Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Travel?

i recently remarked that in Chile i am working, reading, writing, eating, drinking, walking, and doing other things that i customarily do in america; my sister asked me a question about why i even travel, with the implication being why bother if you do pretty much the same things you do in america, and i answered her fairly glibly as is my custom.  but i realized that sarcasm wasn't a straight answer, and it certainly didn't explain why i love this so much.

so this is partly an apology in the customary sense to my sister for brushing her off, and partly an apologia in the classical sense for why i like to travel.

this actually takes some thought to put into words, because it seems so obvious or at least intuitive to those who love to travel why they love it.  it's like asking why one likes warm, sunny days or movies with happy endings.  you ask someone familiar with wanderlust why they like to travel and you'll get the same blank, uncomprehending stare as if you ask someone why puppies are cute.  

which brings me around to the disconnect between americans who like to travel and the vast majority of americans who don't: i think it has to do with the american psyche and our cultural expectations.  as a young, extremely diverse country built upon big ideas we have a certain youthful optimism about the world and our place in it: namely, that america is the greatest country in the world, and we understand why people would want to come here.  implicit in that is a certain level of arrogance as well: namely, that america is the greatest country in the world, and why would we want to go elsewhere.  we're raised to believe this, so it can hardly be helped; and while in some ways that foundational belief about being the greatest country may be true, in many ways it's not.  there is greatness to be found in every country, big or small, young or old, if you just know where to look.  and even if that american assumption were true, that doesn't mean there aren't things to learn or experience or take part in elsewhere.

if you read travel literature, much has been said about the wonderful strangeness of being in foreign lands, being forced outside of your comfort zone and really having to interact with people.  this is part of the appeal, it's true; i've met so many great people travelling, quite a few that i'm still friends with, despite being a rather anti-social person who has never gone out of his way to meet anyone.  so there's that aspect.  but it's also much more than that.

i'm in chile at the moment, so i'll use it as an example.  you can probably find  books published in chile back in america, or chilean spices at some markets, and you can certainly find chilean wines.  you can watch shows about the andes and the long coastline and the people.  you can watch documentaries about the history, other shows about the art and architecture, and if you're really persistent you can find chilean cinema in some places. in other words, you could try to fabricate a chilean experience without leaving america, but that's all it would be: a fabrication.  the food would have been shipped thousands of miles and would be radiated and sterilized and could never taste the same. you can't truly appreciate the art and architecture until you are surrounded by it, removed from it not by thousands of miles and a television screen but by only a few feet of sidewalk.  you will certainly not be able to pick up on the feel for the place or the mood of the people.  you'll never have the awkward yet gratifying feeling of trying to negotiate with a farmer over the price of potatoes when neither of you speaks the other's language.  you won't be able to reproduce the recipes exactly, with the same ingredients in the same atmosphere as you would walking into a shadowy doorway into a building that's been used for generations, if not centuries, to cook the same foods.

think of all the things that you love about your home country.  now think that in every country, people have very similar opinions about what they love about their own country.  in short, wrap up every single memory you can think of from your life in america: the food, the streets, the people, the movies, the scent of the air, the games kids play outdoors (or don't), walking in parks, shopping, drinking, riding the bus, sleeping... on and on and on -- and all of it is familiarly strange and strangely familiar, yet wholly new in every country you go to.  it is it's own milieu, not to be recreated, reproduced, or experienced anywhere else.  it is not possible to do so.

i don't want to romanticize travel too much, but there is a certain joy that comes from breathing new air, seeing new faces, eating new food, walking new streets.  it's easy to become complacent, even content, with a stationary life; but not everything can be learned in books or experienced through a television screen.  some things can only be known by being immersed into them, and these are the things that are most worth knowing.  there are trade offs, to be sure, and inconveniences to spare; but once you admit that you feel inconvenienced because your expectations aren't being met, and realize that other people have different expectations, it's a simple step towards changing your expectations, changing your attitude, and understanding these strange and beautiful people that you're amongst just a little bit better.

and what's the purpose of all of this?  well that's another question that'll earn you a blank faced stare, and one i haven't had as much time to think about.  for now let me end by saying that experiencing the way other people live, walking amongst them and their history, eating and drinking and living as one of them--all of this makes you that much wiser, that much more understanding, that much more human. 

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