What I really learned from seven months abroad part 1 / by Jessica Lee


"What have you learned from your travels abroad?"

I've been pondering this question for the last two months since I got back from Australia and Indonesia and I have a clearer idea now.

When I first got back from my trip, "what did you learn" or "how have you changed" were the most common questions. I think everyone just wanted some sort of life-inspiring tidbit that could be summed up in a few short sentences; something that could help them in their own lives without them having to live through it all.

In truth, I could probably write a book on what I've seen, the people I've met and the life lessons I've learned.

I've come back different of course. Humbled. What I've picked up clarified the truth of "the more you learn, the less you know".

I've come to see how limited staying in Toronto really is. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of opportunities here and there is definitely a lot happening within the city, but I've learned that showing up to a completely different country ie. Australia with a bunch of Canadian credentials really does nothing for you.

If I were to stay in Canada however, I've branded myself pretty well career-wise. I've worked for only big, well-known, mostly national companies which have a great reputation. It all meant nothing in Australia, however, as I soon found out. All the companies are different. And everything you have to know to function as a productive employee is different. There really are somewhat big culture differences between places, which is why travel is so fun but can be emotionally and mentally, not to mention physically demanding.

For example, if I were to try to pick up a job in photography in a new city, already I would have a disadvantage because I don't know the city well and may have the inclination to get lost. This might not seem like a huge deal, but really it is. News happens so fast that in a profession like mine (journalism), if you miss the timeline, then you miss out on the news.

But this is only one of the many things I've picked up abroad- I mean of the fact of how limited my experience in the professional world is. These are the big things.

A smaller skill, that could potentially be an extremely important skill later on is something I learned in the smaller Indonesian markets.

I like to think that I've become a better negotiator.

On the streets of Jakarta, I've talked down prices from $5 a becak ride down to $2.50 CAD. I paid for a 50 cent motorcycle ride around the block, which originally was offered to me at a much higher price. Sure I also paid for a pricey $25 CAD one hour taxi ride (that's a lot of money in Indonesian currency), but I had no other choice as I had way too much luggage at the time (another lesson I've undoubtedly learned).

University teaches you a lot of good theories, but the practical stuff you have to learn for yourself. This is why real life is so important. Where else can you learn good bargaining skills, if not for small informal markets such as these? They don't really exist in Canada (not that I know of anyway) besides on Craigslist where people sell their used goods.

I know I am going to get a lot of flack for writing the next bit because I pretty much just said that I own too much stuff while I travel, yet I am also going to advocate "going shopping" and learning to bargain. Why? Because with low risk items that cost so little, you don't really lose a lot in the process of negotiating, but rather, you gain real world knowledge of how to make a good deal. Now I'm sure they teach this stuff in more formal terms at Harvard Business School, but you can't really be sure of your  deal-making skills unless you put them into practice. Again, I am advocating the "learning to negotiate" part and not the actual "collecting items" part of the shopping experience, please be clear on that (though there is nothing wrong with collecting things either, it just makes it hard to travel around). Also, you can always talk a price down, then not buy it in the end too, but it wouldn't be fair to waste the merchant's time like that.

Another practical or not-so-practical (you be the judge) "skill" I've developed while in Indonesia is the art of J-walking aka walking across several lanes of traffic with no stop lights to help you out.

In Indonesia, pedestrian lights just don't exist. There is a stop sign pictured, but cars don't really stop. Check it out in the photo below:


The first time I tried to cross the road on my own, I had to stop and watch another woman cross first, then it took another ten minutes for me to work up the courage to cross. It doesn't look so terrible in the above photo because there aren't many cars on that street, however Jakarta is fairly busy with traffic all the time. So how do people cross the street? They just step out into the traffic and soon cars will stop for them. It's the "unwritten rule" of how to cross streets in Indonesia. There is no rude honking when pedestrians step out in front of cars. It's well established that that is how people cross streets there.

What this did for me:
1. I learned how to trust other drivers (strangers basically) to preserve my life. Of course people don't want to hit you, they've got places to go too.
2. I conquered something extremely frightening for me. Every time you challenge yourself, you become one step closer to becoming "fearless". This is not to be confused with "reckless" of course, you still have to be careful when stepping out into oncoming traffic.
3. Efficiency. Back in Toronto now, I can cross huge intersections confidently even when it's not my light. I only do this when I'm on foot and when I have a good opportunity so I don't endanger someone else's life. I reckon I save 5-20 seconds each time I don't wait for the light. This does not seem like a lot of time, but let's say I have to cross the street ten times a day, I would save roughly three minutes a day, which adds up to just over 20 minutes a week, an hour and twenty minutes a month, which is almost a whole day each year. I'm not saying you should follow my footsteps and J-walk (please, if you don't know how to do it properly, don't risk your life!), but it is nice to have almost an extra day just because of not waiting for a light to turn white.

There are some other smaller things and bigger issues (and mind-blowing stories) I've learned of during these past few months. I mean, how is it possible to not learn after being thrust into a new culture? I've learned about pickpockets, I conquered my fear of giant cockroaches and relaxed enough to sleep in the same room as a lizard. I've walked through an actual slum by myself, tested the waters of what was "safe" or not (seriously, I thought I was going to get kidnapped, murdered or raped), and learned to trust in the kindness of strangers. I have so many other stories to share, but for now, I feel like this blog post is getting really big. So until next time!

What important real life lessons have you learned while traveling?