I got energized by reading an article on Brave New Traveler about The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time. BNT is one of my favorite travel websites, because it has cool articles about the philosophy of travel. Here are some of my favorite quotes, with my thoughts. Some are from that article, others I've picked up over the years.
"Travel is only glamorous in retrospect."
When I daydream about travel, I imagine I'll see stunning landscapes, hit up extravagant parties and have romances with exotic women. The day-to-day reality can range from mundane to downright demoralizing. Worrying about visas, dealing with a foreign language, and adapting to a completely different culture are problems every expat faces. See my post about moving to Taiwan for examples.
I explain to my friends that moving abroad is like having your I.Q. cut in half. While you're in-country, even accomplishing the most basic of tasks, like ordering food in a restaurant or finding your way back to your apartment, can seem like insurmountable challenges.
The opposite happens when you return home. You feel twice as smart as when you were before your trip. Now that you can compare your host country to your hometown, the differences and connections become crystal clear. When you talk about your host country and realize that no one at home understands what you've lived through, that's when you appreciate how valuable that overseas experience was.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."
This is over-simplistic, but I think the world would be a much better place if studying/working/volunteering abroad was required before anyone could be the leader of a country.
Misunderstanding breeds a hydra of problems and a shot of empathy would put us a lot further along the road to lasting solutions. Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin said it best in his 2003 autobiography, "In an Uncertain World":
"In an era when the threat from people who don't feel respected can lead to dire consequences, treating other nations and people with dignity may be a simple matter of self-protection. But to me, listening respectfully even to critics and opponents makes even more fundamental sense, as an acknowledgment of the uncertainty and complexity that I believe to be inherent in virtually all issues of import." (pg. 401)
"A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles."
I'll admit it, I first approached travel like it was a checklist of things to see. Now, I'm excited when I go on trips, but not because of the famous landmarks I'll visit. Instead, I'm excited by the cool people I'm sure to meet once I check in at the hostel.
Friends are the true treasures of travel, far more valuable than any photo or souvenir can ever be. The best part of travel is the times spent with great people.
That's why I think "How many countries have you been to?" is such a useless question. The number doesn't matter, it's not like travel is some sort of competition. I get annoyed by backpackers who compare who's seen the most countries or brag about seeing "The Real China" (insert any country). It's ALL REAL dammit, from the isolated temple on a mountaintop to the McDonald's on every street corner.
"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries."
Sometimes I wonder if the media conspires to scare us from visiting other countries. We read about war, disease, and social unrest. Never do we read about the friendly folk who would welcome the chance to show us their culture and learn about ours.
Maybe it's to prevent us from questioning our government and our ways of life. If more Americans saw how people in some other countries enjoy universal health care, free education, affordable housing, and efficient public transportation, would we push our government to act? There are countries with economies far smaller than America's that provide all these things and more.
Conversely, I've met just as many people who would benefit from a trip to America. We don't all take drugs, carry guns and act like major-league sluts! (including male sluts)
"If you really want to learn about a country, work there."
When you study abroad, you're in a bubble. When you visit a country as a traveler, you're still in a bubble. Even if you do a homestay with a local family, you're still treated like a guest and are more likely to get a sanitized impression of a place.
But if you work for a local company with a local boss and local co-workers and earn a local salary, then you really learn about a place. You face the daily pressures of living on crap wages like the natives. You're surrounded by people speaking in their native language. You learn where people do their shopping and get the best prices. You have to master the public transportation system because you can't afford to take taxis all the time. Most importantly, you see how locals behave and treat each other in their natural environment.
Now that's as native as it gets, way more than any cultural exchange program can do. I think some expats lose it though, totally rejecting their own culture in favor of another. That's as bad as the other extreme of always staying in luxury hotels and only eating at Western restaurants.
"I hadn't come to the country out of any special love of it, (though I'm on good terms with it now), nor with any special project in mind, but only because my wife offered me this escape route, this opportunity to underachieve in peace, away from successful friends in London."
This is author Tim Parks' explanation of how he came to live in Italy because he married an Italian woman. "Underachieve in peace" is one of my all-time favorite phrases.
When you live abroad, all the pressure from parents, teachers and miscellaneous authority figures is gone. Away from the routines and habits of home, you're allowed to take an honest look at yourself and even try to fashion yourself into the person you want to become.
Taking away the pressure of having to compete with your peers is a big relief too. I don't have to worry about making as much money as my classmates, whether I live in the most fashionable part of the city or if I have the most prestigious job.
I wouldn't say living abroad is free from pressure, however. Being an expat has its own problems, albeit more interesting ones. Silas, one of my friends, brought this up once when he grumbled about having to do a visa run to Bangkok.
I asked him, "Which problem would you rather have? That you have to go to Bangkok or that you need to make a payment on your student loans or some boring crap like that?"
'If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him."
--Henry David Thoreau
The biggest reward of travel is the confidence and sense of endless possibilities you gain. The onslaught of challenges that travel throws your away will sharpen your wits and strengthen your will. You'll dare to believe in yourself.
Another aspect of being abroad is that you'll constantly meet other travelers and expats who're involved in cool things. Many times, I've made a new friend, and discover the great adventures they've had or the interesting work they've done. Then I start wondering how I can do something like that.
Very often, showing a sincere interest is all you need to enlist their help. Most are happy to share their stories and advice. For example, I've lost count of how many people have asked me for tips on Europe and got book-length e-mails from me in reply.
Soon, you'll seriously consider doing things that you would've thought impossible when you were at home. A few examples:
Study abroad in Europe
Teach English in Asia
Do a working holiday in Australia
Explore ancient civilizations
Help save the environment
Do an around-the-world trip
The more travelers I meet, the more adventures I want to go on. The hardest part is taking the first step. After that, things start falling into place.