We’ve all heard people talk about having life-changing experiences… and one of my biggest was certainly travel-related! I did a degree in Hispanic Studies, which required me to spend the third year of my course in a Spanish-speaking country. There was the option to go to a Spanish university (definitely the easier option as the University of Birmingham had links with the main universities in Spain and everything was arranged for you) or to venture further afield to Latin America…
Up to that point, I had never travelled outside of Europe – in fact, I had only visited fairly touristy destinations within Europe: France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, etc. But I had been fascinated by the ancient civilisations of Central and South America since I was a child and I knew immediately that I wanted to go to Mexico for at least part of my year out. And, as I was also studying Portuguese, I decided I would spend the other half of the year in Brazil. It was an exciting prospect, but rather nerve-wracking given my lack of travel experience: my longest flight to date had been 2.5 hours and I had not travelled very much on my own before either!
By the time the trip arrived, I was so excited… exiting Mexico City Airport was one of the most exhilarating feelings I have ever had! The sounds, the smells… everything was completely alien to me and I loved it!
But what was it that made this trip truly life-changing for me? I guess it was a combination of things:
- Experiencing totally different cultures… both Mexico and Brazil offer unbelievable cultural diversity within their own national boundaries – both have indigenous populations that live at once alongside of, but at times isolated from, mainstream society. This meant that travelling from one end of the country to another you encountered so many different traditions, beliefs, cuisines, languages, etc – coming from somewhere as small as the UK, I was amazed by what can only be described as countries within countries… it opened my eyes to how big the world really was!
- Seeing real poverty for the first time. It was eye-opening (and shocking) for me to see that the indigenous populations of both countries lived largely marginalised, poverty-stricken lives on the fringes of society, without access to even basic services. I obviously knew that there were poor people in the UK, but I had never seen such extreme, widespread poverty as I saw in both Mexico and Brazil – it shocked and upset me… and made me realise just quite how much I took for granted back home. I don’t think anyone could have returned home after witnessing such hardship and not been changed by it.
- Visiting some truly awe-inspiring sites – it would be a struggle to list them all, but a few that still remain vivid in my mind even after all these years are: seeing the Maya and Aztec ruins in Mexico, visiting the villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan (Chiapas, Mexico), visiting the Tarahumara people and seeing their cave houses in northern Mexico, watching the sunset over Rio de Janeiro from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, canoeing through the Amazon, seeing the mighty Iguazu Falls… I could go on and on! I hadn’t seen or experienced such incredible things before and it made me realise just how little I had seen of the world.
So, how do I think it changed me?
- It definitely gave me a broader understanding of different cultures and how they function, both from within and as part of society as a whole.
- It gave me a much more global outlook on life (something which I find is often lacking in those who have not really travelled outside their own region).
- It made me appreciate just how lucky I am to have what I have – I certainly think it made me much less materialistic.
- It ignited my wanderlust and made me want to travel more and see as much of the world as I could.
- It improved my Spanish and Portuguese language skills way beyond what I would have achieved in one year in a lecture room. It made me want to inspire others to learn languages and got me into tutoring Spanish and translating from Spanish into English (which is what I do when I’m not travelling or blogging!).
My year out was a truly amazing experience and one which has undoubtedly had a massive impact on the rest of my life. The memories I have of that trip, both the good and the bad, will stay with me forever…
Note: All the images in this post were taken on a film camera and scanned in, hence there is some graininess.