“Never ask why” and other life lessons from 65 countries

traveling fiji

By Mark Schaefer

I just visited my 65th country. I suppose that is something that makes me unique in the marketing space, so I thought it would be interesting to reflect on this part of my life and reveal what I’ve learned about life and business from the experience.

I first got the travel bug when I was a small boy. I had a great uncle who had amassed an enormous stamp collection. When he died, for some reason, I got the collection. These thousands of little pieces of art teased me with the greatest sights in the world. What were these places? I wanted to know. I wanted to go!

When I graduated from college, I immediately saved my money for a trip to Europe. I was young and green and broke and had no idea what I was doing so I signed up for one of these 10 countries in 15 days deals to get a taste of what the world was all about.

And so it began.

The travel experiences

Much of my world travel occurred when I had a global marketing position for a Fortune 100 company. This job took me all over Europe, Russia, Asia, Australia, and South America.

I have continued to travel throughout my “second career” as a consultant, author, and public speaker. In the past 12 months alone I’ve added Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Costa Rica, Montenegro, Greece, and Turkey to my travel log.

I’ve never had any goal to “collect” countries and I have no final objective in mind. I just take life as it comes and that has included some great travel adventures, fortunately.

Some of my best memories include:

  • Climbing around on the Great Wall of China
  • Being awe-struck on Easter Island
  • Attending a geisha performance in Japan
  • Sailing through the fjords of New Zealand
  • Watching a magical Bruce Springsteen performance in Dublin
  • Seeing a military parade in Moscow
  • Extraordinary wine-tasting tour in Chile
  • Being frisked by the military upon arriving in Venezuela
  • Sailing around the islands in Fiji
  • Seeing sloths and monkeys in a Costa Rican rain forest
  • Touring Estonia with a “friend of the blog”
  • Breath-taking city views of Rio de Janerio
  • Walking through a glacier cave in Switzerland
  • Eating one of the best meals of my life with friends in Bangalore
  • Hearing monks sing in a church atop the island city of Mont Saint Michel
  • Camping in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (snowing in summer?)
  • Snorkeling in Grand Cayman with giant sea turtles
  • Bartering for treasures in Moroccan markets
  • Off-roading in Aruba
  • Visiting Leonardo DaVinci’s final home in France
  • Hiking in the Andes
  • Cruising the Bay of Kotor (Montenegro), among the most stunning sites anywhere.
  • Visiting some of the greatest museums on earth including the Louvre, The Vatican, Victoria & Albert, The Hermitage (Russia), and the Benaki (Athens).

Friendliest people – Time and again, the Irish and the Australians seem to be the most fun people anywhere.

traveling japanMost exotic location – Japan is the place on earth most unlike the U.S. It is a homogeneous culture that has developed over thousands of years. It is like walking into another world, especially once you get outside the big cities.

Best food – I am an adventurous eater. I’ll try about anything and I have. You might expect me to name Italy or France as having the best food, but here are some unexpected culinary capitals: Croatia (Italy + Greek influence and so fresh), Argentina (the meat capital of the world), and India (such a diverse mix of ingredients and flavors).

Favorite city — If you can overlook the crowds, Venice is singularly remarkable. For 1,000 years it was the most prosperous city in the world and arguably the world’s first tourist destination. It has never been bombed and looks exactly as it did in the 1400s. The views, the art, the food, the history. Venice is the total package. Nothing better than a romantic summer evening listening to the classical music performers on Saint Mark’s Square.

Favorite country — This is a very, very hard choice but I would choose France for a few reasons.

  • Diverse regions include the Alps, beaches, wine country, magical cities, and so much more.
  • If you drive around France, there is something beautiful and perhaps historically significant every five miles.
  • In France, art and culture matter. So you never just stroll through a park … you turn a corner and see a perfectly-placed statue, fountain, or art installation among the gardens. And then you find a free concert.

My lessons

1) Never ask “Why?”

When you travel to so many places – especially developing countries – you’re bound to see some things that just don’t make sense – maybe even silly by the standards of your culture. Go with the flow. Accept and celebrate the diversity.

2) Go see the sights … and then don’t.

When you’re in a city for the first time, spend time seeing the greatest sights, but then allocate time to visit the countryside and villages where people really live and work.

Some of my most beautiful memories are from off the beaten path: Watching an ancient town square in France come alive at sunset; listening to a restaurant owner sing to his guests in a quiet neighborhood in Italy, enjoying raclette with friends beside a fire in a small pub in Switzerland, watching mystical traditions unfold at a national park in Japan, hiking the rural countryside in England.

3) Be cool. You won’t die.

Sometimes international travel can be exasperating and nerve-wracking, especially if you’re in a place that doesn’t speak your language. But it will work out somehow.

I remember one time getting out of a jam in a small town in Japan by drawing pictures on the back of my business cards. I got by in China one time by pointing to a photo of my hotel on my phone. Take a deep breath. It will work out and you’re not going to die.

4. I am an American. They are not.

Whenever I give an overseas speech or workshop, I go through every point with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I’m not including any phrases or product references that would be unfamiliar to the audience.

This is easy to do – I just have a conversation with the organizer ahead of time covering some common phrases. I go out of my way to try to use local people and references whenever possible. PS: Everybody in the world knows Kim Kardashian. I’ve stopped asking.

5. People are people.

I’ve been to Russia three times but before my trip last year I was a little nervous. Tensions had been rising between the U.S. and Moscow and I was concerned about even getting into the country to conduct a workshop for Carlsberg Beer.

I ended up having no problems at the border and as I explored the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg, I heard American music, saw ads for American clothing, and observed posters for American movies. I was treated like a king and had fascinating discussions on every topic you can imagine. I realized that there are no tensions between our people. There is tension between our leaders. People everywhere are living their lives, raising their kids, trying to get by. And they want to come to Disney.

We all need to keep in mind that people are people. We’re one big family, really.

What’s next?

On my last trip, I befriended a former ambassador to Switzerland who had lived and worked all over the world. I asked him how many countries he had been to and he replied “almost all of them.”

Now retired and in his late 70s, my friend and his wife continue to scamper around the world. When I asked him what kept him traveling after all these years, he shared this wisdom: “It makes me think in different ways.”

Perhaps that is the greatest gift of traveling … I learn so much! When you immerse yourself in a country and a culture, it will change you and your perspective in small and large ways. And that’s why I will keep going too, because I want to keep learning.

At this point, I think my travel wish list includes:

  • Southern France
  • Malta
  • Island of Rhodes
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Viet Nam

How about you? What is your dream destination, and what have you learned on your travels?

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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