Mary and I recently returned from a wonderful vacation to China, Cambodia, and Thailand with stops in South Korea and Malaysia. I’ve had the great opportunity and blessing to have visited around 30 countries, having flown about half a million miles – enough to circle the planet 20 times. Many of my family and friends, however, do not travel much at all. This is not atypical. Americans rarely travel – at least not very far. And those that travel, rarely experience – they simply stop by and take a look around. We saw very few Americans on our travels. This is not a travelogue post, but some thoughts on traveling and why we would undertake such an adventure, and why you should too.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
― Augustine of Hippo
Since we first announced that we would be traveling to Southeast Asia, the response from probably 90% of our friends and family has been “WHY?!?” Interestingly, the response of well-traveled friends and colleagues has almost always been “WOW!” I’ve pondered the diversity in responses, and why so many seemed surprised or even shocked that we would willingly want to and even PAY to travel to such a place.
Seeing the world has changed my perspective on humanity. Flying at 600 miles per hour over nothing but sea for 13 hours gives you a sense of the size of our amazing planet. Riding the 800-mile bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai and realizing that the homes and apartments you’ve passed on that single 4 hour trip could easily house every citizen of the state of Utah about 20 times over helps you realize the immensity of the world’s 7 billion people. Visiting the most foreign of places teaches you that we’re really not all that different after all. Returning home makes you realize that there truly is no place like home, yet the desire to see someplace new starts to grow as the jet lag subsides.
Traveling Makes You a Better Person
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
Being raised in a small town in Idaho that was 95% rich, white Republicans instills a sense of entitlement and even bigotry. Racism, while often not overt, was rampant. I was not immune. And worse, I didn’t even realize it for much of my life. But seeing the world and realizing that I am actually a minority in humanity, and seeing how vibrant and dynamic people can be has changed my views on skin color and race.
A Monopoly on Happiness?
Americans, particularly Utah Mormon Americans, tend to believe that they are happy simply because of where they live or what they believe. They often think that the rest of the world couldn’t possibly be as well off. One thing I’ve learned is that happiness is based on one’s decisions, not on one’s conditions.
The scriptures of my faith state, “Men are that they might have joy.” It doesn’t say “Americans are that they might have joy” or “Believers are that they might have joy”. We too often confuse comfort and riches with joy. America truly is incredible. We are amazingly fortunate and blessed. And nearly everyone I’ve talked to abroad thinks this also. My modest house in the suburbs is probably the smallest on our street, yet would be a mansion for only the most wealthy of SE Asia. But these things don’t bring happiness.
In a remote fishing village in Cambodia, this little girl came to us begging for food or money. Despite her destitute condition, she seemed to be one of the most content, happy children I’ve ever seen. Her disposition was so bright and her smile heartwarming. We could have taken her home with us.
Happiness seemed to permeate most of the Cambodians we saw – something rather remarkable considering that the average wage is just $2 per day, and that just 35 years ago 25% of their population was murdered or starved to death under the Khmer Rouge regime. They waved and smiled. We even danced with them in the dusty streets.
Yes, that is a naked, dancing baby drinking a Pepsi.
For some reason, I was born into privileged, middle-class America. And a little girl was born into a poor fishing village in Cambodia. Yet it was she that taught me about happiness and that only my decisions and my family can bring me real happiness.
I visited India a few years ago. The contrast between rich and poor was incredible. The chaos, sights, sounds, smells, and smiles were so incredibly vibrant and … well… you see, I have never been able to really explain it all in words. A few weeks ago, as we made our way down a dusty, smelly street in the unrelenting 100+ degree Cambodia heat, I looked at Mary and asked, “Do you now understand why I’ve always said that it’s impossible to describe India in words? And why I’ve always said that you have to experience places like this to know what they’re like?” She quietly nodded as we passed a naked child playing in the street while his parents repaired a fishing net in front of their small stilted shack. These experiences changed us.
So to answer that original question that has been posed to us so many times – WHY?!? Because traveling isn’t so much about experiencing or seeing the world as it is about experiencing and seeing yourself in a new way.
My challenge to you is to travel abroad. Doing so is not beyond the means of most anyone, even if it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I promise it is not as scary or as expensive as you think it is. And I’m not talking about doing a popular cruise, visiting a touristy beach in Mexico, or going with a large tour group of any kind. You should really travel and see at least one truly foreign part of the world – I think you’ll find that you then see yourself differently.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky