If a traveler wants to get to know a place and its people on a more meaningful level, there is no better way than actually living in the place and interacting with its inhabitants daily. This can be achieved by either working there or volunteering. What we often fail to realize though is, it’s not necessary to travel to far flung and exotic countries to gain this sort of experience. There are many opportunities to immerse ourselves in other cultures within our own country.
Like many other countries, Canada struggles to unite its citizens due to acute regional and linguistic differences. We often have a difficult time uniting for a common goal with our compatriots on the other side of the continent. Especially since many of our fellow citizens speak a different language and have their own unique culture.
Katimavik was implemented to change all that, to bring the Canadian youth together and force us to see our similarities even in the face of our differences. Ten randomly selected applicants between the ages of 17 and 21 and from all over the country are thrown together for seven months. Even those of us united by the English language are quick to notice our differences.
Imagine you have been selected as a participant, for the next seven months you will be inseparable from your new family, and you will travel to three communities for the purpose of volunteering full time. You will be encouraged to learn both national languages of Canada (French and English), and at least one of the communities you will be living in will be Francophone.
During your time in Katimavik you will share some very cramped living quarters with at least ten other people. There is a strict shower schedule. You will work full time for three dollars of spending money a day. You are expected to participate in additional volunteer work and community activities in the evenings and on the weekends. And you will be rewarded with 48 hours off every three months.
The first challenge of Katimavik occurs before it even begins. Imagine trying to pack for at least three Canadian seasons? Just the warm weather gear alone takes up most of a suitcase. (Yes. I traveled with a suitcase back then!) Also, for most participants, this will be their first ever time away from family and friends for an extended period of time.
The second challenge is integration. Suddenly you find yourself living in a 2-3 bedroom house with ten strangers. And for the next seven months these strangers will be not only your room mates, but also your friends, family, and work colleagues. Don’t get along with someone? Tough. There is no running away from conflict here.
The months pass quickly. The girl who couldn’t speak English is now fluent. I have tried and tested three new jobs and three new regions of the country. I have lived in two communities where English is a minority. I have to understand the different people of my country, how their climate, geography and economy shapes them. I have learned that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences.
Conflict resolution, time management, team work – the lessons that stay with us the longest are the ones we least thought about as we prepared to begin the program. When we leave the program we can now claim to have close friends and family in places thousands of miles away. We now have new job experience, language skills, and friends. But most importantly, we have learned to open our minds to new experiences and people. We have been forced to find common ground with people who we thought were our complete opposites.
By opening our minds, stepping outside of our comfort zones, and forcing ourselves to integrate into parts of our society that are as foreign to us as another country, we learn not just to see our similarities, but to love our differences as well. By learning to see things from other people’s perspectives we become prepared for dealing with even the most difficult social situations, and we can relate with people very different from ourselves. This is the most important lesson. This is what gives us the tools to become real citizens of the world.
Jade Johnston is a lifestyle traveler who has lived in six countries and visited more than thirty. She and her partner run the travel website www.ouroyster.com. She is currently based in New Zealand, but the next big adventure is coming up soon.