When I was nineteen, I lived in Haiti for two years. I was there as a Mormon missionary. It was one of the best things I could have done with my life at that age. Not the converting part, but the living in a different country which happened to be third-world part. My paradigm completely shifted from local to global, from self-centered to realizing there is more to life than me and my teenager self. And there was suffering. But there was also happiness, beyond belief. The people of Haiti are some of the happiest people in the world, despite their poverty and challenges in life.
I was impacted by the lessons I learned in Haiti and they have lasted my lifetime. Lessons about happiness and it’s disconnection from poverty or riches, language and how it connects me to lots of people. I have since left the Mormon church, but I often say the best thing I got from the church was Haiti. I still hold that to be true today.
My favorite quote, and the motto that I live by today, is one that Mark Twain wrote.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
This quote has been on my Facebook page since its inception in 2007. But it’s something I have been living for years before that.
I Started Traveling At An Early Age
I am an Air Force brat, so I was first introduced to the traveling lifestyle at the age of four, when my father went to Korea for thirteen months of TDY and my mother, with her five children, moved from a house in Glendale, Arizona, into a trailer on my grandparents farm in Bellybutton, Arizona. Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve linked the town name so you can see where it is, between Snowflake and Taylor, Arizona. It’s not a municipality, exactly, but more of a valley between the two towns which has become affectionately called Bellybutton.
After my father’s thirteen-month tour in Korea, he came home and announced we were moving to England, where we stayed for four years, returning back to the US when I was nine, to Southern California. We lived in California until I was nineteen and was called to serve a mission in Haiti. So you can see I already had some experience traveling the world, but nothing really could prepare me for what I experienced in Haiti.
The Connection Between Money and Happiness
Haiti is a third-world country. The poverty there is overwhelming to most people. Going as a nineteen year old was probably less impactful than when I returned to Haiti fifteen years later. But it still had a huge impact on me. I learned more about myself through the eyes of a third world country than I could have ever learned by working at Target or Albertsons or even going to college in California at nineteen. And even though I was there for less than altruistic reasons, although the reasons seemed altruistic when I was nineteen, it was awe inspiring to fall in love with a people who had so little and yet were so happy.
Almost everybody I talked to every day had less than a typical American and definitely less than most people I knew. I discovered they were happy despite their poverty. Of course, they all wanted a better situation for their families, but they were happy regardless. It taught me that happiness doesn’t come from having money and things. It comes from being content in your life regardless of what you have. Because these were the happiest people I had ever met and they had way less money and things than almost anybody I knew.
I will always be grateful for learning a second language at nineteen. In Haiti I learned French and Haitian Creole. Not only does the French and sometimes Creole help me as I travel around the world, but it also helped me through the years with understanding English and where our words come from. The Norman Conquest had a huge French influence on the English language and as a kid, living in England, I drew pictures of the Norman Conquest rather than the American Revolution, which I would most likely have drawn in the US.
French has been extremely helpful to me for the past couple years as I’ve been Global HitchHiking around the world on other people’s boats. I passed through Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rodriguez, Mauritius, Reunion, Madagascar, and French Guiana. French was handy in all of those countries. Creole was super handy in French Guiana as well and even a little in Rodriguez, although the dialect there was a little different than Haitian Creole.
Mark Twain’s Points
So, Mark Twain said that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I’d like to try and address those points if I can.
Prejudice, Bigotry, and Narrow-mindedness
Travelers, particularly world travelers, tend to lose most of their prejudices, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness by traveling. Part of the reason they are traveling is to experience new cultures, peoples, food, and customs. Being prejudiced works against that whole process. Every country I’ve been to has introduced me to new things and new people. I am sometimes surprised how different they are. But each new country and culture allows me to fold these new ideas into my world view and makes me realize that everybody is different and yet we are all part of the same global family.
I find it hard to prejudge a culture I have never experienced. Sure, I may have heard things about a given culture through the media, but when I actually go there, I try to experience it as if I’ve never heard anything about it. For example, I spent about a year of the past three years of traveling in countries that were predominately Muslim. As an agnostic I do have some negative views on religion in general, but I try to see religion from its impact on the culture. That process takes away prejudice and bigotry. It makes you look at the people as individuals and collectively for what they represent. I didn’t notice any of them treating me differently because I wasn’t Muslim. And instead of dismissing them as religious zealots, I just looked at them as normal people who dress a little differently.
So, yes, I would say for the most part, Mark Twain nails it. I can also see the opposite of this in those people who never leave their home town or home state. People from the US who travel a lot are rarer than those who don’t. And those who vegetate in one little town or section tend to have a lot of fears and prejudices and tend to be closed-minded. Think about the people you know. Not all people are this way, but many of them are. Travel will open your mind and give you a global perspective. You stop thinking about what you do as impacting your local community and start thinking about how it impacts the world. Those single-use plastics you’re using? They’ll end up on a beach in Indonesia. The consumerism you’re part of? It impacts the coral reefs all over the world. That new phone you buy every year and throw away the old one? The old one ends up in India where sweat shops are dismantling it for precious metals. We truly are a global community.
It took me thirteen years after I left Haiti in 1986 to return. I never stopped thinking about returning. Haiti is something that gets inside of you and you can’t quite shake it. I had been speaking Creole whenever I could, sometimes in the shower, sometimes with Haitians I found in my US-based travels. And when I went back to Haiti, I didn’t want to go back as a tourist. I wanted to give something to Haiti, if I could.
I found an organization that was helping the handicapped in Haiti and decided to go back with them as a translator. Healing Hands for Haiti has the largest rehab facility, school, and prosthetics lab in Haiti and every year they send teams to Haiti to provide treatments, training, clinics, and education. They also work with groups and individuals in Haiti, collaborating and facilitating treatment through them. The first handicapped awareness day was spearheaded by Healing Hands. I was proud to be going back with this organization and took about fifteen trips to Haiti with them between 1998 and 2010.
I often tell people that I’m half Haitian. And when they hear me speak Creole, they don’t disagree with me. Haiti has half of my heart. It has since I left there in 1986. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without that experience. It was the first time I traveled outside the country on my own and with two years in country, it was long enough to transform me into a different person. My wish is that everybody reading this will have a similar chance, to realize the truth behind Mark Twain’s quote. Traveling will change you!