These days, you can buy a one-way ticket from most major American cities to a given European capital for under $500. I’ve seen prices as low as $300. Because of this, often times beautiful historic and cultural sites are clogged with camera wielding zombies and blocked by over-sized comfort buses. And as irritating as these things may be to many travelers, it is hard to look past the fact that you, too, have embraced the extraordinary accessibility of travel.
I literally cannot remember a time in my life that I did not love to travel. I am very fortunate to have come from a family that took frequent trips; whether just weekends at the family’s cabin just a short 2 hour drive into the mountains or week long excursions in more tropical climates. Not a spring break went by without some sort of a plan. However it was a trip over my seventh grade spring break that truly opened my eyes to the treasures that traveling could offer. My cousin -9 years my senior- was studying in Florence, Italy so the entire family planned a two week trip of a lifetime (that still supplies a good amount of stories). Occasional calls from a local internet café were the only forms of communication for a student abroad- and expensive for a student living off a loaf of bread each day. So we made arrangements a few weeks before to meet him in a certain square at a certain time on a certain day and hoped we were all in the right place.
I wish I could say that the trip was smooth and perfect and left me with a glimmering vision of Europe and her offerings. But this was in 2003, the same year the United States officially entered into the War on Terror. In fact, we were in Florence when the first bombs were dropped- though all we knew was from photos on foreign newspapers. After some searching, an English newspaper was obtained and we learned that the war had begun. This occurred halfway through our trip, which left the rest of the experience punctuated with peace rallies and marches, being spat at and told to “Go home, Americans!” However we continued to adventure out. My parents allowed us to see these things; to see that the world was different. And that people were different. But most of all, that it was necessary to acknowledge those things.
I still left that trip with a hunger for culture: I read travel books. I was the girl in junior high who scolded the boys for smirking at painted nudes, saying, “They’re not naked. It’s art!” I loved watching Samantha on the travel channel and I remember saying, “I want her job. I want to be paid to see the greatest things in the world, and meet different people, and eat the best food and stay in the most interesting places.”
I have been frustrated when I do not see this passionate enthusiasm for culture in other people. But I also must recall that I was so incredibly fortunate enough to be exposed to it while I was young. These days, however, I think there are very very few excuses to not have traveled.
Traveling is no longer a pastime of the wealthy. In fact, it may never have been cheaper. It has also never been more important. The world we live in is becoming increasingly turbulent and bitter. We are faced with cries that force us to question our own beliefs as well as our faith in human kind. I have found that the act of traveling- of extending yourself outside of your own small realm of existence- is a remedy in times like this.
It forces you to become uncomfortable. This forces you to become aware of your surroundings and the behavior of the people in it.
It forces you to interact with different people, from different backgrounds, with different approaches to life.
It forces you to trust strangers: That they gave you proper directions; That the restaurant the suggested is good.;That the neighborhood is save.
It forces you to recognize that there are different ways of life. And moreover, that yours is not the only way of life. That people are happy living a different way.
Recently, my brother-in-law made a pass through Helsinki as his first stop on a grand European tour before beginning his career. His final stop was Istanbul. With recent demonstrations of terror in that city, many people- myself included- were skeptical about how safe this location was. However, while he was there, 50 people were massacred in a popular tourist city in the United States. And he reported that the people of Istanbul were some of the most friendly and open people he had encountered throughout his entire tour. I would second that motion from our brief stay.
The truth is that there is no safe destination. There actually never has been. Sure, there are places that are riskier than others- I am not about to book a tour of Pakistan. But fear should never, ever prevent you from exploration. Not fear of flying, not fear of terrorism, not fear of not knowing what the waiter is asking you. After all, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Because when you travel, you look into the eyes of someone who is vastly different from you. They did not grow up speaking English (though they probably do now-lucky you), they probably worship differently, their family may have strange customs, but they have similar dreams and goals. And you should be able to see so much of the beauty of the world in that. Of their opportunities and experiences, of yours, and of the remarkable chance that you should meet.
Just the act of acknowledging the vast breadth of humanity for all of its differences and similarities- that is the point of travel. The understanding of the history that sits behind it and the beautiful products of culture is a happy side order that you get as well.
So don’t travel for a great Instagram picture. Do not travel because everyone else is. Travel to acknowledge humanity and your place in it.
…and then take great photos and make memories to share. Because those are awesome too.