The Crucial Lessons of Traveling

I couldn’t agree more with the following observation by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Machado, whose article “Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t” explores the often-neglected experiential side of education.

During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitoes and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted”, I now rethought taking at all.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world”. Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road”. The other man responded, “No, look at the people”.

Stories like these are what continue to whet my appetite for more travel. Even if it is just exploring a neighboring town I had never visited before, I always find myself learning something new — especially when I take the time to engage with fellow humans. 

The emphasis on understanding the people of these places, rather than just the usual scenic or culinary attractions, is an important one. When I lived in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008, I most enjoyed those moments when I wandered off the beaten path — taking a stroll through residential areas, where I saw the relatable day-to-day lives of a foreign people; daring to commute on public transportation; and venturing to try Vietnamese food, of all things, from a local restaurant.

As my trip to Colombia approaches, I am priming myself to embrace as much of the local culture and people as possible. I eagerly await the literal world of knowledge that awaits me.

Please feel free to share your own educational experiences through travel.

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