Friday, February 17, 2017

10 Things I learned over 10 years Overseas.

Around this time marks a decade since I started traveling the world. While I been back home on a few occasions since then, most of my time has been overseas. Words and pictures simply cannot explain what I saw, done, tasted or felt. It has been, to put it simply: a life changing experience and eye opening journey. 

It might sound cliché, but I learned more about myself than I did about the world.

Where the heck I'm am going ?
While few would have been able to be away for such an extended period, most would surely benefit. Simple things like stability, planning ahead and comfort were very much compromised. I was fortunate to meet very helpful individuals along the way and given unique opportunities.

But with the good, came the bad. And I can tell you, that coming from a very good country, does have its downsides. Where often, knowing or saying “what’s better” or doing “the right thing”, as well to being honest, can actually turn you into a foe pretty quickly.

From Africa, through Europe and into Asia.  I made some friends and met many more, some of which I will be in touch forever, or see in the future, some probably not, and other I surely hope I won’t ever cross again.

The Verdana Crew.

Fast athletes during a spring training camp in Thailand.

Bali friends and athletes.

The classic video-ke fun, with the mandatory too much food and lots of drinks !

It's important for me to recognize that TRIATHLON was the vessel for this trip. It was the main reason why I went here, there, and somewhere. Without the sport, I would not have been compelled to travel so much, for so long!

1) I’m Very Lucky to be Canadian

Fortunately, growing up I had many options to be what I wanted to be in life. Freedom, food in the fridge, medicine when I got sick, pointless toys, a safe environment, and clean water I can drink from the tap. All these “normal things" to me, were in fact luxuries to the majority of the world.

In Montreal.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to interact with kids of all races, religion, and ethnicities.  Canada’s population is a multi-cultural mosaic. I had friends from Gabon, Haiti, Lebanon, Romania, Cambodia, ect. This opened my mind from a young age and allowed me to understand cultural differences. This is not the case for most and it's easy to tell.

Being as middle class as it gets, I was well aware that many kids had bigger houses, had a new bike each year, better clothing, ect. But I knew and been in the “bad parts” of town, where the low-income housing was.

In school, we all went into the same classroom, play sports together and talked at recess. This exposure to diversity allowed me to understand that we are all equal after all. Our parents and close friends have a greater impact on our character as we grow up.

Nobody “just is” a certain way. But rather, the sum of our experiences. And the decisions we take or don’t take ultimately defines us.

2) The True Value of a Money

I funded the start of my trip by working for 7 months on a drilling rig, I saved up all my earnings and then off I went, on a one-way ticket to Nairobi, Kenya. This was, by far the biggest shock and most important lesson in appreciation.

North of lattude 60.
I learned to live small, buy only the necessity’s and live with the least. While I did have money per say, it would have been regretful to splurge on myself, while those around me barely had the basics to live. Even the animals were starving. The lack of resources, chaos, and desperation, was very palatable.

Training at 8000 feet.
Over time, I spent money sparsely and conservatively, to stretch my funds out as far as possible. My goal was to make it as a pro triathlete. Over time, I joined a pro team, got sponsors, sold random things and eventually got into coaching.

Being resourceful, disciplined and shrewd with my little bits of money allowed me to extend my trip. I did find myself in few tight situations, but always managed my way through it. While it was indeed hard to live without some things and live in less than ideal conditions, it did allow me to value and cherish what I did have, or should I say, did earn.

3) The Needs and the don’t needs

This was a major realization. Not so much in general, but from a personal side. I saw how some locals made the most out of the least. Stretched out possessions far beyond their shelf-life, fix it and keep using it or simply go without.

It has become clear, what in my life, is a luxury? Versus what is a necessity? What I can go without for long periods, and what I NEED.

What is essential to me? A regular shower, and brushing my teeth. The security of money in my pocket and the internet. Plenty of clean drinking water and quiet time is also very important.

I learned that I don’t need to talk to people every day. I learned that I can live without “tasty” foods. I learned I don’t need new things if it’s not broken. I learned to be content with a basic living space. I learned to appreciate the things that are extra. I learned to not worry too much about my appearance.

But by far, my biggest "need" is daily activity!

A North American yoga session at Mount Hallasan !
Over time, I started to give stuff away, whatever I did not need, old shoes, race t-shirts, canned food I bought in bulk, ect. Many of the items were unused or unique in those areas. Those on the receiving end where typically pool attendants, gym employees, gardeners, drivers, maintenance workers, and more.

Doing this, gave me a sense of freedom. The less stuff you have, the fewer things to need to think or care for.

4) Solo Travelers Carry a Stigma

Traveling alone is not for everybody. I did some very long stretches alone, with my own thoughts. It takes a certain type of personality. It’s harder to approach strangers - strangers do find it easier to approach you. You are also more vulnerable to dishonest people and at the mercy of your own decisions – you can’t deliberate your decisions with somebody who knows or can relate to you.

On many occasions, I was given a strange reaction when I told people I was alone. While they did not say anything, I could tell that they thought that I must have been a bit strange, not very sociable, a loaner or in some cases, a creep.

There are a lot of strange solo foreigners, who have given those behind them, a bad reputation, for various reasons.

With that said, the other solo travelers that I have met for the better part, are some of the most interested, open-hearted and clear thinking individuals on earth. Strong minds and genuine characters.

Borneo Island.
But of course, especially at immigration to get VISA extensions, I did meet some of the weirdest people on earth…

5) Food and People are Defined by Their Environment

I grew up eating potatoes and meat. Not because it’s the best food, simply because it’s what grows on our land and in the given climate. Over my travels, I ate some pretty strange food and also found myself thinking, why do they eat that, like this?

Nasi goreng, one of my favorite Asian dishes.
It took some time, but I did realize, they are simply at the mercy of their land and the cuisine evolved, according to the climate.

Lots of countries had to deal with the absence of refrigerators, up until just a few decades ago. So that explains why some meals are heavily salted, oiled, spiced or bathed in vinegar, so it doesn’t spoil while at room temperature for a few days.

An authentic Pinoy dinner spread - Mark we are taking pictures AGAIN !
This fact, also affects the locals attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses. In North America and Europe, for 100’s and 1000’s of years, we had to build STRONG shelters, accumulate crops and have winter clothing ready for the cold months.

This, allowed Westerners to develop a greater capacity for critical thinking and planning. This is still very apparent today.

While those who live in tropical countries, have it much easier. Oceans filled with fish, fresh fruits that fall from the tree’s when they are ripped and very little need to have a strong shelter unless there is some heavy rain coming. Even then, the bad weather never really last’s long and it never gets FEEEEZING cold.

This fact, no matter how you take it, made those people from tropical countries, a little lazier and softer, by the nature of their environment.

6) Poverty of Mind is THE Major Problem

One of the greatest tragedies I encountered when interacting with underprivileged people is their mindset. Of course, there are some outliers, but the common denominator is very much the same.

There seems to be this “handout mentality" that only thinks short terms and with a “can I have” outlook. A clear lack of discipline and very self-righteous in their behavior, especially when breaching minor regulations. I strongly believe, that given lots of funds, resources and opportunities, most would simply end up back to square 1, given their attitudes.

Outreach at barangay Loma.
It’s hard to explain. Somewhat of a stubborn and oblivious manner to stick to their ways, no matter how inefficient, unproductive or self-destructive. The lack of awareness and carelessness is mind-boggling. Seems like no-body ever said anything, or tried to show them a better way.

I guess it’s something that is ingrained in their heads while growing up. There is no such thing as optimal or better. “It's the way we do things here - accept or leave”. The wiliness to evolve is simply lacking. There are lots of 3rd world mentalities, in 1st world facilities.

The worst is those fed by the “plastic spoon” which is differently-the-same to being fed with a “silver spoon”. I saw first hand, that some parents, no matter how poor, feel the need to do everything for their kids because they can't afford a good life. In turn, it renders them dependent and incapable of doing simple tasks for themselves or just think clearly about things.

I can feel very lucky, that I was forced to do many chores and gain independence from a young age. While I did not like it back then, now I understand, how I might have turned out, if everything was done for me. 

7) Reading People

Interacting with those who speak your language is not always easy and simple. What they really mean, how they say things or what they felt when you say what you think, can be the difference between understanding and miss-understanding.

So when you travel to countries where you don’t speak the language, or can’t even read the caricatures on the signs, you need to start reading people's body language, tone, hand gestures and facial expressions.

I tend to start by observing those who I need to approach. I check out their demeanor, how they might be interacting with those around them, and of course, their eyes. With this alone, I can tell what type of person they might be, and what’s the best way to initiate the conversation.

With practice, I can move forward with the right mindset and correct assertiveness. Depending if they are “happy people” or “angry people” or easily distracted people. It can make a big difference for sure. It’s all about adjusting to them.

Because you know you can’t rely on the precision or smoothness of your words. And then, of course, some people, I just don’t talk too. Because they simply have a bad vibe, from a few meters away…

Working from my computer in Santorini - touristy places are key areas to stay vigilant !

8) This is NOT Your Turf

As the quote goes: “When in Rome, act like a Roman” can be far from good advice. While it’s of course, important to respect local customs, assimilate yourself as much as you can and not think/act too much like back home. Behaving like locals, especially when it comes to regulations, can really put you in a bad situation. Selective law enforcement is a real issue in some places.

Some petty and irrelevant rules can be strictly enforced, while major and very important rules are just a free for all or. To put it bluntly: SURVIVAL OF THE STRONGEST!!!

As a foreigner, I quickly learned that local authorities will happily pick on you for no reason. It’s like 50 shades of gray. It just depends on who you fall on at that place and time, as well to their current mood.

I learned to constantly be aware, especially when I go somewhere new. Make sure I have options. No matter if it’s having extra cash, demanding receipts, recording everything, show up early, have a plan B and C, or what I need clearly written on paper, so I there's no chance of being fooled or a mistake.

In the end, how I presented myself also made a huge impact. I learned to make sure I looked clean and tidy. But also never look too good or wealthy.

The organized chaos on the roads of Ho Chi Minh City.
Being a little too organized can also lead to problems with high expectations. Going with the flow, has been key.

9) Life is Unfair for the Majority

I have strange feelings and thoughts when I see on the media all these first world citizens making a big fuss when demanding equality and all these rights. Because most of those people have the basics: a safe place to sleep, food and some cash in their pocket.

Approximately 75% of the world don’t even have all those simple things. But who cares, WE PROTEST BECAUSE WE WANT A PERFECT SYSTEM!

In Canada, poor people are usually those with addictions, come from very violent/broken families, or have mental illnesses, as well to possibly former criminals.

But in 3rd world countries, most of the poor people are poor, just because their families are not prestigious or own large land or big companies. Wealthy people, and even the small middle class, just don’t care. They spend lavishly on themselves, waste food and live a life that would be considered excessive in a G8 country.

Near Sta Rosa, Laguna in The Philippines.
Many well-educated folks still think that GIVING PEOPLE FISH is okay, and fail to TEACH THEM HOW TO FISH.

A truly unique guy, of which I have learned a lot from!
This clear line, between social classes, are defined to kids at a very early age. It’s why I feel so many wealthy kids grow up slow, pampered and generally naïve. 

There are a lot of rich countries, full of poor people out there. It’s so sad…The corruption from the top all the way to bottom is alarming. Those who are taking advantage of modern day slavery, with very low labor costs, when they can afford to pay more, are simply keeping the cycle and repression in stride.

10) Interacting with Locals

I can honestly say that the world is full of good, honest and helpful people. Approached the right way, even the poorest will offer some help, or be kind and generous.

With locals up Mount Rinjani.
HOWEVER, when people are in groups, it seems like this is very rare. One-on-one, most people of any country/race/belief, are logical, friendly, and rational. In a group, no matter where, they are often arrogant, loud, cruel, closed-minded, and possibly immature.

Pretty quickly, you learn which locals are proud of their own, which are not. It tells me right away, who’s genuine and realistic, versus those who are delusional or full of themselves.

It really depends, on how the criticism is verbalized. I have great respect for those who can give objective assessments followed by a solution. But little tolerance for anybody who points out the bad, without any idea on how to make things better.

Similar with praise. There is a big difference between the self-praise of the privileged, versus the humble efforts and sacrifices, of day-to-day working class.

It’s all about morals, values and a vision for the way forward.


Anyway, it has been a great life experience. No classroom or book could have educated or informed me on the things I saw or had to adapt to. It’s all about capability and adjusting. Forget about how things are back home and just take the advantages, in stride, just like the disadvantages.

The more of the world you see, the more you realize how much you have not seen. Everybody can teach you something new or knows something you don't. Everybody has a funny or interesting story to share. And most have a skill they can do greatly.

Anyway, my time overseas will eventually come to an end. Canada is a great place after all. I’d be happy to put some idea’s to work back home.

It felt like some parts of the world, have so much depth of culture and heritage. All expressed in a very subtle and authentic manner!

Fun in the Dubai Desert!

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