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Why I Travel

The Impact of Exploring the World

Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Senior Contributing Editor

10/28/2016

Desktop globe
Desk globe. Photo by PIRO4D.

When I was a kid growing up in post-war Amsterdam, we had a small desk globe at home that would eventually lead to a lifelong traveling career. It was an era in which cars, phones, TV, and airplanes were still alien to us, and toys were few and far between, so playing tag or ring and run with my brothers was the order of those days.

But when it rained, we would gather around that globe, with radio tunes of the Glenn Miller band or Edith Piaf in the background. Taking turns, we would let the globe spin fast, then stop it with one finger and guess which country we were pointing at. If you wanted to win the game you best knew world geography.

Names like Bolivia, Mongolia, Egypt, or Greece would feed my wildest fantasies and cause me to dream away while gazing at the big world map in school instead of focusing on what was really going on. I vowed that one day I would truly make it to those lands.

Thanks to my never wavering wanderlust in the years that followed, I made many of those childhood dreams indeed come true. Although reality did not often match the fantasies, I did get to admire Mongolia’s landscapes, Bolivia’s salt plane, Nubia’s pyramids, and the ancient temples of Greece.

Mongolian landscape
Mongolian landscape.
Bolivian salt mines
Bolivia salt plain. Photo by jstarj.
Nubian pyramids in North Sudan
Nubian pyramids in North Sudan.
A temple in the Acropolis, Athens, Greece
A temple in the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. Photo by waldomiguez.

Adventure

In paddling boats near an iceberg in the Artic
In paddling boats near a spectacular iceberg in the Artic.

Multiple means of transportation added adventure to my travels: I hitchhiked through Europe when it was still relatively safe and highways did not yet exist. I drifted per icebreaker through the Arctic, on a sailing boat along remote islands of the Indonesian archipelago, and in a pirogue over Mali’s Niger River.

I traveled on camels’ backs through deserts in the Middle East, joined camping safaris in Namibia and Tanzania, trekked on foot through the mountains of Oman and Patagonia, and cycled through South Africa’s Cape and The Netherlands.

I also boarded the Trans Siberian Express, the speedy bullet trains of Japan, overloaded buses in Burkina Faso, India and Sulawesi, and 4x4s crossing the unchartered terrains of Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and China.

Sailboat in Indonesia
Aboard the Indonesian pinisi (sailboat) "Matahariku" along the coast of West Papua and remote islands of the Indonesian archipelago.
Pirogues in Mali
Pirogue boats in Mali.
Camping in a tent in Namibia
Camping in a tent in Namibia.
Trekking through the hills of Oman
Trekking through the rocky hills of Oman.
Hiking through Patagonia, Argentina
Hiking through Patagonia, Argentina, I saw dramatic mountain views.
Cycling through South Africa
I cycled through South Africa.
Driving in a 4x4 in Mongolia
At times, I would drive in a 4x4 in Mongolia.
Driving in a 4x4 in Mongolia
In Mauritania, I took a 4x4 through the desert.
Bullet trains in Japan
I sometimes traveled by bullet trains in Japan.

Life Lessons

And yet, watching natural and man-made wonders, and getting there in so many adventurous ways, proved to be but a fraction of the wonder of traveling as a whole.

Atacama desert in Northern Chile
Atacama desert in Northern Chile.

Once I regularly trotted around the globe, it dawned on me that my journeys were not so much about myself, the great photographs and cool stories I could bring home, but more importantly, about the people I meet and with whom I break bread.

I started listening better, watching more carefully, reaching out to locals more often, and something slowly shifted: I stopped comparing and seeing my own country, the customs in which I had grown up, and my own self as the center of the universe, and began to appreciate people in their own right. The great French author Marcel Proust remarked already a century ago: “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

When I listened to stories about survival in barren winters by Mongolian herders or Greenland’s fishermen, witnessed the joy and excitement of a small Malian community huddled around a crackling TV to watch Obama’s inauguration, received a warm and unconditional welcome in one of Myanmar’s bush villages or in a favela in Rio, or met little veiled Yemeni girls fetching water or herding goats instead of playing with peers and going to school, a myriad of new worlds would open up to me.

Visiting nomads and their ger, Mongolia
Visiting nomads and their ger, Mongolia.
Local men relaxing in a fishing village in Greenland
Local men relaxing in a fishing village in Greenland.
Little boy in Burkino Faso
Little boy greeting me at a traditional dwelling in Burkina Faso.
Girl in market in Mali
Girl at a market in Mali.
Children in a village in Myanmar
Curious children in a village in Myanmar.
Giggling girls in the Gambia
Giggling girls in the Gambia.
Girl in Yemen
Girl in Yemen.
Yi woman in China
Yi woman in China.
Girl in Mongolia pets a sheep
Girl in Mongolia pets a sheep, just minutes before the shearing.

Staying among people from those many different worlds has utterly moved and humbled me. It has made me value what I have on my own turf, and realize how immensely privileged we really are in our free societies. But it has also made me more aware of how spoiled we can be, how much we can take our riches for granted, how little we seem to care about the other 80% of the world, and how wrapped up we can get in our own rat race and pettiness.

Understanding people in their own context and seeing the world through their lenses has become an invaluable life lesson for me, not only in my private life, but also in my practice working with people from all corners of the world in the multicultural city where I currently live.

Equally valuable have been other, more practical skills, acquired or improved along the way: communication and people skills, confidence, independence; dealing with fear of the unknown and doing it anyway; going it alone; making myself understood in foreign languages; rolling with whatever challenges are coming my way; pitching and breaking down tents; navigating airports and bus terminals; being street-smart and practicing caution; packing lightly and efficiently; budgeting and making ends meet; learning about photography and foreign foods. Traveling generates empowerment, inspiration, and perpetual learning.

Home Stays

If time permits, I stay in one place for quite some time, and try to live a slice of local life. I frequent shops, markets, and caf├ęs. I partake in activities where I can meet locals.

A typical coffee stall in Istanbul
A typical coffee stall in Istanbul.
Restaurant in Berline
A restaurant in a restored courtyard in Mitte, a neighborhood in Berlin full of places to enjoy foods with locals from many regions of the world.

Sometimes I get invited into their homes, which is a great way to get a feel for their beliefs, what makes them tick, what kind of birth, courting, wedding, and funeral practices they adhere to, how they make a living and raise their children, what major sports they play, how they eat, or how they see the world. Despite the differences, we still have a lot in common in terms of hopes, dreams, needs, and fears, and I often find confirmation that there is inherent goodness in most people around the globe.

Home stays and airbnbs suit me well. I research prospective homes for hospitality, cleanliness, location, and carefully read the accompanying reviews. Only a very small percentage of hosts turn out to be solely driven by profit; the majority gladly open their homes to meet foreigners. Some have also opened their kitchen or their heart, and have not only become lasting memories, but also lasting friends. Now, that’s what I call added value!

Garden apartment rental in Amsterdam
Garden apartment rental in Amsterdam.
Inside a ger in Mongolia
Inside a ger in Mongolia.

Food

Cheese shop in Paris, France
A typical fromagerie (cheese shop) in Paris.

Sharing food is not only a wonderful social activity and a great pastime — especially when you are a foodie, but it also provides insight into people’s lives. In Mauritania I once attended a family dinner with my feet wrapped in plastic bags, after the ladies of the house had carefully painted them with henna during the welcome ceremony. Seated in a circle on the floor, we all ate from one pot, each digging in with our hands. During meals in Japan and Indonesia, on the other hand, every person had an innumerable amount of little bowls and plates for oneself. The one thing I have never witnessed abroad: eating in front of a TV with a plate on one’s lap, all the while communicating with each other via the screen in front.

Traveling makes you appreciate the many different cuisines you pass through, whether you experience them through a food tour, a cooking class, a restaurant, a market, or your host’s kitchen. Daily staples can be rice, pasta, couscous or ugali. Vegetables can be the main stay or remain completely absent. It can be an impressive meal with all the bells and whistles, or a very simple one but coming from the heart.

Whether you are in a developed or developing country does actually not say very much about the quality of the food. Recent studies have pointed out that Mali, Senegal, Chad, and Sierra Leone are among the countries with the healthiest diets, and that Belgium, Hungary and the U.S. score lowest!

Cheese shop in Paris, France
A meal in Japan where each person has their own bowls and utensils.
A shared meal in Yunnan, China
A shared meal in Yunnan, China.
Meal in Cyprus
Fakes moutjentra in Cyprus: a delicious rice, lentils, and caramelized onions dish, simmered in vegetable broth.
Cag kebap from street vendor in Istanbul
A cag kebap carved to eat by a street vendor in Istanbul.
Tunisian tajine
A Tunisian version of a tajine.
Meal in Cyprus
Making a meal at a cooking school in Kuala Lumpur.

Recharging Batteries

I would lie if my trips abroad do not also serve as an opportunity to replenish my energy and escape the long Canadian winters. I am passionate about my work as a therapist, but it certainly is a demanding job. After traveling abroad for some time, tasting the freedom of going anywhere I want and living in my own pace in the here and now, I can happily look forward to seeing old and new clients again.

Breaking habits and routines keeps me convinced that life should not only be about work. There is so much more to live for than that busy, fast-paced life in which we too often take pride. Traveling teaches me to slow down and unplug, to become aware of what really matters and to appreciate the smaller things of life that can often be so meaningful.

Perspectives can change during a journey. For instance, what seems too much routine before I take off can miraculously become pleasant and soothing upon return. A quote of British novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer reads: “we travel, initially, to lose ourselves; we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

I have come a long way since my initial fascination with that small desk globe way back when, not only in miles, but also in personal development. And yet, so much still remains to be discovered!

“I have not been everywhere,” writer and activist Susan Sontag once said, “but it is on my list!” As for my own list, my travel bug does not seem to go away any time soon, so my bags will be packed again shortly.

Man on sand dune
Onward to another destination...

Lies Ouwerkerk is originally from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and currently lives in Montreal, Canada. Previously a columnist for The Sherbrooke Record, she is presently a freelance writer and photographer for various travel magazines.

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Adventure Travel
Cultural Travel
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