Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

A Traveler’s Advice

I went to Mexico when I was 16. This is the story of my first “international” experience:

We crossed the border with no problem. As soon as we were in Tijuana, it was obvious we were in another country. Suddenly the paved roads looked like they were made of dirt and the buildings and cars we drove past were all covered in layers of dust. Everyone was sweating, men and women would approach our van windows and try to sell us fruit, knock-off watches, vending machine toys, or wash our windows. All the houses were more or less shacks of poorly assembled scraps of wood, tin, or other material available. No windows. Doors were often replaced with a thread-barren dusty blanket. The street sounds were different, the radio station had changed several times as we passed through different districts. When we finally arrived to our destination, a faith-based orphanage for grades K-12, the five of us greeted the American missionaries who established the orphanage, were taken a brief tour of the grounds, and then rested in our rooms for dinner. Our lodging was similar to summer camp cabins, where we had a small room and bunk beds to ourselves. It was hot and the food was greasy, the Spanish language was everywhere but we usually tuned it out as we talked in English with the missionaries, the English learners, and ourselves. Usually language wasn’t an issue as we always had a translator and for the entire trip we played games with the children or helped build new buildings on the site. I remember the missionaries bragging about how they built this place out of nothing. That was my five day trip to Mexico, but I’ve never really been there.

Over the years I’ve been able to travel to more places, with different purposes, meet other travelers…all the while slowly defining what travelling really means. I’ve  mostly learned what traveling is not. It is not a vacation or a get-away. It isn’t something you can capture in photographs or bring back in souvenirs. It isn’t something others do—the experience is all yours and personally unique. Until you’ve made an experience only yours and made yourself vulnerable to the new environment, you haven’t really traveled.

Really seeing another place means doing so cross-culturally. Whether you traveled from New York to Namibia or from California to Colorado, it will be different. There may not be words to describe the feelings, impressions, sights and sounds, the smells… It’s best to travel alone or to have private explorations when you can. Going off the beaten path opens up a whole new world that may be precious, surprising, ugly, and uncomfortable. The value is more than words, pictures, or souvenirs can hold because it is a new reality. Understanding that first and foremost makes it important to consider the ethics of traveling when going to a new place.

Now for the three essential things a true traveler must always have:

Purpose: for whatever reason you are going, you must have one purpose: to radically experience. This means that you will be fundamentally challenged to some degree in the way you see the world, the way you believe in your Higher Power, and the way you thought you were. The purpose of the traveler is to experience life in a different way, unlearning the old and comfortable way.

Ethics: Being in another culture requires the foreigner to be humbled, no matter what status they have in their home country. Not only does this allow you a more authentic experience, but it’s part of being respectful to the locals and allowing them to teach you their way instead of vice versa. Tourists aren’t travelers. They are foreigners who insist on bringing their country with them in their spas, their beaches, their binoculars, their hotels, their shopping, etc. The ethical traveler will reap many benefits from simply being humble and accepting that you are the alien, the minority, and the one who doesn’t know anything yet willing to learn. It’s about cultural respect, communication, authenticity, community, and being wrong. This traveler will have a more enriched experience than the tourists and the local community will most likely enjoy your visit as well (and not be pissed off that you just ate all their food). You must also break away from your other travel buddies for some alone time in that place. Go and explore, wander, and be willing to get lost. Everything is different when you break away from the English conversations and tune your senses into the sundry sounds, smells, faces, etc.

Expectations: if you are traveling with the purpose to have a completely different experience and are in the mindset that your cultural habits probably won’t work in this new culture, then you have to expect some consequences. Yes, consequences! It’s not an easy, breezy journey. If it were so, then you probably didn’t come with the right purpose or ethics (in other words, you are a tourist). You will probably come across some bumpy times, some scary times, discomfort, frustration, hate, bitterness, as well as insight, surprises, blessings, friendships, and beauty. Ultimately, expect to grow as a person through all this. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. ~Romans 5:3-4.

Finally, I leave you with a quote from Daniel J. Boorstin:

“The modern American tourist now fills his experience with pseudo-events. He has come to expect both more strangeness and more familiarity than the world naturally offers. He has come to believe that he can have a lifetime of adventure in two weeks and all the thrills of risking his life without any real risk at all.” 

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