When first traveling to an unknown country, everybody has pre-perceptions of what they are going to encounter. This has certainly been the case for me, even if I have done a lot of background research on countries that I am traveling to for the first time. Pre-perceptions can be totally wrong, and are quickly washed away once first-hand experience is obtained. It is human nature to fill in the gaps about the unknown by making assumptions, and oftentimes a person is kicked in the head by reality.
Being a history fanatic, I have carefully studied Germany military history and how the country has been historically organized from a civic standpoint. In my head, I had the perception that Germans were going to be professionally and emotionally cold. While the businesspeople I dealt with were very professional, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly people were, and what a good time my German counterparts liked to have after work. We ate, drank, told stories, and laughed at funny stories. They were just as interested in the Southwest U.S. as I was in their country.
Likewise, when I traveled to Colombia in the years after the violent drug wars started settling down, I thought that the people might be tight-lipped and suspicious, still in shock and fear of the violence that had beset their country. I found that Colombians are some of the most outgoing and kind people I have ever encountered in my travels. I remember getting lost walking to an appointment and asking a lady for directions. She literally grabbed my arm and walked me two blocks to the correct address, all with a smile and infectious chatter. Unfortunately, I had the opposite experience on a visit to Venezuela, when I assumed that all Latin Americans were talkative and warm. Unfortunately, my visit came a few weeks before an attempted coup and the people were walking around on eggshells, not very inclined to speak to anybody unless necessary – a logical reaction given the uncertainty in the country.
In Costa Rica, I was struck by how down-to-earth the people were. As I was taking a taxi to some meeting, the driver asked me if I wanted to see former President and Nobel Peace prize winner Oscar Arias’ house, and I said yes. I thought I was going to see a fancy mansion with guards and paparazzi. What I saw in a modest neighborhood was a modest house in which a person could literally walk up to the front door to ring the doorbell. This humbleness and modesty were indicative of the people I encountered in the country.
Before I visited, I perceived Japan as a wealthy society and strictly regimented. I stayed in the tony Roppongi district of Tokyo, with the fancy clubs and shops. In such a ritzy place, I was surprised to see an occasional homeless person wandering the streets. I had the same thought of Switzerland, and was surprised when I took a walk around Zurich and ended up in a park favored by intravenous drug users. Both of these experiences taught me not to idealize an entire society solely based on what I have read. Even the cleanest, safest countries have social issues.
When I was in London the first time, I was dying to try a famous local dish when I was walking near Big Ben, so I found a pub and went in to have a kidney pie. I sat at the counter where I could peek behind the screen in the kitchen, and I saw the cook take the kidney pie out of a frozen paper box container and proceed to microwave it. Even though many foreigners visiting the United Kingdom have stories such as this because the U.K. is not famously known for its local cuisine, I had a great culinary experience in that country, eating everything from savory Indian food to Middle Eastern tre.
During my first visit to Taiwan, I was dying to try the local dishes in Taipei. I had already formed an image in my mind of what constituted Chinese food. I was overwhelmed by the variety of dishes ranging from seafood to chicken-feet soup. I also was completely unaware of how hot certain dishes and soups, spiced with chiles and hot sauces, can be, and I am from New Mexico. I have a picture of myself in a suit and tie, dining on a bowl of soup outside a cafe (that in itself was a bad call as Taiwan can get extremely hot and humid in the summer). Sweat is dripping from my face and it looks like I have been crying.
When I first started traveling extensively throughout Mexico, my perception of Mexican food was the standard tacos, enchiladas, and tamales. Traveling to different parts of the country, I was amazed at the variety of cuisine. I came to love huitlacoche (blue corn fungus) soup, pan de pulque (bread made out of a traditional alcoholic beverage), coyotas (an empanada-like pastry filled with sweets like brown sugar), and my favorite food from Mexico of all, chiles en nogada (poblano chiles stuffed with meat and spices, topped with a walnut cream sauce, onto which pomegranate seeds are sprinkled). I found the cuisine in Mexico to be some of the most diverse I have ever experienced in the world. I also learned that Mexico has diverse climates – I will never again arrive in hot, humid Villahermosa, Tabasco (a southern Mexican state in the middle of lowland jungle), in a suit and tie.
It is by traveling outside of the U.S. that wonderful cultures, cuisine, and experiences can be had. This is also the way we can do away with pre-conceptions that we invent of places that we have not previously visited.