Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Seven Habits of Effective Travelers

This post has been borrowed from "Uncornered Market."

When people hear that we’ve been traveling around the world, they often imagine the two of us relaxing on a beach, drinking mai tais and reclining under flaming tiki torches.
In reality, it’s no wonder that the word “travel” is derived from the French wordtravail meaning “to work hard, to toil.” While we may occasionally indulge in beachside cocktails here and there, our days are typically filled with on-the-fly problem solving in ever-changing contexts: finding decent places to sleep, negotiating safe transport, and keeping ourselves well and well-fed so that we may focus on understanding the places we visit and the people we meet.
But this makes independent travel sound like something of an exercise in endurance. Much more than that, it facilitates the development and sharpening of a rather specific set of life skills that not only come in handy on the road but also translate in the real world (you know, the place where tiki torches are replaced by fluorescent track lights).
In no particular order:
1. Seek First to Adapt, Then to Complain (a.k.a., Adaptability) – Living outside your comfort zone becomes the norm on the road. New environments provide different challenges; what worked in the last country may not work in the next. All that stuff you became accustomed to just last week? Forget about it. Independent travel forces you to continually size up each situation and adapt accordingly. Your resulting experience depends on it. Sometimes your life may, too.
We’re reminded of: When we (two American non-Muslims) were presented with a steaming bowl of goat bits at a feast to break the Ramadan fast in Kyrgyzstan, we joined in by reluctantly chewing on a jaw bone.
2. Plan With Multiple Outcomes in Mind (a.k.a, Planning) – Determine which variables are most important to you (e.g., comfort, cost, risk, time), do your planning, and optimize accordingly. In doing so, you create not only Plans A and B, but also Plans C and D, too. In the end, circumstances force you to a hastily crafted Plan E, which you later realize may have been the best plan all along.
Mapping the Pamirs
We’re reminded of: When a Chinese train station attendant informs us that the train no longer runs to our next destination, we don’t force it. We find another one…and stumble upon a Tibetan opera festival.
3. Work a way in. Leave a way out. (a.k.a., Problem Solving) – Independent travel presents myriad problems to solve, from the mundane (how to find your way to the bus station) to the critical (whether taking that bus will present personal danger). Strikes close transport routes, hotels fill up, and conflicting information confounds. The constant challenge: work your way into the circumstances you want, while continuously leaving room for an exit strategy should the ground shift under your feet.
We’re reminded of: When the land border crossing from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan engulfed us in a sea of humanity. We used not only our physical strength but also our wit to find a way out, barely.
4. Find the Common Ground (a.k.a., Negotiation and Compromise) – As in life, fruitful travel experiences depend often on seeking an outcome where all involved are reasonably satisfied and feel that they have been respected in the process. And we are not just talking about agreeing on the right price for your hotel room or compromising with your travel buddies about which bar to go to. Win-win relates to the larger issues of negotiating common space where prevailing cultural norms and standards may be at odds with your own.
We’re reminded of: In the hills of Svaneti, Georgia, our host family shares their emotions, we share their sorrow. Then we find a graceful exit.
5. Tune In, Filter Often (a.k.a., Observation and Perception) – Seek out the signal while filtering out the noise, particularly in order to fully appreciate what it is that you’ve come to see: the culture, the people, the country. And while you keep your eyes wide open to all that is new around you, also keep in mind that wide-eyed perception is well-served when paired with a finely-tuned bullshit detector.
We’re reminded of: In the middle of the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, two Tajik soldiers train their Kalashnikov rifles on us and ask for our documents. We formulate an excuse to return to the view of our driver and jeep.
6. Have Less, Do More (a.k.a., Resourcefulness) – Develop an ability to very quickly uncover relevant sources, glean meaningful data and assimilate it. Information can be found everywhere – from local people on the street to other travelers to quick searches on the internet. But the trick to finding the golden nuggets: remain open to the right people while sifting out the shills and the under-informed.
We’re reminded of: Our goal: hiking in Nepal’s Himalayas without breaking the bank. We were astounded by the prices we were quoted initially (in the $1000s of dollars) for this trip-of-a-lifetime trek for which we eventually paid about $500. How? We performed some online and on-the-ground research, talked to everyone we met who completed the trek, and triangulated our data. The result: we took the same trek as supermodel Gemma Ward.
7. Find a Common Language, Create One if You Must (a.k.a., Communication) – Interacting with people is arguably the most rewarding part of travel. It can also be the most exhausting. Having to frequently adjust to different cultures and languages takes both skill and energy. Leverage your non-verbal and verbal communication skills in order to build bridges of trust and worthwhile relationships.
Conversations on the Street
We’re reminded of: Breaking down language barriers in China’s poorest provincethrough non-verbal communication and enjoying lunch with locals.
Should a prospective client or employer ever ask “What good have all your travels done for you?” you’ll be able to connect the dots between your travel experiences and your personal and professional growth.
And think: this list is simply the beginning. After all, we couldn’t really have called it “Top Ten Habits,” could we? It just wouldn’t have had the same ring.
Thanks to Stephen Covey for his original 7 Habits, and for helping us to keep our lists short.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Oxford in Spires... (September 2012)

Oxford in Spires...

Queens College Courtyard
Kristin and I have come to Oxford, England to attend the Opportunity International Network Global Leadership Conference that is scheduled to take place from September 10-12, 2012. We came a couple of days earlier to catch up with the Mas, the previous blog post, and to tour Oxford, the city of "dream spires."

Oxford is in spires and also inspires.

In England, there are two oldest universities: Oxford and Cambridge. Collectively they are called Oxbridge. University is relatively a new concept to them because in olden days there were only federations of colleges. Colleges are independent legal entities, employing their own staff, owning their own buildings, managing their own endowments and hiring their own staff. The central university only administers and coordinates among colleges.
Schulman Auditorium

Oxford University has 30 colleges and 12 permanent halls. Some are better known than others. In total, Oxford University has approximately 16,000 students, including 5,000 graduate students pursuing higher degrees.

Today, September 8th, Kristin and I had a tour of Oxford, visiting some of the colleges. Fortunately, today happens to be an "Oxford Open Day" that allows tourists to visit some of the college buildings for free. We visited Queens College, New College and Magdalene College.

Inside Queens College
Queens College from High St.
Queens College opened its chapel and auditorium. The alley towards the auditorium was very romantic with two rock-built walls leading to the auditorium. Before entering the auditorium, there was a small courtyard that had a big tree, meticulously maintained grasses and a few benches. It was so cozy and soothing. I felt I could study well in such an environment. The auditorium was built with wooden panels. It was not so big but it appealed to me strongly to make me feel like lecturing to students there.

Students after Final Exam
Trinity College
New College is the newest college of Oxford University, but it celebrated its 600th anniversary recently. So other colleges are 800-900 years old. New College has become famous after Harry Porter's movie filed dining hall scenes at New College's Dining Hall. What appeared in the movie looked a lot bigger and more grand than the reality, but it was still pretty sizable. Its campuses, buildings, meadows and walking trails were all meticulous and romantic.

Sheldonian Theater
New College from Courtyard
Magdalene (pronounced Moh-dlene in old English) College is the home for famous scholars, such as C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde. I could not find any external evidence for C.S. Lewis' teaching there. I was told that one of the walking trail rest spots has one of his poems by the bench, but I learned about it after I have come out of the trail. Its courtyards were maintained with excellence. Clean and beautiful. The walls and floors in the corridors have been worn out due to the age, but such worn out parts looked rustic and classic.
New College Dining Hall
New College

We also toured other parts of the city, such as Martyrs Memorial, High Street, Broad Street, The Covered Market, Sheldonian Theater, Trinity College, Examination Schools, Blackwell Bookstore etc.

Sheldonian Theater is where all University official events take place, such as welcoming ceremony to new comers and graduation ceremony. There was a wedding ceremony in the back of the theater.
New College
Magdalene College
Examination Schools building is the most feared building for all students. As a tradition, all students who are taking the final exam must be wearing black suits, white shirts, white bow ties and gowns. Today, there were students who must have taken the final exams. Many students were coming out of the building in such outfits. I am sure they felt relieved from the finished final exam and proud to be part of Oxford tradition at the same time.

Magdalene College
Wonsuk and Julie Ma at Christ Church

Oxford is a city of "dream spires" and is a city in spires. Indeed it inspires.

Wonsuk and Julie Ma
While in Oxford, we had a joyous reunion with Wonsuk and Julie Ma. They served as missionaries in the Philippines for two decades until they were called to serve at Oxford Center for Mission Studies. Both are faculty members, primarily working as Research Tutors, but Wonsuk is also Executive Director. We served the same church in Los Angeles, namely Emmanuel Mission Church while they were study in the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. The reunion in twenty some years was a great joy. - Jeffrey