I have been asked over and over why we would want to spend our lives traveling- without a permanent home, without “security”. The same people who ask this question may simultaneously proclaim that they do, in fact, see the inherent value in traveling to new places. But what exactly does one learn while on the road? I believe the answer to that question is as varied as the multitude of people who try to answer it. However, in an effort to provide some personal clarity, I have comprised a list of 10 things travel has taught me or deepened my understanding of. The lessons listed are not an all-inclusive list, but if this is just the tip of the iceberg…. who wouldn’t want to travel?!
1. Even those things that seem immovable and permanent can be obscured by the temporary.
In Pokhara, Nepal the snow-capped mountains are an unbelievable sight. What is even more unbelievable is when you visit Pokhara during monsoon…. the clouds are thick and there is not one single mountain to be seen. It’s hard to believe that a huge range even exists. But then, just for a few seconds, the clouds part as they move on their way and you catch a glimpse of a piece of the famous Annapurna Range. And that brief glimpse awakens you to a new thought…. there is an entire colossal, huge, enormous, mountain range and you can’t see any of it because something as impermanent and unstable as clouds are obscuring it completely from view. It is an awe-inspiring thought and the beginnings of a conceptualization that life does not operate much differently from the Annapurna region in monsoon. How often is our greater picture, our mountain range, obscured from our view by temporary or impermanent events and thoughts?
2. Age is relative, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and wisdom comes from experience, not time.
In the tanda of Pathunayak in India I met a woman who was a tribal member, an elder to her community, and a grandmother several times over. I do not know her age. What I do know is that her age in numbers is far less than a visitor from the west might guess. Life and hard work have aged her in a way that most westerners will never know. But she is by far one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her light blue eyes communicate an understanding that most visitors would not assume she possesses. Her hands told a story of work and a life well lived. Her clothing and jewelry screamed of pride in her culture, her tribe, and her community. She treated us with a kindness reserved for the foreign and spoke openly, along with her community members, about the struggles families in her area face to get their children to school. The challenges they run into just trying to make sure their children have some knowledge, some skill, some advantage before they become adults. She never went to school, she never held a degree and she won’t even live as long as her western counterpart but her wisdom is apparent…. just like her beauty.
3. Empathy is a much more valuable concept than pity.
It is almost second nature for those in the “developed world” to offer our pity to those we view as living in more challenging circumstances than us. I will spare you the idea that those with less are far happier because they live simpler lives etc. etc. That’s silly. Are some people with less material goods happy? Of course! The materially rich have not cornered the market on happiness. But no one likes to be unable to feed their children. No one likes having substandard housing in violent weather. Saying “people with less are happier” is a way of excusing our inability or our unwillingness to do anything about the great disparities that exist in the world. Offering pity when we see suffering is, in my opinion, also of no use. Pity implies a basic hierarchy between the pity giver and the pity receiver. Those who are struggling, suffering, or otherwise just having a hard time do not need our pity. Pity focuses on the problem and sometimes offers superficial solutions without requiring a human connection. It is empathy on the other hand that focuses on the individual. It requires a person to place themselves in someone else’s shoes and identify with the root of what they are going through. Many of us do not know what it is like to not be able to feed our children but simultaneously we may understand the frightening feeling of not having control of a situation. We may have never lost a family member to civil war but many of us have felt the awful feeling that comes with losing a loved one. The situation may not be familiar but the feelings are human and cross cultural lines. In this way, empathy provides a connection with people and a deeper sense of humanity while pity serves to keep those that “have” and those that “have not” in separate camps.
4. Mark Twain was right. Travel really is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
I never cease to be amazed by the sheer number of people I meet on the road who genuinely just want to chat. As much as I want to learn about their culture and their country, they seem to be just as hungry to know about mine- especially those who may never get the chance to travel themselves. They want to ask questions and they really want to understand. I have met people who disagree with my political views, my president, my spiritual practices, my general opinions, my food choices, and my dress code. But I have yet to meet anyone who disagreed with me on any level who did not still send me off with a smile, a hug, a kind word, a handshake, or any combination of the four. You see, when we cease to see people as individuals but rather as representatives of entire groups of people…. that is where we get into trouble. Travel has brought me in contact with such an array of different people that have continued to broaden my worldview and deepen my belief that every single person on this earth is just trying to do the best with what they have. It’s very hard to hold prejudice when you continually meet people who are the “exception” to whatever rule you have been holding onto…
5. “Stability” is a state of mind and in the same vein, so is “home”.
Traveling with young people has deepened my understanding of the adaptability of youth and people in general (more on that in a later post). While in Mexico, I came out of my shower unable to find my 10 year old companion. I called her name a few times and finally heard a faint “yeah?” My young traveler had decided she needed some privacy in our shared room to do some reading. Did she act out in unrelated ways or melt down so that I had to figure out what the problem was? No. She grabbed her book and headed under the bed and happily read for half an hour until she was done and ready to socialize again. Humans are adaptable creatures. Four walls do not make a home. Lots and lots of money in the bank does not create stability. These concepts of “home” and “stability” are created…. when traveling, you just have to use a little more creativity to define them!
6. The world is not dangerous. It is vast, varied, and very very exciting but it is not dangerous. End of story.
I have known this for a long time but I am shocked by how many people honestly believe that the world is a dangerous and scary place. No matter what the news tells you. No matter what the president tells you. No matter what your pediatrician, mother, or local police force tells you. The world is simply not a dangerous place. Are there dangers out there? Yes. But this does not make the world inherently dangerous. Natural disasters do happen; people do get hurt and even die; things get stolen. But what you must remember is that these things can happen anywhere, even at home. Travel and exploring the world does not bring inherent danger, it brings inherent possibility. We do not take risks for risks sake when we travel- if it feels unsafe it probably is and we avoid it. But I have to be honest and tell you that some of the best experiences I have had while traveling were while doing things I was “not supposed” to be doing. How many of you have heard “don’t talk to street kids when you’re traveling”? Advice like this is always well-meaning but is often based on fear, not healthy caution. While in India with a young traveler, I allowed her to speak to absolutely anyone her gut told her to talk to. These kids walked down an entire mountain with her chatting away happily. When we got to the bottom, they departed. They did not steal from her, they did not get any money from her. They enjoyed their interaction with her and said goodbye. Could they have stolen from her? Sure. But if we allow fear to dictate our lives, we may avoid some danger but we certainly never get to experience the really great stuff either. Summer left her mountain stroll in awe of how much she had communicated with children who did not speak her language. She had many other interactions like this and walked away with more than a superficial connection with people in India. That is a better lesson than fear.
7. Photography is a fantastic medium for artistic expression and documentation of memories but it cannot ever come close to translating on-the-ground experiences while traveling.
I love photography. There is something very satisfying about getting “the perfect shot”. I will probably take hundreds of thousands of photos on the road, in my lifetime and I will post really good ones for you all to see. But what I will not do is even pretend that the picture does the experience justice. It doesn’t. Snorkeling behind a sea turtle is an experience best seen in real life. The Taj Mahal? Way more impressive in person. The biggest Buddha I have ever seen in Nepal is even more huge in person….. but the pictures are all pretty cool. I know that not everyone has a desire or the ability to travel to all of these places but the sights, sounds, people, heat, tastes, and feel of the actual experience cannot be captured in a photo. I will do my best to take awesome photos for everyone to see but seriously…. if you are truly interested in any of them do your absolute best to get out and see the things I am seeing for yourself. You won’t regret it.
8. Language barriers are not barriers at all
“Language barrier” refers to an obstacle that prevents communication and keeps people apart. Watching a giggling 6 year old excitedly bond with a formerly broken American kid over a new hand game gives one a new perspective on “language barriers”. Does speaking the same language help communication? Well…sometimes. Body language is often just as important as the words being spoken. Sometimes words do not do a feeling or an experience justice. Not speaking the same language means creativity and perseverance are “must haves”. Not speaking the same language is often a hurdle but it is no barrier. When you need to communicate, you do. So how did my partner traveler and her young friends communicate? Sign language, drawings and pictorial notes, facial expressions, smiles, hugs, small gifts, games, and broken (and often silly) English/Hindi. Effective communicating also meant that the young parties needed to learn something about the other’s cultural cues. A head nod means something very different in India than it does in America In the process of creative communication one begins to learn to pay attention and absorb aspects of a new culture. If you alter your perspective and your approach just a little you will realize that language “barriers” need not exist if you don’t let them.
9. Absolutely nothing is impossible. Nothing at all.
While traveling I have been pushed to my limits in terms of patience, health, understanding, and physical stamina (among other things). While on my very first trip to Costa Rica I signed on for a several hour hike through the jungle after being promised a swim in a waterfall as my reward. So I hiked. Let me just fill you in on the fact that previous to this I did not hike. I did not set aside time in my life for exercise in any form. So a hike that should have taken about 2 hours went on for FAR longer than that. I was cranky, sore, and ready to turn back several times. But I pushed on and when I finally pulled my tired body through the last set of trees, I saw the most gorgeous waterfall I had ever seen. It was obviously made all the more beautiful by the simple fact that I had made it. I proceeded to sit and reflect on my almost abandonment of my goal. What a sight I would have missed! What a feeling of accomplishment I would have never had! This experience was obviously no where near as grueling as say a climb to the top of Mount Everest but it was a victory for me and it set the stage for the rest of my travels. Every time I feel as thought I cannot go on and I cannot push anymore, I remind myself that anything is possible….. absolutely anything.
10. No matter where I go and how many places I see, Earth will always provide me with something new to discover.
Everything I see and every experience I have is never quite the same as another. This simple fact always reminds me just how vast our world is. I am both excited and saddened by the thought that I can never possibly see everything there is to see in this world. I can certainly try though! Every corner of this earth offers something of value and who wants to miss out on that?!