Travel: The School of Culture

When I was a kid, I’d watch shows that depicted families taking long trips during their spring breaks or summer vacations. They’d travel to different parts of the country or to foreign lands. Most of the families were middle class white people who’d get into their minivan or RV and explore amazing places.

The first time I traveled was when I was 12. I went to Florida because my parents were calling it quits and my mother and us kids were supposed to make Miami our new permanent home. After I was there for about a month, they reconciled.

But having flown on a plane was an amazing experience for me because for the first time EVER, I saw people that looked like me and that was eye-opening.

I used to think that people who could afford to get on a plane were super
rich. When I took that flight, I didn’t fly first class, but I was upgraded because the flight attendants knew I was flying alone and they took caring for an unaccompanied minor very seriously.

I remember they kept a close eye on me and I got to eat a HUGE piece of chocolate cake with a glass of milk (1st class perks!). I was stoked!

You see, traveling to nearby places from my home was a challenge for my family of eight (six kids, mom and dad). My parents worked a lot and we didn’t have much money. We couldn’t afford to stay at hotels and we couldn’t afford an RV.

Camping was not something Nicaraguans did. I don’t even know if my parents knew what that was when I was a kid.

Our vehicles were also not reliable, so the summer we traveled from Chino to Silverwood Lake was the highlight of our year…. actually, it was the highlight of our decade.

Then, right after high school, I joined the Army. I ended up at Fort Jackson, S.C. with people with all sorts of dialects, shades and backgrounds.

A few months after I had graduated from training, I was put on an enormous three aisle airplane bound for South Korea (my first duty station) never giving it a second thought about what a big deal it was for an 18 year old who had hardly traveled to go so far from home.

I spent one full year in South Korea and the experience changed my life!

I hadn’t realized how sheltered I was about the differences in the world. I remember going through the first-aid steps at basic training. A short female drill sergeant ordered our platoon to gather around and repeat the steps after her. I couldn’t tell a word she was saying even though she was speaking English.

I was so afraid she’d catch me pretending to follow along because the penalty was to get SMOKED (disciplined through extreme physical exercise or activity, by a drill sergeant). Nobody wanted that!

Luckily, because of a tight schedule that day, she only yelled at me. She asked why I wasn’t following along, but I was too afraid to tell her it was because her speech was incomprehensible to me.

I confessed to my battle buddy (my assigned partner) that I couldn’t understand the Drill Sergeant. So, my Battle Buddy, with her Puerto Rican English accent she said to me, “Oh! Yeah, she’s from the South. They speak different. It took me a while the first time I met some southerners, but they broke it down to me”.

She had traveled. I hadn’t. What a difference traveling can make on a person.

During the first three years in the military, I met people from many regions of the U.S. and from many countries. It wasn’t until I was in the military, that I learned that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. I’d always heard people they were foreigners, so, I believed it.

I also learned that not all black people are African Americans. That not all all black Americans like to identify as “African Americans” and that not all White people were non-immigrants.

I learned that not all Mexicans are the same and that Dominicans and Puerto Ricans joke about having a feud of whose culture is better.

This type of information was not discussed at my school much. I’m sure we had some level of conversation regarding differences, but not prominent enough to make them significant or prominent..

I also learned that I wasn’t the only one in the dark about so many differences.

Later, when I was assigned to a different unit, I dated a guy from from Mississippi. He had NEVER seen a real white person other than on television, so when he found himself in basic training, he was stunned to see how many “shades of white” they came in.

Most people assumed I was Native American or Mexican, so when I’d tell them I was from Nicaragua they’d ask if that was part of South America or Mexico or they’d ask…”so, what are you?”

I also learned about different dialects within the U.S. “Pogey bait” (junk food/sweets) was a popular term around field training exercise periods and my roommate referred a lot to her “pocketbook” (purse).

Now that I have a family, I’ve made it a point to take my kids to different areas within my state or to nearby places where they can learn about differences.

My kids have been fortunate to have flown across the country several times already and though we’ve only traveled outside the country once, now that they’re a bit older we’ll be visiting a different country each year (if possible).

It’s important to me because as I learned how impactful traveling can be, I felt that I hadn’t missed out on a TON of fun had I had the opportunity to explore within my own surrounding cities.

I could have also made friends who could have been vastly different than me and learned about their culture and their differences.

Lucky, traveling around the country today is more possible than years past. People now camp in comfort. They take their tents, air mattresses and portable fans or heaters.

The most costly expense is food for the cooler and gas for the vehicle. You don’t even need a truck, minivan or RV anymore if you have a family of four, and for bigger families, their minivan suffices.

And if you think you have to take weekend trips, guess again! You can take day trips that can be exciting and insightful too and I HIGHLY encourage you to give it a try.

To get you started, I’ve created this free cheat sheet of travel tips you can use to make it more possible to have smooth travels.

So, I hope that if you’re able to travel alone or with your family, that you explore around you. I encourage you to speak with different people and learn about them so that you don’t fall into the traps of media storytelling which most often paints a picture of a general group of people or an individual incorrectly.

Much Love,

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