Picture this: It’s 102 degrees. Your face is burnt, your lips are chapped, and you’re dripping with sweat. Lost in a foreign country and surrounded by illegible signs written in characters that may as well be hieroglyphs. You are holding a pack that weighs half as much as you do, and you have no transportation besides the worn-out feet that are barely supporting you at a standstill. You see people that you want to ask for help, but you don’t know their language, and they don’t know yours. And in this moment, I am infinitely happy. Why? Because I'm thousands of miles from home, light-years beyond my comfort zone, and I'm thrilled to finally be here.
Thailand. For 8 months I lived in a small town devoid of Western influence, English speakers, and intelligible books, signs, and menus. I stuck out like a sore thumb and I struggled with the simplest of tasks on a daily basis. But, being my first trip abroad I was determined to challenge myself, and I was rewarded tenfold. By setting the intention to push myself outside of my comfort zone, I allowed myself the opportunity to discover who I was - a much stronger woman than before I left. There are a few things I learned on my journey, which helped to keep me balanced, flexible, and receptive.
Relinquish your routine. Before I left for Thailand, my wellness routine consisted of a daily yoga practice. But, a tiny 10 x 10 sq. ft. room or a two-hour commute, (by pickup truck and the grace of Good Samaritans), to the nearest yoga center will change all that. Oftentimes when we are traveling for long periods in unfamiliar territory, we are temporarily lost without our routines. At first, I was lost too. Yet by letting go of my routine, I gave myself room to adopt someone else’s.
While volunteering in local villages, I had been introduced to the art of walking meditation. Instead of the traditional seated poses I had been accustomed to, the Buddhists I was living with taught me to actively meditate while in motion. This is the time when the mind wanders the most, they said, so if you can maintain a focus while walking, you can master the art of keeping peace in the most difficult of circumstances. I was sold. While living in my small town, without room for or resources to what I was familiar with, I found solace in this newly learned meditation technique. By letting go of the past and integrating what I had learned into my nightly walk to the market—walking slowly, deliberately, mindfully—this became my new routine.
Let people surprise you. I pride myself on being a fairly independent person. Pre-Thailand me would rather do something myself than ask others for help. But, what did the lost, sweaty girl with the heavy pack do in the 102 degree heat? Asked for help. Some deliberation among the concerned shopkeepers and one phone call later, a man on a motorbike was by my side, ready to take me anywhere I needed to go.
Throughout my trip, I relied on local strangers to get me through the toughest situations, to unstick me from the thickest mire. I felt more connected with the world around me, more convinced of the ubiquitous compassion of my fellow human beings. There was a certain magic in relying on other people, instead of a guide book or a smart phone, for navigating an unknown land and culture. By the end of my 8-month stint, I hardly planned anything. I had learned to flourish within the go-with-the-flow culture that had me so worried in the beginning. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and to receive kindness from others on a regular basis, I easily adopted an attitude of gratitude that stays with me to this day.
Resist the temptation to take the easy route. When we are busy sightseeing, exploring, and traipsing around in a foreign country, we are usually exhausted, hungry, and in need of some comfort by the end of the day. Often the easiest thing to do is look up the nearest Western restaurant and nicest hotel, throw our bags to the ground, crank the A/C, and collapse on the bed. There is definitely a time for this. But resist the temptation to always flock to things that are familiar to you while traveling. Not only will you absorb more of the culture around you, but you will force your brain to make new connections, rousing your most creative problem-solving resources. Learn the language, get off the grid, go exploring, meet new people, and get lost. You will become more confident, resourceful, and resilient. Use travel as a way to go beyond your perceived limitations. One step and one deep breath outside of your comfort zone, you will find a better you. - Josalin Saffer