My friend who lived in China for the last 3 years and I were discussing recently what extensive travel could do for our resumes. She, who speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently, has a very useful skill. I on the other hand spent the year after graduation abroad working several cool but brief jobs, which can’t really look good to employers, who must be asking “How did you manage to get a permit to work in both Poland and Ukraine at the same time?”
Well, English-teaching aside, the 4-month internship with JRS was the best work experience I’ve had post-graduate. But, it was only for four months. I am an employable writer, but my portfolio isn’t exactly stacked yet. I am ambitious in life—but it’s been about life—with less of a focus on “marketable skills.”
Sometimes this gets to me and I regret not fighting harder to find another job with JRS right after Africa, and sometimes I regret not studying Spanish in college. But I always just tried to keep some sort of equilibrium at the time of making these decisions, and followed my gut along the way. Ultimately I think my often scattered decision-making is not terrible, and I’ve learned a lot along the way, from being forced out of familiarity, time and time again.
“You’re willing to live an uncomfortable life.”
The brainstorming session with my friend at the bar about “What traveling and living abroad qualifies us to do” ended with “We’re really good at… living. We have good stories.”
And by that I mean we’re adaptable. We’re not high-maintenance, we can deal with stress by ourselves and we’re not afraid of—as so many Americans seem to be—inconveniences, uncomfortable situations, and “the unknown.” We constantly welcome the unknown.
Since that conversation I’ve been trying to expand on this idea. I’ve come up with other “skills” I have acquired from traveling:
Haggling for goods. “700 bob?! No way, the girl over there said she’d sell for 400.” Nairobi’s insane Sunday Massai market taught me the finer points of bargaining. I put this skill to practice when buying my bicycle and other items in Krakow. Also, it made my Polish a lot better.
Communicating with locals without speaking their language. I do know some functional Polish and Czech, but only a few words in Swahili and Ukrainian, and practically nothing of any other language, other than Spanish. This is one of the questions I get most about traveling, “How do you get around without knowing the language?”
It’s really not that difficult. First of all, you buy a map. Then you figure out how to get around the city, whether it be the public transport system, walking, or cabs. Then, you learn some very basic vocabularly (Where is? Left, Right, Please, Thank You.) That is about all you need to know. Even if you don’t learn those few words in the local language, you always have your hand to point with. If you are friendly, people will help you.
And oh yeah, English is the lingua-franca of the world. In many places in the “developed” world you will find someone who speaks a little English. I suppose there is some “app” that would help you with this too, but I will forever scorn the traveler who thinks they are badass while traveling with an iPhone (Although honestly, a hard-core traveler is probably the only person who actually needs something like that.)
Sleeping in weird places. Under mosquito nets, on buses, trains, hostels, on random people’s couches, on a futon for 6 months in the same bedroom as a Polish girl I found on the internet, huddled next to other travelers, on the floor of my friend’s dorm room in Bologna… you get the drift.
Looking clean without actually being clean. The shower situation in Nairobi was either cold or scalding hot, if the water turned on. Rain-water bucket showers and heating up water on the stove to wash my hair became common-place. I started going 3-4 days without washing my hair and became skilled in styles where you could see the grease less. Au natural…
“Saving Myself.” I went to my doctor to get malaria medicine before going abroad last year, and during the short appointment he gave me a lecture that I’ll never forget. “You have to know how to save yourself,” he said, in reference to traveling in the bush.
He told me that there were a few essential things I needed to have with me. 1-Re-hydration salts, 2-Malarials that will help treat you if you get Malaria, and 3-bandages and Neosporen to treat cuts. He scared the pants off me that day, but I didn’t forget it. I made my boss in Italy go with me to the store and buy Italian re-hydration salts and I found some bandages, but when I went to Africa that’s all I had. Medical practices differ greatly from place to place, and I’ve had to go to the doctor or hospital in 4 different countries. All you can do sometimes is have the basics covered, for the rest hope that drinking tea will in fact cure your cold (Poland,) and that those 8 Chinese peanut pills will in fact take care of your “malaria” “pregnancy” or “flu” (a fantastic diagnosis in South Sudan last year.)
Abandoning the desire for control. The airplane lands in the desert, you say? And they’re writing my name on my ticket for me? I’m traveling for 4 hours going 15-miles per hour in a pickup on bumpy roads, and both sides are full of land-mines? The only way to get to the schools to conduct interviews is to ride on the back of a motorcycle? The train is stopped at the border for 3 hours? The Russians next to us on the 21-hour bus are taking pulls from their own vodka while playing cards shirtless? The truck driver we’re hitchhiking with just invited us to stay the night with his family? And on and on and on… You say uncomfortable and dangerous? I say adventure! And I also say, swallow that fear, because it’s most-likely coming from years of living in the safe little bubble of American worry-worts.
I hold my liquor well. I suppose this doesn’t take much explaining, but thanks to a tolerance of strong Eastern European booze, a blubbering drunk girl I do not become. I maintain character. Except, of course, if there is Klezmer music involved. Then the dancing happens.
Making friends with… everyone. The Polish girl sitting next to me at the bar who is buying me another shot. The priest. My former students. Anyone who wants to hang out… Because when you travel alone, after a few days of only making conversation with the lady selling fruit, you start to get a little silly. People are just people, as Regina Spektor says.
So, who wants to hire me to be their personal consultant for living an interesting life?