A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to receive a package in the mail from my favourite Texan, Kate, who I met while studying abroad in the Netherlands in 2012. It was the best kind of present: a book. In fact, a memoir about two girls from different countries who meet while travelling in Europe—The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman. You may now see why Kate chose this book as a gift. It’s your typical coming-of-age story: girl hops on a plane to run away, and ends up finding herself. (Good news, Katers: we are both better writers than the author and she scored a book deal with a major publishing house, so I expect us both to be published in the next five to ten years.)
Throughout the book, the author addresses (or attempts to address) the question of why we travel. In my world, I’ve found it’s rare that we seriously ask this question—travel is seen as naturally, obviously good, an enjoyable rite of passage that every young person should desire. Of course you would want to travel and experience new places that may be a little or a lot different from home, depending on your penchant for adventure. But why? In the end of this book, the protagonist concludes that in fact, we travel to grow as individuals—a fairly common answer—but many of the pages between the front and back covers offer wholly unsatisfying answers to this question.
“Why? To see the world. What do you mean, why? Because I want to,” says the Australian character, when asked why she’s taking a gap year to travel.
When the American character is questioned by a peasant farmer in Bolivia about why she has travelled there and why she wants to learn about Bolivian culture, she thinks her answer to herself: “Because I can.”
I wanted to hear more thoughtful answers than that. So I posed the question on Twitter, and received a few interesting responses.
The amazing thing is, every one of those responses (even that of UVic Humanities, when pressed) is more about us as travellers than about the places and people we visit. (So would many of my own answers to this question.) Travel as a way to self-fulfillment or self-realization. Is the main reason we venture abroad to translate the wonders of the world into lessons about ourselves? Doesn’t that almost seem self-centred, especially when we (by which I mean privileged Canadians like myself) travel to countries in the “Global South”? Is it moral to view other people’s poverty for our own personal lessons? From there, it seems an easy slide into voyeurism or “poverty tourism,” revelling in what others don’t have so that we appreciate more our own lives at home.
“Well, Sasha,” a well-meaning family member or friend might say to me, “you’re going to volunteer for three months in Malawi. Is that still all about you?”
The answer is complicated. I think that when people like me travel to so-called developing nations like Malawi, we should think carefully and honestly about why we are going and what we hope to gain or achieve with the experience. My trip is to fulfill a volunteer mandate; my official purpose in Malawi is to advance the cause of the local Malawian non-profit organization I will be working for. As with most volunteer work, it’s reciprocal—both the volunteer and the organization will likely benefit from the internship. I tend to think, though, that the biggest impact will be on me, that I will learn far more from my internship than I will manage to contribute to the organization’s work.
In Montreal at pre-departure training last week, our facilitator said something that stuck with me. When talking to friends and family about your trip, she told us, you have to make them understand: “You’re not going to lie on the beach, but you’re not going to be Mother Theresa, either.” Volunteering in Malawi is not a vacation, but it doesn’t automatically make me a selfless person, either. Above all, I’m going to learn.
So back to the original question: why do we travel? What is the value or benefit, and is it ever really about anything but ourselves?
I do think the reasons we travel are for ourselves, even when volunteering abroad. But sometimes—ideally—the self-realization we seek is also self-improvement. I think travelling to other places and meeting people of other cultures, if done properly, can teach us all kinds of lessons, like humility and compassion.
It can show us that our way of living in and seeing the world is only one among many, not the only or the most superior way. It can show us how little we really know about other people and the world. And it can show us that even though we are often told that people from different countries or income levels or ethnic background are profoundly different from and maybe incompatible with ourselves, we are actually all united by our common humanity. If we learn these lessons from travel, then we do become better people—and we become better equipped, I think, to do good for others in our communities, locally and around the world.
A friend recently sent me this quote about travel that beautifully sums up what I am trying to convey. I’ll let Maya Angelou say it better than I ever could:
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.