Dear [insert starry-eyed traveler here],
A year ago today, I was feverishly packing my bags to go to Rwanda. Tomorrow, the same program and advisor that I traveled with is escorting a new group of students on the trip of a lifetime.
Instead of hashing plans to sneak on their plane (which I can hardly refrain from doing), I’ve been reminiscing about my experience and more specifically, what I would do differently.
While I don’t believe you can ever fully prepare for an experience abroad, there are some things that I would advise my fellow travelers to remember and consider.
- Be flexible. This will seem like a no-brainer the first or second time something small goes wrong, but eventually you will have to make the conscious decision to go with the flow. I regret every moment of anxiety or stress that I felt in Rwanda, simply because it was one less moment that I spent appreciating and creating my experience.
- Journal, dammit. There were more than a couple days that I had to force myself to sit down and write during my trip. Trust me, I know–some afternoons, a nap will call your name so loudly you will hardly be able to resist. However, I hope that you hear my little voice whisper a quick reminder to write. Internet will not always work for blogging, your tired mind may make handwriting a chore, but I beg you to write because if anything, I wish I would have written more.
- Put people first. There is an honest line between friend and tourist. Photos are priceless, but certainly cheaper than genuine relationships. Get to know people not for a potential photo-op, but because people are fascinating, smart and have so much for you to learn. Anyone can Google a picture of a smiling child or a bustling African market, but not everyone can tell a captivating story about a relationship they made experiencing such things.
- Take the bus. Apply this advice however you like, but I cannot tell you how rewarding it was to take the mini-bus while I was in Rwanda. Our group took taxis occasionally and walked often, but nothing immersed me in culture quite like stuffing 20 people into a 14-passenger van.
- Just do it. Eat the Ethiopian. Eat the fried plantains. Join the dance. Try the game. Ignore the gecko. There are so many things that you should just DO because it will enrich, validate and enhance your experience. These things are new, but if you were interested in only eating American food, you could have done so on a much tighter budget.
- Finally, take note. Note every moment that thrills you, scares you or keeps you up at night. Dig and try to find out why. If you can pinpoint these things and connect with them when you return home, your trip will never really end. In fact, when you return, your experience will have just begun.
So, travelers, enjoy your trip. Soak it up, breathe it in and let it change you. While I can brainstorm things I would do differently, I have never once regretted my time and it is my hope that you will feel the same.