How Travelling Can Make You a More Grateful Person

It’s been five years since I experienced a Canadian fall. If not for a certain special somebody I would have been long gone, back to Asia, before autumn equinox. Before the temperature dropped, the leaves started to change, and proper close-toed shoes and jackets became necessary. I usually dread the idea of staying past August 31st. September can be quite beautiful in Canada but within it looms the threat of another upcoming and inescapable winter, a thought that literally sends chills down my spine.

But here am I, in this season, this country, waiting to board my Oct. 15th flight back to the land of palm trees, cerulean seas, and soft sandy beaches. Back to cheap, mouth-watering market food, foreign languages, and flip flops. Even rodent-sized spiders and imminent volcano eruptions can’t dissuade me from returning to South East Asia. An extra month in Canada was originally going to tick on by like the slow painful drip of percolating coffee on a cold dark morning. But something wonderful happened. I surrendered myself to this waiting game and dug back down to my Canadian roots. I fell in love–a few different kinds.

An incredible drawn out summer has helped the transition, with skies that mimic the Bali Sea and sunsets that last for hours. Weather warmer than the sweaters I stockpiled to wear this past month have sat in a corner collecting dust. I’ve worn sandals most days, even on the crisp seven-degree mornings en route to yoga. And during this time, I’ve been blessed with a view to the fall season, the one that boasts pomegranate, smoky pumpkin, and burnt sugar coloured leaves. I’ve come to appreciate the great Canadian landscape, an additional family, kingsize sidewalks, artificial heat, cultural sameness, invigorating cold winds and rainy days.

It turns out I’m so grateful for being here during this season that almost anytime someone thanks me for something I just want to say, no–thank you! I’m so full of gratitude and the best part about it is that it is free of expectations.

Many people who’ve travelled abroad for an extensive time will return home with gratitude for the life they have in their home country. For health insurance, fresh air, clean water, easy communication, health and safety standards unattainable anywhere else. Social support systems for people who are unable to create or sustain a livelihood. Quality education. I can add to the list. Wide, clean sidewalks, made specifically for commuting by foot, cycling, for merely enjoying the outdoors. Parks that have garbage bins and benches for sitting. Green spaces created just for the sake of contributing to the ecosystem and establishing natural outdoor spaces where people can walk and rest. Such things are much more visible with a point of reference. They are luxuries.

But is true gratitude always dependent on a point of reference? Do we need to travel to appreciate where we come from?

I think yes and no. Travel exposes us to myriad things that can make the lives we lead in our native countries appear more abundant and luxurious. But, depending on what we do with those observations and our emotional and behavioural responses to them, they can also result in a sense of entitlement, which negates true gratitude because it assumes that such things have been earned. Much of what we have and have access to is purely good fortune–a matter of being born into a particular set of circumstances. True gratitude relies on the realization that what we’ve have are gifts, not paycheques for moral behaviour. There is no ego in true gratitude… I think.

But sometimes, in order to really appreciate what we have, we do need to see the other side, to experience for a little while, how life is without all those blessings we’ve become used to over a lifetime. Take the film, It’s A Wonderful Life as a beautifully transparent example of how you just don’t know what you’ve got until its gone, or at least, gone away for a little while. When you’re absent from home territory, people, and familiar things for a long time is when you really begin to appreciate all those little things.

I notice this in my relationships with family and friends. The cliche that distance makes the heart grow fonder is true, especially in regards to family to whom we’re irrevocably connected. A friend pointed out the other night–and I love this–that the process of letting go actually creates more meaningful relationships. When I visit home once a year I usually spend anywhere between three to six weeks living with my family. I have concentrated time with them, for a longer period, but less frequently than if I lived locally. I get a view of their life that I don’t get if I lived down the street. We experience each others’ rhythms. We become reacquainted and have stuff to share because we’ve been away from each other for so long. But that involves a prolonged absence that is arguably not necessary for meaningful relationships but certainly contributes to them.

But the exposure to different walks of life that travelling affords, not just the absences it entails, can make us more grateful people too. Not in comparative terms, i.e. the haves and have-nots, but for all the wondrous things out there so different from home that contribute to a richer perspective. Those things that can only be felt by actually being in a place. If gratitude involves noticing “…what is already present and abundant, from the tiniest things of beauty to the grandest of our blessings*…” then travelling can teach us how to notice these things in the often mundane, familiar space of home. Travelling stimulates the growth of a personal spirituality when you learn how to look at home through the same lenses you wear in a foreign place. Maybe it’s because travelling exposes us to different religions and gratitude is a dominant virtue in most major religions. That’s why I really feel that the real essence of travelling hits when you’ve come back home. The appreciation I have for where I come from and where I am right now is a far more valuable lesson in gratitude than the freedom I have to hop on a plane next week and land on the other side of the world.

And in this unexpected and sweet space of time, I reconnected with a special someone, a Canadian guy who reminds me of the long-forgotten sensation of curling up in fuzzy socks under a flannel blanket beside a fire, watching the snow fall–and actually enjoying myself. A guy who feels like home.

I shed all my maple leaves as I left to travel years ago, only to return a few years later with a newfound appreciation for where I come from, for the toque and the mickey, for the access to health care, for rules that are meant to keep us safe and healthy, for my family. It doesn’t mean I want to stay, but I will certainly always want to return. And in the meantime, I have little pieces of home in my heart to take with me, a few fall leaves tucked into my pockets to remind me, not of where I belong, but of how grateful I am for where I come from.

“Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” – Hāfiz


Photo: Along the Rideau River near Ottawa, Canada

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