It’s that time of the year where we say goodbye to one year and welcome another. What a year, some memories that I’d like to cherish and keep, others, I’d like to forego. There were events births, deaths, weddings, and yes, there was travel. Travel, like life, is personal, but for me 2017 was the most traveled year of my life thanks to my employer (and of course God); San Francisco, London, Berlin, Prague, Moscow, Istanbul/Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, Beijing, Sydney, Seoul and back. Here are seven life lessons I learnt from all this travel.
- Find beauty in small things. I had just returned from Austin and was at San Jose Airport. As usual when it’s time to pray, I went to a corner, less trafficked area. Whilst standing in prayer on the tiled floor, a passenger, saw me and placed a scarf ahead of me. After the prayer I discovered a lady from Fiji, who did this small act of kindness and beauty.
- To listen and learn from strangers. Although my kids balk at the idea, I find that even in transient relationships, you can make acquaintance with strangers and yes even friends. Mot than that if you are willing to not pay attention to your smartphone, to ask questions and really listen to what people want to share, their stories are not only fascinating but on occasion something you can learn from. To me it doesn’t matter if it is the cab/Lyft driver, a fellow passenger, security guard, a waiter, … everyone has something to share and we have an opportunity to connect with humanity.
- To become a traveler not a tourist. There are probably many definitions out there, but to me a traveller is someone who not only goes to a destination but they try to engage in the local community in terms of how the locals eat, travel, and participate in some of the customs. It’s important that we become an ambassador (of our country, faith) and not an ugly tourist. It’s an extremely empowering feeling to travel taking the local bus/metro, to go to a market where the locals go, to eat local food.
- To learn to communicate with just two words. This is the Javed Mohammed Theory of Travel. “You can get by in almost any country with two words in the local language, Excuse me and Thank you. The rest can all be communicated through a smile and body language.”
- To appreciate other cultures.We live in a “Me” or “I” centric world in the west. If you travel with an open mind, you can really appreciate the beauty of other cultures. While in Seoul for work, I had one day to look around. When I went to the Concierge in the hotel and explained the places I wanted to go to, she drew me a hand map. It had the names of the trains and exits from the subway stations, that made my life so easy and became my personal roadmap. I will cherish this handwritten map forever. In life and if you want to be just happy, experiences trump accumulating stuff. Every culture has things to be admired (and yes let’s be real things that we’d rather not talk about), and those are the ones that help build bonds. The photo below is from a Palestinian restaurant in Jaffa, called “The Old Man and The Sea. This is just the free appetizers before the meal!
- To live a complaint-free life and be grateful.
I was on a flight from London with a short connection in Zurich and then heading to San Francisco. I was in a isle seat and in the same row on the other end was a young Egyptian mother with a toddler and baby who were occupying on occasion the seats in the middle. Being under the weather (with a cold and cough), it wasn’t the best of flights to San Fran, and I was just hoping it would be over, and feeling a little sorry for myself. I know it’s hard travelling with children but even more so as she was doing it alone, I offered to help. As the flight progressed, in conversation I found out she (Mariam, who lives in Oakland) was coming from Cairo (a five hour flight), had a seven hour stopover in Zurich and was now doing the marathon 12 hour trek to SFO. Considering you have to get to the airport early, she was probably going 26-30 non-stop hours of being awake fully attentive with two young children. I did not once see her complain, even though she was utterly exhausted towards the end of the flight. It was only then that I thought to myself, my struggle was nothing in comparison to what she had endured. Once we landed I helped her with her luggage and separated ways, two strangers on a plane. She was truly an everyday hero. Most (but not all of us) live a privileged life, and we can live either making complaints or be happy living a complaint-free life and showing gratitude.
- To plan, but to have trust in God.
Travel is a great opportunity to learn to reflect, especially when you’re lonely. There were times on some of my long 13+ hour flights where on the older Boeing 747s, the centralized Entertainment system (that’s the one big screen in the center) and the WiFi did not work. What else to do? When the plane hits turbulence , what else to do? When the flight is cancelled, or delayed, what else to do? Things will always pop up that our beyond our control. Having a plan but then praying, and putting faith in God, makes travel a rich and spiritual experience.
In case you are curious, the round-the world trek was booked as multiple one way tickets, SFO-Istanbul-Tel Aviv-Beijing-Sydney-SFO. The most spiritual experiences for me was praying Jummah in Moscow (which is get this the largest Muslim city in Europe) and praying Eid in Seoul and returning the same day to California and celebrating the rest of the Eid with the family. The most enjoyable trek was visiting Istanbul and Jerusalem with my wife and daughter.
What’s one life lesson you’ve learned from traveling?