After more than 3 million miles of air travel to every imaginable place on the earth, has exposure to different cultures, religions, and governments changed me in any material way? Or, could I have just as easily stayed at home, and been equally as well off?
To start, I believe that if a person is observant, one can have meaningful insights no matter if one travels or not. When one goes below the surface of any culture, people manifest very similar qualities. For example, I’ve never lived in or visited a community that at its core isn’t internally consistent in certain areas. For example, community codes universally emphasize honesty in dealing with one another, stiff penalties for committing acts of violence against fellow citizens, and mutual respect for personal privacy.
Next, if one wants to know what any group of people anywhere in the world is thinking about on almost any subject, just listen to what any group in your own community is saying about the same subject. It’s pretty much the same. In other words, sitting around a table and discussing any subject results in as many opinions as there are people sitting around the table. No two people agree completely on anything, anywhere in the world.
Again, if one is observant, one can draw important insights about the human condition and never leave home.
Countering this claim is famed humorous Mark Twain. He believed that travel was essential in overcoming personal prejudice.
Honestly, I haven’t found that to necessarily be the case, especially if you live for any extended period of time in a foreign country. What usually happens is that you learn how to cope with a foreign culture by making jokes about it.
For example, when I lived in Argentina as a young man, there were two things that bothered me about most Argentines with whom I associated. One was their tendency to arrive late to scheduled meetings. And the second one was not to show up at all. To cope with this, I started calling them “the great undependables.”
Forget the fact that at the time I was there, most, if not all, homes did not have phones or cars. Without the means of communication and transportation it was virtually impossible to be consistent in keeping appointments. However, even knowing this as I did, I continued to express and reinforce this particular prejudice.
So with all due respect to Mark Twain, I disagree with him. Travel alone does not cure one’s prejudices. In fact often times it creates them.
I Travel to Say I Traveled
So why did I travel and why do I continue to travel so much?
In my opinion I traveled for two reasons. One was to say I traveled. The other was for “the hope of travel.”
First, for the sake of saying I traveled. No matter who you are, travel is hard. It takes effort and most of the time it’s not comfortable or very accommodating, notwithstanding all the marketing to the contrary.
So, for me, at least in the beginning, I made the sacrifice to travel so that I could tell people I traveled. Somehow I equated travel with being worldly and sophisticated. After a while, this reason wore thin, both for the people listening to me talk about my travels, and for me having to listen to myself talk about my travels. I did not feel more sophisticated, I just started feeling like I was boring others as well as myself.
Needless to say, I pretty quickly outgrew this reason for traveling.
…For the Hope of Travel
Most of the time travel is redundant. You pack, you get on a plane, you go to a hotel, you feel a little under the weather, you visit ruins where it’s hard to hear the guide, and you return to your hometown thankful that you are finally back in your comfortable bed.
At times, you wonder why you are subjecting yourself to this arduous activity. But then, every once in a while traveling throws you a big surprise. Something happens that captures you, and takes you away. This is what I call “the hope of travel.”
For example, last year when my wife, my son, and I traveled to Dubai on business, we were in the midst of one of those redundant travel experiences when our Arab host invited us to his home for dinner. I did not want to go. It was an hour and a half from our hotel, to a desert city I had never heard of, in the back seat of a luxury car (mind you) that was uncomfortable. I thought of feigning sickness, but for some inexplicable reason, did not.
As we arrived there, to my surprise, it was a compound, not a typical residence, we drove into. The walls of the compound were thick and high, and the gate opened electronically as we approached.
The compound had four buildings and we drove up to the one that was the reception building. As we entered I was taken by how ornate the lobby was. As we entered the formal reception room, I thought we were on a movie set for some exotic Arab movie. Elaborate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, beautiful couches lined the walls, and the rugs were lush and pleasant to the touch. The colors were a rich gold and green giving the environment a light, positive feeling.
The traditional drinks were served in small cups of exquisite design. The flavors were a mixture of bitter and sweet, making them very appealing to the taste.
The meal was as appealing as any I could remember. The lamb was very tender, the salads natural and fresh, and the conversation relaxing and authentically thoughtful on the part of our host.
When the males entered the room, they were pleasant and somewhat shy, giving off the spirit of humility. The patriarch of the tribal family was a famous falconer, not because he was rugged and overwhelming, but because he was gentile and extremely patient.
As the women entered the room they were beautifully dressed from top to bottom, and remained seated separately from the men. However, they were lively in conversation and extremely curious. Most of the time, I was not aware that we were using a translator.
My attention became completely focused on the singularly unique experience I was having. I was not conscious of time, and the present inflated to a point that random thoughts did not disrupt the moments I was experiencing.
I felt a mixture of calm and peace inside.
Evidently, a few hours had passed when I was informed that it was time to leave.
From the back seat of the car I looked back until the gate closed behind us. The only question that entered my mind was, “What did I just experience?”
I knew that the great hope of travel had just taken place. To this day I think back on that experience in the Arabian Desert and I am filled with the same feeling I had that night.
Did it change me? I believe so. A year later the experience is easily and often remembered and brought forward in detail. In part I use it as a basis for explaining my feeling for that part of the world. For one I no longer have a sense of estrangement when I see men and women dressed in the white dishdasha and black abaya. For me at least, the wall of separation between Arab culture and my own has started to come down.
In this instance the great hope of travel has been fulfilled. Though rare, it has been worth it, and maybe more. It’s for these breakthrough moments that I push forward and continue to travel.