Monday, June 27, 2011

Travel is Education

I am convinced that traveling is just as important to becoming a well-informed member of society as attending a university. I think that some of us believe this almost instinctively: we say to ourselves that of course travel is educational. Of course it’s worth the time, effort, and even the great expense necessary to accomplish significant travel time. Some people, however, are not convinced.

The impetus for this blog proceeds from an interaction I had a few days ago. I was boarding the plane that would take me from Atlanta to Dublin, and since it was a very long flight and I would likely be snoring and/or drooling on the poor fellow next to me, I decided to make friends with the older gent in seat D. I hadn’t slept but a few hours in the nights preceding and I was likely running a fever. As such, I believe I was slightly hyperactive and possibly a bit delusional. I’m sure I said a number of foolish things to this man, but I convinced myself that it mattered very little for I would never see him again. At the end of our flight, this man, Donald Something Something III, asked me how I was funding this expensive Europe trip. I paused. Trying hard not to sound flippant, I replied, “My dad is paying for it.” Donald III stiffened up and, board-like, and began to tell me about how he never had those opportunities when he was a kid and how poor his family was and how ungrateful young people are today. I tried to convince him that I realize how fortunate I am, and how significant my summer travels have been to me, but it was like putting suntan lotion on a hot stone (that is, completely pointless). 

When I thought later about Donald III’s response, I felt annoyed. Here, I told myself, is a man who has obviously worked hard to make a good living for himself, who succeeded despite many setbacks. While I understand his indignation at my “good fortune,” as he calls it, I think he reacted poorly.

Dr. Donald doesn’t understand the value of studying abroad or traveling outside a person’s home country. He had mentioned once in the course of our conversation that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to explore Europe when there was so much of the US to see. Well, Donald III, it’s because I already live in the States. I already understand the language, the culture, the mentality, the mode of living. Why would I want to see more of that? Traveling isn’t about just about seeing new features of land, it’s about broadening your understanding of the world.  

I don’t think you can understand yourself until you can do so outside of your comfortable context. When you change your environment dramatically, how much of you is still there? How much of you is the people and places around you, and how much of it is you? The weeks preceding this conversation with Donald III, I had been in Peru – first the rainforest, then in Lima. These two places are about as different as cheese and dirt. That trip helped me to see that my identity resides in what I say, how I react, and how I work within a group, for instance, rather than the labels on my clothes. 

Secondly, how are you supposed to understand the U.S. if you don’t understand how it’s different from other countries? Surely you can’t be so arrogant as to assume that American life style is the only kind worth knowing about. Surely not, as that would demonstrate a particularly ugly egotism, the kind that the rest of the world so often accuses us of. 

When I was staying at CICRA we had a chance to head fifteen minutes downriver to visit Boca Amigo, a “town” of blue tarps over broken roofs and grim wooden box-houses on stilts, of barefoot mothers and dirty children. I saw my life with new clarity. To understand, abstractly, that you are rich and fortunate is one thing. To encounter the kind of poverty where pigs sleep under the houses is another thing entirely. 

I was sent to Peru at the expense of private donors. These donors had never met me but they had a belief in the life-changing and world-changing effects of traveling abroad. For these donors, for various people in my university, and for me, the expense of traveling is comparable to the expense of attending a university. Sure, you’d be “saving” thousands of dollars a year if you didn’t go to college, but how is that actually a “savings”? Education is an investment, one that pays off in the future. Often enough, it pays off in ways that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Does that mean it’s not worth it?

Travel, like education, changes who you are and how you see the world. It makes you a better member of the human race: more compassionate, more broad-minded, more content with life and its hardships but also more passionate about easing the hardships of others. How, Dr. Donald III, is this a waste of money? How is this elitist or “unfair”?