The Grass is Never Greener

Gorgeous sunset in Kakadu National ParkAs I lay on a beach on the island of Ko Lipe, my Kiwi friend Paul turned to me and asked, “Backgammon?”

“Of course,” I said.

This was a daily occurrence during our month-long stay.

We’d play for hours before heading to our favorite restaurant in the “town center.” The owner would teach us Thai and local Chao Lay while laughing at our inability to handle spicy food. We’d laugh along with him, share some jokes, and head back to the beach.

At night, we’d walk barefoot to the island’s main beach, and, with the island’s generators buzzing in the background, drink and smoke with our other friends into the wee hours of the morning.

Then when the generators turned off and we only had starlight to light our way, we would bid each other good night until morning, when we would do it all over again.

Walking with a local in BaliWhen I first began traveling, I imagined myself as Indiana Jones on the quest for the Holy Grail (definitely not some weird crystal-skull space aliens). My Holy Grail was that perfect travel moment in some off-the-beaten-path city no one had ever visited before. I’d have a chance encounter with a local that would give me a window into the local culture, change my life, and open my eyes to the beauty of humanity.

In short, I was looking for my version of The Beach.

The Beach was a book published in the 1990s about backpackers in Thailand who, fed up with the commercialization of the backpacker trail in Asia, sought out a more authentic, pristine paradise.

Ko Lipe was an island filled with banana pancakes, WiFi, and tourists. It wasn’t paradise, but it was my paradise.

The Beach exists, but it’s not a particular place or destination; it’s a moment in time when complete strangers from opposite ends of the world come together, share memories, and create bonds that last forever.

You find those moments constantly, and when you do, you begin to realize what travel has been trying to teach you from the beginning:

No matter where you are in the world, we’re exactly the same.

Greek guys smiling in Ios

And that simple realization is the most exciting “Aha!” moment you can ever experience.

Before I started traveling, I dreamt that elsewhere in the world the grass was greener. That while I was stuck in my boring office job, people in destinations I only dreamed of were doing great and exciting things.

If only I was there, my life would be better and more exciting.

But traveling around the world has taught me that the grass on your neighbor’s lawn is the exact same shade of green as your own.

The more you travel, the more you realize daily life and people around the world are exactly the same.

And in doing so, you come to understand the beauty of our shared humanity.

Local culture is simply how different people do things. I love the French obsession with wine, how the Japanese are so polite, Scandinavians love their rules, Thais seem to have a clock that is forever 20 minutes late, and Latin cultures are passionate and fiery.

That is culture. That variety is why I travel.

I want to see how people live life around the world, from the farmers on the Mongolian steppe to the office workers in fast-paced Tokyo to the tribes of the Amazon. What’s the local take on the mundane that I do back home?

People playing on the beach in Ko Lipe

But even with that variety among cultures, people around the world live their everyday lives the same way. They wake up, commute to work, worry about their kids and paying the bills, relax, spend time with friends, and enjoy their family. They laugh, they cry, the worry just like you. We may want to believe that the world is non-stop excitement everywhere but where we are, but it’s not. It’s the same.

I used to live in Bangkok teaching English. While I had flexible hours, I still dealt with commutes, bills, landords, wearing suits to work, and everything else that comes with an office job. I got together with friends after work for dinner and drinks and did it all over again the next day.

There I was, continents away from home, and it was like I was back in that cubicle in Boston all over again.

The day-to-day life of people halfway across the world is no different than yours.

On Ko Lipe, the locals would take their kids to school before opening their shops. They’d talk to us about their hopes and dreams, and they’d complain when not enough tourists got off the boat. We’d attend birthday parties, trade language lessons, and head out fishing with them. There was a routine to their lives.

You’ll find people doing things differently wherever you are. Sure, it’s fun eating on the Seine, sailing the Greek islands, or racing in a motorcycle around Hanoi. But locals aren’t doing that every day. They’re simply living their lives, just like you are right now.

Traveling friends eating together at a hostel in Thailand

As tourists, we often gaze upon other cultures as if looking at a museum exhibit, gawking at people and how they do things. “Isn’t that funny,” we might say. “How weird they eat so late.” “It makes no sense to do it that way.”

But to me those cultural differences are simply like the little quirks of a friend, no more or less exciting than your own (but sometimes much more interesting).

When you realize how alike our lives are, you realize we’re all in this together. You no longer see people as some “other,” but instead recognize yourself in them—the same struggles, hopes, dreams, and desires you have, they have for themselves.

And so, when an interviewer asked me last week about the greatest thing traveling the world has taught me, my mind instantly raced through all those moments on Ko Lipe, and without hesitation, I replied:

“We are all the same.”

  1. Rodolfo

    I was once asked what I enjoyed the most from my 2-week travel to China in ’05. “The people”, I replied. “Some had the similar tastes in music, joked around, and had shared concerns about the world”.

    Her response? “That’s nice, but tell me about the places. That’s the point of travelling”.

    What a non-traveler way to see things. Travel is all about people.

      • liz Harvey

        Just returned from climbing Mt. Roraima in Venezuela as well as visiting Angel Falls. I went with a British Travel Group of 12 other people. My observation was that many people go on lots of trips but few embrace the people and culture. Yes the summit of Roraima, The Lost World, was like nothing I had ever seen but what has stayed with me are the Venezuelans I met. In the face of political difficulties they are resilient, keep a sense of humor, love their country, and help their neighbors!

    • Chelsea

      Great way of putting it. I recently took a solo trip for a month through many of the eastern states of the U.S. So many friends expected me to have bucket loads of photos to show off, but I much preferred spending quality time with the people I was with rather than staying caught up on “capturing” every moment for the sheer sake of sharing it with others. Great memories are enough for me,

      • Cherryl

        True. I went to Taiwan earlier this year, they asked me what I remembered. I also said people and maybe some foods. But it’s the memories of the interactions that I remember. I don’t really remember the places I went either, yeah, it’s beautiful but the memories created are far better.

    • I’ll throw in my humble acquiesce! I’m in China currently, and if traveling is not about the people than what the hell am I still doing! It certainly is fascinating to see the subtle differences in the way people do the same day-to-day things. It is people’s innate similarities mixed in with different styles and priorities that make traveling so great.

    • Nase

      Travel is also about not being arrogant and condescending – hence why a comment like ‘ What a non traveler thing to say’ isn’t very indicative of your broad-minded thinking.

  2. We are all variations of the same story. Each of us has its own reasons to travel – what we learn from it is up to our willingness to shed prejudice and narrow-mindedness. We all belong to the same place and, in the end, must realize the others are also us.

  3. Kathleen

    When I travel, I’m always interested in the daily lives of people where I’m traveling. I try to understand how their life might be different from mine and why. I like getting away from some of the touristy sites and just visiting a grocery store or some other mundane thing for this reason.

    I really needed this post today though. As I’m sitting at my computer waiting for my toes to thaw out as it’s -1 F here right now, I’m struggling with not thinking that somewhere else might be greener.

  4. What a lovely post — this really resonated with me especially because I was so taken by The Beach when I read it in college.

    I’ve come to believe that people are people, wherever they are. We all have the same hopes, dreams and aspirations, but we also have the same troubles and human failings. We just have to do the best we can to enjoy our time on this planet!

  5. I have to agree. When I was in Ireland, I had an intense conversation with a man who had an autistic son (I had revealed that I have an autistic son, so the door opened). While the Irish care system is quite different from what I know, our concerns as parents were exactly the same. While it was interesting to compare notes on services and options available in different countries, the best part was realizing that even though I was an ocean away from home, that man and I had been through the same experiences, the same worries, the same hopes.

  6. I had so many flashbacks while reading this post – It’s all so true. I had my “The Beach” moment in a hostel within the Medina in Marrakech last year – just chilling, meeting other likeminded travellers from “far out / exotic” places, yet we had so much in common that we could relate to.
    Haha, one think that I’m sure is universally common throughout the world is how Taxi Drivers drive – at least in Africa and Asia :)

  7. You’re absolutely right, Matt! I’ve discovered the same thing on my adventures. The one thing that stands out for me now, the longer and further I travel, is not only are we all the same, but the world in which we live is becoming smaller and smaller. Not just due to the new technological age we live in, but mainly because we begin to notice trends in people no matter what country you are in. We all have similar goals and aspirations, even if we are on different paths to achieve them. Being a part of someone’s life, and having someone else be a part of yours, no matter how brief and inconsequential, is one of the great experiences of life on the road. And in that lies the beauty of travel.

  8. Jared

    That’s bollocks. Utter utter utter bollocks. This honestly is the kind of traveller that annoys me greatly, like travelling “opened your eyes to how we’re the same all around the world” we’re not really.

    I get humans are human whereever you go, but if you need to go half way around the world to realize people all share lots basic traits like empathy and such, you ain’t the brightest…

    I don’t know what kind of travelling the writer has done but it feel like what I like to call “gap year travel”. I don’t mean they’re on their gap year, but more you’re with friends, you live like a cross between a holiday and working, maybe moving a lot, teach English abroad or something, not truly engulfed by the host culture (and you never can be entirely). Try living like the locals for years before you move to the next place to do the same and you’d sing a different tune.

    I’ve travelled a lot, basically starting before I was 3. Travelling has always been part of my life. Living in other countries for years at a time you adapt different cultures. There are different “shades of green”. Cultures aren’t the same, different societies value different things, look at things differently. Landscapes aren’t the same and quality of life definitely isn’t. Living in Tokyo for 2 years, people had a very different lives/values to say England or France, now I’ve just moved back to the US after nearly 2 decades and people value different things here than Europe, I’ve had a culture shock. People aren’t the same here, they’re obviously still people though… duuh.

    Travelling may change the backdrop of your life and not always life itself, but it can. People have different approaches to life everywhere. They’re not difference to be dismissed or belittled and replaced with “we’re all just the same”. I find that actually insulting. Celebrate the differences and learned from them. This is just hippy nonsense, we all know “people are people” you don’t have to travel to know that.

    just sayin’…

    • Christine

      Are peoples’ values different depending on large scale factors like their cultures, where they were raised, at what level of income, what language they grew up speaking, and the values of those who raised them? Oh yes, certainly. And from that shallow view the grass is certainly not at all the same shade of green. But even here, in my home country, with my friends and family who may have the same answers to those above factors as I do, we have vastly different systems of values and ways of viewing the world/finding meaning in our life.

      However, I read this piece as there are some core, human values that easily cut through all of those above factors and more. From reading this piece and the above comments it seems to me that what it all comes back to for most of us is, indeed, the people, as Matt and various commenters said. Go anywhere, and what is it that people value the most? Their relationships. Family, friends, spouses, children, students, other loved ones; some combination of these (or at least one of these) are what we all have if we are fortunate, and can all understand. In photos of disasters from all parts of the world you see people clinging to those they love, and sometimes strangers relying upon strangers.

      So yes, to me, the grass is the same green because when you are traveling with this perspective, it is easy to see this deep, undercutting commonality despite our myriad of beautiful, enlightening, and sometimes incomprehensible differences in our values and daily lives.

    • Phil Jupe

      I agree with Jared. This is facile, self-satisfied bollocks. The French like wine, the Japanese are polite, Latinos are passionate and fiery but beneath the skin everyone is the same really… Some real cultural insights there! I can see this life of travel has really opened your eyes!

      • NomadicMatt

        To Jared: As you said, you don’t know the traveling I’ve done so I’d go back and read the archives here before you make sweeping judgements.

        As a traveler, it may be “duh” to you that people are fundamentally the same but one simply has to turn on the news to look at how much people have an us versus them mentality. It is easy to say on the surface “yeah, of course people are the same” but digging deeper people look at others through their differences not similarities.

        I certainly agree with you that other cultures value different things. No doubt it. But I’m here saying that while cultures do things a different way, fundamentally the day to day lives and values of people are generally the same.

        As Maya Angelou said “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

        As someone who has been on the road for decades, it’s probably easier for you to understand.

        To Phil: I’m not here to make insights about other cultures. That wasn’t the point of the article. The point here was to highlight people do things a little differently but we are fundamentally the same. If you want deep insights into other cultures, read previous article on this site.

        • Lucy

          While I love the sentiment of Matt’s article, and wonder how I could possibly know more when he has traveled so far and wide, I don’t agree at all that fundamentally we are generally the same. I would LOVE to, what a wonderful happy peaceful politically correct thought. Maybe at the absolute core – instincts – we all eat, we all shit, we all sleep. Most of us fear death, probably. Most of us love people. But people in different parts of the world are ENORMOUSLY different. Even in cultures you might at first think similar.
          Calgarians, for example, are “generally” workaholics that don’t even know they’re workaholics. Competitive, materialistic, want to make as much money as possible. Totally fair – that’s why I am living in Calgary – to make money. I’ve been working here for 18 months now and the entire time I have lived here it has been about my job.My day job royally consumes this chapter of my life. And some people live like that their entire lives. Weekends in the Rocky Mountains are interrupted by the much longer week at work, thoughts of work, worries of work, aspirations of work. Workers are exhausted when they’re not at work. By comparison, in England, people are pretty “lazy”. Something I definitely didn’t think before I came to Calgary. But they are. Brits are lazy. Sick days are common. They have more holiday. (5 weeks a year, Canadians get 2 or 3) The work day is shorter. (I NEVER got up at 5.30am in England! In fact that was much more commonly my bed time in the UK.) It’s working out financially for Alberta though, this attitude of it’s workers. Most of them temporary, here to make the big bucks asap and the city of Calgary is “booming”!
          After I lived in a tent in Morocco for three months, I truly realised people are different. After two weeks I had one story, but after three months and a lot of time in one place, it changed. You see that root values are not the same. Not everyone wants the best for their families and loved ones. Not everyone knows how to love. Not everyone wants to share stories over a drink, play cards, chat. Not everyone appreciates a beautiful sunset. Beliefs are different, brains are different, because generations and generations of genetics and environmental influence have moulded people to be very very different. And it’s not racist to say so. People move around a lot more these days. I work for a company of 14,000 people. A high percentage of them do not appear “Canadian” – they, or their parents, or their grandparents moved here and over time they too have become moulded into the culture. Just like I am being squeezed into it right now. An argument for “places” being the source of culture.
          I haven’t seen a millionth of the places I want to, or met a millionth of the people I’d like to… I’ll never stop needing to see more, meet more, learn more. So maybe I have yet to experience this “deeper” revolutionary idea that “we are all the same” on some level. Maybe I am still a long ways behind. And I would accept that. Travel brings wisdom. Matt is very well traveled, and been traveling for a long time. So I’ll keep an open mind, absolutely. But at this very moment, reading that article I felt deflated to think such a depressing thing might be true and from my current life experiences I strongly disagree. I’ll definitely let you all know if I learn differently… :)

  9. Is it ever greener on the other side? I don’t think it is. The differences that divide us pales in comparison to our similarities. The most common thing I see in every culture is they want to be happy and healthy with family and friends.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. The more I see around the world, the more I’m drawn to believe that we all seek happiness and love from our routine and yet it is the pursuit of our dreams that brings us together.

    Such a lovely post. Thank you Matt :)

  11. Amazing thought Matt. We do believe so too. Traveling is actually a lot of work and sometimes you do things just so that you can afford to travel. Believe me you are not alone in this thinking!

  12. Anon

    You should go to Africa, the Middle East and the rest of Asia. You cannot learn about people unless you go everywhere, not just Europe and SE Asia.

  13. Matt, thank you for inspiring me to travel. I’d had this vague dream of “traveling the world” for a few years and now I’m finally doing it. Your blog has tremendously helped me get started. Let me know if you’re ever in San Francisco and I’ll show you around.


  14. Cintia

    Hey Matt!!! So true!!! I totally agree with you!!! Of course there are many differences, but in the end we really are all the same. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Wow! Such a great post to read as well as the comments. Aside from your amazing article it is so nice to read what your commenter has to share too. Traveling is indeed a wonderful experience which of course nothing can replace with.

  16. Hey Matt,

    Really great perspective here and very well put. We totally mystify other cultures and while they are a “mystery” to us, they’re living out the same day-day routines that are in places that look exotic to us. When it comes down to it we really are all the same, except traditions and cultures are different–which is a beautiful and wonderful thing and makes me want to travel and see more.

  17. Melissa Briggs

    I love this. It seems like something so simple but it isn’t. So many people set up divisions in their heads but in reality we are all the same.

    Also, we have to learn to water our own lawn. :)

  18. Nurit

    Beautiful post Matt. And now I suddenly understand why when recalling memories of where I have been, I can never seem to remember the names of the towns and places but can always describe the moment, experiences and people I was with, so well.

  19. Lisa

    Absolutely agree. I’ve traveled extensively myself (all 7 continents), but I’ve always enjoyed watching the children in any culture I go to. Give them a soccer ball or a toy, and it’s the same smile, the same laugh, the same excitement….no matter the country, language or upbringing. The more you travel, the more you realize that ultimately, we all want the same things in life. Those experiences have been priceless.

  20. Aw Matt! Love this!

    I am actually in Taiwan now visiting family. Thinking of settling here, or at least making a base. People are so embracing and loving. How long did you stay for?

    I recently met someone from my hometown while traveling. We made a lasting connection, on a spiritual level. I was exhausted and didn’t have my heart into it during this last trip, but wow. The amazing people I met and my experiences were a gift. Which I guess is why I travel.

    You just crystallized some things I’ve been trying to make sense of. I moved my entire life to Paris a year ago from LA, and you know, life is pretty crappy during winter haha. Yes basically I was doing the same thing back home – overworked, underpaid, struggling, laughing, crying, lonely, meeting new great people, etc.

    I was also trying to figure out how different parts of the world lived their lives, take the best of everywhere, and develop my own philosophy of living.

    I have actually temporarily quit the outer journey, and began an inner journey. Looking for a place called home. Or maybe creating one.

  21. Gloria

    You’ve written the exact same thing I’ve thought many times when I’ve talked to people from different cultures. I’m from India and have a friend in the US. She has 3 daughters and many times sounds exactly like my mum does. It’s amazing how alike we are deep down.
    A taxi driver in Israel was talking about travelling and seeing new places. His thoughts were so much like mine when I had started to travel.
    This article is a great read. It’s something that comes home most clearly as you interact with different people.

  22. Robert

    Hi Matt! I’ve been sporadically perusing your site for a couple years now trying to plan my big escape into the world and for some reason was drawn to this blogpost tonight. I’ve recently began an amazing new relationship and it just so happens this beautiful woman is obsessed with the idea of traveling the world as well. For us it’s not just about the places to see, but the people to meet. This world is scary and HUGE from afar, but so small and relatable when you look closely. Thank you for all your insights on travel! Much love brother!

  23. Lisa

    Thank you for this post. Travel has taught me that we do the same things in different ways. We all have the same needs in life. The landscape may change, but our need for air does not. Namaste. :)

  24. What do you talk about? The grass is definitely greener in Ireland!
    Jokes apart, very nice article, and I totally identify with many things, my paradise has been Thailand too: Koh Phi Phi!! And also Brazil. So I think it’s true, the locals do their life no matter what. But if it’s not greener on the other side, it is sunnier, and honestly that changes something. I have noticed in countries where it’s warm and sunny, people are happier and so am I…

  25. Elora

    Oh, I love hearing about the people travelers meet! It’s the greatest thing I look forward to–the places and food next. People are so interesting–always something to learn from them. Different cultures are so interesting!

    • NomadicMatt

      It did back then. Now, it’s developed. It still might be paradise but I can never go back. The people are what made that place special to me and they have moved on from there. I’m going to keep the memory.

  26. “Travel is all about people.” This is the fittest definition for travel for me. I enjoyed the comments as much as I enjoyed your post. One of the reasons why I always check your website. Thanks Matt.

  27. “The Beach exists but it’s not a particular place or destination; it’s a moment in time when complete strangers from opposite ends of the world come together, share memories, and create bonds that last forever.”

    This is so true. This is what I’m looking for <3

  28. The Travel Liz

    There’s so much to love about this blog post, Matt.
    Your words clearly have a strong impact on your readers. Well done for writing blog posts that stimulate critical thinking!

  29. So very, very true. I currently am on the other side of the world (from the States) but am working full time and experiencing that travel itch again. I think doing the 9 to 5 thing in another country can be one of the best ways to get a real feeling for the culture (and, as you say, eventually realize that we’re all just trying to feed our families, pay the bills, find love, and have fun. Sometimes the whole experience is just a lot hotter, more bug-infested, and spicier than the one at home.)

  30. This is a just simple understanding that we are all humans, the same species, and so have the same lives really. I don’t think only extensive amounts of travelling makes you understand this. And it’s also a simple understanding that we should all appreciate what we already have and stop assuming everyone has it way better.

  31. Been traveling almost 3 years now (41 countries) and I’ve come to the same conclusions. I’ve told others before reading this article the exact same words. We’re all the same.

  32. Rebs

    Just started to read travel blogs for inspiration and insight; yours was the first I came across. What a lovely read and a great blog I will be reading regularly!

  33. That is what I learned while I was in Argentina. I spent a day talking with my host and after awhile she started to sound exactly like me. She was overworked, wasn’t crazy about her job, but felt like she had to stay there awhile to get enough credibility to move on. But she was stressed. It made me realize you can’t escape stress by going somewhere else.

    I also notice that the grass is greener language is used even when you’re traveling! The whole time I was in Argentina people were talking about other places! Just shut up and enjoy the place you’re in damn it.

  34. Hi Matt

    I like the grass is not greener analogy. I’ve travelled a lot (and even worked for immigration) so I’ve come across a lot of people from all over the world, either on my patch or theirs.

    Unless you’re doing something actively offensive (try not to when you’re travelling), I have typically found people to be great. Often the most memorable moments are where we connect with someone from another culture in a vulnerable situation – one example in Cairo sticks in my mind even though it happened 25 years ago.



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