Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why is Travel Such a Valuable Experience?

We're the Bakers, from Indianapolis, 2005

I was chatting the other day with a friend who just came back from almost three weeks overseas. We got to talking about the impact travel has on us. How it opens our eyes and reminds us that our way of living, nice though it may be, isn’t the only way people can chose to live. Travel, we agreed, forces you to question your assumptions about people and life. You might end up only more confirmed in your beliefs or you might change a little.

For many of our parents, international travel was inconceivable. Few American had the time or money it took to cross the ocean by ship, see the sights and get home within a two-week vacation. There was meaning in “overseas,” a term which probably no one even uses any more, because that’s how you got anywhere and it didn’t happen quickly.

A lot of people didn’t care to travel outside of the country. Those who’d fought in Europe and in the Pacific on what my brother-in-law refers to as the “big gray ship tour” had seen enough and wanted no more of it after witnessing the horrors and deprivations of world wars. For them it was understandably hard to justify spending hard-earned money to go back and visit people who’d only recently been shooting at you.

This has all changed, of course. We have live news 24/7. We learn about political uprisings and earthquakes via Twitter. Our children think nothing of hopping a plane to Berlin or Hong Kong. Or picking up a phone and calling someone in India or Japan without mentally toting up all the long distance charges.

But still, a startling number of Americans have never traveled abroad, or even widely within their own country. Those that do don’t always make you proud, either. We’ve witnessed scenes of such appalling American arrogance and insensitivity that we wanted to crawl under a table and tell people we were from Canada.

Mama, Do These People Know Jesus?, 2005

One of my neighbors is a very accomplished, but also exceedingly conservative fellow, the kind of guy for whom a conversation of any length will eventually include some kind of diatribe about oppressive government, social welfare and intolerable taxes. He also believes America is not just the best, but the only civilized place to live. So when his college alumni group took a cruise in the Baltic Sea a while back, I couldn’t wait to hear his impression of the Scandinavian countries, those beacons of high taxation and cradle-to-grave social safety net.

People with ideas as entrenched as my neighbor’s don’t always change them very easily. But my neighbor’s eyes were at least opened a little. “You know,” he told over the fence not long after getting home, “they seem pretty happy over there. I would have never imagined that people so oppressively taxed could be at all happy. And yet they are.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure he viewed what he saw as anything more than an anomaly, something that takes place in far away lands among people with strange customs. Before long, he was back out in the garage helping his wife paint Tea Party signs.


  1. I remember these photos from flickr. They're just wonderful; especially with your hilarious captions. So true--I think people should be required to travel the world a bit--wasn't it Mark Twain who said that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

  2. chris, great post - amusing and thought-provoking. i would expect no less from my well-traveled brother-in-law. :)

  3. I think the downside to being a citizen of a large, successful country is that we become rather ingrown and inflamed -- not unlike an ingrown toenail. People who don't have to learn another language and culture to maneuver where they would like to go and to be able to ask directions to the nearest bathroom assume that theirs is the best and only possible way to behave and think. Having to humble yourself to learn -- or at least attempt -- another language and/or to get along in a country with different customs opens your eyes about everything you thought was "normal" and customary. It is good for the soul.