Travel: it’s all relative

June 25, 2014 in Career,Life,Philosophy

When I was in Turkey, I overheard an American girl complaining (rather loudly and rather annoyingly) about how Turkish people were littering. “How can people do this in their own country? It’s disgusting! We would never do this back in America.” I was tempted to speak up, to tell her that not only are the streets of Brooklyn covered in trash but that I see Americans actively throw trash on the ground in New York City every single day. Here’s the thing: people throw trash on the ground. It bothered me when I was traveling in Bali and Turkey and Thailand, it bothers me when I see it on the streets that I call home. But it’s not an issue of nationality. It’s an issue of education, of socioeconomics, of urbanization.

Earlier this week, I read a blog post in which an American traveler returns to America and complains about America’s love affair with “the holy paved road, the shotgun, and the almighty dollar.” It rubbed me the wrong way, this belief that all Americans own a car and support gun rights and that we’re all obsessed with money. New York City is a hotbed of capitalism and greed, a place where appearances matter–and yet, my friends are yogis and hippies and really genuinely nice people. We have to hustle to pay our (obscenely high) rent, but does that make us less joyful? There are greedy Americans and there are greedy Indians, there are kind Americans and there are kind Nigerians. Nationality may shape us, but it does not uniformly define our character.

As someone who loves to travel as much as they love their own bed, I feel equally grateful for my adventures abroad as I do for my current routine. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I’ve had the chance to see so many different landscapes, taste so many varieties of cuisine, meet “friendly locals” all over the globe. But really: what would travel be without the ones who don’t travel? Those “locals” are the reason we go to new places: they are the ones who cook the meals, who drive the taxis, who manage the front desk and clean the hotel rooms. Globalization and technology have made international tourism easier for some and created jobs for others, but it’s folly to think that travel experiences would somehow improve if EVERYONE traveled.

I find it exceedingly pretentious when Westerners assume that they are luckier, happier, richer in some cultural sense–compared to the slums of India or the smoggy skyscrapers of Hong Kong. I find it equally pretentious when travelers act as if because they have crossed borders, they are somehow better than those who have not, whether or not those people are their fellow countrymen or locals in the countries they’ve visited.

“Why? Must one have seen the world? In this village, in every house, in every shack, you will find the entire range of human emotions: love and hate, fear and jealousy, envy and joy. You needn’t go looking for them.” One of my favorite quotes from The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (one of my favorite “travel” books, based in Burma) sums up so much of how I feel about our endless quest of travel: to cross off another country, to gape at the humans of another culture. We are not “born” to travel. In fact, I recently read that there’s an old Indian superstition that many of our modern health and emotional problems are because of this jet setting lifestyle, that it’s bad luck to cross oceans.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to travel. I think there’s something special that you can find in yourself and in others when you break out of your comfort zone. I adore beaches, sidewalk cafes, the feeling of freedom and possibility from waking up in a brand-new city. I’m certainly not perfect. I’m guilty of feeling like travel has made me a more worthy person. I often feel quite lucky to have an American passport, for all of the opportunities that it opens for me.

But you don’t have to go across the world to find yourself. Passport stamps and frequent flier miles are not a measure of self-worth, and my American passport doesn’t define my character.

Do you think that we’re born to travel? 

  • Love this and I so agree with this sentiment. I hear people making comments similar to this all the time while traveling and it makes me really sad that people think that way. Very well said.

  • Dana

    This is a really great and thought-provoking post!

  • camorose

    Glad you liked it!

  • camorose

    Thanks!

  • Anđela Ćenan

    love this article! I’ve recently come across a quote that celebrates mothers even though they haven’t travelled as much as we travel today..(as a general rule – it talks about mothers from this ”Balkan area”) and to whom we like to (stupidly) say that ”they do not understand because they haven’t seen it” but still, their actions travel further than our feet ever will – their actions speak louder than words – what they do to keep families together, what they go through to afford us the opporunity to travel – that is what matters and one needs not to go far to find it… I can’t remember the entire quote but I hope you see the connection between the quote and your article (in a more general sense) – it’s so true that whatever really matters in life can be found ANYWHERE…and yes, it is pretentious to think otherwise :)

  • Having an open mind when traveling abroad is so unbelievably important. As well as letting go of any stereotypes we might have learned beforehand. We are guilty of this on so many things. I really enjoyed this article because it’s true — I travel to learn and have experiences, not to change as a person. You are who you are, no matter where you are.

    I’ve always heard that it’s bad luck to cross oceans, I didn’t know that’s where it came from.

  • Shireen

    Wonderfully written, and excellent, honest points made. Great post

  • I couldn’t agree more. Every place in the world you’re going to find ignorant people and greedy people at any corner of the world. I think the most important thing to do in life is find a good group of friends who have similar interests, and ignore what other people are doing!

  • Lindsay

    Thank you! This was really well written and I completely agree. I’ll have to add The Art of Hearing Heartbeats to my reading list.

  • While I hope that everyone has the time, money, and resources to travel I know that this isn’t possible for everyone, and moreso that travel isn’t something everyone wants to do. For me how a person acts, and treats other people is much more telling than how many passport stamps he or she has. Lovely post.

  • HippieInHeels

    I agree with you completely. I get a lot of shit for being American and now just let the comment roll off, living abroad, I crave my old American life sometimes and never say bad things about America because I really loved it; I grew up in the country. I have seen some friends on FB that have been backpacking a couple months and put statuses up like “all the american travelers we meet are so annoying…” and I have to roll my eyes…

  • Well said. Happiness is in the eye of the beholder…

  • aNa

    I couldn’t agree more. Travelling certainly may help shaping our personalities in a positive way but it doesn’t make us better people than those who don’t travel or don’t have the possibilities to travel. When I travel with other people it annoys me when they constantly compare the new environment to their home culture. I mean it’s natural to do this but it depends on how you express yourself. Other cultures are not necessarily better or worse, they are just different.

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  • camorose

    What an interesting comparison! And yes–I think it’s silly to compare our current culture of travel to past ones because it’s SO much easier and cheaper for us to do it than our parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

  • camorose

    I hadn’t heard that quote about bad luck to cross oceans until reading Path of Practice, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it’s prevalent across many cultures!

  • camorose

    Thanks for reading, Shireen :)

  • camorose

    Glad you could relate!

  • camorose

    I absolutely loved The Art of Hearing Heartbeats–I think you’d enjoy!

  • camorose

    Glad you enjoyed :)

  • camorose

    I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying it is!

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  • This one was excellent. How I love having a routine after years of traveling! How I can’t wait to travel again.

    Also, I LOVE this line, “Why? Must one have seen the world? In this village, in every house, in every shack, you will find the entire range of human emotions: love and hate, fear and jealousy, envy and joy. You needn’t go looking for them.”

    However, you and I know this because we have traveled. We know that everywhere named exotic is not enlightened. Because we are graced to have seen the world we know this, and we are called to share that truth with others. The world is bountiful with the fruit of the seeds of good and evil.

    As to your linked article. It rubbed me wrong too. How terrible to have seen the world but have never seen it as it is (as I suspect the author of the linked article is). How terrible to feel smarter than all those around you, but to be more foolish because of your travels.

  • SheyDraw

    Thanks for writing this.
    I couldn’t even finish reading the first article because I feel its way too generalized and a bit “holier than thou”. I love my country and won’t read anyone talking generalized smack about it! I know the flaws, I mean they are constantly pointed by everyone (the media, foreigners, holier than thous). But I won’t let the negatives get to the point where they eclipse the hundred of positives and let the bad drag me down. Like you I find my own little biosphere of great friends, yoga, food, and wine and enjoy life and what my country has to offer.

  • camorose

    Glad you found the piece and enjoyed it, Dustin. Appreciate your perspective!

  • camorose

    yes yes yes! So glad you could relate!

  • Lisa Lubin

    Nice perspective! I just not wrote my own ‘response’ post (first time) from her post as it also struck many chords.

  • camorose

    Glad I’m not the only one it struck!

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