Abre tu mente. It means "open your mind." The past few months, for me, have been a very eye-opening struggle. I recently turned 26, and I started panicking about all the things that 20-somethings tend to panic about. What am I doing with my life? Am I making the right choices? Am I happy? Your 20's are riddled with questions, and after awhile, even deciding what food you want to order for lunch becomes overwhelming because you feel like you already have to make so many decisions every day. I have always been different. I grew up in a small town outside of Houston where I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. In high school, I was what one might call a "hipster" these days. But obviously, don't categorize me, because that defeats the purpose of being a "hipster," dude. I wore tutus to school and belonged to obscure clubs like "The Shutterbug Photo Club" and "The Multicultural Club." For this reason, all of the patches on my letterman jacket were custom made, and honestly, I didn't even wear it until I was in college, and only for nostalgia. The point is, my interests and passions I have always felt were misunderstood by most, and when I started traveling during college, this was no exception.
Since I've begun to travel alone, I've been getting a lot of negative feedback. Despite trying to share the positive aspects of this experience, I still feel like people just don't get it. "Why are you going to that country? It's, like, a third world country." "I'm worried about you." "I don't know how you do it." "I've heard that place is really dirty and they hate Americans." These are all common responses to traveling outside of the US to "unsafe countries." But what does "unsafe" even mean? For many Americans, they base their impressions of other countries off of what they see in media, not what they research or personally experience. The thing is, out of my own insecurities, I sometimes believe it too.
Recently, I've returned from visiting Costa Rica, a trip that received some particularly harsh criticism. I'll be honest, when I first arrived, I experienced an intense culture shock. There is definitely a visible socioeconomic difference between America and Costa Rica. But is this what makes it unsafe? As I was texting my friend at home in Houston, clearly panicking after being there for only a few hours, she said "maybe it's safe, maybe it isn't." Later on, I laughed at this statement. I'm a Cross-Cultural Studies major, and this is a very anthropological view. Anthropology is a type of human science, and has many different fields, but here I am referring to "the study of human societies, culture, and the development of such." Basically, these are the guys studying how people live around the world, and everything in-between. Those who study culture aren't necessarily there to categorize things into "good or bad," "safe or unsafe," or "pretty or ugly." They're just there to observe. They're there to point out patterns, and answer questions that really can't be answered.
A person who studies culture from an anthropological perspective does not travel to a country and return saying "yes, this place is unsafe." They know that "safety" is a very complex concept, and that there are unsafe places everywhere. Now, what I can say is that I've observed that my American friends tend to use many factors that are completely unrelated to safety to judge whether or not a country is worth visiting. "It's dirtier there." "The people there are so loud." "Their laws are different." The list goes on and on. In reality, does this mean that you should not be traveling there? Just because a culture is different and abides by a different set of standards does not mean that they are right or wrong. It means just that: it's different.
Perhaps what needs to happen is that we need to change the lens that we are using to perceive what we are experiencing in another country. When I go to a new place, I find myself "recalibrating" quite often. After a certain amount of time, my brain adjusts itself to what the norms of that country are, and then I proceed to experience that country from the perspective of the locals. In Costa Rica, this took me about 24 hours. The culture seemed to be more open, and there was a different view of personal space. In the US, we tend to avoid close contact and enjoy privacy. The bustling, noisy, open environment I experienced in the city quickly let me know that those cultural norms do not apply here. Does that make it wrong? Unsafe? Perhaps trying to categorize it at all is a waste of energy. It just is.
When it comes to travel, it's so easy to let fear determine what type of experience we will have. I encourage anyone reading this to follow the advice of the amazing street art pictured above and "Abre tu mente." Things aren't black and white. So when people ask me why I'm doing this, I think I now can confidently answer that I travel to every country for the same reason, to "open my mind." I hope that I can inspire each of you to do the same.
For advice on how to stay safe in a foreign country, or to form your travel plans around research-based facts regarding travel security, follow the tips in this article: Ways to Ensure Safe Travels.