Opinion column by Erin Valentine
Published online for Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on October 22, 2014
Standing on one of the thousands of pagodas in Bagan, Burma, I really felt like I was on an adventure. This was beauty in its purest form. There were pagodas as far as the eye could see, and not a skyscraper in sight. As I enjoyed the view, a small voice piped up behind me, “My favorite is the one on your left. It’s one of the oldest.”
A young girl with thanaka paste on her cheeks was standing next to me, holding the post cards she had been selling with one hand and pointing to a pagoda off in the distance with her other. She continued talking to me in incredibly impressive English. “If you look at this pagoda though,” she said, “you can see the lotus flowers carved in to the stone.”
This young girl quickly became one of the most resounding parts of my semester abroad. I talked to her for twenty minutes about her life, my life, and the beautiful place where she lived. She was one of the reasons Burma was one of my favorite places to visit. I connected with her.
Whether you are in an Asian country or downtown Burlington, there is nothing quite like talking to people you don’t know. Getting outside of my comfort zone gives me some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Whenever you find yourself somewhere new and unknown, talk to someone. Immediately a random town becomes tangible to you. You go past just the face value of a place and you can give it a personality. You can make connections with places and people.
Another encounter I had, and a little closer to home by about 8,540 miles, was in Franklin, North Carolina this past summer. A small town tucked away in the mountains, it has one main street that is about ten stores long. As I was perusing, I met a man who has lived in Franklin his entire life. He talked to me ecstatically about how he photographs, paints, take videos, and has a budding online presence all about Franklin and its surrounding environment. My experience in Franklin turned from just touring a small town to starting to appreciate the beauty this town is so proud of.
Those are so many stories and so many more to come just from talking to strangers. All over the world there are humans living their lives and full of amazing stories to tell. You can learn so much from people you wouldn’t normally talk to and you can see how much we have in common, no matter our culture.
A personal rule while traveling is to go past the main attractions and tourist spots. I always try to explore something that may not be the main path. As an example, when I was in India I spent my week with the best tuk tuk driver. Babu showed me his India. I went to the shops he went to, ate at the restaurants he ate at and got to know him and his life, just because I talked to him as more than just the person who got me from A to B.
When I think back to the places I’ve been, I think about the amazing people I’ve met. From the mountains of western North Carolina to the bustling city of Cochin, getting out of my comfort zone and getting to know others in their context and environment was far more rewarding then just checking off places on my travel bucket list. Getting to know people gives much more meaning to places you visit. It reminds you that you are human and have an amazing story to share with others that cross your path.