This quote by Mark Twain has been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks. Lately it has felt that the news has been filled with negative stories; anger and resentment is everywhere, and most of it seems to be directed at the “others”. People now want to hear only the news that reinforces their own point of views and tolerance seems to be at a low ebb. To be honest, I find it all to be extremely disheartening. Is this really the world I want my children to inherit?
It seems to me that in our current age of information, when anyone with an internet connection can have all the knowledge in the world at their fingertips, people’s minds should be more open, willing to ask questions and gain new knowledge but instead the trend seems to be towards willful ignorance and ideological entrenchment. What is going on here? Are we all really just trolls at heart, incapable of looking beyond our little circle of influence? Is the world mainly composed of passive idiots who allow ourselves to be distracted by silly cat videos and vapid celebrities while the one percent take advantage of our stupidity to run the world behind our backs?
So what does this rant have to do with travel? Well, it’s all related to another favourite quote of mine:
While this may not seem like a travel quote at first glance, anyone who has travelled extensively can probably see the connection. As adults, we tend to move through our day to day existence with quite a bit of confidence. We have our familiar routines, we know what’s coming next, we don’t have to ask a lot of questions. But travel strips that away, and the further you get from your day to day routine, the more full of doubts you become. Go to a new city and you have to ask directions, you need to ask others (or at least check online) to find out where to find things, what things cost, etc. Go to a new country and you become even more helpless. Even if it’s an English speaking country you have to struggle with new accents, handle unfamiliar currencies, deal with unexpected cultural differences.
Now go to a country where you don’t know the language, where the culture is completely unfamiliar or where you’re a visible minority and all the props which give you the illusion of having things all figured out are knocked away. Suddenly you’re thrust into the role of a child; having to rely on others to translate for you, constantly watching for cues to tell you how to behave in a culturally appropriate manner, painfully aware of your reliance on the goodwill of others to avoid being ripped off. It’s humbling and empowering at the same time.
Of course, not everyone who leaves their country travels. There are whole industries devoted to transporting people from their home to a tropical location on the beach and back without ever having to feel a twinge of discomfort or a moment of doubt. Expensive hotel chains with identical rooms and accommodation concierge desks charge a premium to insulate their customers from the realities of the very countries where they are located. These places cater to people who want to vacation, not travel.
Some people out there are capable of seeing the world through the eyes of others without ever leaving home. Others seem to have the ability to cling to their own closed minded beliefs no matter how much of the world they see. But for most people, travel is the best remedy to the closed minded attitudes that are all around us.
It’s hard to tell yourself that your country is the greatest place on earth when you see other places that have different priorities and a seemingly higher standard of living. It’s hard to believe the lobbyists that tell you that expanding public transit in your city is just a waste of taxpayer money when you’ve visited other cities with similar demographics where public transit is effective, affordable and widely used. It’s hard to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to a certain ethnic group when you’ve been warmly welcomed and treated well in countries where that group is the majority.
It’s hard to sit back and be confident that you are right about everything when travel has taught you that there are no easy answers, that the world is a beautiful and complex place, and that no matter how much you travel and how much you learn you will only ever be able to scratch it’s surface.
No one ever changed the world from their comfort zone. 2016 is almost over. How will you challenge yourself to see the world in new ways in the coming year?