Always Say Yes
I have a great aunt, Clover—a prolific traveler who was always sending me postcards from far-flung parts of the earth. She had many maxims and pieces of advice that she often doled out, but there was one phrase that was a great indication of the passion with which she lived her life. "It's not the things you do in life that you regret," she'd say. "It's the things you don't do."
If there's one rule I've learned to adhere to as best I can while traveling, it's to always say yes to an opportunity that comes my way. When you're in a foreign culture, around new people whose local customs you don't quite grasp, shyness is a formidable foe. There are times when you'd rather curl up alone with a book than put yourself out there in a social fabric that you have no idea how to navigate. But even when your whole body is pleading with you to say no, say yes.
When I was living in Barcelona, there was always salsa dancing everywhere – in bars, in restaurants, on the beach – basically wherever there was space. There were many times when I happened to be walking down the street and would hear music playing, only to turn the corner to be in the middle of an impromptu salsa dance party, with people of all ages shaking their hips with abandon.
But having never learned salsa, or any kind of dance, really, I was always too shy to accept when someone would come up and offer to take me on a spin around the dance floor (however makeshift if might have been). What I soon realized, however, was that dancing is an inherent part of Spanish culture. It was a way of socializing, expressing yourself, and simply letting go – and by being a wallflower, I was missing out on all of that. So when I arrived home in Australia, I made a vow to myself that I would not only learn how to salsa, but that I would never say no if I was asked to dance. I enrolled in the local Latin dance school and began to learn the basics of salsa, along with merengue, lambada, tango, and samba. Slowly, I began to understand why the Spanish loved to dance so much – it connects you with your body, and with other people, in an entirely unique way. I learned that it really is possible to gaze into a stranger's eyes and rub up against them without it (mostly) being weird.
My decision to never decline a dance has since definitely put me far outside my comfort zone, but it's also led me to some of the most fun and memorable travel experiences. From a giant folk-dancing circle in a forest in the South of France, to doing the Two Step in a honky-tonk in Texas, to swing dancing in Paris, I've danced all kinds with all kinds. And after traveling extensively through South and Central America, I've also had plenty of opportunities to recoup my year of missed salsa dances.
It was a good lesson for me in learning to say yes to things when traveling, no matter how far they might push me outside my comfort zone. At first when my Spanish was still sparse, I would be too shy to go out with locals if I knew they would be speaking their mother tongue the whole time, because I was scared that I wouldn't be able to understand or communicate with them. But I quickly learned that it was the only way I was going to (a) learn the language and (b) really get to know the locals. So for my first few months in Barcelona, I spent much of my time having pretty much no idea what was going on in conversations (I perfected the art of the fake understanding head nod), until, gradually, they began to unravel themselves and I could contribute small phrases. But all the while I was having amazing adventures – impromptu road trips with virtual strangers, weird comedy shows in the attics of old buildings, dinners with former Parisian ballerinas and parties in abandoned motor garages.
By simply saying yes (obviously common sense applies here), you're opening yourself up to all manner of experiences that could potentially become some of the most memorable of your life. You might be inspired with an idea that could completely change your life, or meet someone who will play an important part in your path. In fact, some of the greatest friends I've made have been people I've met while taking a random detour while traveling. But that doesn't mean you should be looking for symbols or meanings in every opportunity and experience that comes your way. That can make you a little bit obsessive. Just go with the flow – sometimes things are there simply for you to enjoy yourself, push through your boundaries and have a good time.