Monday, November 23, 2009

Wrong Turns and Amazing Experiences - A Lesson in Embracing the Unexpected

I was reading the BBC news headlines this morning and found a story about a man who went out for a newspaper in the morning and didn't come back for 9 hours.  His wife got worried and called him on his cell phone only to find he had driven 370 miles away.  This is akin to leaving your house in Phoenix only to find yourself in San Diego.  The man said, "I didn't know where I was going but I knew it was somewhere, and with a bit of luck I would eventually find my wife again."  Wow.

Have you ever started off on a journey and found yourself someplace other than your destination?  I mean this as much philosophically as I do literally.

Of course you have, everyone has.  While you may have reached your physical destination chances are you took an emotional detour somewhere along the line.

I had plans when I went to Chile as an exchange student the summer before my senior year of high school.  I was going to immerse myself in the language and become one with another culture.  I was going to integrate myself into another country and learn to love another way of life.  (If that sounds a little flowery and naive you have to remember I was a teenager...)  Oh yeah, and I was going to spend a summer away from my parents.

When I arrived in Chile I was tired and ready for a shower.  After 5 years of Spanish classes I could only remember one sentence "Que es bonita" or "how pretty."  I didn't recognize the food, I drank the water without realizing it and I had jet lag that knocked me out for almost a full day.  My host family spoke English, so there went the "immersing myself in the language" part of the plan.  We lived in a mining town 45 minutes from the nearest community, so that shot the "culture" aspect as well.  And here was the most unexpected part, I was homesick, VERY homesick.

So what next?  I was sitting in a foreign country, I didn't understand the local Spanish, and I had no idea how I was going to survive 6 weeks of strange food while avoiding the water.  I had made a wrong turn somewhere along the lines and I wasn't sure what to do about it.

The amazing part is all of those "wrong turns" led me to the best experience possible.  I had to ask for help, something I didn't do at home. It taught me humility but also showed me how similar we all are.  The teenagers in Chile were exactly like the ones in the US.  They had friends and schoolwork.  They had crushes and heartaches.  They were as interested in my culture as I was in theirs.

I also had to pay attention to everything.  As my language skills were almost nonexistent I had to pay close attention to my surroundings.  I memorized intersections, bus routes and store signs.  I learned to use hand gestures to explain my needs and depended more than once on the kindness of strangers.  I had to take a lot of risks because I never had any idea of the outcome of a situation.  I tried new foods in the local bakery, mainly because I had no way to ask for what I wanted.  I learned to shop for only the basics because I had limited money and almost no understanding of what I was buying.

I left Chile with an amazing experience, one I could not have planned and one I cherish.

My guess is we take detours all the time.  Some detours we may not be very happy about, but some are a stunning gift.  We may not realize how important the detour was until years later, but every detour changes who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

Like the man who left for a newspaper and found himself 370 miles away, I challenge you to embrace the "wrong turns" in your life.  Learn from them, or at least laugh at them.  Find a way to incorporate what you discover and adjust your views accordingly.  I came back from Chile with a love of the people and the culture, and I even learned a little of the language.  It didn't happen the way I expected but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

What "wrong turns" have you taken in life?  What did you learn? What adventures did you have? Did you ever make it back with the newspaper?  Have a great day, even if you end up someplace unexpected.

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