When I was literally 18 and a day, I traveled overseas for the first time. It was an amazing, illuminating experience – all that I’d hoped it would be, in most ways – but a couple of days into the trip I broke the travel rules and was labeled a delinquent and punished for the remainder of our travels. In hindsight, do I feel bad about what I did? Nope.
I was invited to be part of a musical ambassador program, for high school musicians (or in my case, recent graduates) in which we traveled to seven countries in two weeks and performed at international landmarks: Basilica San Marcos in Venice and Westminster in London, to name a few. I was a percussionist in the wind ensemble and a soprano in the chamber choir. When not performing, we explored and saw the sites. It was a huge honor to be invited. I’m not quite sure of the criteria in choosing ambassadors. Maybe they invited people who they thought were well-behaved (I was never not on honor roll), had the means, or were excellent musicians, but in any case, it was not an invitation I took lightly.
Of course, as part of the ambassador program, there was an expanse set of rules. This was a really long time ago, but from what I remember, there was a uniform, no sleeping on the bus under any circumstances no matter how tired or sick you were, a curfew, and no drinking even if you were over the 18-year-old minimum in Europe. We were to be perfect shining examples of young American musicians. I get it.
So our first city was London, where we spent two or three days playing and singing, and then had time off to go to museums, walk around, and be tourists. I quickly befriended two other percussionists – curious, intelligent, and fun people – and the first evening we went out to enjoy and experience the city. We ended up in a pub sharing pints with a charming couple and having a great conversation about regional English accents. I believe their names were Andy and Troy, and I still remember their faces well. I saw the real London by night, developed a deep affinity for the city, and a strong desire to return and see more, and we returned to the hotel by curfew.
The next day, one of my percussion companions was bragging or conversing loudly about the pints, and when I went down to the lobby, the ambassadors grand poobah director, my local band director (chaperone), and his wife were waiting for me, stern-faced. They asked me to have a seat, told me for the next hour all about what a bad kid I was, and made me call my parents.
I spent the next two weeks tightly tethered to my director’s humorless, unforgiving wife. My companions got a slap on the wrist and were free to enjoy the rest of their trip. Despite the my unsmiling whipping post and short leash, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity and was ultimately successful.
Years later, I began my masters at an international business school, where half the student body was from abroad and so-called deviant behavior like mine was encouraged or at least common. We were all deeply curious people, independent thinkers, and travelers who sought the moments that aren’t found in a brochure. I learned through lecture and practical application to be informed and respectful, keep an open mind and heart, and to always and almost exclusively seek out authentic experiences. I learned that countries differ by the people and the stories they tell and if you’re not having the conversations and actively listening, you’ll miss the spiritual lessons travel offers. I got my money’s worth in business skills and the confirmation that some people, against all odds, travel to better understand the world and their place in it.
In my first significant adventure, should I have been reprimanded for breaking the rules? Yes, of course – there should always be consequences for breaking rules. I wanted to make my band director and parents proud (they’re probably over it – some say I turned out alright). And I regret (here’s my fake apology) that the directors were so shortsighted as to try to dampen my curiosity and limit my global exposure, and that they didn’t recognize that some do well with sterile sightseeing but seeing the world through the glass of a bus window was never part of my plan. Perhaps a watchful eye, compassion, and a longer leash would have been a better approach… Or perhaps highly restrictive travel isn’t for me.
Maybe I wasn’t meant to be anybody’s ambassador. I’ll probably break more dumb rules and continue to follow the reasonable ones (and certainly be respectful of laws), and I’ll have a beautiful time doing it.
Moral of the story when traveling: have authentic experiences, be a responsible global citizen, and otherwise, go ahead and break the travel rules but don’t get caught.