When first traveling to an unknown country, everybody has preconceptions 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. Preconceptions can be totally wrong, and are quickly washed away once firsthand 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 southwestern 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.