The process of cultivating a relationship with traveling is like any human relationship. It can be difficult, unfair, euphoric, saddening, and full of surprises. Unless we endure the good and bad, the sickness and health, the riches and less fortunate times, we will never reap the rewards of the process itself. I want to shed some light on this process, at least from my perspective.
The beginning of any healthy relationship often involves the swift and necessary death of your ego. The sooner you don’t feel it’s necessary to defend yourself, the more willing you’ll be able to see life through the other person’s eyes. Do this when you travel. Ditch the ego and be open to learning, but don’t wait until the plane lands for the enlightenment to begin. Use every second of the journey to nurture your understanding of this delightfully insane planet.
I’ll add that no relationship consists of pure unadulterated glamour. Sadly enough, we perpetuate this glamorous perception by gawking at our friends’ social media highlight reels. What they don’t share with us are the squabbles, the dark conversations, or the growth accumulated in the crucible of discomfort. The same goes for the pursuit of adventure. Traveling today is portrayed as an opulent and flawless endeavor, but in reality the honeymoon phase eventually ends. When the endorphins start to lose their thrill you inevitably begin to notice the not so lovable qualities of your surrounding environments.
For example, I’ve started to notice an inordinate population of tourists proudly gallivanting around in their convertible pants that unzip into shorts. My anxiety increases exponentially as I watch them narrowly avoid tumbling over their enormous safari bucket hat and floral denim carry-on. And why the hell hasn’t the human species invented a better method of transportation other than a pressurized rocket dumpster cruising at 32,000 ft?
I think it’s fair to say that arriving at your destination can feel like such a relief. Whether you are traveling for business or leisure, this relief is almost always felt once you’ve escaped the mundane and exhausting climates of airports, train stations, bus stops, taxi terminals, and the like. Traveling wears on you. It chips away at the sanity you started the day with.
The post-honeymoon phase also brings your own reality into perspective…and it isn’t always pretty. Upon liftoff, I always say an extra thankful prayer or generic spiritual invocation for my memory foam neck pillow that hides my double chin as I sleep like a mummified bratwurst. I’ve also justified that it’s socially acceptable (on long flights) to tranquilize myself with Tylenol PM chased down with two rum & cokes. The once Instagram-worthy traveler I thought myself to be is dead. I now resort to an unstable diet of bottled water, trail mix, and marked-up beef jerky while I leach off the rom-com my neighbor purchased.
I want to be clear: I am deeply committed to this relationship, believe me. Traveling can be challenging, but it also helps to resolve challenges. The world needs more people willing and eager to explore every village, mom and pop shop, booming city, war-torn region, dive bar, or food market out there. Traveling provides the quickest means to humanize others. We get to learn more about the people occupying the neighboring crappy airport seat, the incredibly hospitable families who welcome us into their homes, and frankly anyone who looks different that what we see in the mirror.
The world is only as big as you make it. It’s your choice. While the complexity of our shared world is anything but binary, the difference between a dismissive choice of seclusion and the active pursuit of tolerance through travel is, in my humble opinion, black and white. I hope you’ll choose to travel in a manner by which you meet people who are equally as open to accepting you as you are them. Travel not as an evangelist for your country, religion, or philosophies…but as a student void of preconceived expectations.
Approach your own relationship with traveling with the following mantra: Seek first to understand, not to be understood. Truly listen to people and the stories they have to share. Be curious about their thoughts and decisions. Be empathetic to their motives and they will gift you empathy in return.
I once studied abroad in college for two weeks. We spent that time in the small country of Belize. Nothing is ugly there. Everyone and everything is warm and beautiful. At the end of the first week we traveled to a small village where we would spend the night before continuing our journey. Our professor had arranged overnight stays with host families for each of us. Like other cultures, Belize has noticeable lower, middle, and upper class neighborhoods. I was staying with a very low income family in their wooden home. Just a dad, a mom, and their six-year-old daughter. No electricity, rats scurrying across the floor, and no plumbing.
After a very simple yet delicious meal of what I can only imagine were the family’s scarce resources of potatoes and one of their few chickens, we sat down for a game of cards. I wanted to get to know them as quickly as possible since I just met them a few hours prior and would have to leave early in the morning. Eventually we began to discuss the hopes and dreams of my host parents. Without skipping a beat they mentioned how they had been saving their money to bring electricity into the house so their daughter could watch tapes of Dora the Explorer. My world froze.
I was doused with humility, embarrassment, and happiness all at the same time. I carry that memory and the lessons it taught me wherever I go. The value of seeking to understand before seeking to be understood is insurmountable. Any relationship can benefit from this exercise of restraint. We will never be able to quantify how much we can learn from others simply by inserting some curiosity.
I would circumnavigate the world three times over to experience that memory again. This begs a few questions: Are there any insurmountable obstacles preventing me from traveling? Not really. Are there aspects of traveling that drive me crazy? Oh yea, but they’re a manageable toll to pay for access to people and places that emotionally and culturally stretch this privileged caucasian boy.
No matter how frustrated I may get with the process of traveling, I’m confident I’ll always be smitten. The thought of missing out on more incredible experiences spurs on a kind of illogical determination to pack my bags yet agin. But what kind of love have you ever known to include logic? I know of none. Though complicated to say the least, my relationship with traveling is one I will foster until death do us part.
A relationship worth committing to doesn’t work because of the love you share in the beginning. It thrives by how you continue to strengthen and build that love all the way until the bitter end. I’m not sure where that end will take us, but until we reach that destination please keep loving this world and the people in it. And I beg of you, please visit them often.