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

By Mark Wiens 3 Comments

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:

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.


Cultural Travel Lesson:

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:

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.

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:

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:

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:

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!


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.