travel lesson #1: Travelling ruins many.

I suspect I was ruined before I started, and travelling has made it worse. Mercy Ships was not to blame. It was a trip to Spain during sophomore year of college that set off the craving. However, Mercy Ships has been the vehicle, literally and figuratively, to carry me farther into traveler-ruin. How do I go back to normal?

Here’s the problem. Today you think highly of yourself and your culture. Tomorrow you hop on a plane to a distant land and realize there are extensive populations doing the opposite and, surprisingly, you like it.

How could that not ruin you? Your worldview gets turned upside down, and at some point you’ll have to return to the land of the upright folks, except now they all look very upside-down. You find that after a few weeks or months you start to see the drawbacks and negative consequences of your precious culture’s behaviors.

I miss madagascar

Madagascar travel lessons

AKA Mada. I’ve left her and her ways behind after 16 months of living in port on board an amazing ship, the Africa Mercy. I’ve been gone for almost 3 months and I’ve already felt it slipping away to the back of my mind.

The Malagasy (that’s the correct way to say “Madagascan”) culture taught me a few things about how to treat people and I think they’re travel lessons worth permanently adopting. At first, my adjustment was a means to respect their culture, but I discovered after flying home that flipping myself right side up might be tricky. However, it’s not simply a hard-to-shake habit; I don’t want to shake this habit! I’d love to integrate these adjustments permanently into my character. This must be what happens when you take a piece of a beloved country with you.

travel lesson #2

The power of a greeting

Hi. I’m Ivanna and I may have some shifted priorities after my time on the 4th largest island. Now that you know that about me, you’ll understand me better. That was more of an introduction than a greeting, though, so here’s what I picked up regarding greetings.

You always greet those you encounter. If you don’t, you are sending a message that says, “You are nothing to me; you don’t exist.” At best, you’re sending a message that the other person has brutally offended you. It’s important in Madagascar and many other African nations to verbally greet your coworkers, friends, and groups you are just meeting. It sounds simple enough but do I have to do it when I’m tired, busy, or planning to talk to you later? Yes! Journey to Madagascar to compare and you’ll probably find that Americans don’t greet others nearly as consistently leaving a trail of offended locals in your wake who you didn’t even realize warranted a greeting.

Here’s why I like this: It’s simply respectful to acknowledge the people around you and it feels great to be welcomed in.

travel lesson #3

HOw is your mom, your baby, your pet lemur?

I wouldn’t have mentioned the lemur if it wasn’t a valid pet of a few folks I met. However, you probably don’t need to include the little guy in your small talk.

It’s no secret that 95% of the time you ask about someone’s family you will get either good news or no news. Life blurs together to make up the daily grind. But the only way to know the really good or tragic news is to ask. It’s an attempt at courtesy and to show that I care. It’s a reminder to focus on their needs, their daily grind, their life, rather than my own. Coming from someone who thinks about herself more often than she’d care to admit, I can always use assistance getting my mind tuned towards others. And their pet lemurs.

travel lesson #4

The right to feed your child

Now that you’ve asked how your friend’s baby is doing, you’ve noticed her clawing at her mother’s breast. She’s hungry and we can all tell exactly what she wants.Well, there is no discussion because it’s completely accepted that this mom is gonna breastfeed. It’s really nice to see moms feeding their babies. No one is side-eyeing her or handing her a cover. The rest of the room doesn’t care because everyone knows where babies get milk. Moms feed their child when the baby is hungry and life is so simple. Why do we have to make it so complicated? (It’s all simple until mom is in surgery and grandma tries to soothe baby with a wrinkled breast that hasn’t lactated in decades. Then… maybe not so simple.)

travel lesson #5

Give a speech!

“Ahem… I would like to thank you for stopping by my small piece of the world here at Provocative Joy. I am so grateful for a space to share my thoughts and experiences. Let’s pull out the champagne!” Something like this would be appropriate now that we’ve reached the end of today’s blog gathering.

I can only vouch for this cultural norm in Madagascar, but I was informed (and noticed quite often) that guests of honor, hosts, recipients of gifts, givers of gifts, and those at most occasions worth noting should give a speech. This was a way to formally honor and thank the other party, but it initiated a chain reaction requiring the other party to give a return speech. It was a great way to keep parties going longer and tire out the voices of those that like to hear themselves speak. Less sarcastically, it provided room to publicly honor and thank someone who privately honored you. It made casual affairs like birthday parties a little extra special. A family of a local worker with no means to reciprocate the kind gesture of a ship tour might give an elaborate thank you “speech” in the car on the way home. It was another way to give and receive thanks publicly that made me feel a little more grateful-hearted each time.

assimilate now. surrender later.

I’ve visited home in the U.S. and returned to the continent of Africa since picking up these lessons on my way out. What I didn’t realize until I got home was that I valued those cultural lessons and didn’t want to discard them.

When you a new culture is shoved upon you quickly, you have to incorporate certain aspects of local culture to feel like a part of it and to be respectful. However, you don’t have to adopt those acquired habits forever. You can choose to drop them the minute you leave. There are other cultural norms I discarded quickly, but when I say I’ll always carry a piece of Madagascar in my me-fiber, I think these lessons are tucked tightly away.

ruined gracefully

You never truly go back to normal after leaving a land of upside-down folks. That’s why travelers come away ruined for adventure and discovery. The transition to ruin doesn’t have to turn us into cultured snobs. Rather we can gracefully grow as a human being by seeing the creative array of characteristics present in every tribe under the sun.

Have you learned a valuable lessons from another culture that you ended up liking better than your own? Share the story in the comments below!

If you want to read more about my lessons learned while traveling with Mercy Ships, check out my experience with reverse culture shock. Or you can read my open letter to a patient who wouldn’t smile.

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16 comments on “A Travel Lesson: How To Be Ruined Gracefully”

  1. What an interesting piece. I love the part when you talk about the power of greetings. I think that in the West, people often forget to be courteous and greet people they encounter.

    • Thanks for stopping by Izabela! I’ve experienced both sides and can understand both sides. However, I just really enjoy saying hello to others and hate the way I feel when someone (accidentally) ignores me.

  2. I lived this .I think travel changes you.Always for the better.Love it hate it ,you learn something from every place you visit the people you meet.When we visited Kashmir (India)this year in June ,in some parts I saw people had difficult conversations alwats with a smile.Greeting others and asking about news us something I like doing too.It makes life interesting.Politeness and curtsy make life better.Hope you travel even more.

    • I agree the changes are always for the better. Some people say traveling ruins them, but I think it’s good to be a little ruined. It means you’ve been highly affected. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Great read. I love the perspective that travel gives. There are always so many things you wish you could bring home, and others you don’t mind leaving behind. Friendliness & warmth are great takeaways 🙂

  4. Great piece. You are a gifted writer. You should write a book! Although I have not commented on any of you posts in the past, I am keeping up with your travels and my prayers are with you and Rueben. I envy you both because you guys are doing what I dreamed of doing in my youth. My short term mission to Mexico when my boys were young was amazing. Till this day I still think about it. Three years ago I had the privilege of going to China to teach Language teachers how to teach English. It was a fulfilling and amazing experience! I loved the people and the culture and I miss it every day. I have not been away from family and friends as long as you have but I know when you go away for a mission you come back changed. You learn to appreciate everything you have. You an Rueben are a blessing to everyone far and near. God bless you!

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