OUR FINAL THOUGHTS...
So, technically our trip is over. No more international traveling, hotels, or learning for a while. Although I was homesick and will look forward to getting back to a normal life, I know I will miss the routine which we have established over the past year. I also know this is not the end of my own traveling experiences. We have learned and accomplished a lot, yet there is always more room for understanding and adventure in our lives. For me, there isn't really such a thing as being "traveled out," at least not for an entire life time. In my eyes the world has no limits.
At the beginning the thought of traveling the world was overwhelming. I thought I would be a completely changed person and never fit into a normal life again. I was worried all of theses cultures and places would cause me to forget about my own life and country. I thought that at the end of the trip I would never want to step foot in another country again. As strange as it sounds, I got remarkably used to our traveling routine. I got used to doing new things every day, and meeting people living in conditions that I found unimaginable. It was like learning something in school and day by day building on your understanding of that topic. Eventually the lesson is complete and you move on to something different.
The same goes for when you are traveling. When spending time in a country you constantly build on your understanding of the culture and history there. You then start the same process with a different country. Sure, we had some hard times, but don't you have hard lessons in school too? The difference is traveling brings learning to a far deeper extent. When I learn about the Vietnam War in 8th grade, I'll have heard both sides of the story. Most kids build their understanding from text books. I built my first understanding from talking to Vietnamese people who witnessed bombs being dropped on their villages by U.S. forces. Without these experiences the message is incomplete.
Our numerous special experiences throughout the trip have sparked many ideas about what I want to do with my life. Traveling internationally has exposed me to things I never thought I would find interesting. Some of the major things are governmental and health issues in various countries, preserving culture (anthropology) around the world, and religion. I believe that the experiences we have had will greatly assist me when it comes to thinking about what I want to study and do. The trip has also encouraged me to do something which will affect the entire world, and not just my own country. I feel like our educational systems have a great need for not only teaching people about the history of different countries, but life in those countries today as well. This doesn't mean changing their lifestyles, but rather understanding and preserving them while keeping them healthy and safe. I feel a great need to help to save and conserve these various worldwide cultures so they will survive for my children to see in the future. This is one element hard to find in the United States.
Now that the trip is over I really cannot imagine living fully without the experiences and learnings I have had. I will definitely try to travel with my own children and family in the future, if not for a year then a couple of months. I began the trip with mixed feelings and uncertainty-I was never someone who really wanted to be away from home. I now think anyone capable could and should travel outside of the U.S. Not only does it expose you to new cultures, but it builds on your understanding of your own life and country.
It's hard to believe that this year-long journey has come to an end. As I take a look back on everything that we did, I realize that this trip was absolutely worthwhile. In fact, I think that I would do it all over again! It was an unbelievable experience that will have an impact on me for the rest of my life.
Over the course of the year, I have changed in many different ways and developed personal views of the world and our American society. For one thing, I have a much better understanding of how people live outside the U.S. and the challenges they face each day. I never really understood, until we took this trip, how lucky I was to be an American and live a comfortable life. But as we traveled I recognized that although we as Americans can never imagine living in a smoky crowded hut without running water and a refrigerator full of food, many people in rural parts of the world, who don't know of another way of life, are happy. The Lao woman who can't count and doesn't know how many children she has is happy, Justin's Maasai family who sleeps in a cow dung hut is happy, and the Chinese woman who still works in the fields and gathers fire wood at the age of 90 is always smiling. Our cultures, beliefs, and ways of life are all very different, but in an indefinable way we are also alike.
I have also undoubtedly become much more adventurous, and willing to try new things. I realize that nothing will really faze me anymore, not after I have hunted with the Hadzas. Not only have I grown intellectually and mentally, but also physically. I am returning to Boston six inches taller and have outgrown two pairs of shoes during the year.
I know that my new knowledge and understanding of the world will serve me well in the future. I am looking forward to returning home and beginning the next chapter in my life. So for now, this is David Koppel signing off.
It's difficult to believe that our year away is actually coming to an end. In just a few days, we will be home and thrown back into our traditional lives. The sadness I feel for the end of our journey will be soothed by the comforts and predictability of home. For several weeks now, we have been talking about what foods we want to eat, how wonderful sleeping in our own beds will feel, how soft cotton shirts and jeans will be, how we can't wait to smell the Cape Cod Bay breezes and be with our extended family again. It will even feel great to step into old familiar roles and routines and to do those daily chores again!
While I am looking forward to the comforts of home and the USA, I know that I will also miss our incredible journey. The year away has not been a vacation by any means and I have stretched and grown by doing and learning new things almost everyday. I have been fascinated by the cultures we have experienced abroad and humbled by the challenges many people face each day. I hope to continue to enhance my level of understanding even once we return home.
This year has brought many surprises with each day being an adventure. Initially we were taken back by the hospitality and generosity of families and schools we visited in communities along the way. We were consistently welcomed even when our visits were unexpected and unscheduled. The grace of people who often had few possessions and barely enough food for themselves was overwhelming as they insisted we take what they could offer-from a cup of green tea, a hard pear, potatoes dug from their fields to the young boy offering David one of his family's two water buffalos. The generosity of people around the world was astonishing. At festivals and schools we were treated like honored guests and could not imagine such a reception being offered to foreigners in the U.S. From the hundred children who turned out on a Saturday to welcome us at their school in Africa to the villagers in Vietnam who insisted we join their local celebration, I will never forget the openness and warmth we felt in these communities all over the world.
One of the major reasons for taking the trip was to expose ourselves and our children to the whole world because we feel so strongly that global understanding is essential for the success of individuals and the world. I am even more committed to this principle now and inspired to pass this message on. I also believe the trip will influence how we move forward with our lives and am anxious to see how this plays out over time.
The year away has allowed us to all learn more about ourselves, each other and the world. We have sometimes felt like an island as we moved from one new place to the next. Having to depend on each other for continual support and entertainment has led to closer bonds which will serve us well as we all grow older.
Before we left last June, there was a quotation on the wayside pulpit (an outdoor bulletin board) of the Unitarian Church which stated, "You don't have anything if you don't have the stories." This quote by Leslie Marmon Silko reminded me of how important stories are to us all. There are lots of ways to create stories and memories but for us, this journey will always be something that binds us-something tangible, unique, and as some would say,"crazy", that we accomplished together as a family.
P.S. These are some impressions and thoughts I jotted down while completing my end of trip memories. As Katie would say, "They are totally random"-but I don't want to lose these last few thoughts before our journal comes to an end.
- The smiles and laughter of children and adults when
seeing their photos on the digital camera
- All the interesting people we have met along the way-guides, other tourists, local people, friends of friends-learning about their lifestyles, jobs, insights on the world
-Finding that many more people live without what we would describe as basic necessities and seeing that they are still happy without these things
- Discovering that many people live happily with little knowledge of the world outside their own village
- The realization that for many children education is a luxury their families can't afford even when it is provided free
- Seeing that many societies still are predominately agricultural and many families literally live off a small plot of land using hard physical labor and don't have a need for much money
- Realizing that American and Western culture continues to take hold especially in urban areas and it may not be long before traditional cultures are lost forever-how to preserve cultural distinction is something I want to learn about
- There are still many areas of the world where there are vast areas of beautiful untouched nature and we still have time to protect it
- Certain values or characteristics heavily influence culture-importance of groups in Japan, polygamy in African tribes, lack of future orientation of the Hadza, lack of interest in progress or making improvements in techniques
- How religion, colonization and migration of people has effected culture
- How little we really need to just survive
- Even in places with relatively little development, people know about American pop culture (music), the president of the U.S., Coke, McDonalds, KFC and the war with Iraq
- People survive with little variety in their diet, little access to medical care and sanitary standards far different than our own
I often think back about how we made the decision to
embark on this journey. Before this year, we hadn't traveled much and from
our perspective had never done anything really out of the ordinary. I had
spent twenty years as a consultant with Accenture, while Paula developed her
career as a geriatric nurse practitioner, recently starting her own small
consulting company. We always spoke about someday retiring and traveling,
but recently realized how much more fulfilling this would be to do as a family
while our children were still young. We also believed that providing the gift
of world travel to our children at such a young age would benefit them for
the rest of their lives. We continued to talk and dream, until everything
seemed to come together perfectly. Paula and I both reached transition points
in our careers at the exact time that David and Katie were the ideal ages
for this adventure. We felt that they were old enough to appreciate and understand
our experiences, but young enough so that the disruption to their lives at
home would be manageable.
For David and Katie, our hope was to provide them with a unique set of worldly experiences that they could then build on during their formal education. We believed that this would impact them on a life-long basis. For ourselves, we were looking for an opportunity to enhance our own growth and believed that these experiences could be foundational for how we spend the second halves of our lives.
There very different processes that each of the four of us went through in making our personal decisions to embark on this journey. As the youngest, Katie was somewhat reluctant at first. However, as things got started, she quickly became the most enthusiastic and has surprisingly suffered less homesickness than any of us. David's story is the reverse - he was extremely excited at first but often had more difficult times being away from his friends and everything he missed during the first year of high school at home. David and Paula were also the most concerned about safety, and as individuals who love routine they found it the hardest to adjust to the travel.
Without question, our most valuable educational experiences have emanated directly from time that we have spent observing and interacting with people as they lived their daily lives. We found that our most impactful memories have resulted directly from serendipitous encounters. We intentionally spent many of our days with no plan other than to simply visit villages, homes, markets, schools and hospitals. Rarely did we make such a visit without experiencing something memorable. We joke among ourselves about specific times when one of us would balk at the idea of going to, for example, yet another school in a particular village that we found ourselves exploring. Inevitably, even with us having already visited several schools in a particular country, this next encounter would result in some new lesson, insight or interesting interaction that we'd find extremely enlightening or valuable.
Our list of memorable experiences is long. It includes hunting with the Hadza in Tanzania, digging potatoes with Quichuan families in the mountains of Peru, spending a day visiting Japanese schools on the island of Shikoku, our unplanned visit to a festival in a small village in the outskirts of Hanoi, getting lost in the confusion of St. Petersburg's subways, wandering through the medinas of Marrakech, conversations with people in China who were in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and knocking on doors and visiting families in numerous small rural villages in India. We have also had unforgettable experiences at some of the world's wonders, including the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, and the Taj Mahal. Thinking back on the past year, we are constantly amazed at how much we have seen and done!
We will never see the world the same way, and now cannot imagine ourselves living out our lives without having explored, at least in a small way, how people really live and how culture, ideas and resources effect why they live as they do. We now also find ourselves hugely motivated to experience more, and are likely to travel extensively in the years to come. Each of the four of us has our own story to tell about what this adventure has meant to us.
In addition, we are now able to see the impact that our experiences have had on ourselves as individuals, and us as a family. We have a tremendous amount of pride for what we have accomplished as a unit. Paula and I love the fact that we have stretched ourselves greatly, and think that we have served as positive role models for David and Katie on things like the value of taking risks, experiencing different cultures and life-long learning. We often look back at how far we have all come with becoming comfortable in situations that originally were very hard (for all of us) to deal with.
It has also been great to see the personal changes that have occurred with David and Katie. Listening to them enthusiastically relate their experiences to other adults is wonderful. Additionally, Katie is now talking about how our travels have led her to think that someday she may want to become an anthropologist. David talks openly about how he never wanted anything to do with art or ballet, and describes how he personally voted to spend our last night in St. Petersburg with a return trip to the Marinsky Theater to see his second ballet.
Our travels have also sparked many questions in our minds for which we don't have answers. For example, what makes certain cultures want to continually seek ways to change their lives while others remain so determined to stay the same? We have just started speaking as a family about ways that we would like to further pursue some of these questions through research and additional future travel.
We have been blessed with safety and unbelievable health (none of us missed a single day the entire trip due to illness), and for that we are thankful. We also received tremendous support from family and friends, and without this our trip would not have been possible.
Now that we're home again, we plan to spend much of the summer relaxing on Cape Cod, reconnecting with family and friends that we have missed so much. We don't know exactly what to expect from our "reentry" process, but as of now we plan to transition gradually back into our daily routines. David and Katie are eager to see their friends and head back to "normal" school. As for Paula and me, we plan to spend time beginning to explore what's next in our professional careers. Both of us are looking to move forward in new directions, and there's much thinking and work to do before decisions are made. As a family, we would like to write a book about our travel adventures, and have already initiated some preliminary discussions about our ideas with people in the industry.
My thoughts are now dominated by a feeling of tremendous pride for what we have accomplished as a family, and the knowledge that this is the best thing that we have ever done together. This has been an amazing opportunity for us to learn and grow. Most importantly, Paula and I are so happy to have provided David and Katie with experiences that we know will serve them well for the rest of their lives.