How Growing Up in France, Congo, Kenya and America Taught Me to Travel

Travel has an extraordinary way of teaching.

Lessons are thrown at us, overdosing our human senses and often dismantling our preconceived notions.  Sometimes travel lessons move rapidly and we struggle to comprehend or even fail to realize the significance at the time. It’s fundamental travel experiences that impact our worldview and teach us to succeed, perspectives that help us to be more world smart. Cultural travel lessons are what taught me to travel.

My family moved from Phoenix, Arizona, USA to Albertville, France at the base of the Alps mountain range when I was 5 years old. They were there to learn French, and I, to begin pre-school. To my agony, I was thrown into an all French situation, a complete contrast to my previous 5 years of life. Everyday I cried ferociously, clinging to my Father’s leg and hopelessly begging not be left all alone at a French institution. Things improved drastically as I made friends, French friends who I played football with!

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Face Your Fears – Being nervous about traveling is sometimes inevitable, but it’s important to sensibly face your travel fears, because you won’t get anywhere if you don’t!
congo cesna How Growing Up in France, Congo, Kenya and America Taught Me to Travel

Democratic Republic of Congo – Cesna Caravan

From France my family relocated to an opposite side of the world, Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire at the time, now DRC).  To get there we first had to take a 9 hour Air France flight from Paris to Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR). In Bangui we boarded a small private Cesna 206 (6 seater) plane that transported us across the dense rain forest and over the mighty Ubangui River.  We landed on an uneven grass runway strip surrounded by tropical jungle…the middle of nowhere. We lived in a remote village called Tandala, completely isolated from the rest of the world.

“Afreeka moto moto moto, Putu malili malili (Africa is hot hot hot, America is cold, cold),” my Congolese friends would chant, laughing at me as we chatted in the local language of Lingala.  This was about their extent of knowledge of this far off American heavenly dreamland.

As a kid in Congo, my friends and I fabricated sling shots with surgical gloves, shot birds out of trees and killed snakes.

Tropical Congo is not a joke, if you can’t adapt, you won’t survive. We butchered our meat, stored run off rain water, and suffered from malaria.  In our area of Northern Congo, money had little value, what good is money if there are no stores?

Congo prepares you for the world, if you can live in Congo, you can travel just about anywhere.

In this Congolese society where possessions were rare, technology obsolete, and people lived by subsistence farming, nothing was more powerful than community. Taking the time to greet, visit and spend time with each other was priceless. Kids were forced to sit for hours and hours, respecting elders and just merely being a presence. These Congolese values strongly taught discipline and overall, patience.

congo How Growing Up in France, Congo, Kenya and America Taught Me to Travel

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Be Patient – When traveling, patience is VITAL. How many times have you had to wait for transportation or rely on others to do things out of your control?  A dose of patience goes a long way, no matter what your destination.
  • Appreciate People – Meeting other people while you travel is one of the great reasons and overall benefits of traveling.  Without spending valuable time with people, travel wouldn’t be the same.

After three years in Congo, the political situation began to deteriorate. We had a bag packed at all times, just in case we needed to evacuate, flee into the dark jungle of the Congo at a moments notice.

The war did eventually escalate into conflict and we made a safe relocation to Nairobi, Kenya.

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Have Flexibility - In my opinion, there’s no greater travel skill than flexibility.  Being able to smoothly change plans at a moments notice or cancel something that you were looking forward to, is a frequent occurrence while traveling. Positive flexibility turns bad situations into good ones.
  • Be Adventurous – Live out your adventures, take moderate risks, be an adventurer!

In lite of being surrounded by Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, Kenya was known as a relatively stable country. As a result, Kenya was a safer haven, attracting people from all over Africa and it’s share of international organizations.

I went to an international school where our class of 50 students probably represented 20 different nations. We each had different backgrounds, yet many of us shared childhood parallels. Though my class was composed of different religions, many varying traditions, and contrasting worldviews, we bonded together in special ways.

nairobi kenya How Growing Up in France, Congo, Kenya and America Taught Me to Travel

Slum in Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi is a city built on a foundation of extreme diversity.  Sparkling Range Rovers share the road with flocks of Masai goats and slum villages back up to the mighty fortress gates of mansions.  Nairobi is an amazing city, a place I call home, but it does have it’s share of dangers.  Remain oblivious in Nairobi and the city will take advantage of you, but if you train yourself to be alert, pay attention to your surroundings, your odds decrease.

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Be Respectful and Mindful of Other Cultures - To respect and be mindful of other cultural values while traveling is something that has profound advantages and leaves positive lasting impressions.
  • Be An Alert Traveler – Pay attention to your surroundings and act accordingly.  There’s a time and place to be flashy and a time and place to change your normal style.

After graduating from high school in Nairobi, Kenya, I returned to the USA to pursue my university education. I began my schooling at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona. At first I was excited, but my initial excitement faded like a landslide as I realized I had left my friends and Africa behind. I could adapt to life in America, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t manage to fully fit in.

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Make The Most of All Situations – Not all travel is happy and glamorous, in fact, there are many demanding and challenging situations.  Making the most of those in-opportune times will have a deep impact, forcing growth as a traveler.
  • Have a Positive Attitude – Traveling presents challenges that sometimes frustrate and annoy.  To have a positive attitude even when things aren’t going as planned, kicks back significant benefit.

The first real friends I met in Phoenix were from Mexico. I could relate to them more than anyone else and soon I hung out with an entire crew of Latin Americans, whom all spoke Spanish! I began to get back on my feet, learning to speak Spanish and feeling much more comfortable with the Mexican culture than with most American Americans.

Cultural Travel Lesson:

  • Adapt to Your Surroundings – Being able to adapt to the local setting while traveling is an invaluable quality that will improve all aspects of travel.

To cope we would make frequent drives down to Mexico, feasting on tacos and hanging out in the small towns where my friends were from. It was different than Africa and once again I learned a lot!

mark vietnam How Growing Up in France, Congo, Kenya and America Taught Me to Travel

When I graduated from University I was again excited to move on and try new things. I wasn’t ready to take on a real job and I still had a strong desire to see more of the world, the world that had taught me so much. I spent some time in South America before moving on to South East Asia, slowly migrating from one country to another.

Throughout my life, I have learned that different countries around the world present their own unique lessons and cultural learning opportunities, opportunities for growth as a traveler.

These foundational cultural travel lessons that I learned while growing up in France, Congo, Kenya, and America, nurtured me to be more open minded, allowed me to gain a deeper tolerance and appreciation for difference, and taught me to be a better traveler.

If we can pay attention to the life that surrounds us as we travel, be aware of our surroundings, and learn from our frustrations, we will be much better prepared not just for travel, but for life.  It takes travel experience to become a better traveler, so adapting  and being flexible are ways to ensure travel memories ingrain a deep and lasting impression.

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Comments

  1. says

    Mark, this is outstanding! I loved reading about the places you lived and these are great tips! I have to admit that I don’t follow all of these as much as I should but they are great reminders from real life lessons on how to travel. Can you share why you moved so much as a kid? What did your dad/mom do that made you move to these countries?

  2. says

    Excellent post! Sounds like you had a unique and culturally rich childhood. Were your parents diplomats or simply travel junkies? Thanks for sharing this thoughtful essay!

  3. Andrea says

    Wow, you’ve lived in some interesting places. These are great tips for others. It is good to know you appreciate being raised in different places because we don’t plan to stay in one spot once we start a family.

  4. Whitney says

    Wow, what a story – I hope someday that my children have the opportunities and challenges that you had! I didn’t get to travel like that until I studied oceanography in undergrad/grad school, and it has revolutionized my way of thinking! What a multi-faceted and interesting friend you must be :-)

  5. says

    A little more information:
    My parents work for a church mission organization. They now do administrative work and have since transferred to live in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

    @Jeremy: Thanks Jeremy! There are so many lessons we can learn throughout life that give us the skills we need to do better at traveling!

    @Leslie: Appreciate your comment!

    @Andrea: That’s great! I had an incredible experience growing up, and from my experience, I would say it is a great idea to raise kids overseas. Just being around different cultures/people/languages/foods introduces children to the diverse world. Attending an international school, I also have great friends all over the world!

    @Whitney: Thanks Whitney! Traveling to diverse countries around the world definitely has a way of revolutionizing the way we think! Are you still traveling for oceanography now?

  6. says

    Another superb entry! You’re so lucky to have lived in these locations and exposed to various cultures. You’re such an inspiration.

    P.S. That black t-shirt in your Hanoi, Vietnam photo looks familiar. Is that something from here?

  7. says

    Msn, this is sweet!! So many large and powerful ideas written in a concise, easy to read story. Great article and good use of the pictures to give a little feeling to each paragraph. Great site man, you are doing so well with this. Keep up the great writing, and more importantly continue with the ways that you stay true to Africa man :)

  8. says

    Wow, you’ve had quite the interesting life! So interesting to learn more about you. Also loved the lessons you’ve learned that apply to traveling. I especially liked your comment “money had little value, what good is money if there are no stores?” Living in the Congo sounds fascinating.

  9. says

    Small wonder you can feel at home in any part of the world. I think not many people have visited the Cingo, but I have, 30 years ago and I am sure not much has changed. I agree with you, who can survive there can survive anywhere. A post I extremely enjoyed.

  10. says

    Outstanding post Mark. I can’t even imagine what growing up in the Congo would be like. I think your travel tips (life tips, really) are fantastic.

    A bit of topic, but worth mentioning. We just watched “God Grew Tired of Us” (I know, what took us so long) and thought it provided such an interesting perspective on how much we in “western” world have to grateful for (as well as how much human connection we are missing out on). Really touching. I love it when something like a movie or book shifts your thinking.

  11. says

    @Lornadahl: Thanks so much! Haha, Yes, I picked up that shirt in Manila!

    @Joel: Thanks bro, appreciate you checking it out and all the support! Always true to Africa my man!

    @Robin: Yes, I still have the addiction!

    @Laurel: Thank you Laurel! It’s an entire other world in Congo (where we lived), a $100 bill pretty much meant a small piece of paper!

    @Lorna: Thanks, yes there are some great things you can learn by growing up overseas! My parents worked with a mission organization.

    @Ayngelina: Yes, patience is something that if you don’t have, you will suffer while traveling! Thanks!

    @Inka: Thanks so much! Wow Inka, I think you have been everywhere! I would love to hear your stories from Congo from 30 years ago! I’m sure you have some incredible things to tell!

    @Alex: Wow, Thanks so much for you comment! Yes, learning from life is the most practical way to study!

    @NVR: Thank you very much! I also saw it a few weeks ago! Yes, I agree, it really gives an entirely new perspective dimension on life and how we should be extremely thankful for what we do have.

  12. says

    SO true!! I moved around every few years — but nothing as drastic as you! I thought Orlando to New Mexico was dramatic… I love how fluid my life is and how I’m not scared of trying something new, moving, traveling. Some people are so inflexible, and while admittedly I find myself sometimes jealous of their stability, it’s not in my nature to be so rigid. RUN! See the world! Loved this post. Subscribed!

  13. says

    You surely did grow up in a different way then most people, moving from Europe to a remote village in Congo, Kenya and the US. Must be great to have all these different experiences while growing up. Excellent tips as well!

  14. says

    @Abby: Thanks Abby! Growing up with flexibility and not being scared to try new things is such a good quality to have, being able to change plans with little notice. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    @Tijmen: Thanks so much! I definitely have zero regrets for the places I grew up in or what I was able to do.

    @John: Thanks! That would be great, more articles in the future! My French went downhill, but I did learn some Lingala, some Swahili, and now maintain my Spanish!

  15. says

    Loved this! Since we are raising a kid as we travel around the world ( 38 countries on 5 continents in the last 5 years from when she was 5 to 10) it’s fascinating to read.

    I would like to say that going to a foreign school in another language doesn’t have to be painful. My daughter did it at barely turned 6 in Spain and loved it from the very first day. That said, we did a lot to prepare her for it before going. We never had any tears and she had a best friend from day one.

    Also I wonder how different things would be if you had free skype calls like we do today so that you could maintain your home culture there while you immerse in a new one. I bet your return at college would have been easier. My child remains close to kids at home while we travel and when they get together when we visit, it’s like she never left. But, we haven’t spent extensive time in the Congo. ;)

    I can see why your parents would choose an international school in Africa, but we prefer local schools, because they are much less expensive and one usually can immerse better with the locals, learning the language like a native ( reading, writing and speaking in a fully immersed environment).

    Sounds like you had a very fascinating childhood!

  16. says

    Such a heart-warming post, Mark, and what a lovely insight into your background and what have shaped you to become the traveller you are. Appreciating people is the one thing that resonated with me, and that’s something one carries with them for the rest of their lives :)

  17. says

    Wow – what a way to grow up! I have always been jealous of people who have grown up in different parts of the world, exposed to many cultures. I grew up in a small town and lived there until I escaped when I was 17.

    The cultural lessons you highlight are so important – thanks for sharing, this is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time.

  18. says

    @Soultravelers:

    Thanks so much for the comment.

    I think at my age, anywhere we would have gone (regardless of location) I would have been afraid to leave my parents and be alone. However, it didn’t take me long to make great friends and turn the situation in France into a great experience.

    It’s very interesting to read how being raised overseas now can be quite different (with technology, more information available) from even 15 – 20 years ago. The brilliant learning opportunities and wordview shaping experiences are still equally amazing.

    I think the decision to raise your children in various countries and cultures around the world will prove to be immensely valuable!

    Good luck with everything and hope everything is going well!

    @Sofia: Thanks! Not fully sure, but with my parents work, they made the decision to go to Congo! They were actually learning French with the anticipation of going to Congo (colonized by France), but when we arrived, hardly anyone there even spoke French (in our area).

    @Corrine: Thanks a lot Corrine! I still think that relationships with cultures in Africa are some of the strongest cultural relationships of anywhere I’ve been in the world! Just taking the time to appreciate others is a huge aspect of African culture.

    @Rebecca: Really appreciate your comment and encouraging words Rebecca. Even though we all grew up with different backgrounds and have different stories, we all have valuable lessons from growing up that help us till today!

  19. says

    I love this post! There are gems in this post. Gems that can guide anyone who is a traveler and can set the ethics that should be followed when traveling. Personally, i make it a point that my listening skill would be open anywhere I go. I listen and observe and then I learn my lesson.

  20. Emy says

    Hey Mark!

    As always, it is great to read about your travels and experiences! We are all so happy for you that you get to go through all this and share with it with us! Of course we are very content with the fact that we were part of your life here in America. Carlos and I are always talking about our ‘adventures’ at GCC… Halloween parties… etc. Always wishing you the best! Hoping to see you soon. Big hugs your way!

    Best Regards,

    Your Mexican friend,

    Emy

  21. says

    @Andrew: Thanks so much!

    @Steph: Great idea Steph, it’s very true that you can learn so much if you keep a keen listening ear…even if you can’t understand the language, you can still understand the body language and some expression. Great point Steph! Thanks for commenting.

  22. says

    @Emy:
    Emy! Great to hear from you! We did have some wonderful adventures at GCC, I definitely remember that first Halloween Party! I owe it to you guys for the incredible time I had in the States and especially at GCC!

    I often dream about the incredible Mexican food we used to partake of and all the random things! I will let you know for sure when I return to Phoenix in the future, I’d love to see you guys.
    Thanks for checking this out, say hello to Karla and others for me, and eat some tacos for me!

    Mark

  23. says

    Hi. I found your blog through some other blog, and stayed. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I can totally relate to your story. My dad is a diplomat, and due to that, I have lived in different parts of the world too. My K-12 school transcript is composed of documents from 6 different schools from 3 different countries. I hated it at first when we moved to Japan, because I went down from a A-student to a C-student, and yes, my parents also decided it would be a good idea to go to a Japanese school not an international one. I also went back to my home country for undergrad (in the Philippines) and felt different and unable to mix, and I get reverse culture shock whenever I am in the Philippines. Overall, I feel that the fact that I have a Filipino passport is just the product of chance.

    Because of that, I love traveling like no other, with a goal of visiting 100 countries before I die (currently I am at 19). Funny thing is that my stay here in Buffalo (5.5 years so far) seems to be the longest stretch of time that I have stayed in one place. There’s always this desire to move out and into a new place, and yes I know that someday in the future that should happen, but right now, I am content with being temporary, and at this point, I don’t really care where the future takes me.

  24. says

    @Linguist in Waiting:
    Hey, thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment.

    I’m glad our growing up years have some moving around in common. Definitely some things were hard while growing up and moving around, but for me I really believe they were for the better.

    When you moved to Japan, and went to a Japanese school, did you speak Japanese?

    I can agree with your quote about the passport being a product of mere chance. I think we are more citizens of the world and just have to be legal citizens somewhere.

    Great goal and I wish you the best of luck to complete it! Do you have plans to go anywhere soon?

  25. says

    Hello Mark, we arrived in Western Japan in August 17, 1995, exactly 7 months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake. I still saw temporary houses in and around Kobe, and the elevated freeway was still being repaired. August also happens to be in the middle of the academic year (school there starts in April). So what my parents did was enroll me and my younger sister in a Japanese language school instead for the next 6 months. I just turned 13 then.

    That’s actually not enough, since they teach us standard Japanese, but people in Western Japan speak the Kansai dialect, which can be rather different from the standard. I attended my first class in the Japanese public school system in April 1996 and I remember not understanding a lot in the beginning, but eventually, I picked it up and became proficient in the language.

    Regarding my plans, I just came back from Country #19 last week actually, which was Mexico. And that was awesome, it was the first vacation I did where I honestly considered “what if I don’t go back to my lab/university/dissertation and instead just stay on the road?” Obviously I came back, but it was a nice break from the routine.

    And if everything goes well, hopefully Country #20 will be Chile this August, although this is due to the fact that I might be giving a conference talk. Not a lot of play I know, but I’ll sneak in a bit of downtime while I am there if I can.

Trackbacks

  1. […] There will inevitably be a circumstance in Africa where you go to a restaurant, order a dish, and a totally different dish is served to you – no questions asked. You will naturally complain, saying “this is not the dish I ordered.“  The waiter will shyly back away and simply tell you that what you ordered was not available. It can be a bit frustrating to say the least (remember #10, 11, and 12, and that African flexibility!). […]

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