A few weeks ago I sat down in a busy coffee shop, cracked open my laptop, and decided to Google “Most underrated places worth visiting.” To my surprise, Granada, Nicaragua came up twice. Images of the Spanish colonial-style buildings, awash in orange clay and pale yellows, were all I needed to figure out the next place to have my passport stamped. The oldest city in Central America seemed to be calling my name.
The most common question asked when I shared the news of my impromptu adventure was, “Why?” Some friends seemed dumbfounded, while others were unsettled by my decision to visit the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. I received the same suspicious glances when I set out to see Haiti, Nepal, and a small village in South Africa. Still, I took their misgivings in stride, convinced each corner of the globe offered worthwhile experiences and lessons to be learned.
Whether you decide to see the Roman Pantheon, the Great Wall of China, or venture just beyond your zip code, traveling matters a great deal for your personal growth. And as far as I can see there are three main reasons why — I call them “the three P’s.”
The 3 P’s: Why Travel Matters for Your Personal Growth
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
– Henry Miller
Four days into my trip I met up with the uncle of a friend back in California. After a quick breakfast in downtown Granada, I returned to find an older gentleman milling around the front of the house I was staying at. He stood about 5″6′, sported a thick flannel shirt, and proudly wore a bright red hat with the Canadian maple leaf sprawled across the crown. “I’m Raymundo,” he said before offering a hug.
Minutes later, he whisked me away to a small beach town called El Transito — the kind of place you hear about, where making it hinges on navigating choppy back roads and being able to forfeit fluffy towels and mints on your pillow. El Transito is so remote that many of the locals in Granada have never even heard of it.
But during our time together I learned a great deal about the man I’d eventually refer to as “Uncle Ray.” He regaled me with stories of his childhood in Managua, raising two boys, and the highs and lows of being a pediatrician in a country with a wildly imperfect health care system. We talked sports, politics, and all the places we’d visited between us. Each time I took at peek at the driver’s seat Raymundo was beaming, as it dawned on me in our two hours together I’d never seen the man not smile.
Soon enough we were sitting in a cozy little hideaway watching the waves rise and fall off in the distance as a hot plate of fish and chips sat in front of us. We talked in between bites as I looked off to see a few patches of ominous-looking clouds racing towards us. “I think it’s going to rain,” I told him. Uncle Ray just smiled and took another carefree sip of his beer. This guy’s got it all figured out, I thought.
After an email or two I’d met a person from another country with a unique view of the world. My journey had allowed me to challenge the assumptions I held about a community and its people. And through our connection, my life had become enlightened and far richer.
Years ago, I paid homage to the land my great-grandfather left for America: Sicily. While thumbing through a Lonely Planet guidebook one hot afternoon, I searched for a bus to take me to a beach just outside of Syracuse.
For nearly 30 minutes I watched my driver-to-be argue with a man I gathered was known in town for stirring up a little trouble. I was hot, tired, and after a long train ride anxious to soak my feet in the Ionian Sea. But after a few minutes a strange thing began to happen — my frustration gave way to a sense of peace. I realized there was nothing I could do about this frustrating, and in hindsight, rather comical episode.
I’d experienced similar tests before in various parts of the world. Whether waiting for the power to be turned back on in Nepal, water to be restored in South Africa, or for a seemingly unending security check to move along at the Bosnia-Herzegovina border, each incident tried my patience in unique ways. Ultimately, I was nudged to consider the world didn’t work on my time line. I learned to stop prioritizing the urgent over the important and started to look beyond my own needs.
After Granada, I traveled to a popular tourist destination on Nicaragua’s southwest coast. On the way my bus weaved through narrow roads, hugging the vibrant and lush countryside of this Central American gem. It was one of the most beautiful rides I could remember.
But as soon as I’d set my bag down in my hostel in San Juan del Sur, I found myself planted in front of my laptop, an all-too-familiar place. I sat impatiently waiting for the spotty WiFi to connect me to the world I was trying to unplug from. I griped and grumbled as the waves of the Pacific Ocean rose and fell literally 100 feet from my room.
Fortunately, I collected myself long enough to consider the scooter ride I’d taken the day before in Granada, and the depths of poverty I’d casually rode past. I was complaining about email when 24 hours before I saw children wearing tattered clothes and covered in dirt. I was reminded that someone somewhere will always be facing greater challenges than me, and though travel may not be an antidote to the world’s problems, it can offer a dose of perspective. When our awareness is heightened, our ambivalence begins to gradually erode. And through greater consciousness, we can find ways to lend a hand, however big or small.
So wherever you choose to venture off to, remember to protect your curiosity, to be bold but not reckless, and flexible enough in your thinking to reap the treasures this remarkable world has to offer.