In volume 1 of this series, I wrote about my dislike of travel, but my love of being fascinated. Another reason I travel, despite swollen ankles and blown eardrums when I fly, is because even as a 45-year-old woman who has a successful career, two kids, and is relatively well read and well-traveled, I still learn something about myself on nearly every trip.
When I was 21, I bungee jumped out of a cable car from 400 feet in the Swiss Alps. I’ve never been much of a risk taker, but that day, I learned that I could be: I just might have to modify and customize the risk. The friend who was supposed to jump before me looked down and chickened out. My turn. In a split second, I decided that I didn’t want to take the chance of looking down and getting scared, so I fell backwards. It was amazing. That experience, with some spin on how it could translate into the workplace, got me through my first few job interviews.
In my early 30’s, it was through travel, mostly domestic, that I discovered what kinds of things triggered anxiety for me. I learned to book flights and arrange lodging and ground transportation in such a way so as to avoid the triggers. In my late 30’s, I learned, in part through travel, that I am an introvert and need some alone time to recharge. When traveling for work, I am typically hosted by an international office at a partner university. In some cultures, the importance of hospitality can extend late into the night. So, after eight hours of meetings, you might spend another six or more hours of dining and socializing with colleagues. I learned two things in this period. First, I can do it if I have to. Second, it’s okay to ask to have downtime scheduled. This also helps me when hosting colleagues at my home institution. I try to remember to ask how much downtime they would like scheduled.
In my 40’s, despite extensive travel, including leading large groups of students abroad, and traveling with my own two wild children, I still find myself in situations where I have to solve a travel related problem in an unfamiliar context. Very recently, I was in China, alone – my colleagues who were supposed to join me didn’t make it because of mechanical problems on their flight. My hosts arranged for a driver to take me to the Great Wall. She said he would pick me up at 3:00. At 1:15 as I sat in my hotel room eager to check emails and rest my feet, the phone rings. It’s the driver, he’s here. When we arrived at the Great Wall, I assumed he would join me, but instead, he ushered me through the gate, and in broken English said “I will wait for you” and then he was gone. I had no idea how long he expected me to be, and I didn’t have his contact number. I walked partway up some very steep stairs, took some pictures and headed back down to the entrance. He wasn’t there. A guard who did not speak English (mind you, I have only one word of Chinese – Xie Xie means thank you) somehow communicated to me that I should go to parking lot number four. So, back up the steep stairs I went, bought a few souvenirs and a coke and finally found parking lot number 4. The driver was not there. I waited for quite some time. I tried to pull up the phone number of my host, but did not have adequate internet coverage. There was a time in my life when this scenario would have led to a full-blown panic attack. Instead, I found a spot of shade and a ledge to sit on and drank my coke. I finally remembered that I had the phone number of the young woman who had picked me up from the airport. She was able to connect me with the driver, and a crisis was averted.
Some of the ability to stay calm in that situation comes with age, experience, and raising kids, but another bit comes from traveling and having to navigate unfamiliar circumstances and solve problems with limited resources. So, while I hate to travel, I do it because I love learning new things about myself and finding courage, organizational skills, patience, and problem-solving abilities that I didn’t know I had.