this beautiful state that I’d always read about.  We decided we were going to take a road trip along the Pacific coastline on Highway 1.

Traveling with a toddler, we had to plan the trip to allow time for play and lots of food.  Thankfully, our boy was a good sleeper (actually sleeping better in the car than in his bed), and after few hours of outdoor activities, he was able to nap during the drives.

The drive along the Pacific coastline was spectacular, living up our expectations and National Geographic Magazine’s declaration as  being one of the world's greatest “drives of a lifetime”.  It was without a doubt one of the most unforgettable sights we’d seen in North America, filled with towering cliffs, gorgeous secluded beaches, and spectacular nature with every twist and turn revealing the most breathtaking scenery.  Plus, the long uninterrupted drive provided a perfect opportunity for our little boy to sleep.

We planned our stops along the way: Monterey, Pismo Beach, Santa Barbara, and San Diego, all charming and beautiful in their own ways, and as these towns and cities were filled with a great variety of restaurants and grocery stores, we had no trouble finding fantastic meals. 

More importantly, the route was filled with so many fun things for kids to do: Dennis the Menace Park, Monterey Bay Aquarium, stunning beaches, boardwalk and piers, and all that was even before arriving in LA/San Diego, which seemed to be the mecca for all children … hello, Disneyland!

We also discovered that nature was the best form of entertainment for our little boy and for us, and no amusement park could provide hours of entertainment like taking long walks on the beach collecting sea shell and rocks, or going for a hike in the midst of the magnificent redwood forest in Big Sur.  

Traveling with our little boy has opened my eyes to a whole new world.  Observing beautiful nature became far more interesting than going to an upscale bar or restaurants.  Watching our little boy discovering little critters and seeing the fascination on his face became more thrilling than seeing a Broadway show, and every evening, watching the breathtaking sunset over the Pacific Ocean became the highlight of our trip.

Before our little boy came into our lives, I’d always travelled to discover new places, new things and new people.  I loved exposing myself to new elements and experiences that allowed me to change and grow.  Now, as a mother, I’m able to share these experiences with my little boy.  It changed my perception of what is important in life and has helped me to constantly seek and follow things that I’m passionate about.

Although there’s no denying that having a child has fundamentally changed my life, for my husband and I, travelling still is, and always will be a passion that we share as a family.

Now, the road trip along the Pacific Coast has become an annual event, a family tradition of some sort, and every time we’re on the road, we discover new and different places … as well as enjoy our old favorites.  We still have our Mini Cooper Convertible and haven’t given into buying an SUV, and on a beautiful sunny day, there’s nothing better than driving along the Pacific coast with the top down.

2. A humbling lesson in human resilience in Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I didn’t know what to expect when my husband and I’d decided to go to Vietnam.  Aside from the torrid history of war I’ve read about in books and what I've seen in the movies, much of the country was an enigma to me.

However, when I landed in Hanoi and saw my husband and a kind-looking stranger walking up to me with a bouquet of roses, I immediately knew that I was in for a treat.  The bouquet of roses were sent by the travel agency we’d arranged to guide us around the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and although we’d traveled with similar types of privately guided tours while we were traveling in other parts of Asia where we couldn’t speak the local language, I’d never gotten such an heart-warming reception.

As it turned out, that moment at the airport was merely a reflection of the warmth and the hospitality of Vietnamese people, who, in spite of the arduous history, have maintained their generosity and open-mindedness toward outsiders.

At times, my husband and I were blown away by their indomitable spirit.  Even after living through the atrocities of foreign colonization and occupation, a devastating civil war, and then an American invasion, they have managed to survive on their own terms.  

There were reminiscent of the American War everywhere, as the country is still recovering from its devastation, and as an American, I was profoundly affected by the awareness and realization of the atrocities my government’s political decisions and actions have brought about in the world.  It’s something that no history book or classrooms in America will ever discuss or teach (at least not in my lifetime), and it’s certainly isn’t a version that we’re likely to hear in the media. 

However, it’s the reality of life in Vietnam, and for its people, it’s their story.  And without an ounce of animosity, the Vietnamese people simply want a chance to tell their story … their history.  As our infinitely-wise guide Han assured us, “To harbor hate is a waste of energy”, and he, as well as the people of Vietnam, prefer to look to the future.

Today, Vietnam is a growing, prospering country full of young and energetic people.  Blessed with a ravishing coastline, emerald-green mountains, breathtaking national parks, dynamic cities, outstanding cultural interest and one of the world’s best cuisines, Vietnam has it all, and I for one can’t wait to keep going back to witness its evolution.

3. Learned to embrace technology in Daejeon, South Korea
Most of us not living under a rock have realized by now that technology is an integral part of our lives, and without computers or an access to the internet, we become as isolated from the rest of the world as being in a cave without sunlight.  And nowhere in the world is this more evident than in Daejeon, South Korea, where scientific and technological advancements are embraced, nurtured and promoted.

Located about 2½ hours south of Seoul, the capital of Chungcheongnam-do (mid-western region), Daejeon is South Korea’s industrial heart and the hub for science and technology, so much so that the city’s Daedeok Valley has been nicknamed the "Silicon Valley of Korea" and Daedeok Science Town, which lies just northwest of Daejeon, is home to more than 200 research institutes, including the research and development facilities of Samsung, LG, Korea University of Science and Technology, and dozens of organizations devoted to research and education.
This is where I had the privilege of teaching English and Communication to a diverse group of students from nearby universities, as well as the numerous private companies and agencies.  Being in classrooms with these students, I felt as if I was among one of the greatest think tanks in the world.  Every day, the topic of discussions resembled that of TED Conference, and after each class, not only did I gain a better understanding the world but also gained a better knowledge about topics and issues that I never would have been exposed to otherwise, like the importance and the benefits of nuclear energy, the development of an android (a robot, not the phone) that recognizes feelings, and the difference between nuclear fission and fusion.

It was a privilege to be able to meet individuals who were truly brilliant in various fields of science, technology and even architecture, and most of the time, I felt more like a student rather than their teacher.  I was in awe of the great minds that entered my classroom each day and enjoyed learning as much as teaching, and I’ve learned that technology truly is our path to the future.

4. Witnessed the true meaning of multiculturalism and cultural diversity in Malaysia 
Visiting Malaysia is like traveling to several countries in one.  Cleaved in half by the South China Sea, the multicultural peninsula flaunts Malay, Chinese and Indian influences, while Borneo hosts a wild jungle of orangutans, granite peaks and remote tribes. 

There are few places in the world where you can find such multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious communities coexisting in harmony as in Malaysia, with each group so deeply commingled yet distinct.  This is because Malaysia is not just diverse in the sense of having people from many ethnicities, but because Malaysians have formed thriving communities each with its own language, culture, history and religion.  These communities have lived side by side for centuries and traded influences and ideas but remained distinct. The major groups have become Malaysian each in its own way.  

Being an American, we tend to think of our country as a “melting pot", but in Malaysia, this concept is frowned upon, as the Malaysians feel that one’s heritage is the core of who they are, and their culture, ethnicity and religious beliefs are not “dissolvable” or should yield to a single dominant group.

Therefore, no one is expected to assimilate into a single culture or even to speak one language.  Multilingualism is not only expected but demanded, and every print, broadcast and online media are in English, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Iban and Kadazan.

In every city my husband and I visited, there were stunning Mosques, Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Hindu temples, sometimes even on a single street, and throughout the country, there is an impressive variety of microcosms ranging from the space-age high-rises to the smiling longhouse villages.  And the benefits of embracing such diversity are clear to see, even for tourists, as I’ve had some of the best assortments of cuisines in Malaysia.  Whether you’re in the mood for Malay fare or Indian curries, succulent Chinese meal or good ole fashion hamburger, Malaysia has it all.  Especially the food court in Petronas Towers absolutely blew my mind.    

More importantly, what I loved about the multicultural atmosphere in Malaysia was that it was not forced, implemented by government or some kitschy slogan used to commemorate a month.  It’s intrinsic, and it’s simply their way of life.

I absolutely loved all the cities and places we visited in Malaysia and felt completely at ease in its cultural mosaic.

5. Realized that history always has two sides at International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (Musée international de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge), Geneva, Switzerland
I clearly remember the day when my husband and I visited the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (IRCRCM).  It was one of the coldest days I’d experienced that winter, and we were visiting a friend in Geneva and wanted to sightsee around town.  After merely an hour, the wind chill became unbearable and sought shelter indoors, and we found IRCRCM.    

The museum is comprised mostly of the history of the Red Cross and Red Crescent organization. Founded in the late 19th century by Geneva businessman Henry Dunant, the Red Cross and Red Crescent has served as a neutral aid provider for over a century.  It’s main principle is to provide impartial aid and assistance to the people in the region(s) or in countries experiencing crisis, conflicts and wars, and the museum is a monument to this commitment.

The history and the stories are told through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention from the most objective point of view, without a hint of partiality or patriotism towards any country or regime.

This is where I saw the photograph, ‘Napalm Girl’, by Nick Ut.  It was a photograph that I, as well as most Americans, have seen many times before; a group of civilians fleeing a village that was bombed with napalm.  However, what made this photograph so much more horrific than other images of war was that there was a girl, running naked (from having her clothes burned off) with an absolute fear in her face.  It was an image that was etched in my mind forever.

I remember when I saw the photograph for the first time, I was told by my teacher that this image and the girl in the photograph should serve as a reminder of the atrocities that was committed by the North Vietnamese who were the enemies of the American forces.  I was told that it was because of such horrors brought on by the North Vietnamese that the Americans were in Vietnam to bring peace to their land.

Of course, I, as well as many Americans of my generation have learned since then that our role in Vietnam was quite the contrary.  However, I’ve never had a starker realization of this discrepancy in our history telling until I saw the same photo at IRCRCM, and the read the caption, “June 8, 1972: Kim Phuc, running down a road nude near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese Air Force (supported by the Americans) napalm attack.”

Although there’s no disputing that many American lives were lost in Vietnam, by all means, we were not their saviors, and we certainly did not establish peace in Southeast Asia.  On the contrary, we were the invaders, the occupiers, and as the photographs and stories at IRCRCM clearly illustrate, there are two versions of world history, the version that we learn and are exposed to in America and the version that the rest of the world knows.  

6. Realized that fear and intolerance are the root of all evil at Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum) Berlin, Germany 
The Jewish Museum in Berlin is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen. It’s a multi-sensory experience, where visitors can not only learn about the comprehensive history and the plight of the Jewish people in Europe but also the events leading up to WWII.

But most of all, it’s a reflection of history, culture and the society, which has always struggled … and still is struggling with incorporating different ethnic groups.  Multiculturalism in Europe has never been an easy concept.  For some, it is merely a slogan, an antiquated public policy invented by a political party, but for millions of ethnic minorities living in Europe, multiculturalism is a fact of life and a part their identity that can’t be denied.

I am reminded of my first visit to the Jewish Museum, when I’d learned that the persecution and the annihilation of the Jewish people in Germany wasn’t an isolated event that occurred overnight or shortly before and during WWII.  It was a culmination of the arduous history of the Jews in Europe and many years of persecution in the years prior.

It was this reminder of the intolerance towards the ethnic minorities that was the most profound and alarming. It made me realize that such heinous event could have occurred … and sadly, has occurred anywhere in the world where fear and intolerance towards people who are different (or perceived to be different) reign.

In the recent years, I’ve become concerned and disheartened as I observe a significant growth in xenophobic sentiments towards foreigners and ethnic minorities in Europe, and if history is an indication of the future events, I fear what this growing intolerance will mean to the future of Europe.

7. Discovered the things that unite us as human beings in Warsaw, Poland
The first time I'd visited Warsaw, I was on a business trip.  As a recruiter, my company had sent me there to find the best and the brightest among the recent graduates from the University of Warsaw for our new offices.  The company had decided to outsource R&D to a country where the labor costs were significantly lower than that of our existing offices in Western Europe, and Poland seemed to fit the bill.

Unfortunately, there were a lot resistance and animosity toward this decision from our employees in Europe, who feared that this was just the beginning of outsourcing initiatives that would eventually transfer, and worse, take away all the jobs.

I was stuck in the middle between the management and the executives of the company who’d decided on the initiative as part of cost-cutting, cost-saving strategy, and my coworkers and fellow employees with whom I’d spend much of my time training and developing.  Nevertheless, I supported managements’ decision to relocate R&D division, as the labor cost of continuing our operation in Western European countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany were astronomical in comparison.

However, when I landed in Warsaw, I was less than thrilled to be there, and unlike many of my recruiting trips where I’d actually looked forward to interviewing and finding candidates, this time, I was merely looking forward to returning home.  Part of me felt guilty, as if I was aiding and abetting in elimination of jobs, and another part of me was also worried and uncertain what establishing the new office might mean for all of us … even to me.

I had two days to interview around 75 candidates, which meant I had less than 15 minutes to spend with each person, and after spending an entire day interviewing what seemed to be an entire roster of graduates, all I wanted to do was to take a cab back to the hotel and get some sleep, just to start the whole process again the next day.

However, I was invited by the office manager to join her for dinner and sightseeing around Warsaw.  I could hear the excitement in her voice, as she was absolutely thrilled about the prospect of new offices being built in Warsaw, and she wanted to show me the city that she was proud of.

At first glance, Warsaw seemed aloof and cold.  It wasn’t as welcoming or as attractive as other European cities I’d been to, and certainly under the circumstances, I was in no mood to discover its hidden treasures.  Then, as we walked along the Old Town, she explained the history of the city.

During the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, more than 85% of the city was destroyed by Nazi troops.  Warsaw was deliberately annihilated as a repression of the Polish resistance to the German occupation, and the capital city was reduced to ruins with the intention of obliterating the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood. 

After the war, a five-year reconstruction campaign was developed, and the rebuilding of the historic city came about as the result of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the entire country.  The reconstruction of the Old Town in its historic urban and architectural form became a symbol of the resilience of Polish culture and people, who have survived all the historical tragedies they’ve endured, and it is testament to the astounding resilience of the Polish people that Poland has not only bounced back from every foreign invasion but also have been able to hold strong to its own culture even after the fall of Berlin Wall and the demise of Soviet Union. 

With the possible entry into the European Union (which was not yet confirmed at the time of my visit), there was an enormous amount of hope and excitement about the potential for foreign investment and establishment of new businesses that would give momentum to its economy.  Like most candidates I’d interviewed that day, my Polish colleague expressed not only excitement about the new offices which were to be built but also expressed gratitude for all the jobs it was going to create.

I realized then that people all over the world basically wants the same thing, to be happy, healthy and to have a job which will allow them to support themselves, their loved ones and their community.  By moving our offices to Warsaw, transferring jobs and outsourcing our business, we were providing them the chance to obtain these things, and I was glad and proud to do my (small) part in providing this opportunity to the people of Warsaw.

As I dined at an outdoor restaurant in the heart of Old Town, I began to see the city in a whole nother light.  It is sometimes said that the greatest beauty arises out of the greatest pain, and that evening, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place than Warsaw.

8. Fell in love with the world in NYC, NY

I absolutely fell in love with NY from the first moment I step foot in the city.

I was in my mid-teens, and my mother had visited a friend of hers in Queens, with whom we’d stayed for few days, and those were the most exciting few days of my teenage life. NY was the polar opposite of the middle class suburban environment in which I’d grown up. It was fast-paced, wonderfully diverse, full of energy and excitement, and most of all, REAL.

Human interactions and emotions are in your face and displayed in the open for anyone who care to observe them. People from all walks of life from all over world interact and sometimes clash as naturally as breathing air, and in the city of over 8 million, people move about as if they’re engaged in a dance, which only the natives of the city know.

Most of all, it’s a city that enables you to experience the world … or at least a great introduction to it … and gives you an opportunity to meet amazing people under the most extraordinary circumstances.

It’s a city that allows you to experience life that’s far more exciting than any story that Hollywood can put a spin on, and I absolutely loved living there.

9. Fell in love with the beauty of life in Paris, France 
I remember clearly the first time I’d visited Paris.  I was BLOWN AWAY by its beauty, and my life-long lover affair and addiction to Paris began.

Surprisingly, in spite of all the negative stereotypes and media coverage dubbing Parisians as being the rudest people in the world, my first encounter was absolutely wonderful. Even when I’d walked into a swanky but charming hotel in the Latin Quarter, Hotel de l'Universite and explained to the lady at the front desk that I needed the room for few nights but didn’t have any credit card or money to secure the reservation as my wallet was stolen, she just looked at me kindly and gave me a key to a room. Looking back, I can’t believe I’d experienced such kindness in Paris … and I never have since that first trip.

The entire stay in city of light was absolutely magical and enchanting! Seeing the Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ in Musée de l'Orangerie, sitting underneath the Eiffel Tower, walking along the Champs-Élysées, and seeing the great masterpieces in Musée D’Orsay. I could have sat in Jardin de Luxembourg all day … and I think I did.

As I was strolling through beautiful streets of Paris, I’d wondered whether the Parisians were aware of all the beauty that surrounded them. I found out that they did, and indeed it was a dream come true to be able to live there and wake up to it every morning!

Then, as I was watching the sunset over Paris from the top of Montmartre outside the Sacre Coeur, the city twinkling with lights as the night fell, I knew I had to come back soon. And I did several times, before eventually moving to Paris in the summer of ’97.

As my trip came to an end, I was terribly saddened by the thought of leaving. I remember I’d actually postponed my train ride back to arrive in Gatwick literally minutes before my flight, and as the train passed the Eiffel tower, I felt as if I was parting from or leaving a good friend. Then again, I always had a propensity to fall in love with a city, and Paris would be the first of my many loves.

My first trip to Paris forever changed my life, activating a permanent, insatiable wanderlust, and it hasn’t been the same ever since.

10. Discovered the love of food, wine and more in Provence, France 
Provence is an old-fashioned love affair that’s vivid in every tourist’s mind.  It embodies everything that is quintessentially “French”. The idyllic sun-drenched landscapes filled with scented lavender, olive groves and chestnut trees; the locals leisurely sipping express at quaint outdoor cafes; the festive markets in town square selling all sorts of local delicacies and gastronomic art de vivre.  It's a place that takes you to different place and time. 

I was captivated by Provence from the first time my husband and I were in Southern France.  We’d gone on a road trip without a care in the world, without any reservations, and not even knowing where we would end up each night.  All we knew was that we wanted to explore and discover more of France, a country that fascinated both of us, and of course, get to know one another better.  By the end of the trip, we fell in love with each other and with France ... a love affair that has lasted over 15 years.

Travel has changed my life in more ways than one.  It has opened my mind to the different ways of different cultures. It has taught me a lot about history, art and architecture, about traditions and culture, and even about my own heritage.  It has made me a more empowered person by granting me a better understanding of the world and of its people.  It has made me realize that the world is a complicated place, and there are no easy answers, stereotypes or even beliefs in a high power that will answer all the questions we may have or all the uncertainties that may exist. 

However, there lies the true beauty of life, in unravelling and uncovering these mysteries ... the unknown, and the only way that we can gain a better understanding of the world and ultimately of ourselves is to go out and experience it first hand.

I’ve learned countless life’s lessons through travel.  Among the most significant is how insulated and small our lives can be without an exposure to different places, different people, and more importantly, different perspectives.  Also, traveling and gaining a better understanding of the world has taught me to cherish all that I have, while living my life to the fullest with humility, tolerance and compassion.  And above all, it has shown me how to see the beauty in the simple things and that like everything else in life, it’s better when it’s shared, and I am so grateful that I get to share my passion for traveling and all the experiences with my family, my wonderful parents, my husband who truly is my best friend, and our beautiful little boy.


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