Sometimes you don’t get out of travel what you expect. Like the time I was stranded on a small island off the coast of Australia.
The island was not too far from the mainland, but in between were box jellyfish and crocodile infested waters. Swimming back was not going to be an option.
I took a ferry out to the trailhead at the north end of the island with four strangers, three of whom were traveling together. They knew how to camp. I showed up with a rented tent, the kind that looks like you improvised with sheets and stuff in the backyard, and a pad to sleep on but no sleeping bag. I was in Queensland, in the middle of a tropical rainforest, bathing in a warm sea. My calculation for the three night-four day hike across the Thorsborne TraiI was in that environment, my giant Cadbury chocolate bars and some dehydrated meals were sufficient. I would sleep under the stars.
It was also the rainy season.
Before the sun rose on my third day out there, I was forced to move my equipment to the picnic table so I could sleep above the water leaking into (streaming through) my rented tent. My beach towel during the day, blanket at night, soaked up so much water through the night I started to shiver even though the air was a comfortable 25°C.
The sudden torrential downpour sent water raging down the mountainside in the stream beside our campsite in idyllic Zoe Bay just a few hours before. The swollen stream was now too dangerous to cross with a pack to reach our agreed southern exit point with the ferry. A slip into the swift stream could either break your leg if caught between boulders under water or send you off into the jaws of the local estuarine crocodile.
It continued to rain during the day also raising the water in the mangroves on the other side of us. To retrace our steps back to the northern trailhead through the mangrove which included a perilous bit over a stretch of boulders in the rain would take two days. We stayed put.
I slept another night in my refashioned tent on stilts, and we missed our agreed upon take out time on the fourth day. In between entertaining status trips to the stream and getting bitten by carnivorous sand flies in our tents, a sailboat turned up in Zoe Bay. They must have been sailors-in-training because they got stranded there overnight by the tide. But they were able to radio the ranger station that everyone was where they might have guessed and no one was injured. Before the sailboat left the next day, when the tide was in, the ranger station radioed that a barge would show up for us in a couple of hours.
We broke into our reserves, protected in a critter-proof chest at the site, to celebrate. One minute I was drinking wine out of a coconut trying to dry out in my underwear in the sun and the next minute a helicopter, we thought was just circling, landed on the beach. A military guy, looking like Ralph Fiennes in aviator glasses, jumped out and started giving orders to pack up.
My four companions and I were the first to fly out since we had been there the longest, a whole day longer than expected, but a couple more than the rest of the hikers who started to pile up at the site. In the first flight, not all of us could take our packs as some of the space was used for emergency medical equipment. I took my toiletries and jumped on the helicopter.
The ride was my first in a helicopter, and I have an image embedded in my brain of the view over the coral reefs immersed in the swimming pool color blue sea. I also remember getting lectured by a local policeman about the costs of the flight.
I didn’t rebut his position considering it was the decision of the rangers to both send us out there in the middle of the rainy season and to pick us up with the helicopter. I just said thank you.
But the dramatic reaction of the ranger department cost me some extra days in the small town of Cardwell at the Kookaburra Holiday Park. My pack was supposed to arrive the next day. Being the weekend and all, that plan got delayed until the following Monday which meant I couldn’t leave until Tuesday. The conversation with the ranger delivering this message to me could have gone in the wrong direction quickly but I checked my rising anger, realizing I wasn’t in my own country and in a small town within that country. I couldn’t screw with the few people who controlled the course of my immediate future.
If I could call it an “aha” moment, I would. My perspective on travel changed 180 degrees that day.
I felt, well, humble.
You know what it means to be at the bottom
My two month tour across New Zealand and Australia was a warm-up, a mini-walk-about. I returned home just when things started to get interesting. Once you get used to living out of a suitcase, it’s just what you do. I couldn’t imagine at the beginning of my trip how I could go two months without sleeping in my own bed. But after getting into a rhythm, I saw how difficult it becomes to stop.
When my supervisor a few years later asked if I might want to go to work in a lab in Norway for half a year, without hesitation, I said yes.
Once I made the decision, it was all about moving my stuff into storage (which is a huge mistake) and then figuring out what to do once I landed in Norway. I already had a job, although it was confirmed for six months only. I was open to staying longer or moving on.
Once there, I had to find an apartment, open a bank account and get my work visa. In Scandinavia, things are easy to manage if you speak English because Scandinavians speak English so well. I had a head start as an immigrant because of my job and my English.
Still when I walked into the Utlendingsdirektoratet, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, I didn’t feel much different than any other immigrant who might have different reasons than I did for showing up in Norway. For me, moving to Norway was a life-enriching experiment. For many of them arriving as asylum seekers, it was a matter of survival.
Although all my visa took was a letter and a contract from my employer, I was still at the mercy of the government which was the same as for everyone else there in the office, many of whom might not have even spoken English.
Again, I felt humble.
I knew stuff, but a lot of it didn’t matter in my new environment. It’s at that point where you will do anything to meet anyone who will talk to you outside of work. I took language class.
Every immigrant planning to live long term in Norway takes language class which automatically places you in the company of people from many different countries and backgrounds. Because you put yourself in that situation, you start to form relationships you might not have otherwise. And you start to see what you have in common with people. Not your differences. Because when you boil it down to some basics, people worldwide want the same things in life.
Most of the world doesn’t live as we do in the West
My Norwegian adventure went on a bit longer than I had anticipated. Seven years. During this time, I took advantage of the five weeks of holiday. It was the law after all, to take your five weeks of holiday allotted every citizen, even the ones on unemployment.
Some of the more memorable trips were the ones I took as a scuba diver to some of the most remote regions of the world. I cruised through some of the most beautiful areas of the world where volcanic or limestone rock islands support the flourishing growth of verdant jungles over 50 shades of blue colored lagoons. Places you can only dream of.
There I met some of the most beautiful, funny, and smart people. But the people on these islands often live in shacks, traditionally styled with palm trees and junk, or homes where there was no electricity. If there was electricity, it came from a gas powered generator. Or there might be a solar panel to keep the TV going during the day or to charge the phone battery. There was often no indoor plumbing. On one island, I watched as the women descended into a well to bring water back to their homes. On the same island, the women made complicated textiles from cotton cultivated there and colors derived from plants and undersea creatures.
I was invited once into the home of the relative of crew member on a liveaboard, a thatched hut built on stilts. I could see the chickens and other animals roaming around underneath while I looked out over the ocean. Yet, more gracious people I could not have met anywhere.
The scenes are all romantic, when you’re on a holiday. Astounding when you realize how little you know about what it takes to live on nothing more than the land and the sea. Then it hits you, that of the seven billion people living on Earth, most do not live as we do in the West. There isn’t even a family run convenience store with the kind of food you shouldn’t eat just around the corner in any neighborhood.
And then you wonder how it is that you were born where you were born, in the USA.
You realize what it means to be American
Science says your brain starts to do something interesting when immersed in a new culture. The situation you find yourself in brings into your consciousness ideas, rules, and habits that are so routine in your home environment you forget you ever had to think about them. Like which way to look when crossing the street.
Or what you put on your passport, that you are American.
I was born in the USA in the Midwest, but growing up my coloring and features inherited from the Sicilian side of my family made me feel different. On top of it, my father’s first language was one that not more than a few people on Earth spoke and we ate ethnic food. I loved eggplant and artichokes before I realized that few others around me even knew what those vegetables were.
But when I moved to Norway and experienced a different form of government and culture, I realized I was 100% American. It had nothing to do with what I looked like or ate. It was my culture and my values. I wasn’t the only one in my collection of odd immigrants in Norway who came to this realization. I remember a conversation I had with a Frenchman and an Italian one night when I declared I had no idea how American I was until I moved to Norway. Both the Frenchman and the Italian agreed, saying that neither realized how French and Italian they were until they too had moved to Norway.
The realization for me was not subtle and it was immediate. The only way I can put it, is the society in Norway is not dynamic. A friend of mine who lived in another country in Europe summed up the reason for her return to the USA this way, “You can always remake yourself in America.”
That’s when you realize what separates you as an American from other cultures. It doesn’t mean Americans are better, just different. You no longer look at yourself as belonging to a certain group within America. You’re American. And that’s how you see your countrymen. You can’t undo that feeling once you’ve experienced it.
If it’s unclear what I’m talking about, ask yourself how many other countries would produce an Aretha Franklin, a Prince, or a Barack Obama. Or just look at how creative Americans became during the pandemic to save their businesses despite nationwide lockdowns. Or the scientists who developed vaccines and therapeutics. Scientists in the USA weren’t waiting around for the government to tell them what to do. They knew what to do and they did it.
There are many reasons contributing to these differences between the USA and Norway. One is just the basic number of people. The USA is a country of 330 million while Norway is only 5 million. A critical mass of people is needed for something revolutionary to happen (even for the number of available choices of ice cream).
But some of the feeling I had derives from Norway’s form of government and the lifestyle it feels is best for its inhabitants. There’s something to their expansive government control. I mean the country ranks year after year as one of the happiest. But there’s a cost, in terms of economic growth and achieving your potential as an individual. For an American, the rules of the government and society I found, well, a bit suffocating.
The power of the Norwegian government over society opened my eyes to the old-fashioned nature of the way any type of government works in general. When the government makes laws it says are designed to help you, somehow they do not. I was once laid off from my job in Norway and denied my grant money by my department at the university because of a law that was supposed to help workers. Instead companies refused to renew employees’ contracts to get around the law, even in my case where the employee paid herself.
To want more government as Americans today strikes me as especially odd, considering how the internet today makes it possible for more people to be even more independent. You can start a business, get your degree online, publish your own book. Since 1964, the law has been that it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation. The law is on the books. Since then, the hard part has been for the American people to do the work and treat each other with respect. In concept, there’s nothing stopping you here in the USA from achieving your dreams.
The focus of the USA has always been on the development of its people as individuals. In effect, it’s the most modern approach to the treatment of citizens of any country. And from a historical perspective, the USA and its groundbreaking constitution are technically older than some of the countries even in Europe (Norway and Italy at least).
So when I look around me in today’s sometimes violent unrest in the USA, to fundamentally transform America, I think one of the ways to solve these problems is for every 16 year old to live abroad, maybe even in a country with a developing economy. You can find out for yourself how your peers live, and then ask yourself whether you want more from your government or from yourself.