Many people from the United States have the ability to travel and see the world, to experience cities, people and cultures. However, there is a difference between the “tourist” and the “traveler.” The tourist sees the sights, tastes the food, shops in the foreign markets; photographing each and every step along the way and savors the experience for many years to come. The traveler, however, is more of an adventurer, taking in the more subtle nuances of the people, the customs, the grit of a culturally different way of life. The traveler looks under the hood of each and every place choosing to live as the people live and getting to know more of the “why” and not just the “what” of foreign destinations often allowing the experience to serve as the souvenir.
Floating on the Mekong River in rural Vietnam in the 1990’s my teenage daughter had one of those experiences that separate the tourist from the traveler. In quizzing a local, she discovered that the cost of a modest dwelling along one of Asia’s longest and most important rivers was the same price as a dress she wanted to wear to a high school dance. This was the type of an “aha” moment that I could never have taught her as her parent. The mere thought of that moment still gives me chills as that unspoken lesson vividly illustrated the disparity of opportunity in our two infinitely different worlds.
That hot, humid day we experienced just one of many defining “traveler” moments as our family has participated in several humanitarian experiences over the years. Each of my children has had their own unforgettable interactions with villagers working side by side with them. Observing children scour through garbage for food on the streets of Kathmandu, walking with school children to school for nearly an hour each way on dusty trails, holding a flashlight as a youth had infected and impacted teeth removed and then watching them walk back to their village a half-days journey away causes your soul to stir in a unique and unforgettable way. The difference between the first world problems of getting the latest app on your phone or deciding what will you wear to meet your friends at the mall is starkly different from a rural villager's problems of what will our family eat, how will a sick family member get well or how will we stay dry when the rains come.
Those experiences have resulted in career choices and lifelong goals to participate in humanitarian outreach for my entire family. Whether in Vietnam, Peru, Nepal, Guatemala, Bolivia or Mexico we have learned through singing, dancing, working and dining with villagers that possessions do not make us happy, nor do they necessarily improve the quality of our lives and relationships. We return home changed and think we will never forget the lessons of the village. Every few years we choose to be reminded of the lessons of the village to keep us grounded and aware of what we value most. As we help villagers accomplish goals of education, clean drinking water and finding ways to support their families, they in turn, teach us that we can be happy, content and fulfilled with much, much less.
There is no gift you can give your child that is greater than the gift of perspective through participating in a rural humanitarian expedition. We step away from our conveniences, our excesses, our time-wasting habits and rituals and step into a world of service, friendship, and teamwork. These types of experiences change the trajectory of human lives. While reminiscing about an expedition last Christmas to Bolivia and the magic of that trip, two participants laughed and said “It is probably time we take another trip so we can reconnect with our teenagers.”
It is true that a village experience is unpredictable, sometimes uncomfortable, and outside of our norm. However, it is in the unpredictable, the uncomfortable and the unusual that we really discover who we are and what we are made of. Therein lies the true magic of the expedition. There is no comfort in the growth zone and no growth in the comfort zone. With all that uncertainty, I can promise you one thing - you will come home changed, forever changed!