Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Bit About Perspective

If there's one thing I've learned from this trip, it is how subjective we are as people.

One thing that is interesting about traveling is that it really puts you on an emotional roller coaster. Any emotion that you might feel about a normal situation is often exacerbated while you are traveling. When you're happy, you're really happy and when your irritable, your really irritable. In general even the most level-headed person will have to deal with great mood swings and bouts of emotional instability during any long-term travel. It just comes with the territory.

Because our emotions tend to be so exaggerated while on the road, it lends itself to exposing things in human nature that are typically subtle and imperceptible - like the subjectivity of personal experiences.

Over the last three months, Nick and I have spent lots of time talking to other travelers. We've exchanged countless travel stories and lots of advice, and it never ceases to amaze me how different everyone's experiences and opinions are.

We can talk to five different people about the exact same place and hear five completely different stories and opinions. Some people will tell you that a Thai person will NEVER try to rip you off and others will tell you that they felt like the Thais were ripping them off every time they turned around. Some people find Vietnam to be fantastic and magical and others find their travel here to be merely mediocre. Many people have written online that they were extremely disappointed in the Mekong Delta and I found it absolutely fabulous and everything I was hoping for.

So what is the reason for such vast discrepancies? We're all over here doing the same thing. Virtually every backpacker in Southeast Asia is hitting the same cities, going on very similar tours, and hanging out at the same places... so how can all of our experiences be so vastly different?

What I've learned is that each individual’s perception of a country, a city, a people, has much more to do with that individual and what's going on in their life at the moment than it does with where they are or what they're experiencing out in the world.

Things that factor into a persons' perception of a particular place include:

  • How were you feeling that day? (were you sick or tired?)
  • Did you get a good night's sleep last night (or were there roosters crowing and dogs howling all night?)
  • Where are you in your trip - beginning, middle, end
  • How are you feeling about your trip? (I don't have enough time... I'm ready to go home...)
  • What were your expectations (often they were unreasonable to begin with or they were so low that you were plesantly surprised)
All of these things and more factor into how we perceive and experience things every day - not just when we're traveling. I always believed (thanks to my parents) that a positive outlook is important in life. I have always known that in any situation you can choose to look at things with the glass half full or half empty. But until I spent this much time out of the US I never realized how much our mental state really does effect our perception of life.

Can any two people ever have the exact same experience? I don't really believe so. Even Nick and I, who have been together day in and day out for over a year, are having our own independent experiences. Especially since we left Taiwan, we have done everything together. But if you ask us about our experiences you will probably hear very different stories. Sure the major points will be the same, but we focus on different things, we notice different things, we have our own independent swings in emotion, our previous expectations were different from each other’s and our previous travel experience was different...

If anything, it has reinforced my belief that a positive attitude in life is of utmost importance. But I think it has also taught me to look beyond myself and realize that my point of view is not the only point of view. It's not just about respecting other people's opinions, it's about respecting other people's perceptions of the world.

And, when taking advice from other travelers, it's important to remember that just because they hated a particular place, doesn't mean you will. Maybe they just had some bad dumplings that day.

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