Lessons on Shared Humanity in Travel


A couple of months back in January,  I was trying to gracefully work through a breakup when my girlfriends called me and asked me what would make me feel better. I had already accumulated the maximum number of vacation days for the year and I was getting weekly automated emails telling me: “Michelle, you should take a vacation!”

Naturally, I called everyone back and said: “Let’s get out of town!”

I wanted to hit my bucketlist of travels: Colombia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Myanmar and the list goes on. I’ve never been the type of traveler who enjoys going to a resort and laying out under a linen cabana for a week’s time. Since I’ve been the trip planner for my friends and family for as long as I can remember, this is rarely what our travel itineraries look like and I’m happy when everyone leaves with incredible stories from the very private, unique, and off the beaten path experiences that I’m fond of.

Few people appreciate curated beauty and design as much as I do, but my favorite element about traveling has less to do about room service and more to do with being with the people, history, and natural elements (i.e.: the seaside) of a country. When I was a junior in college, I received a fellowship to do research in Saigon, Vietnam. My Mother and I went together – she served as my chief cultural negotiator/technical translator when I was trying to gain access to garment factories in order to conduct my research. After we secured clearance with the factories, every morning, I would ride a public bus from my family’s home in the tony city center to the district where the factories were housed. Once I arrived, I’d call my contact at the factory, Ri, and she’d swing by on her moped to drive me through the pothole-ridden roads that were often submerged in murky brown water from the torrential summer rains.

The factory owners were bemused that I didn’t take a taxi everyday, because I very well could have afforded to coming from what was at the time, a very strong Canadian dollar that was on par with the American dollar. However, my Mom would not hear of it, which effectively ensured that if I was researching the lives of women working in factories, I would be seeing every single element of their lives while out on the field. I ate whatever the factory workers were having for lunch, I had my legs devoured by mosquitos, I would wait at the bus stop as a lone young woman, and I experienced what I think my Mom was hoping for me to understand about women who had lives dramatically different from mine: humility and empathy. It’s how I was raised and it’s also how we were raised to travel.

One of my most vivid memories about a lesson on compassion was when my parents took us to Cuba for one of the most tranquil holidays we’ve shared together. At the time, my Mom had packed what seemed to be an excessive amount of suitcases for the trip. One morning, she shooed us out of the room and told my brother and I to go down to the beach. Later that afternoon, the housekeepers for our suite knocked on our door while holding several bulging white trash bags filled with clothes. They were holding a piece of paper that they wanted my Mom to sign. Being the curious child that I was, I asked my Mom what the slip of paper for, and I heard the housekeeper say that the hotel required a written record of my Mom’s gifts in order for them to take the bags home. It turned out that my Mother, having lived in post-war Vietnam, understood the limited economic opportunity and purchasing power under the Cuban regime and decided to pack bags of clothes to give away. As an adult today, I think back upon that and wonder what the world would be like if we all traveled with generosity in our hearts.

I’ll have some photos up from Colombia soon. The video attached above is of my reunion with my hot pink suitcase after 27 hours of travel chaos. Two of my girlfriends were in the room teasing me because I had a checked bag, but if you know yourself, you know yourself.

I hope this summer has been nothing short of divine for you.


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