One reason that I love traveling is because of the new perspectives that I gain on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing—being in a different culture and out of my comfort zone gives me a deeper understanding of unfamiliar things and it keeps me rooted in compassion. And let’s face it, we need more compassion right now. There are a lot of scary and polarizing things happening around the world, and sometimes our response is to shut out those in need, instead of reaching out. I’d like to think that this reaction comes from a place of fear and a lack of information, instead of genuine feelings of unkindness or uncaring.
Throughout my life, many moments have made me question what I knew and how I felt. And as I’ve grown through travel, I’ve had the privilege of gaining insights, which would have been otherwise unknown to me.
I grew up in a very sheltered, very conservative household in rural U.S.A. Now at 30 years old, in hindsight I can pinpoint the day in 7th grade when I knew I was missing something—when I had within me a hidden, deep-seated urge to travel—even though I didn’t know it then. Back then, burning CDs was all the rage. I didn’t have a CD burner, but my best friend did, and every few weeks she would make me a new one with the latest hits. As I listened to my new CD one day after school, I came to one of the final tracks and just couldn’t identify the song. I had never heard it before, and I couldn’t decipher a single word. When I asked her about it the next day, she replied “Oh yeah, sorry. I clicked the wrong button—it was one of my mom’s Japanese songs.” I was baffled. There were songs in other languages? I was a pretty bright kid, but this blew my mind. Everyone else wasn’t also listening to Limp Bizkit on their Sony Walkman?
Looking back, this makes me wince. I was a 14-year-old, middle-class honors student with such a closed viewpoint that I had never considered that other people listen to songs in their own language.
As I grew up and took steps into the real world, my viewpoint expanded. My high school was entirely white, except for one girl from Cuba. Every Sunday, everyone in town attended either the Catholic or the Lutheran churches down the road. Later, in college, a girl in my hallway asked if I wanted have brunch when she got back from church—I asked her if her parents were visiting. She gave me a funny look and said “no.” I was confused. If her parents weren’t coming, why on earth was she going to church? Didn’t she know she was in college and she didn’t have to go anymore? Isn’t church just something kids do when their parents make them? The 30-year-old me is wincing again while I write this. My abundance of ignorance never came from a place of judgement, and it was never meant to be unkind. It was simply caused by my lack of exposure to the larger world.
The fact is, on a larger scale, the more sheltered ignorance (like mine) that we can eliminate, the more kindness and compassion we foster within ourselves, and the wider world. Travel lessens ignorance and broadens knowledge and acceptance. And it makes such a difference in shifting a person’s perspective when they learn about other cultures while young. I love that my four- and five-year-old nephews know words in Spanish and French, both of which flow in and out of their conversations. I love that they know that people in Kenya wear different clothes from people in Guatemala—and that they even know that there is a Kenya and a Guatemala. I love that they ask for curry when I come home, and they ask if we can eat with our hands on banana leaves. My nephews’ knowledge of the world around them is growing, and I hope that this early exposure fosters a sense of compassion in them for others each time they face new and unfamiliar situations.
One of my hardest trips was moving to France. I had taught myself some French beforehand, and it took only a few weeks before I could understand conversation, but participating in conversations was harder, and almost no one spoke English. I struggled a lot for the first three months, and I felt isolated at times because I couldn’t fully communicate with those around me at a high level. And I realize that this is my own doing: I chose to immerse myself in a place where I didn’t wasn’t able to communicate with anyone. I just wanted to travel, eat cheese, and drink wine.
There are people who don’t have the luxury of choice, instead they are forced to move to a foreign country because they are fleeing their home, or are trying to start a better life for their kids. Then I think about how important kindness is for them in those moments. Can you imagine how hard it is to abruptly shift cultures and languages? People who say things like, “If you live in this country, you should speak English,” have likely never been in a situation where they are the minority and are unable to communicate with those around them. Without that experience, they lack the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes; they can’t take the leap to look at it with a new perspective. It’s not because they’re bad people, it’s because they don’t understand. And traveling breeds understanding. This is why I travel. This is why I promote sustainable travel. And this is why I’ll do whatever I can to build bridges between different cultures and share kindness.
As I headed back on the road today, after spending a lovely five weeks at home, the ticket man behind the counter at the bus station struck up a conversation with me about where I was headed. Politics played in the background on the TV, and I could see him glancing up to watch. I was in a hurry to buy my ticket, pop in my headphones, and not talk to this 65-year-old white guy in rural Pennsylvania about his political views. He seemed chatty and I was only one cup of coffee into my day, and I had grown accustomed to hearing unpleasant words thrown around casually in my sheltered little town, which I wanted to avoid.
To my surprise, he met my eyes and sighed. I looked at him, and he said, “I’m sorry, do you mind if I change the channel? I spent most of my life living in Iceland and, well, I just don’t like to watch the local news. No one travels around here, and I really wish they would.” It made me smile. As I told him to go ahead, I kicked myself once again for my ignorance and snap-judgements. And it made me hopeful about the world around me.
Have you noticed that traveling makes you more mindful and compassionate to those around you? What are some of the benefits you get from exploring other cultures?
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She has been traveling around the world for the past seven years, and is currently in Nicaragua. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.