You may have heard the adage that traveling is like getting a second education. It's an education outside the classroom, nontypical and nontraditional. Whether or not you've heard it before, it is an education you can cherish for the rest of your life, and you may not even realize it.
Why listen to me? No, I am not a world traveler. I have not been to 6 continents and over 100 countries. I have, though, lived abroad. And I have lived abroad alone. Being a tourist with a group of friends is one thing. You can see the sights and eat the food, and have familiar faces in difficult times. But the experience of backpacking for a month or two and actually calling the place home for 1+ years is very different. When you live, you feel. You experience the full year of holidays, of the seasons, how the smells and vegetation changes. You feel the tides of the environment and become part of that place. No, this doesn't mean you necessarily learn anything. But it helps you to understand. And understanding is growth. That word, 'growth,' is the education.
I lived in Thailand for 3 years while I taught English in a small, mountainous town in the North. I have also lived in China for 1.5 years in a small city in the middle of the desert in Northern China. What was special about these two places was that they existed outside the beaten path. I felt almost resentful of Western civilization when I traveled to the hotspots- Tokyo, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh etc... Even rampaging around Bangkok, there's a ceaseless reminder that we are in the modern world. I would always say to myself- "If I wanted to eat hamburgers, drink scotch, and speak English with other Americans, I might have well stayed home."
Living rurally and living year round means you are inundated with that culture. You either learn how to use body language and look like a silly baboon (which was fun at times) or you learn the language, English simply isn't an option. You either learn to try new foods that you otherwise wouldn't even look at (pigs intestines, boiled sheep feet, to name a few), or you find some place that sells fried chicken and eat that every day (what an experience!). You either find some way to find the washing machine building in town, or find someone to do it for you. You either make yourself uncomfortable, and grow as a person, or you don't.
As I mentioned before, the "second education" part comes from personal growth. It's not about learning a new language or seeing beautiful temples, or trying new food. It is about pushing yourself to overcome challenge after challenge. Living abroad, and alone, may not be especially difficult in itself for some. But that minor struggle to be able to do laundry, that "how the heck do I open a bank account when no one speaks English," that question of whether or not you may be eating dog, and the painful memory of getting a flat tire in the mountains all become, after time, amazing memories. They become stones of strength you can always lean on when doubt begins to seep into your thought process. After a while you begin to think, "Well if I could get that flat tire fixed back in Thailand, then fixing my car on the side of a Pennsylvania highway is kids play."
But that's not it. In these times especially, people are entombing themselves more and more in a bubble. Even with the wide range of people, cultures, and human experiences that you can find online, people (especially Americans, I'll admit from my experience), are too comfortable to step outside the cozy little world that they're used to. Honestly, there's nothing inherently wrong with liking comfort. But as I said before, traveling= growth. It made me cringe when returning to America to hear people with 3 car garages complain that they aren't being given the due they deserve in this country. They're angry and they expect a lot out of life. Travel. Maybe you will see how happy people can be happy with much, much less. The picture remains in my head of my students continuously laughing as they ate their simple bowl of noodles with their dirty clothes day after day.
And if you're getting the sense that I have soured towards the American way of life, it's the complete opposite! Though I acknowledge that there are aspects of other cultures that resonate with me more, never before have I felt so thankful to have clean clothes, and be able to eat in restaurants and order pizza and wings, not 50 cent noodle bowls day after day. America has given me the opportunity to do everything that I have done. And for that, I am deeply thankful.
When you challenge yourself, you overcome (as long as you don't give up). Difficulties and problems become opportunities. You learn how to be confident, how to understand others, how to eliminate obstacles, and how to be thankful for what you have. This is how you grow into the person you're meant to be and the you of your fullest potential. This is the second education that you cannot buy from a school and that cannot be printed on paper. I urge everyone, whether its Europe, or Africa, or Asia, or another US state- go travel, explore, struggle, learn, and grow.