There is something amazingly transformative about travel. It has the power to change how we feel, how we think, or even how we perceive the world around you.
I’ve had many experiences throughout my travels that touched me to the core. And I don’t think I’m alone in that department. Plenty of travelers have their own stories of how their lives were changed through travel.
Born and raised in the Ukraine, Wanderful global member and Houston chapter organizer Svitlana Iarmolenko Ramer came to the United States as a grad student to study tourism. She now lives permanently in Houston, is recently married, and teaches tourism management at Texas A&M. She’s also an entrepreneur, selling natural remedies through her company, LanaLoveCo.
For Svitlana, travel is more than just visiting a place and seeing the sights. What she loves the most about travel is getting to know the culture and making friends with locals. We spoke a bit about our travel experiences and the influence that travel has had in our lives.
What brought you to the United States?
When you live in Europe, traveling is easy. You hop on a train, and two hours later, you’re in a foreign country. It’s a little bit easier than traveling outside of the US.
When I was an undergraduate student, I lived in the Netherlands with a family. I was part of a group called European Geography Association, and we did exchanges with students in other countries. When the time started nearing the end of my undergraduate studies, I did a summer work and travel experience in the United States, and it fascinated me. I really wanted to do grad school here, and try living in a foreign country.
That ended up with me staying here permanently.
How do you think that background, having grown up in the Ukraine and now living here in the United States, has influenced your travel style?
Every time you go somewhere new, you don’t know anybody.
As an undergraduate, I lived in the Netherlands. And when I was doing my PhD at Penn State, I lived in Germany for a student exchange. It was a similar thing here in the United States. They’re all very culturally different countries.
I think how it influenced me as a traveler is that I have no problem coming up to people, asking questions, and engaging with the locals. I break out of my comfort zone the minute the wheels touch down at the airport. I made a lot of friends in Germany when I was there — and it’s really hard to make friends with Germans! I’m very proactive in seeking out local friends.
What has been the hardest thing about being so far from home?
The transition experience has been so profound that I actually made it the focus of my dissertation research. I studied what happens to immigrants when they try to assimilate into another culture.
There is a theory that exists about cultural dimensions, that different societies score differently on those dimensions. One of the most famous dimension is the individualism to collectivism one. Ukraine is a very collectivist society, and the US is a textbook example of an individualistic society. These societies are extremely different culturally, and adjusting to the different things for me — especially in the first two years — was very rough.
Now, of course, things are better. I graduated grad school. I have a job. I have a husband. But I would say that — at this current moment — the hardest thing about being here is that I haven’t been able to go home for the past three years. My mom has come to visit (she came to our wedding in March), but I have a grandmother in Ukraine whom I haven’t seen in years.
Can you talk a bit more about your relationship with your grandmother? How has she influenced your life?
My parents divorced when I was eight and with my mom working, Grams was the one who took care of me and raised me. My grandmother taught me all about natural remedies, and how to use different plants for healing different things. We’ve used honey, lemon, teas, herbs for healing, and even now, I use natural remedies at home and with my husband.
I try to reduce the toxic load in my life by switching to all-natural products: I make my own face/body/hair care products, laundry detergent, use wool dryer balls with essential oils instead of dryer sheets, etc. All these things are because Grams taught me that natural is always better than synthetic, and that people can never come up with anything more effective than what nature already has.
Do you think your interest in natural remedies has had an effect on your travel style?
I would say it is the other way around. My travel style affected the direction I took with the natural remedies. Going to all the different countries, being so proactive in breaking out of the tourist shell and meeting the locals instilled a deep sense of appreciation for localism and the local culture and resources in me.
So when I started making my remedies for my company, LanaLoveCo, I started looking into ways of obtaining the highest quality oils for myself and my products. The two companies I work with either have their own farms where they grow plants to be distilled into oils, or source the plants in countries they are native to.
I believe in the value of having things come from where they originate, and it was traveling that taught me that.
Why did you choose to make travel into a career?
I’ve always been fascinated with other countries. Every time you visit another country — every time you experience another culture — you come back a little changed. You come back a little bit different.
And, in my opinion, in a good way.
I wanted to turn that into my career, not only to be able to travel a lot myself, but also to educate other people on the power of travel. I’m a firm believer in the transformational power of travel. If it wasn’t for all the travel experiences that I’ve been through, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
How has travel influenced your life?
It’s made me a much more outgoing person. Especially that experience in Germany, when I was trying to reach out to people. That experience showed me that I can find friends anywhere I am. It basically shattered my fear of reaching out to people.
When I was growing up in Ukraine, I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t try to make connections with people. But after going to all these different countries, I don’t think there’s an environment that I can walk into and be intimidated. I can go into any situation and make friends.
For Svitlana, travel has certainly had a transformative effect on her life.
Her travels led her to the United States, to find love, and ultimately, to pursue a career and personal interests that are meaningful to her. Had she not made the decision to step outside of her comfort zone, her life would have been vastly different.
Many travelers know this feeling quite well — the feeling of stepping outside of what is comfortable and familiar. For some, it’s scary, and for others, it’s exhilarating. But, as Svitlana pointed out, those who embrace the discomfort will grow from the experience and will forever be changed.
There is another thing about travel’s transformative power that deserves mention: These experiences don’t actually replace who we are, but rather, they add depth to us as people.
During the beginning of our conversation, Svitlana said to me, “With my experiences in Europe, and my experiences making a life for myself in a completely foreign society, I’m kind of one of those people who keep their feet in two societies simultaneously.”
Any traveler who has spent time abroad can understand this sentiment completely. We know, deep down, how the life experiences gained from travel connect us to a place until it becomes part of who we are.
The journey stays with us forever, even after we come home.
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