When you’re continuously shifting from one country to the next, you’re also moving from culture to culture to culture.
Not everything is different of course: I don’t think I’ve been to a city that doesn’t have a KFC. But enough is novel that, unless you allow yourself to be pulled into the protective cocoon of tourism (where the natives all speak accented English and the food is portioned like you’re accustomed to back home) you’re bound to feel like an idiot from time to time.
Or maybe even constantly. A perpetual idiot.
No matter how intelligent you know you are, when you totter around a new place, not understanding street signs or knowing how to say ‘thank you’ or how much money is worth, you are kind of an imbecile, at least in practice. In a lot of ways you’re less capable than a child.
To make things worse, you’re not the only one who knows that you’re stupid.
Everyone who lives there has seen dumb-dumbs like you before, walking around with sunglasses and a worldly, knowing grin, not realizing that you’ve stepped in goat manure and are about to stomp a miniature spirit shrine, sacred to the locals. You’re not just a fool, you’re a cliché fool.
But I’ve actually come to embrace this aspect of long-term travel, and now I use it to my advantage.
When you’re an expert in your field, it’s very difficult to ask questions, even very smart ones.
People expect certain things of you, and one of those things is that you will answer questions, not ask them. This makes it very difficult to grow as a person, and to expand your horizons. Look no further than experts if you’re looking to see mental geology in action, because there are few people more likely to plateau.
When you’re a dull-witted imbecile, however, you can ask anything and it will be considered a step in the right direction. People will marvel at your ambitiousness when you ask them how to say ‘thank you’ and how much a Baht is worth. They’ll tell you everything they can, and then hand you off to someone who can tell you more.
The paradox of living the life of a wandering fool is that it’s one of the best ways I’ve found to become a more informed person. Sometimes ‘I know’ keeps you from pursuing ‘I wonder.’ Be less certain and you’ll achieve greater certainty.
Update: February 7, 2017
I’ve found that it’s possible to maintain this stance when it comes to life in general, not just when traveling. The trick seems to be recognizing that you’re capable of knowing and learning, but that there’s plenty you don’t know at any moment. As such, you should be open to new information, and ideally seek it out, hoping to fill in those gaps.
Embracing curiosity is one of the better ways to maintain some of the benefits of childhood.