It was just a typical day at the office.
I worked at a national travel magazine, and I was making the finishing touches on a couple of articles I was writing—one on how to pick the best African safari for your buck, and another on how to see the iconic pyramids of Egypt. Even though both trips were on my bucket list, I hadn’t actually accomplished either one of them. I realized the irony of this fact, and I began to feel like a fraud.
So I turned in my drafts to my editor, walked out into the brisk New York night, and realized at that moment that I was no longer able to report from my desk and advise readers to do something that I’d never experienced myself.
So I quit my job, stashed my goods in a small storage unit, and decided to travel the entire year of 2011 while volunteering in exchange for meals and lodging called, appropriately, “work exchange.” Through three websites (wwoof.org, helpx.net, workaway.info).
I arranged one assignment per month without paying a dime to my hosts, but rather earned my way by rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty at whatever they considered to be their trade.
I suddenly found myself working as a black-pearl diver in French Polynesia
, a nomadic sheepherder in Austria, a Jeep and camel tour guide with the Bedouin in Jordan, an English teacher to Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal, an organic farmer at an ashram in India, a ranch hand at an aboriginal cattle station in Australia, a music teacher to Roma (gypsy) children in Romania, a shaman’s apprentice at a healing center in Peru, and much more. Talk about being thrown into the deep end! But each assignment helped me see the world in a most fascinating way that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise.
When my adventure was drawing to a close, and while I was sitting on a plane headed back to the States, I contemplated the many lessons I learned from each amazing host that I now have the privilege to call a friend. I’ve listed my thoughts below, and look forward to the additional lessons I’m sure I’ll learn in my lifetime, because there’s never a better education than the one you receive from travel. Here’s to creating many more bucket-list items and checking off every single last one of them!
What did I learn?
1. Before judging other cultures, consider whether you’re holding them to a higher standard than your own culture.
2. Open your eyes as widely back home as you do abroad, and you’ll observe just how beautiful your country really is.
3. Try to remain objective when you talk to others about your nation’s politics, stereotypes, and negatives. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
4. Be happy with the possessions you have. I’ve observed a West African boy playing happier with a homemade stick car than I’ve seen most other kids playing with their expensive gadgets.
5. Take time for friends and family. Work will wait. Life won’t. Take a siesta as needed.
6. There’s some good and bad in each country. Try to adopt the positive traits, and try to forget the negative.
7. Enjoy a good meal. I mean really enjoy a good meal. Close your eyes. Chew slower. Savor the exotic flavors. Then purchase the same ingredients to recreate the experience back home.
8. Try not to get offended if you think that you’ve been slighted abroad. You’ll never know how many times a good intention was lost in translation.
9. Take a trip to your country’s natural wonders and famous attractions as much as you do abroad, and you’ll find that you’ll see your home in a much different light.
10. Appreciate the conveniences back home rather than taking them for granted. Don’t assume that your way is the right way of doing things. Somewhere, someone on earth has been sitting on a woven basket all day on the side of a jungle road and hoping to hitch a ride to civilization. You might find that this person is you someday.
11. You’ll become equally inspired and equally disappointed by the people that you meet abroad. Pay heed to the inspiring ones, and learn from the mistakes of the disappointing ones. Be sure that the disappointing person doesn’t turn out to be you.
12. When you head back to your own nation, try not to fall back into the same old habits that you broke while traveling. Don’t forget how much you can live without, and how happy the simple life might actually make you.
13. Adapt to how other people live. This has led me to eat meat as a vegetarian, use a pit for a toilet, a bucket for a shower, and dress completely covered from head to toe in searing heat. It wasn’t comfortable, but if I had wanted comfort, I would have stayed home.
14. No matter how difficult the transportation, how aggressive the market vendors, how tainted the food, or how unhygienic the living conditions, you’ll discover something awe-inspiring each time you persevere and open yourself up to new experiences.
15. If you don’t like being stereotyped, be careful not to make the same mistake yourself.
16. Be respectful while photographing others. Locals may seem exotic to you, but to them, you might be intruding on their home and their life by pointing your lens in their direction. They’re not a souvenir to capture, they’re human beings.
17. Whether you like it or not, you’ll be acting as an ambassador for your country each time you interact with others abroad. Make your country proud. Better yet, make yourself proud!
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Christine Maxfield is a travel writer and photojournalist who has been on staff at Philadelphia magazine, Men’s Health, and Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, and has contributed to Women’s Health, Girlfriend Getaways, New England Travel & Life, Home & Garden, and more. Follow her adventures online at