I was 21 the first time I left the United States. Until then I had barely even been outside the Midwest. I was a senior in college, and my choir was on tour to Lithuania and Sweden. I still remember how incredibly foreign everything was, from the food, to the language, to the squat toilets.
In the years to come, Hubby and I traveled extensively around Europe, and even Latin America, each time learning more about the world and expanding our worldviews.
And then….We went to Jordan. The culture and landscape were so different, so foreign, that it almost felt like traveling for the first time. We hadn’t realized how comfortable we had gotten traveling around Europe and Latin America, but the Middle East was a much-needed shock to the system. It was a great reminder of how big our world is, and how many places still left for us to explore. We’ve experienced the same rush on our first trips to Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Oceania.
So, why do I travel? And why should you?
Traveling is the best way to learn about geography and history.
Before my trip, I would’ve been hard-pressed to locate Lithuania on a map. (Be honest, can you do it???) My knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was limited to textbooks and movies. But in Lithuania, I could learn the historical, cultural and economic implications of being behind the Iron Curtain from the people that experienced it. How they felt about Soviet occupation and gaining their independence. Plus, KGB prisons. Enough said.
Traveling around Europe made World War II real. Not just in a book. In Amsterdam, we saw where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years and one month. In Luxembourg, we followed General Patton’s footsteps and visited his grave. In Paris, we walked the famous Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, as Hitler did in 1940 in the invasion, and as General Charles de Gaulle did in 1944 in the liberation. We’re still shocked by the European “tradition” of describing cities by how demolished they were during the war. And nothing in a book could’ve prepared us for a visit to a concentration camp.
Why is this important?
First, even basic knowledge about geography is correlated with preferring diplomacy over military action. The United States’ government is heavily involved in politics around the world, and U.S. foreign policy affects nearly everyone on the planet. From my experience, Americans are blissfully unaware of the actions, from good to bad, which our government makes in our name. Ignorance shouldn’t be bliss.
And second, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. What can we learn from the rise of Hitler that can help us defeat today’s neo-fascists and their ideology of hate? And what about war itself? The U.S. hasn’t fought a war on our own soil since the Civil War, and since the draft ended, service in the military is voluntary. As a result, many Americans are unaware of the real implications of war. But for Europeans, war is real. It was in their backyard. While war can be necessary, living with the consequences teaches you the importance of trying to solve problems without bombs.
Traveling is a great way to learn to be adaptable.
We all have our comfort zones, and it seems to be human nature to become less flexible as we get older. Traveling forces us to change with situations that are out of our control.
Planes are delayed. There’s only one option for dinner. No one speaks English. You didn’t pack the perfect outfit. The hotel room is small, or noisy, or up five flights of stairs. And it doesn’t have air conditioning. Businesses close early, or for siestas. Your idea of “on time” might be early to others.
We can’t count the number of times we’ve heard tourists complain that things are “different than back home.” Of course they are! That’s the point! Instead, be adaptable, go with it, and experience something new. You just might like it. And if not, you learned something nonetheless…..even if only about yourself.
Traveling is a great way to learn about what you really need.
We recently had the privilege of traveling for seven months to a dozen countries. We needed clothes for the tropics in summer and for the Southern Hemisphere in winter. I’m a field ecologist and Hubby is a choral conductor, so we needed clothes both to play outside and for concerts. But we carried everything we needed, for seven months, in a single suitcase each.
I remember so vividly coming home. I stood on my doorstep, ready to unlock the door, and I felt heavy. Loaded down by my possessions. A house full of crap that I didn’t need. Things I had spent money on, and that required my time and energy to care for. At that moment I wanted to walk away. It was just too much.
Honestly, I feel guilty for having a “too much stuff” problem. (Definitely a First World Problem.) Our travels have exposed us to absolute poverty, and it’s heartbreaking. People who literally have nothing. People who are wearing the only outfit they own, sometimes without shoes. People who can only eat what they grow or catch. Who have to walk to get water. Who don’t have electricity. Kids who beg on the side of the road… for pencils.
Over the next couple of months we purged our house, selling and donating car loads of stuff, feeling slightly embarrassed by how much crap we had accumulated. We marveled at some of our neighbors who have so much stuff they can’t park in their garages. And even after the Great Purge, as we call it, we still we have too much stuff. Every day we play a game where we each get rid of something in the house, and every day I’m reminded of people who don’t have a too-much-stuff problem. Like kids, wearing ill-fitting discarded American clothes, and playing with old tires.
Not to sound too existential, but in the immortal words of Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify.”
Traveling expands your circle of empathy.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to take heat for what I’m about to say, but hear me out.
Humans are tribal by nature. For our ancestors, cooperating in groups enabled survival. But in today’s global society, tribalism prevents us from making meaningful connections with people who are different than us. We each view our tribe as special, and as better than others. For example, Americans tend to view the United States as the “greatest country on Earth”. We even have a term for it: “American Exceptionalism”. We are the “shining city upon a hill” for the rest of the world to aspire to. This was the cultural zeitgeist in which I was raised, in America’s Heartland. I belonged to the best tribe on Earth.
Traveling to foreign lands expands our tribes by humanizing the “other”. Before our trip to Jordan, I had never really had contact with Arabs or Muslims. I had unconsciously learned negative stereotypes that traveling forced me to face.
One could argue that nationalism and extreme patriotism can be dangerous. Germany learned this lesson the hard way. Even today, Germans are uncomfortable with overt displays of national pride…. it’s rare to see German flags or to hear a German say they “love” their country. I can understand their point. Why should I “proud to be an American”? Is being an American an accomplishment? Does that make me better than someone from another country?
And guess what? People around the world love their countries, too, and not everyone wants to be an American. Plus, depending on the metric used to measure “greatness”, one could make a strong argument that America isn’t the greatest country on Earth.
Which leads me to….
Traveling allows us the opportunity to learn from other cultures.
Don’t get me wrong, the United States does some things well. For example, we rank near the top in innovation and scientific research. And our greatest export? American culture. For better or for worse, our music and movies and fashion, has spread to nearly every corner of the globe.
But other countries have their strengths as well. For example, France has the world’s best health care system. Compared with the rest of the developed world, America’s health care system ranks last. We’re the only wealthy country to not have universal coverage. We spend about three times as much per person, and yet we have the shortest life expectancy, and the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the developed world. Germans recycle everything, and their train system is truly enviable. Sweden, because of things like parental leave policies, equal pay laws, and participation in government, is the best place in the world to be a woman. After 35 people were killed in a mass shooting 20 years ago, Australia passed strict gun laws. The result? No mass shootings since. Electricity in Costa Rica comes almost exclusively from renewable sources.
Call me an idealist, but wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all learned from each other?
Traveling has taught me to be grateful.
First, I recognize that traveling itself is a privilege, and I’m profoundly grateful for the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned on the road.
But on a deeper level, traveling to developing countries in particular has shown me just how much I take for granted. From East Africa’s ginormous slums to rural, isolated villages in Vanuatu, I’ve learned that I don’t have real problems. I’ve watched women work fields with a handmade tools and carry jerry cans of water, often with a baby on their back. And cook over fires. And wash clothes by hand. I’ve seen children with torn and ill-fitting school uniforms walk miles on their own to attend school, where the porridge lunch might be their only meal of the day. And those are the kids lucky enough to go to school. I’ve learned to never take my daily “luxuries” for granted, like being able to drink water from the tap, flushing a toilet, flipping on a light switch, showering with hot water, and knowing I have food enough to eat. I’m grateful for basic medicine, like vaccines, antibiotics, and birth control.
While I theoretically knew about the hardships of poverty, seeing and experiencing it made it real. I’ll never take my privileges for granted again.
Traveling has taught me many lessons, but what I’ve learned the most about was myself. I learned to question my assumptions and to expand my worldview. Bottom line: Traveling is simply the best way to learn about yourself and the world around you. If you have the chance, you owe it to yourself, and the rest of the world, to go explore!
What do you think? Why do you travel? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!