Ruth Baptista considers herself a citizen of the world. She was born in Angola, moved to Portugal when she was two, spent time in England, and now lives in the United States. While growing up, she attended a boarding school that took her to various parts of the world; living in Europe also allowed her to travel to many different countries. But living in and visiting various countries are not the only reasons she feels like a world citizen.
“I see myself as every citizen of the world,” Ruth told me while we were sitting in her apartment in Provo, Utah. “I consider myself any man or woman in the world because the difference between me and the next person could be a matter of time, choices, or luck.”
Ruth says her upbringing led her to have this outlook on life—an outlook that helps her feel for other people and try to put herself in others’ shoes. She has a sister who is half-black/half-Indian and a first cousin with blond, curly hair and blue eyes. Her parents are Angolan.
“I don’t see the color of the person,” Ruth explained. “I am aware of people’s background, genetics, etc., but I don’t define people by where they’re from or what they look like.” She has used this outlook on life when exploring Italy, France, Thailand, and even San Francisco.
I visited with the 27-year-old at her home to see what such a world view could offer travelers in both experience and attitude.
What have you learned from living in so many different countries?
The biggest thing I have learned is we are all different, but we are all the same. I’ve seen people doing the same good things in all the nations where I have lived. You know, as human beings, we like to say we are different because we are different colors, we grew up in different places, we have different personalities, and we have different stories—and that is correct. But in the end we are really the same. We just see things differently, through different lenses. I’ve learned to not take people for granted and to try to see them through their own eyes. For instance, if I am with a family from India, I won’t have a problem eating curry with my hand because that is customary in most places in India.
What was it like growing up in Sintra, Portugal?
I grew up near the coast, so between June and October I spent my time at the beach. The lifestyle in Portugal was slow paced. I lived in an apartment complex in the city that was full of kids. Our neighbors were our second families, and people were very involved in other people’s lives. We were outside a lot. We played with cousins and friends. We played at the beach and climbed trees. Life was just different than it would have been if I had grown up elsewhere.
The family dynamic is also there—kind of like in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If I needed some money to buy something and my dad wasn’t there, my uncle would give it to me. I also grew up with a lot of my cousins. The family relations are very strong and food is a celebration. You don’t eat just to satisfy hunger; you eat to celebrate food. Everyone there grew up with homemade meals. I don’t think my mom owns a microwave to this day.
What do you think about American culture?
I love it. I am here because I want to be, because I enjoy it. Is everything perfect? No. Is everything perfect in Portugal? No. I think the United States has a unique culture. There is no other nation in the world that has the culture of the United States. You formed a nation of people who came here to be free, which is touching and moving. I sometimes think I would like to move to the East Coast, except I don’t like the cold. I wish California and New York could merge together.
What would you tell people to do before traveling to a different country?
Google where you are going, please. Make Google your best friend and drop your preconceptions. If you go to a different country, leave America behind—meaning if you go to Paris, don’t ask for Ranch dressing. And this I say to everyone. It’s the idea that when you’re in Rome, be Roman. Being different should not be the reason for annoyance. If you are going abroad, be your best self, but embrace the culture. Also, when you travel, you should know where the country is and what language they speak.
What are some of your most embarrassing moments traveling abroad?
When I traveled to Thailand a few years ago, I saw these gorgeous linen trousers that were about two sizes too small for me. I was trying in my broken Thai to ask about buying the trousers, and the lady said to me, “No, madam. Madam too fat.” I was laughing and thinking, “Did she just call me madam and fat in the same sentence?” I bought the trousers anyway. I didn’t take it the wrong way. In Thailand it is common for people to tell you what they think, to be blunt. The concept of being politically correct is a bit foreign to them because they believe it is better to be honest.
In Thailand, a huge amount of products have bleach in them. So the shopkeepers would chase after me and say, “Madam too dark, madam too dark,” and would want to rub suntan lotion on me. If you are a traveler, you have to look at moments like this and think, “Brilliant.” This was a cultural moment, and I let them rub the lotion on my hands.
What is the hardest thing about living in so many places?
You run out of money fast. But the hardest thing is starting all over again. I lived most of my life in Portugal but spent the last ten to twelve years between London and the United States. And the hardest part sometimes is the beginning, making new friends and getting into the culture. It takes time to feel like you can say you belong to a place and to feel comfortable there. But the process of that journey is amazing and very rewarding in the long run.
For instance, Southern Europeans talk fast and at the same time, and they interrupt each other in the process. But in London, my friend was like, “Seriously!” because I kept interrupting him. I had to train myself not to interrupt people if the cultures so demand, and now I am a richer person because of that. I bridged the customs of both nations, and that makes a better individual.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
Oh, everywhere. I am a European brat, but a few years ago I traveled to Thailand and it’s so beautiful. But if I had a ticket right now to go anywhere, I would travel to Turkey or Croatia. Turkey just because I love art, and Turkey has so many beautiful things to see. I am also fascinated with Croatia. My friends went on a honeymoon there and I saw pictures of it. Also, I love food, and supposedly Croatian food is delicious.
Which country that you have lived in or traveled to would you recommend people visit?
I want to say Portugal, France, or Italy, but from this nation’s perspective, I would say go to Thailand. It is out of the ordinary. I’ve never seen such a beautiful nation. It’s paradise; it really is. For those who love snorkeling, it is the fifth best place to snorkel in the world. You will also see a melting pot of cultures. You will see the beauty of a nation you aren’t used to. If you are not afraid of trying new food, Thailand is great in that respect as well. You see everything there; it’s just nature. I went canoeing with monkeys.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
In Europe. Portugal would be my first choice. I would love to live in Switzerland as well. Switzerland is gorgeous, and I would love to work for the International Red Cross. But I guess I will end up living wherever is best for me. I am a chameleon and can adapt well.
– Sara Lenz