I write about travel because I believe it is one of the few things in this world which has the power to genuinely change who we are.
By ‘travel’, I don’t mean heading to a foreign beach resort for four days and then taking a taxi back to the airport—though even that can help people dip their toes in the travel water, and I’m all for it. But to me the word ‘travel’ is much more than that, and is about experiencing sustained, long-term living in another location. I believe this form of travel is one of the most worthwhile things a person can invest their time and money in.
Of my 2.5 years of professional experience so far, about 2 years of it has been spent abroad. Many have told me that living in places like China and South Africa is dangerous, but as a young woman who mostly travels solo, I can tell you that the most danger I’ve encountered so far has been taxis that go too fast (or perhaps even scarier, taxis that go way too slow!) The most uncomfortable situations I’ve been in have either been cultural miscommunications, language barriers, or greetings from random men (the last of which can’t seem to be avoided anywhere, though some areas are worse than others).
Hearing stories of genuinely dangerous travel experiences is rare, but this seems to be the main fear people have when friends or relatives leave the country, and for months before you leave you are peppered with cautions, “Don’t walk around alone! Don’t trust strangers! Don’t eat the street food!”
Instead, I’d suggest the warnings people should give are more things like, “Don’t have a crisis of identity! Don’t forget about culture shock!” Or even, “Hope we don’t start fighting after you get back because we see the world so totally differently!” But it is much more realistic that these things will be the actual consequences of travel, rather than the stabbing in some alley in Bangkok that all your friends are picturing.
Traveling likely won’t kill you, but it may kill your worldview. There is an often-repeated Mark Twain quote that goes, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” There is a reason people still use it as an Instagram caption to this day; the more I’ve traveled the more I’ve realized that travel is incredibly effective in breaking down the comfortable walls of your beliefs and building them back up again, in a new and stronger pattern.
Having walls in the first place is inevitable. Every one of us grows up inside a certain context, our own little boxes if you will. It is difficult (if not impossible) to mentally remove ourselves from those boxes and think about life in another box—most of the time, our walls are just too high. Our own contexts are never perfect; every family, neighborhood, and nation in this world has its own flaws, and sometimes those flaws include encouraging us to stereotype or look down on certain people. They also encourage habits that we assume are universal, but definitely aren’t. Even mundane things like drinking cold water might get you raised eyebrows in another country.
The only effective way to learn what things are only true inside of your own box, and what things are true for all of the boxes, is honestly very simple: see as many boxes as you can during your lifetime.
In my experience, the two lines of thought which travel most effectively destroys are fundamentalism and nationalism. By fundamentalism I mean the idea that one’s beliefs are not allowed to be questioned or challenged, while by nationalism I mean a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others. In today’s world I see fundamentalism on both the political right and left; I see nationalism mainly on the right, though the left at times buys into in a sort of reverse nationalism. (By that I mean seeing one’s own nation as inferior to others, and believing its only hope of salvation is emulating another nation’s culture or politics.) I believe that the reverse is less dangerous than traditional nationalism, but that it still represents a view of the world from someone who hasn’t seen enough boxes yet.
You can’t travel and continue to be a fundamentalist because that whole “my beliefs must not be questioned” privilege rapidly erodes when you enter a country that shares almost none of your beliefs. Travel will not politely ask you if it can have a calm, safe discussion—travel talks its mouth off, forcing you to keep up. Travel will put you in a cab with the most pro-Communist Party taxi driver in all of China and have you listen to his praises of the government for the entire ride. Travel will have a woman of color tell you in broken English how beautiful white people are. Travel will get you into a conversation with a Nigerian woman who believes that being gay is the work of the devil. And yet everywhere you go, some of these same people who disagree with you on everything will be so unbelievably kind and welcoming and generous, and sometimes that can be challenging to wrap your head around too.
Travel is also fatal to nationalism and its inversions. It is hard to think of your nation as particular and extraordinary once you have seen a dozen others and eaten at a McDonald’s in every single one. Travel shows you that there are hundreds of things your nation is absolutely terrible at—and then hundreds it is great at which others lack. A hard truth of the world that you learn through travel is that there is simply no “miracle cure” to any complex problem—and there is no one perfect nation. You will never be able to move anywhere new and be perfectly happy all the time, and each place has its unique joys and unique annoyances. Your nation is both nothing to brag about, and to be treasured for all which makes it unique and good. Travel primes our brains for the nuance that enables us to hold both beliefs simultaneously.
So in the end… travel is probably not going to kill you, at least not in the physical sense. But it might kill you mentally and emotionally at times, and it will certainly kill some of your beliefs off. It’s a good thing, because nothing in this world deserves to be trusted without question—not ideas, not people, and certainly not street food—and travel helps you to come to terms with this to a poignant extent.
What if you don’t have the time or money to travel right now? Well, you can challenge yourself by trying to jump into new boxes whenever you can. Read fiction or non-fiction about other countries, particularly ones where you feel you do not understand the culture. Interact with foreigners you meet in your own country—ask them questions about how they see America and what their own countries are like. And if you really don’t want to substitute any of this for the real experience, then don’t. Even if you’re just going to a beach resort in Bermuda, a few minutes of talking to the taxi driver will put you in a whole new box, so don’t pass up the chance.