Does travel combat prejudice? Maybe not anymore.
Mark Twain is an oft quoted man.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started"
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear”
Maybe it’s because I travel a lot myself, but one of the quotes I hear most often is “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”. YES Mark! Travel is so important and transformative! This quote is one that really resonated with me and many travelers I have encountered. It sounds like it should be so true. In fact, I think it is true, but perhaps no longer easily accessible. I’ve realized more and more that it depends on how you travel. Travel has been replaced by tourism. It is so convenient to go to foreign countries, and oftentimes foreigners are so catered to in the tourist industry, that we can fly across the world, but never leave our comfort zone.
I recently spoke with a couple who vacationed to a tropical island not long ago, and had a scary experience. Their fright, as they described to be, occurred in a moment where they had ventured outside of their resort on a motor-scooter to explore some of the island. They were at a gas station stopping briefly to fill-up, when a strange man approached them. That was it. That was the defining bad moment of their trip. They talked about this man’s unkempt appearance and incoherent speech (they were in a non-English speaking country, and did not understand the local language), and the dread they had in the pits of their stomachs as he drew near. It was a close call in their minds. Nothing happened. To their relief, that stranger kept walking. This couple had one genuine interaction with a local and it was enough to make them uncertain about traveling again in the future. Just leaving the safety of their home country was out of their comfort zone, and so any experience that was not a planned part of their vacation was unwelcome. True travel is full of ups and downs, hospitalizations (read the comic about one of mine here!) and paradise bliss. Going to a beach with all the comforts of home, no day left unplanned for fear of uncertainty, and zero room for growth, is not traveling.
It seems that many people who go on vacation hope to basically be in their own home, but in a different place. They are unwilling to experience the negatives with the positives and go to great expense to ensure that their experience is smooth, convenient and luxurious. Some of you may be thinking, sure what’s wrong with that?
A lot is wrong with that as it were.
First, you’re feeding into ideals of imperialism by going to a new place and demanding that they provide you with all of the luxuries you are used to in your completely different culture, country, society, and available infrastructure. People are often unwilling to make allowances for the fact that they are actually no longer in an environment of which they are not an expert. They see no issue with calling an employee who is not falling over themselves in a rush, lazy. Many western cultures value time and efficiency above all else. Some other cultures value happiness, family time, leisure and work-life balance. Core cultural values are not identical everywhere, and it is therefore unfair to judge a population based on values of a country on the other side of the globe.
Second, by hiding away in a pleasant resort or hotel, you effectively eliminate any potential for a cultural exchange. When the only locals you encounter are those who are serving you in some way, the interaction is structured as employee—client and will never be authentic or balanced. They are literally paid to be nice to you.
Third, by definition leaving your comfort zone is uncomfortable. Travelers who truly care to grow have to be willing to take risks, deal with consequences and problem solve their way out of bad situations. Learning is a process most often conducted through making mistakes, failing and trying again. Stepping out of your comfort zone is scary, and often unpleasant at first, but the rewards are fast proportional. Spending a few grueling hours on a smelly broken down local bus to get to the amazing place where few travelers are willing to journey will be an unforgettable experience and make a funny story.
Fourth, you might as well have stayed home. Traveling is about collecting experiences and seeking adventure. Today it is so often turned into a checklist of photo opportunities to be showcased on social media as a harvest strategy for likes and the envy of your peers. You never really put yourself out there so much as went through the motions. You didn’t do it for you, you did it for the idealized version of yourself that you posture as online.
Tourism and travel are not the same. Tourism is taking over as the new norm, and travel is more and more difficult. In one trip, it may be possible to have a few days of true travel, among countless days of being a tourist. Being a traveler rather than a tourist requires conscious effort. You have to seek out authentic experiences and interactions. You have to resist being drawn into the hollow backpacker lifestyle of parties, and self-congratulation.