Not so long ago, evolutionary psychologists reached the conclusion that our distant ancestors avoided outsiders as they might have carried diseases. And we have to admit they were smart to do so. I mean, just remember the history lessons about the first contact between the Europeans and the indigenous people of the Americas. In a way, this evolutionary fear of foreigners is still with us today, though in the meantime, the reasons we invoke are not so much health related but have more to do with our economy and security.
But to be accurate, we, the moderns, always take safety precautions before going to less developed countries. We vaccinate to protect ourselves from them, but who protects them from us? Their is no vaccine to protect them against the tourists or travelers as a matter of fact. And I know from personal experience this is not fair. I caught the nastiest virus in the middle of the Spanish summer from an English tourist. I never felt as miserable. It was steaming hot outside and I suffered for two weeks in bed covered up till my neck. And that was just a flu virus I, the local, got from somebody just two Western countries away.
In spite of all the fears and threats travel presents for people, we still travel. Though we are generally rooted, we find pleasure in escaping from time to time. Why? Because travel is a learning experience, we get to see for ourselves, form our own impressions. Travel makes us porous to new customs, beauties, ideas, and dreams. Travel not only invites us to see the world anew, it gives us an unaccustomed look at who is doing the seeing.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
None of the benefits of travel compares to the oblique glance it allows us of our selves. By placing us outside ourselves, travel provides us with the distance required to see what it is we are habitually doing and the anonymity to risk new ways of being in the world. There seems to be nothing like immersing in another culture for staving off the mind’s tendency to calcification. We travel to grow up, wake up, and stay on our toes.
Travel breaks stereotypes and allows us to see freshly. I can’t think of a better vaccine against dogmatism. Travel is like truth serum. As we struggle to reconcile what we’re experiencing with what we take for granted, we strip away what’s arbitrary in cultural practice and approach what is universal.
When we travel, we are perpetually off-balance and on guard. And sometimes it is precisely this fear what makes travel so enlivening and revelatory. Other times it is the pleasure of seeing familiar things with new eyes. And eventually it is the miracle of seeing the world in different shades of light. Do we get to yearn for the mindlessness of familiar routines? Of course we do! But that just makes old pleasures much sweeter when we return home.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
Travel can be the ultimate zen activity. You are in the now – reacting to new stimuli – and not anchored in the past or future. You can be yourself. You can breathe in and out in a free way, unconstricted and restricted by habit. Because you are living outside your habits, away from routine.