(My original title idea for this blog post was "What’s so Funny about Traveling for Peace, Love, and Understanding?" but I'd be dating myself - although every time I hear the song now I can't help but think of Bill Murray's awesome karaoke in Lost in Translation (see video at the end) - and that movie isn't that old. But since the post itself is about keeping it real, I figured I may as well cop to it and let you decide.)
I've been wondering a lot lately about why we travel. Have you ever thought about it? I assume you like to travel or you probably wouldn't be reading this. So, why do you love to travel?
Since I was a little girl, honestly, I thought of little else. I dreamt of the countries I wanted to see, the amazing places I'd read about for hours and studied pictures of in my National Geographic magazines. I didn’t dream of typical girlie things - not my future husband (sorry babe), Prince Charming, or the magical walk down the aisle on my wedding day. I didn’t dream of the latest fashions, or any of that stuff. For me, it was always traveling. And truth be told, I’m still that way.
But I’ve been thinking lately about people’s motivations when they travel. Maybe it's because of my preoccupation lately with social media and the irritating barrage of selfie-taking travelers that has me now obsessing about this too. I try hard not to project my admittedly high expectations on others so that they travel according to what I believe is important. But I'm starting to think I'm a bit of a travel snob.
You see, I believe that travel can change the world. Yes I know. But I really do. I've traveled enough to know that the more we share open and honest exchanges with people around the planet, the more we see the humanity in each other. And the more authentic exchanges we share, the more we can surpass the contrived, strategized, politicized exchanges of our governments, whose motives I believe are always questionable no matter what country you’re in, and who set expectations for the rest of us, no matter how accurate. Pretty lofty, huh? Yeah, well, a girl can dream can’t she?
The thing I love most about traveling is reconfirming that the vast majority of people out there are fundamentally good and decent people looking for the same things in life - to live our lives free from things like poverty, oppression, tyranny - and regardless of race, religious beliefs, or skin color. You know, live and let live.
But it comes down to the way in which we travel, and how willing we are to experience the world on it's terms, not ours. Do we seek the kinds of travel experiences that are unique to the place, or look for recreated, unnatural (to that place) tourism? Do we seek out travel experiences that protect and/or contribute to community resources and the local economy? There are so many factors to consider it'll make your head spin, and 'authentic' travel ain't as easy as it sounds, whether you're seeking it or the one delivering it. But being conscious of the impact of your travel is a good start.
Whenever I travel, I consider it a major achievement if I’m lucky enough to somehow connect with people emotionally through a kind gesture or sharing my photographs, so I can temper the “Ugly American”, or “Ugly (insert nationality here)" stereotypes that have developed over the years. Surely, somewhere down the road, they’ll remember the kindness shown to them, when some tourists visited their home. Short of my lofty goal of touching everyone I meet on an emotional level, a simpler reason I travel is just to discover something new and unique. They say your life flashes before you moments before you die, unraveling like a tape, and I want mine to be interesting and colorful and filled with adventure.
So you can see it’s with a pretty high standard that I wonder about why others travel. Lately it seems we’ve become a world of selfie-stick wielding bucket listers, ticking off items like a Scout earns merit badges, without immersing ourselves in the experience at all, even just a little. When did traveling become a competitive sport?
Google the term 'Bucket List' and you'll find hundreds of ideas for new additions to your life's To-Do list "before you expire". There's even some online sites where you can build your list with the help of ideas from others who've "been there, done that, got that t-shirt". Our virtual travel maps seem to differentiate us like a pedigree - “98 Countries and Counting!” (Really? I’d be hard pressed to name that many!) or “Visiting Every Continent Before I’m 30” (Geez, what happens after that? I hope they don’t think it’s all downhill from there). Travel is certainly more accessible than it used to be, but it’s still a luxury for most people no matter how frugally we manage to do it. Maybe our maps and buckets runneth over with so many opportunities the media says we Must Do, we’re actually starting to believe it.
Are some of us traveling for the next exciting selfie or profile pic that elevates our status? Honestly, the "selfie" idea was cute and original at first, but when you return from a trip and all you have to show for it are a million selfies, maybe you've missed a lot of the good stuff.
I'm proposing we move back toward why we wanted to travel in the first place, and take a break from all the selfies. Let’s take ourselves out of the view, turn the camera away from us and around to the amazing places we see and the people we meet. Shine the spotlight on people, places, and issues that are important. Focus the lens on a new view, reserving the selfies for that moment we run into our rock ’n roll hero at the store and they agree to take a picture with us, or other moments our friends will never believe.
There are always more questions than answers, but I think it’s important to ask them of ourselves and each other. Why? Because the questions challenge us to keep it real, and true, and responsible. Deep down, I know it's just important that we travel, and I'm coming down off my soapbox now. But if just a few more of us turned the cameraphone away a little more often, we’re that much closer to the lofty, snobbish goal I mentioned earlier. You remember the Peace, Love and Understanding thing?
Now what’s so funny about that?