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The (Non-)Traveler’s Dilemma: You Travel, You Learn?

At the end of July 2012, my wife and I had gone to Italy to see a bit of Rome and Florence. From Vienna, close to which we have been living (and where I’m from), it’s just not so far or expensive as to make that look at a bit of European culture and history avoidable.
Presently, it’s summer 2013, and we find ourselves in China to pay a visit to her parents. Farther away and more expensive, it’s a trip that’s quite necessary, given how well it’s possible.

And right there, the dilemma lies.

Flying, especially, but also travel in general, has changed from something quite rarely done, over longer times and with specific purpose, to one of those many democratized luxuries that people from all over the world can participate in quite well.
As such, it’s one big contributor to our resource consumption for activities that are hardly essential, but also a potential contributor to the world growing together a bit more.

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Travel will make you more worldly, it’s often said.
Saying that is not seeing things quite as they truly are.

Some people may be happier with a nomadic lifestyle, many get an urge to move when they have stayed in one place for too long – but we also crave the comfort and familiarity of somewhere to call home, a place where we are an accepted part of a community.
Not so few people nowadays move somewhere else because they don’t quite feel at home where they have been living, where they grew up… and it’s a sorry state of affairs when people don’t travel in this day and age when it is so easy and comparably inexpensive.

Then again, just as we often avoid exploration and experimentation right at home, while routines dampen our spirits and the hunger for something new gnaws at us, we often travel somewhere else only to find it exhausting, the places too loud and the people too alien – or at best, if we move there, to find the excitement of the other to fade, quickly replaced by routine and familiarity again.

In some cases, we may not even get to much of the feeling of exoticism and enjoyment anymore. Sometimes, people just go other places burdened by their own ideas of what those places should be like, and get disappointed when the places and people where they went don’t conform to their preconceived notions. I had a teacher colleague before who was sorely disappointed by Japan because it wasn’t all samurai and geisha…

Sometimes, the opposite happens – and is of no use, either. People go other places and find exactly what they expected. The Americans are all loud and shopping-crazed, but also jovial and friendly, if superficial. The East Asians smile a lot but can’t really be understood, saying things that are different from what they seem to mean and what they will do. The Europeans, well, they are all different from each other, actually, but all not nearly as much of the source of civilized behavior and high culture as stories would have it. Or something like that.

The question is what we actually want to find when we travel, and whether we are willing to do what is necessary for it.

If you just want to be the tourist who’s “been there, done that,” the experience is going to be as superficial as that of the ones who go on trips only because that’s the thing to do, the more exotic-sounding the better, and then promptly complain about the food not being what they are used to having and what they wanted, them not getting their money’s worth, the whole world not being as it should be, it all being too darn different.

Chinese Dinner Table

But, of course, the world just is.

You don’t get more worldly, don’t experience things deeply, if you just stick to the surface of your expectations and have your experiences be all shaped by those blinders you’ve put over your own eyes.

You’ll only really learn when you get ready to learn, delve deep, get ready to just see what will come and learn to not judge and interpret what you find out there so much as the ways and reasons you yourself want to judge and interpret these things in these ways.

And, here’s the thing: You can do that whether you travel or stay at home, making yourself at home whether you are where you’ve grown up, where you’ve lived for a long time or where you find yourself now and for a little while.

We are all here on this Earth for only a comparatively short time, anyways. And yet, it’s a lifetime. So, why let it be shaped by limits we put on our own understandings and experiences when there’s so much to learn and see? At home. Anywhere.

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

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