Travelling is fun, but that’s not all it is, or is meant to be for that matter. Fun is only the icing on the adventure. You have to get through layers of challenges and soul searching to get the gooey chocolate inside with a taste you will forever carry on your pallet. When you write “I love to travel” in your social media biographies, understand that that entails something more than a stay at a 5-star resort by the beaches. Traveling isn’t always a vacation.
When you travel, there is an element of culture shock that engulfs you. Maybe you feel it as soon as your plane lands, or maybe when you cannot explain to a taxi driver your destination. Culture shock can last for a short while or for your entire trip, and you will always, in the back of your mind, know that this is not home, this is all temporary for you; all you have to do is get back on your flight home to leave the daily life of that new place you were visiting.
On the contrary, culture shock is not always a bad thing. Learning the basics of a language, familiarizing with the staple foods, enjoying music and departing with the need to understand lyrics, these are all all positive developments on the road to becoming a more open minded individual.
Yet again, it’s not only about the arts or how the situation you are in can fit into a square shot in an app. You’re dealing with real people with real lives vastly different from yours who practice cultural norms you might disagree with or not fully understand. You will have to learn to quickly get used to the fact that you’re the different thinking/looking one, no matter what you do. When you are in a new place with new people, they are not the strangers, you are.
Before going to Honduras, I thought that I had traveled enough to deal with culture shock. I was overconfident. Culture shock hits you when you least expect it. For our documentary project in Honduras, we interviewed Marlon, a 16-year-old young man. As the audio director, I was holding the boom mic while my team interviewed him. Though he only spoke Spanish, I understood him. Now, I understood not his sentences or words, but rather his honestly, the glimmer in his eye when he talked about his family’s separation; I understood these things through his body language. Before I knew it, I was crying and excusing myself wasn’t an option without disturbing the shoot. I realized we had some things in common; we both went through similar situations, just with different characters, halfway across the world.
It happened again when we had to say bye to the kids the night before we left and everyone was exchanging letters and drawings written on ripped notebook pages. I received some too, mostly well wishes for a safe flight home, which I will cherish forever. I received one, more like a love letter, from a 14-year-old boy. I wanted to think the coloured in hearts were just a gesture of a sweet “I’ll miss you” but my team members quickly informed me otherwise. Having never even received one in Toronto, I was actually happy to get a love letter until I realized what impact my time there had made, and not necessarily in a way I felt okay with. I had not conformed to the expectations for relationships between opposite genders, which had impacted this boy.
Others on our team spent a lot of time alone or with the animals just reflecting on how lucky we had been to get a chance to come here for a “reality check.” But that in itself felt like we were doing this for selfish reasons; for our own self-discovery rather than to impact the community. I couldn’t help but think this exchange was a hoax. This community sees service teams come and leave so often, this is just a ritual for them; we were not special. What impact had we really made?
Of course you cannot forget the highs, the cultural exchange, the welcoming staff and students, the beautiful animals we witnessed being born, and even the ill ones. But, what was our short time in the community really for? What role were we fulfilling, and to what end? I wasn’t really sure, and I’m still not.