When you travel to another country for the first time, whether it be Mexico or any other country, you’re going to stand out. There will be customs you don’t know, languages you don’t understand and times you’ll feel so lost you’ll want to give up. However, I can tell you right now that standing out isn’t always a bad thing and that it may just be your greatest learning aid.
Before I went to Mexico on the Spanish Language and Mayan Culture in Yucatán program, I dyed my usually dark brown locks bright red. I saw the trip not only as an opportunity to learn but a chance to be someone new and exciting for five weeks. My newly red hair turned out to be a great conversation starter with the locals and I still haven’t gone back to my natural color!
I met my dear friend Gabriel in a cafe in downtown Merida my first week abroad. We still joke about how my bright red hair was what first caught his attention in Cafetería Pop that day. Gabriel introduced himself to my classmate and I and began to tell us all about the wonders of his city. In the brief conversation we had with Gabriel, we learned that he was trilingual, loved to salsa and that one of his biggest dreams was to own a bicycle. Before we parted ways, he invited our whole group to a local club that offered salsa lessons.
Come Wednesday, we all arrived at a local hangout spot, and Gabriel was there to welcome us all. We made complete fools of ourselves all night. We laughed, danced (some of us better than others) and stayed out way too late, but when I look back on the experiences I had in Mexico, this one stands out as one of my favorites. We returned to this spot every Wednesday after that.
Gabriel also introduced us to the Spanish English library. This library hosted an event every week that allowed people to practice other languages with native speakers of that language. Gabriel spoke Spanish, Mayan and English and loved to share his knowledge. He now works at the library, teaching local children how to use computers and how to speak English.
Gabriel became not only my friend, but my guide and my teacher. I learned so much about Merida, the language and the locals. Ultimately though, the most important thing I learned from Gabriel was how to live a life of gratitude. We move so fast all the time here in the United States. We are always multitasking; always climbing the invisible ladder of success that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. People get so caught up in preparing for their future that they miss out on the sweetness of the moment they are in.
I became fully aware of this while I was in Mexico. I tried to think of the last time I had just allowed myself to exist…to live without worrying about a bill or a deadline or about fitting in. Gabriel worried about none of these. Gabriel didn’t worry about whether he had a nice car or the best clothing or newest phone, and he didn’t worry about being different. He just wanted to live free. When we first spoke he mentioned that having a bicycle was one of his biggest dreams because whenever he rode a bicycle…he felt free.
Near the end of our trip, all the students pitched in and bought Gabriel a bicycle. It was our way of thanking him for his hospitality and friendship, and although it may seem like a simple gesture to many living in the United States, to Gabriel it meant the world.
For those of you who may be on the fence about traveling or studying abroad, just take that leap and eliminate the words “what if” from your vocabulary. Live in the moment. You don’t have to dye your hair a crazy color and you don’t have to buy gifts for all the locals, but just remember that there are seven billion people out there. That’s seven billion different perspectives and seven billion new opportunities to grow and to learn.
Either way, I encourage you to live like Gabriel. Being an outlier isn’t always easy and it may not be a bicycle that makes you feel free. Maybe it’s a song or even a memory. Whatever it is, ride that bicycle every morning. Listen to that song every day. Meditate on that memory, be different and live for the now because tomorrow is not a guarantee and you may just miss the opportunity of a lifetime.