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Why Travel Matters

If you think traveling is expensive, try staying home. It’ll cost you everything.

Travel, on any budget, changes you. It destroys your old boundaries, resets your trajectories, and lets you loose in a world where anything is possible. You’re challenged, and you grow. You come home stronger, freer, happier, and more alive. Staying home binds you to a provincial way of seeing and being in the world. Home isn’t bad. In fact it’s pretty great. You’re right to love it. Yet only when you leave it to venture out into the wider world do you come to know its true value.

The first thing that confronts you as you contemplate traveling is fear. What about all of the things that could go wrong? Can I really afford it? What if I get lost? What about the language barrier? Am I clever enough to navigate all the surprises? The thought of traveling triggers every single one of your feelings of inadequacy. Then you stop, take a breath, and realize that people have been traveling for tens of thousands of years—you are not the first and you are certainly not the last. The paths are well-worn. There are scores of strangers along the road who will help you. You’ve been fortifying your home security system so long, you’ve forgotten that people are inherently generous and kind—you can count on that. I wonder what else you’ve forgotten.

Once you commit, once you surrender to the journey, all of your fear is replaced with excitement and wonder. And there’s a life-lesson for you. Our suffering is mostly generated by our own mistaken thinking. Once you let go and say yes your misery lifts like a fog. All that’s left is a warm sun high in the sky, lighting the open road before you.

One of the greatest realizations gained from travel is the conviction that wherever you are, you are home. More than 95% of humanity lives outside the United States. Everywhere you go you are in someone’s hometown. Stop into a tavern. Feel the warmth of a neighborhood. See old friends strolling arm in arm. Walk through a farmer’s market. Hear piano music drifting out of an upstairs window. Feel the truth of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words pull into focus: “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Next thing you know, you’re lingering in a café long after the meal to swap stories with new friends and fellow travelers, your foreignness washing away with the wine. Then, walking back to your hotel in the twilight along the river it finally sinks in—I am as much at home here as I am in my own home. That’s when it overwhelms you, a feeling of oneness, of the deep interrelationship of all sentient beings, and of our primal rootedness in the earth. These realizations are hard to come by back home. But in a village halfway around the world, they come with your afternoon tea.

Americans are timid world travelers, but we’re getting better. In 1990, only 3% of us had a passport. By 1997 that number had risen to 15%. Ten years later it climbed to 27%. And today, an astonishing 42% of Americans have a passport. We still lag far behind most other countries in per capita passports, but we’re not as provincial as we used to be. And, sure, some of this is class related—international air travel is a costly privilege not available to everyone for purely economic reasons. But a few simple adjustments in most middle class family budgets could make international travel a reality. Once you make the decision that travel is a core value, you find ways to make it happen. It dawns on you—I’d rather spend my money on experiences than things.

Lori and I are putting the finishing touches on our summer travel plans, a European river cruise with my two older brothers and their wives—the six of us on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland—a two week vacation when you add in the pre-cruise time in Amsterdam and post-cruise time in Lucerne. This trip has been two years in the making, and it’s not the kind of thing we can afford to do very often. But with our parents gone now we felt like it would be a fitting ritual to return to our ancestral homeland, the Netherlands, and spend some quality time slow-cruising up the Rhine with family. The benefits of river cruising are many. You unpack only once. Your room travels with you. Every day you wake up in a new town to explore. So you have the best of both worlds—the stability of consistent lodging, and the novelty of ever-changing surroundings. You and your travel party have ample opportunities for planned outings, communal meals, and alone time, as well as chance conversations over muesli in the morning or sunset drinks on the deck. And unlike ocean cruising with thousands of people to contend with, these river boats only hold 200 or so—far more cozy.

If you add up the cost per day, counting air travel and everything, it’s a pretty scary number. But you cannot measure the value of a trip by a daily cost average. The fact is, when you go on a trip like this, every single day of the rest of your life is transformed. How do you count up that? There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about the glorious two weeks Lori and I spent in London and Paris last summer. Our lives are immeasurably enriched because of it. Not everything that counts can be counted.

My relationship with the United States is changing. I’ll always love my homeland, but it hasn’t felt like home for a while. In some fundamental ways I don’t recognize her anymore. Her brutality and unconsciousness frighten me. More and more I see myself as a citizen of the world. Whenever I travel, I feel affirmed in the feeling that the very idea of nations is an increasingly outmoded idea, and that our deeper and truer allegiance ought to be to humanity as a whole, and for all sentient beings, and for the earth itself. The ugly squalor of nationalism is transcended by the weave of humanity that knows no borders. From a plane you can’t even see them. Travel does that to you—everything looks different from out there. Travel shatters your paradigms and reorients you into the wider cosmos. And that’s priceless.

Peter Bolland is a teacher, writer, speaker, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Meditate with him on the Insight Timer app and learn more at www.peterbolland.com

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