Nearly 45 years ago, my parents met on a bus in Guatemala.
At the time, my father was writing his first travel book and my mother was visiting the country at the suggestion of a friend who worked at the Costa Rican Embassy. It was a chance meeting, but one that has come to represent how I conceptualize my identity as a global citizen. If it wasn’t for that encounter, things would have turned out incredibly differently for me.
Fast forward 10 years past their courtship, the long-distance letters, their wedding, the beginning of their life in Montreal, and the birth of my siblings and me, and you’ll see that Guatemala continued to play an integral role in my family’s life and development. Given their rich experiences in various corners of the world, my parents learned to see travel as a fundamental building block of our education and sought to integrate it whenever possible.
My father continued his travel writing in Guatemala, as well as in other countries in Central America, and rented a casita in the town of Panajachel for our family to spend holidays and school breaks. After spending so much time there, my parents discovered community in this foreign ecosystem: they built lasting relationships with local families, vendors, health professionals, and business owners, and found a way to make a town in the Guatemalan Highlands feel like home. It was during these regular visits to Panajachel that my curiosity and interest in other cultures were piqued and where my love of travel blossomed.
I remember having a heightened awareness each time we journeyed to Central America. I can recall the anticipation that came with the countdown of every trip, the days of preparation, and the entire flight experience. Each time we arrived at the airport, I would buzz with excitement until the moment came when I would lift up my feet up during takeoff — bringing me that much closer to my destination.
Most importantly, though, I remember how my young and untested senses would reach out upon my arrival, begging to understand every aspect of that unfamiliar environment. I felt like an animal bred in captivity experiencing the wild for the first time. Stepping out of the terminal in Guatemala City, I could sense it immediately. The air would feel different. The sounds I heard would register as unfamiliar. And the smells, language, and streets would seem altogether foreign to me. Nevertheless, my eyes would grow large with excitement. With my mother by my side providing a sense of safety and my siblings a social buffer, I, too, began to build relationships there.
Despite having no grasp of the Spanish language, I made friends with local children through games and nonverbal cues. It was in these early playdates that I started to understand something universal about the value of travel: there’s a oneness that comes from exposure to other cultures, and the energy you approach others with is almost always mirrored in their response. Although I noticed that my friends’ day-to-day lives looked different than my own, their families were similar to mine in structure and their basic needs were the same.
Relying on nonverbal communication alone began to frustrate me, though. I longed to communicate with them seamlessly, to better understand my new friends. At home in Montreal, I was in the early stages of understanding French and was beginning to see how this skill could help me in my daily life. In the same vein, these interactions with Guatemalans my age further fueled my fondness and passion for language. I wanted to interact with these children more fully, to be in on their jokes, and for them to feel like I was making a genuine attempt to get to know them.
Ever since my first trip to Guatemala, I’ve made language the starting point for any new journey. And while I haven’t been able to learn the mother tongue of each country I’ve traveled to, I’ve made a concerted effort to learn the basics: please, thank you, how to ask for directions, and how to ask how someone is feeling. The effort is always appreciated and can establish the foundation of any relationship. It says: I see you, I’m interested in your culture, and I want to get to know you.
This is the approach that I encourage anyone to adopt both at home and on the road. Make the basic effort, approach others with kindness, and the results will speak for themselves. From the example of my parents, I learned that you don’t have to be a permanent part of an ecosystem in order to appreciate its culture. You don’t need to put down roots everywhere you go, but you should respect the interactions between organisms. You can understand that everything needs food and sunlight to survive, but you can also appreciate that every ecosystem thrives in its own way. Ultimately, you can leave a place with a better understanding of its people, its food, its customs — and maybe even a couple of sentences in the local dialect. Doing so will make every activity, meal, and interaction just a little bit richer.
I’d love to hear how travel has shaped your life as well — share your stories with us using #MeaningfulMoments.
As a Capital One Purpose Project partner, I am excited to be a part of the conversation to showcase how people are rethinking the power of travel. Find more tips on how to travel with purpose on the Capital One Purpose Project Hub, in collaboration with The Points Guy.