“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”Gustave Flaubert
When we look back on our childhood, what memories stand out? A few Christmas presents are memorable, most are forgotten. The many hours of TV or video games don’t have the contrast to stand out.
It is Unique Experience that we remember, like the trip to Yellowstone when our car ran out of gas or the time in France when we thought a bidet was a toilet. These are the memories we will laugh about with our family for years to come. We remember change, hardship, and adventure. We remember our travels.
From a young age I had the opportunity to travel to many countries (my dad was in the Military). While travel has remained a rewarding hobby, I am increasingly convinced that for our children – traveling is a near-necessity.
As the world gets smaller and opens to us – through our phones, TV, and high-speed travel – it should follow that the average young adult is more educated in geography, culture, and history than his predecessors. The opposite seems true. Rather than opening our worldview, technology has simply focused our minds upon that with which we are most comfortable. Algorithms aren’t trained to expose us to new ideas or expand our view but feed us more of the same.
Youth are increasingly ignorant of the realities of life outside their small spheres of comfort. Our perspective has become hyper-focused on the here and now. The vast expanse of human history and culture is left unexplored (but not unjudged). If we do venture into foreign lands, we often stay in a comfortable resort or focus on capturing the perfect image for Instagram, rather than pushing past our comfort zones.
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”Rudyard Kipling
Impressionable youth now seem sure on one of two things: their own culture is the most repressive or the most enlightened. The truth is much more complicated. But how do we encounter complexity and grapple with it? It is rarely discovered in a textbook or a professor’s lecture. Complexity is seen when encountering new people: their art, their history, and their culture. In the reality of the living-world you will find no slogans or neatly wrapped ideologies. You will find a beautiful and tragic mess – and one much different, and much the same, as the mess in your own backyard.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”St. Augustine
It is staggering to consider how many people occupy this planet of ours. Only when we travel can we start to appreciate the reality of humanity’s vastness. Every white hilltop village in Southern Spain, every bustling city in Central China, every favela in Rio – are home. And home is important – it is what shapes us, each of us. It is important to step into these homes of humanity. If we don’t, we never feel foreign; we never see the world in its strangeness or appreciate our own home.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”Robert Lewis Stevenson
On a recent trip to Spain with my husband and two oldest children, I loved feeling like a foreigner again. I discovered new ways to eat, relax, dress, and interact. I want to be more Spanish after that trip. I want to put more thought into how I dress, the way Spanish women seem to. I want to enjoy conversation as I eat food more slowly, and not feel guilty for every bite of bread. I want to touch my friend on the arm when I speak to her – bring more emotion and joy to our conversations.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”Mark Twain
We hear a lot about “bigotry” and “ethnocentrism”. While these labels are sometimes misplaced and overused, these prejudices deserve our attention. If we were genuinely concerned, if we honestly wanted to overcome these vices – what would be the pathway out of them? Walking the streets of foreign lands may be a good start.
The Smallness of High School
I didn’t like high school. When I was a Sophomore, we lived in England and I went to a small high school on an Air Force base. I would have a feeling of dread descend on me every Sunday night, knowing another week of school lay ahead.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”G.K. Chesterton
That year my 22-year old brother stayed with us while he did an internship in London. My parents (they were far from over-protective) allowed him to take me on a trip to Athens and Istanbul. Our plan was this – immediately upon arriving we would take the train from Athens to Istanbul and then return and travel around Greece. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you look at as Chesterton does) upon our arrival we discovered there was a train strike. Luckily my brother is a decisive and confident traveler so he quickly flagged down a taxi. The driver drove us for about 20 minutes until we reached the local bus station. Once there we looked across the street and saw the train station we had just left -this incident prejudiced my brother against taxi drivers for the rest of the trip. We found a bus to take us to Thessalonica and then another to Istanbul. Along our journey we slept in hotels full of cockroaches. I developed severe blisters from all the walking. I suffered the consequences of some bad gyros. We got lost countless times. We were awakened every morning at 5 by prayer calls from dozens of minarets. We became friends with some Turkish street-boys as we soaked in the majesty of Hagia Sophia. We visited the temple of Delphi, and hiked to the top of the Acropolis to stand before the Parthenon.
When we returned to England my perspective on high school changed. It wasn’t that I suddenly enjoyed school – rather the dramas and worries of high school lifted from my consciousness. I saw the insignificance of it because I had seen so much else of significance. I am forever grateful my parents let us go on that trip. There were times I thought. “How in the world could mom let us do this!?” (Particularly when I was pulling my brother away from punching a Turkish taxi driver). But thank goodness she did. That adventure has proved to be one of the core experiences of my life.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”Henry Miller
Travel is Worth It
International travel can be prohibitively expensive. It might not be within our capacity to take our child to Athens. I had to start a side business to finance our most recent trip to Spain. But when we consider how we spend our money, where our resources may be best spent for our child’s development – travel seems worth it. When my husband and I got married we decided that for our family – travel is more important than material things. We don’t spend much on clothes, cars, or other luxuries.
Nevertheless international travel may still be beyond our reach. Luckily for us, we live in a multicultural world – we can go to another part of town and find a world our children have not encountered. We can invite a family from a different religion or nation to our home for dinner.
Visiting poor neighborhoods is often avoided to protect our children’s sensitivities – I think this is a mistake. When I lived in South Africa, I was shocked one day when speaking with a wealthy Afrikaans woman. I had been teaching English classes in a poor township. I asked her if she wanted to join me next time I went. She asked where it was. Every time since her childhood, when that woman went to the grocery store she went over a bridge that overlooked this township. Thousands of her fellow humans lived there – but she had never seen them. I wish her mother had pointed it out to her so she could be aware of some of her neighbors.
We want our children to not only see their neighbors but also have an informed vision of the world and its history.
When you tell a child that Columbus traveled from Spain and discovered the New World in 1492, they have no reference point for what 1492 means, what Spain is, and what was so “New” about the world. But when you travel to Spain, you can show your children things built in 100 AD, in 1400 AD, in 1860 – they can start to build out a timeline of antiquity. You can visit Seville – where Columbus departed and visit his grave in Seville Cathedral. Tour palaces and cathedrals paid for with wealth taken from this New World. See evidence of the devotion to Christ in the monuments and churches which compelled, in part, this exploration to new lands. See some of the complexity of the stories of history.
Return and be Changed
“Our obligation to our own family or ‘clan’ is greater than our obligation to the faceless multitude.”M.E. Bradford
Many will say – why not focus on our own neighborhood? Shouldn’t we appreciate the culture we were born into? Our priority should be our home and community. But too often we are blinded to that responsibility by our lack of perspective. Travel is a means of gaining it. When we open our eyes to the world, we return and rest them upon our own home. We appreciate things we had not noticed due to lack of comparison. We see areas where we can improve and see patterns of history repeating in our culture. We drop silly traditions and hold fast to important ones.
After we returned home I asked my son what he enjoyed most about our trip, he said, “The late-night tapas.” But since our return we have had several discussions relating what he saw and learned in Spain to things taught in school, seen on TV, and discussed with friends. He is making connections he couldn’t before.
As parents, we want to raise kids that are deep, kids whose worldview is wider than their own comfort, whose empathy and understanding were earned, kids who see history and social issues in context, kids who have real-world knowledge to back up their beliefs. Travel can help.
Video on how new experiences can “turn on” our potential and reduce anxiety.
Article on how travel changes the brain