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?