Can being from a small town affect the way you view travel?

Now, I have known people that come from towns with population of 10,000, or 5,000, or 500 even – in a way I guess I was lucky to grow up in a town as big as mine, with the population of approximately 23,000 people. On Finnish standards that’s bigger than average, in fact, it falls into the top 50 of the biggest towns in this country.

For me it was always too small.

I couldn’t tell if it was the fascination with the big wide world that I had only managed to sneak a peek at that pulled me out into the world, or was it the claustrophobic need to widen my territory that pushed me out, but I do think that growing up sheltered like that has had some sort of an impact on the way I view the world as I travel. I say sheltered because that’s what growing up in a town like that is, and maybe that is how it is in the whole Finland. Surely, bad things happen to good people in small places. Some smaller towns are probably much more perilous than whole New York, Shanghai and London combined. However, in a place like Iisalmi my parents were never afraid to let me play outside as a kid, and as a teenager as I learnt to drive, there was barely traffic to be aware of. There was less of… well, everything. Everything was smaller, and of some things there were none.

I feel like travelling has taught me a lot of things about the world and myself, and I swear that last sentence is a cliché for a reason since it’s true. I have grown immensely during the past three years when I’ve been more or less travelling. If you add up being from a small town it seems like I had a lot of catching up to do with my fellow world wanderers that popped into the game hard-boiled by their metropolises.. Or did I?

First time stepping out into the world  by myself was on my Australia trip. I remember how star-struck I was about the musicians on the street corners, the monorail, the fact that the amount of people on the greater area of that one city made up four fifths of the whole population of my home country, I saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken AND a Burger King on the same street, and it blew me away, because for some odd reason that was indication to me that I was, really, Out There. Everything seemed so unique and wonderful to me. Those were humdrum, everyday things that I found wondrous just because they were unknown to me. It was exciting to see new faces, when you knew back at home you were familiar with each one of the people on the streets, and if you weren’t, you surely could draw a connection to someone they knew that knew you if you would’ve stopped and talked to them. Which you never did because that would’ve been out of character. In Australia people I had never met and would never meet again talked to me on the bus stops and on the trams, they came to me at a bar or McDonald’s, and I did, too, a few times, because I was happy I could do that without being considered too weird.

Some could say that was naive. I can only imagine the benevolent snorts that the people I met in hostels mentally directed my way as I, all starry eyes and ambitious plans, explained to them all about my future travels. They could tell I was new in the game. I guess I still am new in the game, but these days I acknowledge it better, or at least that is what I’d like to think. Years ago I had a friend of my age whom I as much as idolised – she had lived and travelled in multiple countries and was moving off to Switzerland to finish her education. I had not yet explored the borders of the map and to me the names of those places were nothing but writing on paper and pictures in books, and I still dreamed of going there one day. Back then I had no idea what to expect. To me, travelling seemed as it does in Instagram pictures or Pinterest boards. A girl with thick, wild hair blowing in the wind, raising her hands against the sunshine; toes curled up in hot sand; backpack sprawled on the side of the road as the thumb rises to greet the passing drivers. Travelling seemed like a picture.

I would disagree with anyone who would think being naive is solely a bad thing in a traveller. When you’re out there on the road, you constantly run into those people who’ve seen it all. (I hate the part of me that is slowly turning into that.) They can tell you where to go and they will, whether you ask or not. For a big part, they might remain unimpressed by the wonders they see, in opposite to the newbie traveller, to whom EVERYTHING is a wonder. They never had buskers in my town, and if you went up to the streets at midnight on a Wednesday night, the only person you came across was the elderly lady with bad teeth trying to find cans and bottles to collect the refund. The lights in Sydney dazzled me. What is more, the fact that there were so few people around during the nighttime but still those plazas and esplanades were packed with people during the day, dazzled me. I thought it was fantastic when fellow travellers told me they had travelled South East Asia (because it sounded like a fairy land to me – I only knew Cambodia from the little print next to a president’s picture on a history text book) before I learned that everyone had been in South East Asia.

Of course inexperience can be a deficit as well. I’m thinking about tourist scams, careless possession-sprawling on a hostel bed, bad map reading, even dealing with the local culture. But these are all things that you learn along the way, and also things you can study before your departure. And isn’t it great to do things for the first time – really for the first time?

Besides, it might be wrong to name it naivety that lets you get flabbergasted over everything, it might be your expectations. If you come from a small town and haven’t actually seen all that much yet, you might have expectations, but you don’t know exactly what to expect, and that is the sweet part. High expectations, as they come undone, can ruin a good trip if you’re not careful. For a rookie rover that is all different. You go out there looking for an adventure, but the details are fuzzy, because there are none yet; you have seen the place in pictures and heard what the other travellers have to say, but it is a whole new ball game stepping through your television screen into that travel documentary that only shows you a flash behind the curtain. Sure, when you think of Australia, you think of koalas and kangaroos, beaches and barbecues; but what you never saw coming was the way the sky lights up above you with millions of stars because you have never seen a starry sky as bright as that, and above all that, it’s all upside down and you never see one familiar star. Perhaps that is why it would be better to not read too much about a place before you go there, so that you can preserve that sense of excitement when you get everything you dreamed of and more, so much more.

However, is it only travellers from smaller towns that are so affected by the wonders of the world? No matter where you are from, the culture shock is always out there to get you as soon as you get out of the country that you know. No village and no Big Apple can prepare you for the first time you argue over a price of a rickshaw ride, or learn to use the compass after you’ve got lost in the woods, or change your clothes for the third time that day because the previous outfit has already become soaked in sweat in the armpits. Maybe being from a big city can give you a certain head start since you’ve grown up surrounded by all those possibilities that are only now opening up to the ones from small towns – fantastic things like shops that never close, flavours in crisps you could never imagine, or ethnic suburbs that fascinate you because there was literally one black guy in your home town.  But even those that lived in big cities before have lived there going about their daily routine. Just because there is a tour operator that arranges skydiving on weekends, doesn’t mean you would’ve ever gone, because you went to school and to your football practice and out drinking with your mates just like the people in the small towns. A big city might be full of wonders, but those are wonders that you have subconsciously framed out of your mind as you focus on living the life you call normal. And when you travel somewhere far-away and weird for the first time ever, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from – you are going to be dazzled anyway.

What do you think? Is there a difference between those from smaller towns and those from big cities when it comes to travelling?

All of the pictures in the post were taken in my home town, Iisalmi.

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