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One of the things I love most about traveling is that it forces you out of your comfort zone. The language, the food, the architecture, everything around you is unfamiliar and foreign.
I like to say traveling stretches your comfort zone.
When I was a child I took ballet. Before each lesson we had to stretch. It was uncomfortable for our muscles but over time we became more limber, more flexible and the same stretches didn’t seem as uncomfortable.
The same thing happens when you travel. Once an experience stretches your comfort zone, it makes you a more flexible traveler, and the same type of experience won’t seem as uncomfortable the second time around.
Every trip has stretched me in some way, but some had a larger impact than others.
Getting lost…. I mean really lost in Milan
Milan is a big city. It’s like New York or Chicago. When we first arrived in Milan by train, we purchased our metro passes and headed to our hotel. On a map, the hotel didn’t look very far from the metro station. Walk out of the station take a left, then a right and boom… You’re there.
If only that plan worked. When we stepped out of the metro station, we were on a very busy street and the only street to our left was a six lane tunnel. That couldn’t be correct. Directly in from of us were tall buildings. We couldn’t go that way either. Everything to the right looked more touristy… That must be where the hotel was located! So, we went right… But we were wrong. For an hour or more we walked around with our heavy backpacks filled with all of our clothing for two weeks abroad.
We tried asking for directions but no one knew of this small, boutique hotel. We searched for a free WiFi area so we could use our phones because we didn’t buy an international data plan, but we couldn’t find one.
It turns out the hotel was just to the left of the metro station… But there were tall buildings and a busy tunnel in our way making it somewhat difficult to access. You can’t always tell that on a map. Once we finally arrived at our hotel it was well worth the headaches of getting there. It was such a unique place to stay. I promise to write a blog post about it someday.
Driving in Ireland
Everything about driving in Ireland will stretch your comfort zone. Driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car, the narrow roads, and the four million roundabouts you’ll encounter. Drivers’ education in the US did not prepare me for this! We actually got the hang of it pretty quickly and my husband only nearly killed us once. All is well that ends well.
It was a different but fun experience, and truly the only way to see Ireland is by car. Their train system is not as advanced as the rest of Europe, so if you travel only by train, you will miss out on much of the beautiful scenery, the small, quaint villages, and the magic of this amazing country.
Riding the bus in Rome
I don’t have a ton of experience riding city buses as it is… I haven’t actually rode a bus since junior high when I took the big, yellow bus each morning to school. But when we arrived in Rome, we opted to take the bus from the train station to Piazza Navona, which was close to our hotel.
After much confusion trying to find the right bus to take (I still don’t understand why they don’t name the bus stops after the nearby tourist attractions), we finally boarded a bus and prayed it was the right one. In English, we asked the driver, who only spoke Italian, if the bus stopped at Piazza Navona. He nodded although he looked equally confused, so we jumped on.
At each stop, we looked for a sign telling us where we were… But we had no such luck. Not only were there no signs, the bus driver never announced the names of the stops, so we had no clue if we had gone far enough or too far. Finally we got off the bus and decided to walk (once again with heavy backpacks) afraid that we had gotten too far from our destination. We actually ended up about 5 stops away, and had we stayed on that bus, we would have gotten dropped off right outside of our hotel. Live and learn.
Negotiating in another language
Last year, we decided to road trip it across Costa Rica. So our first stop was the car rental agency. My husband went in to pay for the car we reserved while I loaded up our luggage and installed the car seat in the backseat.
After about 15 minutes I went inside to find my husband trying to tell the man at the counter that the bill was twice as high as the quoted price, but the man didn’t speak English very well. Luckily, I knew enough Spanish to negotiate with the man and we got the bill dropped by about $800. Not only did this experience teach me that it pays to know a little bit of a country’s native language, but I gained confidence in my Spanish-speaking skills from this negotiation. As I’ve discussed before, the rental car company’s will almost always try to screw you over on the price. You’ve got to stand your ground. Speaking in another language you do not know that well can certainly be intimidating. You will definitely feel a bit out of your comfort zone, but you’ll gain the respect of locals.
Getting stopped by drug dealers in St. Maarten
This was the first experience my husband and I had together in a foreign country. It was on the first day of our honeymoon in St. Maarten. Nothing bonds you together quite like trying to escape a seedy alleyway where drug dealers are trying to sell you cocaine. Who would have thought my husband and I even looked like the kind of people who would get solicited to buy drugs? Perhaps, looking back on the scenario, we shouldn’t have been walking around the streets half tipsy carrying alcohol… (Damn those yummy Guava Berry Rum drinks!) But it was our honeymoon and we were drunk in love… Or drunk and in love… I can’t recall which.
From that very uncomfortable and likely dangerous experience we learned to always be aware of our surroundings when abroad and not to let our guards down.
From each of those experiences we grew, we learned lessons, and we became better travelers.
This summer we will likely find ourselves in a few more uncomfortable or unfamiliar circumstances, as we cross the border from Belize to Guatemala, as we drive across Eastern Europe and visit a couple of countries that are not your typical tourist destinations. I’m sure there will be moments when we are completely clueless, not sure what we are supposed to do, or once again lost. But isn’t that the case with just about any trip abroad?
So what experiences in your travels have stretched you the most? When have you felt the most out of your comfort zone and how did it change you?