Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Danielle LaSusa.
I was grateful that the phone cord was not longer. Another six inches and I would have collapsed to my knees on the concrete sidewalk. I might have given up and decided to get a flight home right then and there. Instead, I clung to the receiver of the open-air pay phone, legs buckling, and sobbed to my boyfriend on the other end of the line, eight thousand miles away, while cars and people passed me, unphased, on their morning commutes.
I was nearing my third month in my semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, and I was cracked open. The new people and places, the foreign language, the sensation of being a floating atom, lost in the universe, not knowing who I was or where I belonged — it had all become too much. I cried to my boyfriend, who did his best to calm me down, until I had used up all the minutes on my calling card.
Travel to a new country or culture can be hard — strange streets and buildings, new food and people, feeling like an ignorant tourist who can’t figure out which way to the Louvre. But, I don’t just mean that it can be uncomfortable or scary, which it can. I’m talking about the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual pain and effort that comes from deep, personal growth and change. I mean that, if we let it, travel can shake us right down to the core of what it means to be human.
The Tourist Bubble and Beyond
Most people travel just to have a nice vacation — to relax, rejuvenate, maybe do some sightseeing. We want to see the world, sure, but we also want to sleep in a comfortable bed, eat a reliably tasty meal, and get a hot shower in the morning.
Knowing this, the tourism industry strives to make travelers as comfortable as possible, sheltering us in a kind of protective bubble of plush hotels and air-conditioned tour buses. Packaged tours offer safe bite-sized pieces of “local culture,” usually in the form of an “authentic” meal or a short visit to a local church or temple, museum or monument.
As tourists, we get to experience the new and different, but we get to do so on our own terms. We need not shift expectations nor reflect on preconceptions. Surprises are minimal and experiences are predictable. It is just like the Hilton at home, but this one has a view of the Pyramids of Giza outside the window.
But what if we traveled with the expectation of discomfort, struggle, and transformation? After all, the word “travel” comes from the French travail, which means “to work,” and in Middle English, came to mean “a painful or laborious effort.” Cramming into airplane cabins and cabs, hauling around suitcases, and trying to convert dollars to yen on the fly are painful and laborious, for sure. But this physical and mental labor of getting from place to place is often accompanied by a different kind of work: the work of intense personal transformation.
Travel offers incredible opportunity not only to see the world, but to see the world differently. We can experience new foods, cultures, and new ways of being. These experiences enrich understanding of other people and places, but they can also lead us to reflect on our own biases, assumptions, habits, identities, and even our own understanding of meaning and purpose in the world. This is, perhaps, why we encourage young people to take a semester abroad or a gap year before they start school or work. We know that travel can be the best kind of education.
I learned things on my world travels that no classroom had ever taught me.
Yet, this education almost inevitably requires that we step outside the protective tourist bubble and risk the messy, unpredictable adventure of navigating a new place on our own. The immersive nature of this type of travel means that it — and the growth that comes with it — can sometimes be quite painful, lonely, or alienating. We very literally step outside of our comfort zone, and then travel hundreds or thousands of miles away from it.
We are not alone in this, however. There are many stories of people from all over the world who have made such journeys. American mythologist Joseph Campbell — who has made a career of identifying the common themes, tropes, and motifs among mythologies of cultures and people from around the globe — claims that most world cultures contain some version of this story of the hero or heroine who journeys away from home to become transformed. It is the Hero’s Quest, the Spirit Journey, the Dreamquest, the Walkabout, the Rumspringa.
Gilgamesh travels into dark forests to fight monsters and restore his kingdom; Moses wanders through the desert and finds God in the mountainside; the Buddha abandons his home and dwells in the forest for six years before finding enlightenment; Osiris ventures to the underworld and back again to understand the meaning of death; Dorothy goes to Oz to come to appreciate home; Elizabeth Gilbert learns to eat, pray, and love in her global tour.
These stories suggest that there is something unique about world travels that lend itself to this type of change and personal development.
There is a reason that the hero’s journey is a journey. It’s not the hero’s day sitting at home on the couch. (Tweet this.)
The hero must leave home in order for spiritual growth and transformation to happen. In order to make a journey of the mind and spirit, we must also take the body.
Three Reasons that Travel Transforms
So, what is it about world travels that make them ripe for personal growth? Why does a journey force us to change and transform? And why does that transformation involve emotional, spiritual, and intellectual difficulty and pain?
1. Travel removes us from our usual comfortable roles, duties, and possessions. There is no office to clock in at, no garbage to be taken out, no pets to feed, no stack of mail in need of sorting. If you’re traveling alone, then there are also no relationships to negotiate, no need to stop because your travel companions are tired, hungry, or cranky. The obligations are minimal: keep yourself fed, find places to sleep, and go wherever and do whatever you fancy.
When traveling, the activities of today are relatively isolated from yesterday and tomorrow. There are no past deeds or people demanding that yesterday’s promises be fulfilled; there is no need to make promises today because you’ll not be around to keep them tomorrow.
Such freedom is liberating and exhilarating, but it can also be unmooring. Unshackled from my life as a student in a small college town in Illinois, I found that, while in Spain, I was alone with myself in ways that didn’t allow me to hide in my environments, deadlines, and relationship dramas. Who was I when I was free of these anchors and guideposts? How did I decide where to go and how to spend the limited travel time I had? What did I value and how was I going to make decisions?
We are forced to wake up out of the lull of sleepwalking that happens when we go about our work-a-day lives and to take a on a new sense of responsibility for ourselves. This can bring on a kind of disquieting reflection, and even existential angst, about who we are and what we value.
2. Travel forces us to confront the arbitrariness of our own lives. When at home, it feels as though our customs and values are necessary, as if written in stone. Of course we must drive on the right side of the road, shake hands when we greet someone, exchange labor for a paycheck. And yet, when we spend some time in another place and encounter new values or ways of living, we realize that our own entrenched ways could easily be otherwise, had we simply been born in another part of the world.
What I thought was obvious or necessary before my trip to Spain — for example, that it would be absurd to shut down all commerce in the middle of the day so that everyone can take a post-lunch nap — is actually just luck and circumstance. It made the solid ground beneath my feet feel much less certain.
3. In traveling we may encounter living conditions that make us realize how wildly unjust and imbalanced the world is. This is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable aspects of seeing the world. Poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment, and lack of basic resources characterize the lives of many of the world’s people, and travel can expose us to these realities at a level that we do not see at home.
Such knowledge comes with a call to ethical responsibility about how to respond to this seedy underbelly of global capitalism. When we come from a part of the world that has benefited from centuries of imperialism and industrialization, and we travel to parts of the world that have been colonized and pillaged, we may find ourselves feeling guilty, confused, and deeply distraught by what we see. We must decide what to do with those feelings and how we are going to continue to live in this world, knowing what we know.
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These discoveries taken together can bring on a full blown existential crisis. At least, that’s what it did for me the college semester that I lived abroad in Spain. Within a few weeks time, I found myself feeling like a lost soul, adrift in a foreign land. I saw little old women, backs hunched and faces covered, dirty hands outstretched, begging for coins — a level of poverty and desperation I had never encountered while growing up in the suburbs. I was so overwhelmed by the freedom of travel and the unfamiliarity of a new place, and I wrestled with the loss of identity that came from leaving my life back home.
Now granted, I was young, and the college years for many people seems to be full of identity crises. But I believe that, for people young and old, travel can at the very least open up new perspectives and reflections about the scope of human life, values, beliefs, and meaning. That is, if we let it.
Retreat to the Bubble
It’s usually easier for most of us to just sign up for a package tour and let someone else build the itinerary. At the very least, we confer with a guidebook or website that tells us all the must-see sights and then usually spend our time dutifully checking sights off the list — like travel bingo. This strategy gives structure and purpose and allows us to safely inhabit the new role of “tourist” so that we don’t get lost moving through the world without an identity or sense of direction. All we have to do is embrace the fanny pack and camera, and we know where we stand.
Similarly, when we encounter new and different customs and cultures, rather than question our own way of doing things, the emotionally and intellectually safer response is to fetishize, exoticize, or otherwise distance ourselves from the people and places we visit. Isn’t it strange how they do things here? These people are so weird! Other cultures can become like a living museum: quaint, kitschy, or bizarre, and a perfect photo opportunity, but we don’t take them too seriously, thereby keeping our ideas of what is normal and necessary undisturbed.
When it comes to the deeply troubling and difficult realities of an exploitative global economy and the poverty-stricken condition of many of the world’s people, the tourism industry fiercely works to keep these unpleasant truths out of sight. The average visitor to a Cancun resort will likely never know that drinking and bathing water has been syphoned away from local residents to water the hotel lawns. A typical tourist to Hawaii will probably not notice when the tour bus guide lowers the window shades to teach everyone a local song, while driving through the dilapidated slums on the way to the idyllic beach.
Tourist attractions are often well-maintained and tourists are catered to, with convenient lodging, food, and amenities, and a feeling of relative safety and security. This environment can look very different than the surrounding homes and communities of those who live in tourist destinations.
Plus, because we live in an age of images and information, tourists generally know what to expect when we visit those well-maintained tourist sites. We’ve seen images of the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa hundreds of times before we set eyes on them in person. But, venture too far away from the map, and you never know what you might see.
Be Broadened Abroad
What would happen if, instead of retreating to the familiar and comfortable, we lean into the existential angst, the culture shock, and the truth about our place in the world? If we have the resources, technology, and time to travel abroad, let us not squander them by encasing ourselves in a glass dome of familiarity and luxury, or by exoticizing or fetishizing others, but by genuinely making an effort to listen and learn.
Yes, we might be uncomfortable, confused, surprised, overwhelmed, ashamed, or even despairing. Learning new things is sometimes hard and unpleasant. But the things we learn about ourselves and our world will be invaluable and will help us to grow and develop as more reflective, empathetic, and globally-minded human beings.
In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain writes, “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.”
Science now backs him up, showing that people who have traveled broadly are more likely to be trusting of others. And one thing our increasingly globalized, often xenophobic world needs is a more trusting and charitable view of our fellow members of the planet.
Of course, I do not want to exchange one form of fetishization for another. We ought not insert ourselves into the homes and workspaces of host destinations, demanding that the locals educate us. Indeed, from the point of view of the locals, one of the benefits of the tourism bubble is that it keeps the tourists contained, so they don’t intrude on lives of those just trying to go about their day.
We must recognize that we are guests — perhaps even at times unwelcome guests — and enter other people’s country and culture with humility and care. Indeed, one of the difficult parts of learning through travel is seeing oneself through the eyes of others, and coming to terms with the judgments that others have about who we are and where we come from.
But, if we venture out into the world with humility, curiosity, empathy, openness, respect, and a willingness to listen and learn, going abroad can truly broaden us. It will be work, and it can be difficult, but the payoff will be a fuller, richer, and deeper experience of the human condition.
So, instead of organizing your world travels around a sightseeing checklist and a well-insulated path of safety, go looking for opportunities not only to travel, but to travail. Prepare more than just your suitcases and passports. Prepare yourself to be troubled and transformed by what the world has to offer.