Why to travel… really

Last week at a funeral, the priest told all of us in attendance: [Regardless of whether you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, a believer, or a non-believer, everyone’s moral obligation is to seek the truth.] The rest of his sermon suggested that he was talking about the importance of everyone seeking religious truth and asking questions about the afterlife, or determining if there even is one.

His statement reverberated in my head for the rest of that day, and his words have been running around in my consciousness all week. Even when taken out of the religious context, his recommendation that all people seek “the truth” is some of the best advice I have ever received– and it certainly applies to travelers. Moreover, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this “truth seeking” is the main reason (though not the only reason) that I travel and am so in love with going to other places.

A large part of my education in the American school system at all levels was about “critical thinking.” Despite the fact that we all learn as students the importance of questioning things we read and learn about in school, we “eat up” a lot of information and oftentimes misinformation that is fed to us constantly. I’m not only referring to the daily news, where it’s possible that stories and situations are exaggerated or represented from an angle that might deter travelers, but I’m also referring to warnings for travelers websites where it seems like there is a 100% chance that one will get caught in a mudslide in country W, contract malaria in country X, be pick-pocketed in country Y, and get kidnapped in country Z. Well, I myself have visited countries W, X, Y, and Z and have not encountered any of these 100% chance of taking place scenarios. Do you know what I mean? Every responsible traveler knows to take precaution both abroad and at home, but we’ve all seen those travel warning websites that can really scare a person from ever stepping foot out of one’s own front door!

In my German class I just went over a story with my AP students about a couple that lives behind the Berlin wall in the 60s. They can’t think critically. The story is all about the bizarre things the couple says in everyday conversation and how they do weird things around the house like cooking eggs in a flower vase by using some kind of heating coil. As readers who can think critically, we know that these characters are behaving strangely, yet because they live behind a wall and have to take the propaganda at face value, they are unable to ask logical questions or engage in normal activities. In the story the couple doesn’t know what’s going on in the world outside the wall, and because they don’t know the truth, they can’t think properly. They can only learn the limited information that gets fed to them. Similarly, when we blindly accept the rumors we hear about other places, it’s as if we are behind a wall, cut off from the real world. We take on those prejudices because we know nothing else. The way to “know something else” would be to start traveling, to go beyond the wall.

Thanks to the fact that the “news” generally and sometimes through no fault of its own focuses on the very worst things that happen in other countries (no news is good news, right?), we have certain experts in our general population, people with whom we talk, work, shop, sit, and eat on a daily basis, who are so convinced about what other certain countries are like. I don’t want to name any of the countries that these people usually mention, as mentioning them in this context of people who speak negatively about them would only promote the corresponding stereotypes, but a lot of us in the traveling community routinely roll our eyes when we hear those seven or eight countries where people tend to say “I would never go there,” or “that country is so dangerous,” or “you’ll get kidnapped and never come back.” Again, I concede that bad things happen everywhere and are still possible in those countries that always get unfairly dubbed as dangerous, but it’s hilarious when people rule out certain countries, and when they get asked if they have ever been there, they say “of course not.” Ask me– I’ve been to three of those countries that always come up on people’s lists of being dangerous or chaotic, and my life’s best memories come from those places. Again, don’t explore that lonely alley alone in the dark at midnight, but I hope you wouldn’t do that at home in your own neighborhood, would you?

When I was little and first realizing that such a thing called “gossip” existed, I remember my dad explained it all to me simply. He told me, “Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” So, if I take my dad’s advice, I will not listen to the bad things people say about certain countries and places, just as I also won’t accept all the wonderful things people say about places. I’ll go explore a place and decide for myself.

But there’s still the pesky other half of my dad’s advice– the part about believing half of what you see. At first I had trouble reconciling that into my theory of why it’s important to travel in order to find out the truth. By traveling, we get to experience a place and witness the daily life there, rather than relying on heresay. However, I wonder if we as travelers can get a 100% accurate feel for a place. Ultimately we are not from the other places we visit, and we would interpret life in a certain place differently as a visitor than if we were a lifelong citizen of that place. For example, I have lived in the US my whole life. If a genuinely interested person came to the US to get a feel for the lifestyle and spent a year or two years or five years, I imagine I would still have a better idea of what life is like in my country as compared to that respectably committed traveler. So, while I believe a traveler can never completely know about being a citizen of other places, it is imperative that in order to make a judgment about a place one must see it for oneself rather than going along with what others say. You would rather base the conclusions you draw on your own firsthand research wouldn’t you? Something you had at least seen with your own eyes, so that you could form your own opinion based on your own interpretation of your experiences in a certain place, rather than basing your own opinion on someone else’s interpretation.

A few sentences ago I said that if one wants to make a judgment about a place, one has to see it for oneself rather than relying on the snippets of conversations had by others. I have a feeling however, that after visiting some of the places you want to find out about, the last thing you’ll want to do is make a “judgment.” Hopefully after a bit of traveling, one learns to embrace other cultures and all their corresponding unpredictable beauties and oftentimes mystifying idiosyncracies, rather than making a cut and dry judgment. A traveler learns that countries, regions, and cultures are neither good nor bad, neither worth visiting nor not worth visiting. A traveler hopes to learn something new in every new place.

P.S. After a bit of traveling, you may return home with many insights and lots of positive things to say about the people and lifestyle you witnessed in other places. The naysayers will likely be very unhappy with you, because your positive evaluations of certain places begin to unravel the strength of the presuppositions many people use to shape reality behind their own “wall.” It is the traveler’s duty to encourage cynical people not to suffer from the confusion that comes when stereotypes start to unravel but to use those questions to spur their own fact-finding missions out in the real world where people make decisions based on firsthand experiences rather than heresay.

P.P.S. A major reason that I hear why people don’t travel is because they are very hesitant to give up the comforts of home. I believe that travel and the truth about the world that comes with it is far more valuable than any daily comforts one may sacrifice while on the road or on a boat or a plane en route to a new destination. Isn’t it more valuable to sacrifice 500 thread count sheets for a few days in exchange for a scrap of unfiltered truth you might gain on your first trip? If you (like I do) believe that travel brings you a step closer to the truth about the state of the world, isn’t it more valuable to forgo some mundane comforts? A tourist tries to bring the comforts of home with them (oftentimes bringing along prejudices) while the traveler leaves all that — the comforts and the unfounded opinions — at home.

Happy travels on your quest for the truth!

2 Comments on “Why to travel… really”

  1. Bill March 11, 2011 at 07:57 #

    How so right your comments are… As you know, Karen and I went to Nicaragua. I don’t know how Karens’ coworkers responded when she told them we made plans to visit Nicaragua but my coworkers response’s was why would you want to visit Nicaragua and “Isn’t it unsafe”? “They’re having some type of conflict, aren’t they”? Some were even confused about the ruler? Noriega isn’t it? Where did ruler come from? And Noriega, naa. “You must mean Ortega”, I told them. You know, he is the president of Nicaragua. Again, no knowledge or images of the country they have are correct. I assured them what you know or heard of Nicaragua is untrue. Then I proceded to tell them about the current Nicaragua. Plus the country of Nicaragua inlightened me as well. Since Nicaragua is ‘Central America”, I was thinking; Humid, mosquitos, jungle, lots of trees, animals, etc… Will, Nicaragua does have that but it also has farm land (cattle), agricultural farms, coffee plantations, banana fields and semi-arrid land. We spent our week in and around Granada which is semi-arrid. The pacific coast line is so different then the Gulf Of Mexico’s coast line. So it has a variety of different fauna and terrains.

    I nevered considered the people of other country’s ‘terrible and evil’, only the government and their political views. Granted there are some locations around the world where I would give second thoughts to visiting.

    So, yes, peoples views are skewed by what they read and hear. And there’s some truth to your Dad’s quotem, a quote that I’ve heard growing up, too. The only real representation is by being there and experiencing it.

    I saw an incident that made me so embarassed to be a citizen of the U.S. while visiting Nicaragua. Karen and I loved our hotel and their staff. Yes we had a minor problem with communication but it was our problem not theirs. I was going downstairs to get Karen a cup of coffee one morning. Whoops, getting ahead of the story here, let me back up. On our second day, we had arrangements with our realtor to look a property and were to meet in hotel lobby. While discussng with the realtor, another ‘Gringo” ( Nica’s call Canadians and U.S. citiizens this) joined in. He was from Chicago and had just gotten in to town the night before with his buddy. He/they had an interest in buying property, too. Just during that short period of time the Chicagoian was there, I felt him to be obnoxious and rude. I’m glad that he was scheduled with some other realtor or I would have cancelled or suggested another day to view the property. I wasn’t about to go out looking at property with this guy tagging along. Karen felt the same about this guy. Anyway, now I’m downstairs, wanting to get coffee for Karen when I see these guys from Chicago at one of the tables. I overheard the guy asking for a napkin from the hotel server. I guess the Chicagoian didn’t think the server understood the request so the Chicagoian, said in a voice very degrading and sort of loud, “You know what a napkin is don’t you?” I almost lost it right there if it wasn’t for my self control. Later on I let the server know that he was very good and he didn’t deserve what was said. And I believe he understood.

    Some americans truly believe they are above everyone else out there and these two guys, well, they will get what they deserve later in their lives.

    Can’t wait for more blogs . .

  2. Marisa LaValette March 11, 2011 at 18:44 #

    Hey Bill!

    Thanks for reading!

    I appreciate your story about the napkin incident. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    All I can say is, you and Karen are just as interested in reading and writing as I am. You two need to start a blog so that we can all stay up to date on the Nicaragua house search. More importantly, I can’t wait to hear about what it’s like once you finally get the house and eventually make the move!


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