I have spent the last two weeks diving, dancing and exploring the beautiful Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. A few weeks before that, I spent several weeks traveling in Costa Rica – so clearly I love travel and all the quirky (and even inconvenient) things that happen abroad.
I love the way your brain changes when you travel. I love the way your vocabulary changes, and I love the way your diet changes. And one thing I also come to love and appreciate more each time I leave the US… is the US.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few – so share yours in the comments at the end of this post!
1. Driving directions.
Say I want to go to the beach, and I need directions. Here’s what happens when I ask for help in the US:
“Take Edgewood to 280 to 92 to 1. Go North on 1 until you get to Montara – about twelve miles.”
Each of those roads will be well-marked, and finding the beach will be a breeze.
Here’s what happens when I ask in many other countries:
“You see this road? You go that way for a long time. Keep going, keep going. Eventually you will cross a small bridge. After the bridge, keep going. There will be a slight turn in the road – after that turn, take the third right. Then keep going until you see a sign post – the one with a monkey on it. After the sign post, take a right, and soon after you pass the supermarket, take a left.”
I may be exaggerating a tiny bit, but that’s pretty much exactly how direction-getting went in Costa Rica. Here in Bonaire, I often don’t get directions at all. I asked a guy where Kamida Lagun was the other night, and all he could say was, “Man! That is so far!”
2. Being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet.
We take it for granted that we can flush paper down the toilet – but that’s kind of a developed world thing. Many of the places I’ve been to have little trash baskets next to the toilet, because that’s where the paper goes.
I’m actually pretty good about remembering to do this – California’s having a drought, so I’ve been doing the whole yellow-let-it-mellow thing for a while. You know – where you don’t flush the pee to conserve water?
And when I let it mellow, I usually throw the paper in the trash.
But once in a while, while traveling, I forget, and I throw TP in the toilet. Even though there’s a sign clearly asking me (in broken English) not to do that. Then I feel bad for potentially clogging the septic tank or whatever.
(Then there's the fact that some countries, like Chile, don't actually put toilet paper in public restrooms -- if you want to use it, you need to keep some in your purse.)
3. A general lack of potholes.
I’m sure there are areas in the US with lots of potholes. But for the most part, our roads are perfectly smooth. Not so abroad. When you’re driving around in your rental car – and especially, when you’re biking – you’ve got to stay on high alert, lest you get a rude surprise.
4. Automatic transmission.
In America, it’s getting to the point that manual transmission vehicles are more expensive than automatic ones, since there’s so little demand for them that they've become somewhat of a specialty item. Most Americans cannot drive a stick shift.
Which is too bad. Because in many parts of the world, manual is going to be your only option. In other parts, they have automatics, but they cost a ridiculous amount more.
I learned how to drive stick by renting a pickup truck in Patagonia and driving it hundreds of kilometers, down windy, unpaved, cliff-side roads with no reflectors or guard rails.
Admittedly, it was only really stressful for the first hour. But there were still times where I was like, OMGGGGGGGGG why can’t I get this stupid thing into first gear? Why does it keep stalling out so violently?! And there were definitely times when I gave myself neck pain trying to reverse it up a hill.
Honestly, I’m glad I learned to drive stick – I’ve saved a lot of money in many different countries, and it’s actually kind of fun. But I’m super excited to get back in my Ford Escape, put it in reverse, and feeling it coast gently backwards when I take my foot off the brake.
5. Being able to say anything to anyone without going through the whole conversation in my head first to make sure I know the right words.
The first day or two after returning home from a trip, I always feel amazed and relieved by how easy it is to ask anyone anything. Don’t get me wrong – charades, sound effects and silly faces are fun. But sometimes, they just don’t cut it.
For example. I stayed in a big hotel in Warsaw once. When I went to the room they’d assigned me, the key wasn’t working – maybe it got demagnetized or something. Luckily, there was a maid nearby, and she opened the door for me. I dropped my bags, got some money, and spent the afternoon exploring the city.
When I got back to the hotel, I went back to the hotel, the key still didn’t work. I asked for a new card, and they gave it to me. I went to my room…
And all my stuff was gone! And the bed was made, even though I’d lain in it earlier.
For about two seconds, I assumed it was theft. But then I noticed… It looks a little different in here. I don’t think this is the same room.
So I went back to the lobby. As I approached the desk, I asked myself, How do I convey this problem with the fifty-ish words of Polish that I know? How do you say, “I accidentally put my stuff in the wrong hotel room, but I have no idea which room, just that it’s somewhere above the 10th floor – can you help me find it?”
Not to mention, it's way too much fun to be able to joke with people, and language barriers often prevent that.
6. Not having everyone try to rip me off, just because I’m White/American/traveling.
Haggling can be a fun part of the travel experience – but it’s also nice to just go buy something without having to discuss the price. It’s nice not to have to wonder if you just paid 3x more than what a local would have paid, just because you’re foreign. It’s nice not to have to ask yourself, Is that really how much this item costs here?
Confronting people takes energy. Saying things in your second language takes energy. Bargaining takes energy. So haggling can be very ego depleting.
You may not be getting the best deals ever when you shop in America… but it’s nice that shopping is so easy.
7. Using my credit card.
I have this sweet Capital One credit card – it gives really good cash rewards, and there is a zero foreign transaction fee. I got it specifically for travel.
It’s great – except for when it’s not. Many stores in other countries don’t take credit cards, even though they easily could. Sometimes, it’s a tax evasion thing. Sometimes, it’s a silly little, look-how-cool-we-are!-no-one-in-our-whole-town-takes-credit-cards-because-we’re-sooooo-chill-here thing (see also: Pavones). Sometimes it’s genuinely because they don’t have the technology or infrastructure to accept a card.
I really enjoy not having to walk around with a ton of cash – and therefore, I really enjoy being in places where I can use my credit card. Obviously, not being able to use it isn’t going to keep me from going somewhere… but I will still long for it tragically.
8. Being able to use my phone.
I almost didn’t include this one, because I actually really enjoy being away from my phone for a couple weeks per year. It’s nice to never be distracted or feel obligated to get back to someone right away when I’m enjoying a moment. (See also: I got a smart phone and it instantly made me less cool.)
Not having a phone abroad is very much a choice – almost every airport I’ve been to recently sells cheap phones with weekly, monthly, or pay-as-you-go plans. Bonaire actually offers phone rentals for only $25 per month.
But I won’t lie – it is super convenient to instantly Google a question I’m wondering about, look up directions or download an audiobook. It’s super nice to be able to open your Airbnb or Hotels.com app and find a place to stay on-the-go.
9. Regular trash pickup.
It always makes me sad to see giant piles of trash and plastic bags in otherwise beautiful towns and neighborhoods. And I kind of blame the people, because I know they could do better…
But really, the lack of infrastructure is the problem. In so many parts of the world, peoples’ trash doesn’t just disappear every Tuesday morning. And people are left to figure out what to do with it.
Some burn it. Some throw it in the ocean. Some designate a place near or in town to deposit everything – perhaps along an ancient city wall.
10. The beautiful lack of cigarette smoke.
Smoking is so disgusting. There is no part of me that understands why anyone would ever do it – why you would start. Why you would do it enough to get addicted. Why that disgusting cancer stick is something you’re willing to spend your money on. Or why you are so rude and inconsiderate that you think I should have to breathe that vile poison along with you.
America is beautiful in that fewer people smoke there than abroad – and in that those who do smoke aren’t usually allowed to do so near me. There is no smoking in many restaurants. There is no smoking in certain outdoor areas. There is no smoking on public transportation or hotel lobbies or many other places.
This isn’t always true in other places. So enjoy your clean air, America.
11. Customer service.
If America has ever nailed one thing (and it has -- it's nailed a lot of things), it's customer service. At almost every restaurant, hotel, spa, dive shop, or anywhere else, the management cares deeply about your experience. They go above and beyond to make sure you leave happy.
This often isn't the case abroad. You tend to get one of two attitudes about customer service:
1. I already have your money, so I don't really care about you anymore.
2. I don't have your money, and I don't really care if you give it to me or not.
This obviously isn't true in every culture except America. Japan has great customer service. Other places can be hit or miss. But the fact is, most places in the US put an emphasis on good customer service, and I love that about my country.
12. Dogs that DON'T chase cars.
All my life, I've been familiar with the concept of dogs chasing cars -- even though this was a phenomenon I'd never actually seen myself.
Until I got to Chile. Or Peru. Or Costa Rica. Or Bonaire. Or a number of other places.
I have no idea why this is true. Maybe it's because other countries have fewer cars? Or more loose dogs?
All I know is I have never seen an American dog chasing cars.
Why do I love this?
Because as adorable as it is to watch a dog viciously barking at my vehicle, it makes me nervous. What if I hit him? There are a lot of dogs with messed up legs in rural Chile, and it's because they love chasing cars so much. I love doggies, and I hate to see them limp and suffer.
That said, I do kind of like how so many other places have cute little dogs running free everywhere.
What did I miss? Let me know in the comments -- and don't forget to appreciate the small things that make life just a little bit easier.