I packed a lot of unnecessary things for my trip to Zambia. Fanny pack? Not sure how I talked myself into that one (probably because it was pink…) FOUR books? Admirable, but when planes rock you to sleep like a baby, four books will only help you out if you use them as a footstool. One thing I wholeheartedly believe you cannot go abroad without, however, is an open mind. If you can’t roll with the punches, you will leave the country with more regrets than useless souvenirs.
I’m no expert on how to keep your cool, but my time in Zambia has solidified some ideas I’ve had about the art of going with the flow while abroad.
1. Check your expectations at the door
If I’ve learned anything from studying abroad, it is that you can unconsciously write things into another country’s culture. Example: before coming to Africa, I assumed that every bug on the continent was big enough to eat me alive. With that in mind, I saw bugs everywhere I went the first few days of the trip. Why? Because I was looking for them. In reality, Africa’s insect life is likely no more active than that of Ohio in the summer, but I expected bug armies, so bug armies is what I got.
Good or bad, previously held expectations or assumptions only get in the way of the ability to see an accurate picture of a country. Don’t dwell on previous descriptions or stories of your destination abroad, make your own.
2. Be a yes man
When traveling abroad, I like to challenge myself by answering “why not?” to almost every challenge. Unless you honestly believe that the answer to “why not?” in a particular situation is “I will die,” go for it. If I said no every time I felt a wee bit uneasy about something, I wouldn’t be able to say that I’ve snorkeled in the South China Sea in Vietnam or ate a caterpillar and jumped off one of the world’s largest bungee jumps in between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Zambia, the “yes” attitude left me with no regrets (and no naps) and plenty of memories I wouldn’t trade for the world.
3. Being particular is a luxury
I understand having preferences, especially when it comes to food. My dad shakes his head every time I order at a restaurant and ask for a number four, hold this, add that, light on this. If I have choices, I am going to ask for what I want, but this really is a luxury. In another country, not only might a communication barrier deter you from getting something just as you like it, but also, other options may not be available.
We visited a compound last week where widows and orphans of AIDS victims go to learn profit-producing skills and seek shelter. Once a day, the compound provides the group with a meal of nshima (a corn meal compound) and a mixture similar to canned chicken. With this is mind, a little mayo or a lumpy pillow doesn’t seem like such a tragedy.
4. If they can do it, so can you
When in Rome! No toilet paper in the bathroom? They get along just fine without it and so will you. Dipping your hands in a bowl of water after eating rather than using a napkin? Maybe not what you’re use to, but it gets the job done for them just fine. You visit another country to experience life different from your own. It is overwhelming at times, but I find comfort in knowing that the locals do [insert common foreign practice] frequently and live to tell the tale.
5. You’re not in Kansas anymore
The quicker you realize that your destination abroad is not, in fact, the United States, the better. It’s normal to compare aspects of another country to those of the US – it’s human nature to size things up based on what we’re use to – but don’t get caught up in the idea that other countries are doing everything the “wrong” way. Expect the unexpected and embrace it. I’m not saying you’ll come home and start using chopsticks, but you might just pick up a new habit, skill or favorite food.