I am not going to sing the praises of nature, as if a walk in the woods can fix all your problems. The woods are not medicine. I am not going to tell you that being alone in the woods makes it easier to think, because it doesn’t. And I’m not going to tell you that hiking alone is fun, because I would be lying.
It is hard.
It is hard when you pull yourself over what you thought for sure was the top of the mountain, only to see you still have ages to go.
It is hard when you forget water, or bug spray, or first aid, and you feel stupid and a little scared.
It is hard when you make a wrong turn and suddenly the woods get darker and you feel very, very alone, and you wonder how the hell you ended up where you are.
It is hard when you fall, whether you hurt yourself or your pride, and it is hard when you feel alone.
It is hard, and lonely, and it can be terrifying.
We don’t always do things to be fun, or easy, or for them to make us happy. Sometimes it’s not about having a happy walk in the woods, seeing wildflowers or playing in rivers.
Sometimes it’s more important to fall, and get lost, and make mistakes.
It’s worth it in the moment you pull yourself up again, and brush off the dirt. It’s worth it when you clean out and bandage your own cut, and when you pull out a compass you’ve never had to use before and figure it out.
And it’s worth it when you get to the place you wanted to go, simply because you did it yourself, and it wasn’t easy. You earned your final destination, and every moment in between.
No, it’s not easy, and it’s not fun, and sometimes it fucking sucks. It makes you feel small, and insignificant, and utterly at the mercy of nature. But it can also make you feel strong.
About a year ago, I left for a study abroad that would take me to Ireland, England and Wales. And I had a good time, I really did. But was it life changing? Eye-opening? Am I suddenly cultured? No. Studying abroad for three weeks in countries that spoke my language did not drastically change my world view, but it was still a growing experience.
I traveled with a group of 11 girls I had never met before, so my experience was more interpersonal than it was cultural, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing.
So if I wouldn’t describe it as “eye-opening” or “life changing”, what all did I learn?
There is no one right way to travel
I personally like to travel quickly, efficiently, and always be early.Some people would rather soak up the experience of everything. Neither way is necessarily wrong, but travel with people who travel like you. If you don’t, you will end up either waiting around for people or feeling rushed.
Not everyone is going to like you
On one level, I knew before this study abroad that people aren’t always going to like you. On another level, I didn’t really expect people to dislike me when I was trying so hard to be liked.
The thing about traveling with a group of 19-21-year-old females, is someone is going to be the mean girl. Sometimes, more than one person is going to be the mean girl. And when you’re travelling in close quarters for three weeks, it’s going to be even harder to get along.
So while at first it bothered me when one girl decided that I was the B-word for being chronically early (no, that is not an exaggeration), and it bothered me when another girl didn’t like the way I asked her to clean the dishes that she had left in the sink for three days because we were literally out of dishes (also not an exaggeration), I eventually shrugged it off. I would rather have clean dishes than be liked by mean people anyway (this is an exaggeration. I would rather be liked).
Sometimes people are just mean
On a similar note, some people are just mean. Sometimes, you meet someone who you really can’t get along with, who really will yell at you for getting in her way, and who will say nasty things about you just for the sport of it. And sometimes you will have to sit next to them on a 7-hour flight and be nice even when they elbow you all 7 hours. Some people are like that.
A three-week study abroad might not be the best way to experience culture
I was really hoping to leave the British Isles with some deep understanding of how things work there, and some wild experience that made me feel cultured. Instead, I got interpersonal experience that I wasn’t expecting. I lived and traveled with a girl who was messy and rude, and did not care what her roommates thought. I lived and traveled with a girl so far removed from the world I understood that I could not possibly relate, and another girl who insisted that she tell us all how to travel, and even how to walk down a street. I lived and traveled with another girl who became one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t trade the bonding experience we had for the world.
My original goal of learning about a culture that wasn’t my own wasn’t necessarily accomplished, but I got a different sort of cultural experience that I would argue is just as valuable.
Reading will enhance your experience
It just will. Researching a place before visiting sounds like a lot of work, but you will get so much more out of seeing a place of significance if you understand its significance and know its stories.
For example, when we visited the Sherlock Holmes museum, I didn’t really get much out of it, because I don’t read Sherlock Holmes. But the historical places, Newgrange passage tomb, the Tower of London, Ireland’s Museum of Archeology, meant a lot more to me, because I had read both the history of the places and countries I was in, and a lot of the folklore. Because I had done this research, I wanted to see these places, not just because they were pretty or interesting, but because I understood what they meant.
Travel isn’t scary
I remember getting up at 7am to catch a 3pm flight at the beginning of this trip, and being insanely nervous about navigating the airport. By the end of the trip, I took a ferry and two planes in the course of 36 hours, and then had a 27-hour flight delay in JFK. Sure, I was stressed and sleep deprived, but not scared. Because whether you’ve missed a train or been stuck on the Atlanta tarmac for 3 hours in June, the situation can almost always be resolved.
You accommodate the culture you are visiting; not the other way around
This is something that I wouldn’t have thought really needed iteration, but one of the things I saw repeatedly from a few of my peers was an expectation that things would be done the way they are in America because it is the “best way”.
First of all, never say that the way things are done in your home country are better than they are in the country you are in. That is obscenely rude. Second, especially don’t do it if you are an American. Especially an American in London. Like, holy shit.
Moreover, the way things are done in your home country are not, without exception, the best way. I listened to two of my peers complain about not being able to use business’s trash cans in Europe despite having not bought anything from the business. While these two idiots complained loudly, as Americans do, we got the evil eye from like forty people before I quietly explained to them that trash bags here are more expensive to encourage recycling, so businesses can’t afford to just take their trash.
Which shut them up for about half a second before they loudly began discussing how the Euro is stronger than the Pound. Which is wrong.
You don’t have to always tag along
One of the things about living with a group of people somewhere new is that there will always be something fun and new going on, and you will want to be involved. I learned pretty quickly that sometimes it is better to get some rest and alone time than to rush out to the third or fourth sight of the day, and people won’t hate you for passing every now and then.
Your dream experience is not that important
Everyone has this vision of what their study abroad, or even vacation, should be, but achieving this vision is not more important than being courteous.
I cannot count how many times, on this trip alone, I heard someone say “well it’s a once in a lifetime chance,” before doing something inconsiderate or downright mean.
When a group I was traveling with left me alone for a half an hour somewhere in the middle of the Tower of London I was told by one girl upon their return that she couldn’t pass up a once in a lifetime chance to see the crown jewels by waiting 20 seconds for me to return from the bathroom (not exaggerating).
When the girl who made our entire tour bus late at the Cliffs of Moher finally boarded a full bus she shrugged and told us how buying that Guinness pint glass was a once in a lifetime experience (it wasn’t). Meanwhile, someone across the aisle of the bus muttered “Americans” under his breath.
So no, you’re “right” to a once in a lifetime experience doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Just don’t do it.
Studying abroad is expensive
Another thing worth mentioning– this kind of program, a faculty led, country hopping, study abroad, can be really expensive, and I personally don’t think I would do this again. Traveling independently and doing your own research will be a lot cheaper, and you aren’t bound to a class itinerary.
On the other hand, there absolutely are scholarships available for this kind of program, and there are a lot of them– several of the girls on my trip were able to cut the program cost down by 75%. Talk to your advisor, talk to your schools Office of Study Abroad, and look and see if your school has a Student Travel Association. All of these people/resources should be able to help you find scholarships and get discounted flights.
So is a study abroad right for you?
I can’t really answer that. I think for me, at that time, this study abroad was probably the right introduction to travel. But for other people, who are looking to have a little more autonomy than travel training wheels, I would recommend direct enrolling in a foreign university for a full semester, or traveling with a small group.