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Five life lessons I learned travelling Latin America

Sakhita Sharma

Someone once said that “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”, and as I sit here looking back at my 183 days, two hours and 35 minutes of travelling Latin America, I can’t help but agree.

The past months of life on the road have taught me much more than my cushy London life back home. So here are 10 other life lessons I’ve learned while on my six-month adventure.

1. Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number

Latin America

If it’s the name of an Aaliyah song, you know it’s going to be classic, and I’ve found nothing truer than the age-old saying ‘age ain’t nothing but a number’. Yet, it’s so common to hear people say, “I can’t go backpacking, I’m too old for it”, or “I’d love to skydive, but I think I’ve passed the age”.

Travelling opens you up to meeting people from all walks of life, and I’ve met and made new friends at a variety of ages, grabbing life by the reins when it comes to dating, fitness and adrenaline pumpers. Now back in the world without backpacks, it’s puzzling to think that age is what stops some of us from dreaming. My biggest life lesson on the road: jump into the deep end without a second thought at your date of birth.

2. Importance Of Learning A Language

Latin America

by Flickr user: Malingering

As I type out this article, my phone starts to flash. After a quick glance at the screen, I realise that it’s my daily reminder from Duolingo. It’s time to practice a little Español.

Sure you can get by with “hola”, “ingles” and “¿Cuanto cuesta?”, but when you can joke around with the local taxista or help out at your friend’s local taco joint, you’ll find Latinos welcome you as one of their own. You make life-lasting friendships to make your world tour even more memorable and certainly more emotional. You won’t just be an observer, you’ll be fully immersed in life abroad.

People around the world are often humbled when they meet foreigners entranced by their homelands and want to rub-off their patriotism with a few tips and recommendations. While they’ll be patient and will try to help with their broken fluency in hand-gestures, if you make the effort in their language, no matter how incorrect your grammar is, your questions will usually be answered with smiles.

A new language can also expand your mind and emotional horizons. During an empanada and Fernet-fuelled evening in Buenos Aires, my new porteña pal decided to enlighten me about love.

Latinos, she tells me, are the purveyors of love. There are countless ways to tell someone you love them in Castellaño and each way invokes its own meaning and degree and depth of love. As such, Spanish speakers can love in countless ways; they’re superior lovers, she gleams. The English, on the other hand, have only one way to convey those three magical words and therefore can only love in one way.

The Spanish expression “te quiero” cannot properly be translated. While its intensity is not “I love you” (te amo), it is not a simple “I like you” which is “me gustas tu” and it is not “I want you” which is “te desea”. Yes, it can be used to express love between friends but the confusion lies when used between lovers. It is almost “I love you” but not quite “I love you a lot.”

3. Accepting Our Circumstances

Latin America

Quilted toilet paper is NOT a necessity and neither are manicures nor pedicures. It sounds obvious, but I learned this truth the hard way – with no mani or pedi, and certainly in the absence of luxuriously soft toilet paper.

Travel makes you humble. It’s physically and financially impossible – and frankly ridiculous – to travel for a prolonged period of time with life’s little luxuries with you. The experience forces you to look into yourself and find the courage to change and adapt to every unexpected situation. You’ll find yourself thinking, “so what if there’s no hot water here? I can cope a night”.

As you meet people from all different walks of life, you’re bound to meet those more well off than you and those with much, much less. Both will change you, but it’s the humility and appreciation of the latter for the small things you take for granted each day that will help you accept your own change of circumstance.

4. A Smile Goes A Long Way

Latin America

Yes, it’s true and I’m not ashamed to admit it! On countless occasions, I have relied on a big, full-toothed grin to get me out of a tricky situation or two, and I would do it again. It’s the ultimate weapon of choice to secure a bargain or two when haggling in a market, it helps to knock off reais, soles or pesos for taxi rides when you find yourself short of change, and it can be that final factor you need in making a brand new friend who invites you round for free dinner with his or her family.

It’s tried and tested, with a 100% success rate.

What’s more, smiling is good for your health! Research has revealed that smiling is an effective way of reducing stress and feeling happy. Even when you may not actually feel happy, faking a smile will send signals to your brain that will induce positive, warm, fuzzy feelings! Let’s face it, we all have time for that.

If you’re female, it’s also proven to win favours with Cupid. According to studies, happiness is the most attractive emotion in females to their male counterparts and a simple smile causes men to find women more beautiful.

So next time you’re on the road and you’re starting to feel homesick, lonely, or stressed, just remember to smile. Especially ladies looking for love, be sure to show off those pearly whites.

5. Success Isn’t Measured By A Salary

Latin America

The notion that the accumulation of wealth is the indication of a person’s personal success is the biggest lie we’ve all allowed ourselves to believe. 

Success is first and foremost relative to each and every one of us. While for some people, success will always be relative to the size of your wallet, for others it lies in the fulfilment you feel at the end of the day or in the number of personal goals you’ve achieved.

Success is a qualitative; it is not quantifiable. For me, happiness and fulfilment are the biggest indicators of success. If you can sleep at the end of the day in comfort, without wanting for basic necessities, with your loved ones close to you and you can be proud of what you’ve achieved, you’ve attained success.

Take for example, a new friend of mine: Godofredo, the head lifeguard at Playa Zicatela in Oaxaca, Mexico. While most people would not consider this the traditional career beacon of success, perhaps as much as a hot-shot lawyer or world renowned surgeon, Godo is a local hero. He inspires the young kids in Puerto Escondido to swim, surf, and save lives, living in the only place he wants to live, doing what he loves! There’s no-one in the world he’d want to trade lives with, and that is a very enviable position if you ask me.

And don’t forget! If you want to study in any of these cities, wherever you are in the world, you can live rent-free for a whole semester. Just sign-up for the Uniplaces Scholarship!

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