When I was 9, my grandmother took me to visit her family in South America. That was a memorable trip for me mostly because I was not prepared for the immense poverty and huge disparity between the haves and have-nots. Then as a teenager in the 1980’s, I was given special permission to travel to Eastern Europe during the Cold War to train with some of their top athletes. That was another huge culture shock, mainly due to my lack of experience with their language, the different foods, and a political ideology that completely contradicted the one we revered back home. A few years later, I opted for a semester in Paris, just as the Berlin Wall collapsed; then in the early 90’s I spent a year studying in Spain, my father’s home country, right before I back packed through Europe by myself before turning 21.  Here are the 5 key life lessons I learned from all those experiences:

1. Adaptability– The sooner you adapt to a new time zone, learn a few key phrases and learn to convert to another country’s currency, the easier everything gets. Be open to learning about a new culture with different customs. The more willing you are to modify your routines, the less aggravated you will be when things don’t go exactly according to plan.

2. Time Management– If you are relying on catching a plane, train, ship or shared car service, you have to budget your time carefully. Failure to do so can have severe consequences. You also need to prioritize what you want to see, because rarely do you have time to do it all.

3. Preparedness– In addition to having the right travel documents, reservations and local currency, you just never know exactly when you’ll be able to stop for a snack or rest stop, so you always need to carry some food and water, and empty your bladder whenever you can. If you don’t want to wander around lost, always get a map first and know where to meet up with others if you separate from your group. If the weather might change suddenly, then pack an extra sweater, poncho or umbrella. As someone once told me, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

4. Vulnerability– It’s okay to admit you are lost or need help, and the funny thing is that when you do most people will surprise you with their immense kindness.  The key is not to freak out or become agitated, as this only compounds problems.

5. Curiosity– When you visit a foreign country, you don’t normally just explore just their current situation, but also their past. We learn about their land and their heritage as we ask: how did the country come into existence? what are their most important resources? and what are their current struggles? In doing so, we think beyond ourselves, and gain empathy through understanding the way others came to exist and struggle to survive.

As a parent, I wanted to pass on these lessons to son, however, when my son was young, I definitely cut back on my exploring days for some time. But once he turned 10, I knew he would remember our trips, and so since then I have made it a point to take him well outside his comfort zone (aka the East Coast).  Together we have seen impressive glaciers in both Alaska and Iceland, witnessed both the extreme poverty and beauty in South America, and enjoyed amazing views of castles and historic places in Ireland and the U.K.   In all of these  journeys, which required immense preparations, we had to adapt, manage our time, express our vulnerabilities, and allow our curiosity to lead us to a deeper understanding of the world around us.  At the same time, we have come to a deeper appreciation of each other, and created memories that will last a lifetime.

If traveling overseas these days seems a bit daunting, then find an exotic domestic destination that will get everyone to tap into those 5 key life skills cited above.  Believe it or not, for those of us that are planners, now that summer is over is the perfect time to start pondering next summer’s adventure because the fact is you need time to think about your goals/priorities for each trip, do all your research, and develop a realistic budget.  Maybe you’ll decide to cut back on holiday gifts, and instead make the upcoming experience the gift?  I for one am a huge fan of this approach.

Ultimately, whatever you decide to do with your family on your next adventure, here’s hoping you have a blast!


By Regina A. DeMeo