I’ve long believed travel to be one of the best instructors in life lessons. Whether positive or negative, different locations can leave a lasting impression and teach you something you might not have previously known, either about the destination or yourself. Here, in order of when I first visited them, are a few things I learned from the first ten countries I’ve traveled to.
Lesson: Adventure takes many forms
The lesson I learned throughout traveling the United States is that adventure takes many forms. It’s not strictly limited to a thrill-seeking experience, but can be a wide range of things. It can be parasailing in Key West, or hitting up Las Vegas with a best friend, or a cross-country family road trip. The US is a great country to seek adventure in, as it boasts a wide range of diverse locations and activities ranging from mild to extreme. It’s a country that all but begs you to take a road trip, promising you stunning views no matter where you venture. I’ve currently been to or driven through 18 states, and I know I have nothing but adventure awaiting my next visit.
Lesson: Diverse locations can be found right in your backyard
I may be using the term backyard loosely, but the overall message is true. Even within the country you call home, you can find diversity and exciting experiences you might never have dreamed possible. From stunning mountains to flat plains to wide forests and breathtaking coasts, Canada is a country just begging to be discovered. I’m eagerly counting down the days until my next big trip – a road trip around eastern Canada. I’ll get to add another province to my list, and get a little more familiar with the amazing country I call home. It feels all the more fitting that this trip is during Canada’s 150th year!
Lesson: Expect the unexpected
Italy was the first off-continent country I ever visited, and the first I visited without at least one family member. It was a school trip, and my best friend Alex was with me, so I was hardly alone, but it still felt exhilarating to wander foreign city streets without parents nearby. Italy surprised me in a number of ways, and the biggest thing I learned while there was to expect the unexpected. As I read about the Colosseum over the years, and imagined seeing it in person, I never once suspected the building would be located in the middle of a busy intersection. It felt weirdly out of place there, as though it should have existed in solitude, but that was only one of the surprises in store for me on the trip. It’s the first moment during my travels where I can remember having a real experience of encountering something that wasn’t exactly as I imagined. That is one of the best gifts of travel – seeing things for how they truly are.
Lesson: You don’t have to be religious to find beauty in a religious place
I’m not here to discuss religion, and I will only go so far as to say that I am not religious. That said, there was something truly peaceful and remarkable about the imagery found on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Vatican City was a strange experience overall, as the smallest country in the world feels far more like a city plaza than a country. Sitting on a bench inside the Sistine Chapel, staring up at the iconic ceiling and marveling at all the work and energy behind it felt like a truly special gift.
Lesson: A brief stop can tell you if you want to return to that country for more
Although I assumed I’d love the Bahamas before going, this was the first time I had the chance to get my feet wet with a country and decide if I’d ever want to return. I took a one-day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Freeport, Grand Bahama, and the experience opened my eyes to a new method of introduction to a country – through cruising. One of the best parts of cruising is getting the chance to visit several countries for several hours and test whether they hold your interest enough for a return visit. Of course, there probably aren’t too many people who would say no to the Bahamas, but I parted with a fond farewell and the knowledge that I’d love to return to – a different part of – the Bahamas in the future!
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams
If I had to choose one country in the world to write a love letter to, it would be South Africa. This trip, my first off-continent trip after an unintentional 8 year hiatus, was the one that reignited my passion for travel and reintroduced me to how amazing it can be to step into a different culture and lifestyle. I even got to live a life long dream of meeting cheetahs up close and personal! South Africa was a country I’d always dreamed of seeing, but mixed with excited anticipation was a lingering fear of – what if it didn’t live up to my dreams? Luckily, it far surpassed all my expectations, and I learned a valuable lesson – never be afraid to chase your dreams. Never again will I be on the verge of visiting a dream destination and worry that it won’t live up to the crazy ideals I have in my head.
Lesson: Sometimes the most challenging adventure is the most worthwhile
There was a moment while hiking up the 1110 m (3641 ft) Execution Rock where I thought to myself, there is no way I’m making it to the top. The instant I reached the summit, however, my ragged breathing was all but forgotten in exchange for the view. Along with the stunning vista before me, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I’m hardly the most active person out there, but managing this feat left me feeling temporarily unstoppable. It was a real challenge to make the summit, but perseverance got me there, and my reward far outweighed my troubles in achieving my goal. It allowed me to reassess my abilities for future challenging endeavors (hello, Inca Trail…eventually) and eagerly look forward to completing them.
Cayman Islands (British Overseas Territory)
Lesson: The tourist hotspots are popular for a reason
By now, stingrays are all but synonymous with Grand Cayman. Stingray City, a sandbar located roughly 40 minutes off the coast, is a meeting point for hungry stingrays and curious tourists. On our cruise, it was something we knew we had to do, and we certainly weren’t the only ones who had that idea. The interaction with the stingrays was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced, and I wouldn’t trade it, tourists-filled waters and all. As much as I enjoy trying to find different things to do, this was a reminder that sometime the tourist hotspots are more than worth it. Don’t be afraid to do something touristy on your travels; your experiences are no less because of it.
Lesson: It’s okay to go slow
Mexico was our last cruise port, and though you can certainly live it up there, we opted for an easy day. We had an underwater oxygen bar excursion in the morning, and spent the rest of our docked time wandering around the port. Part of me wanted to get out and explore Cozumel in a true fashion, but the other part was very content with our choice. I definitely plan to return one day, so taking it slowly was relaxing and enjoyable.
For the sake of this post, I’ll follow proper protocol and count England and Scotland as being one. Since in my mind, I consider them separate, you’ll get a story from each, therefore making this technically 11 stories from my first 11 countries. Given how infrequently I’m able to travel – particularly off-continent – it might be a long while until I get to my first 20 countries.
England – Lesson: It’s okay not to fall in love with a place everyone adores
Considering I love all things history and that London is a truly iconic historic city, it’s always a surprise to people that it’s never been high on my travel bucket list. It’s not that I never wanted to see it; there were just so many other places I felt that pull towards before London. Other than missing out on seeing Westminster Abbey up close and personal or seeing a play inside Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, I don’t feel a strong desire to return, either. Going to London felt pretty on par with how I expected to feel – I liked it, but didn’t fall in love with it. It’s okay not to fall for a city everyone seems to love, and it’s okay to have your own experience with a destination. Perhaps one day London will win me over, but for now, I have grander locations on my eventual return-to-England wish list like the Jurassic Coast, Bath, Brighton, and Cambridge.
Scotland – Lesson: A place you love can still surprise you
If there’s one country on this list I thought I had a pretty solid idea of, it’s Scotland. Historical fiction novels, romance novels set in Scotland, learning the history of the country, and seeing countless photos all contributed to my burning desire to set foot in Scotland. Even with all I’d learned, seen, and imagined, the country still managed to surprise me. The diversity of the landscape was far wilder than I imagined and the weather was much more cooperative than I assumed it would be. I knew I would love Scotland, and I wasn’t disappointed. My experience with the country was a good reminder to never assume you have a country all figured out ahead of time.
These lessons are ones I try to keep with me on all of my travels. I’m eagerly anticipating all I’ll learn on future travels by the time I hit the next 20!
Have you learned valuable lessons on your travels?