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TRAVEL

"The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind." 

 -Anthony Bourdain                   

The Art of Journeying

One of the best-known Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, St. Sarapion the Sindonite, traveled once on a pilgrimage to Rome. There, he was told of a celebrated recluse, a women who lived always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of life - for he himself was a great wanderer - Sarapion called on her and asked: "Why are you sitting here?" To this she replied: "I am not sitting, I am on a journey." 

-Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way

Throughout history, people have insisted that if you want to learn, grow, find yourself, or understand the world, "you must travel." St. Augustine wrote, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." There is wisdom in this sentiment. Whenever we immerse ourselves in a context with which we are not familiar, our cultural assumptions and unconscious expectations are challenged. These stark confrontations with a larger reality have the potential to truly change us, by inviting us into an experience Christians call kenosis, or "self-emptying" - a shift in perspective that is marked by an existential surrender to the "more" of life, wherein we discover that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. Through such experiences, we can become less fearful and more open-minded, tolerant, and self-aware.

Yet, this is not necessarily the experience of all who travel. Every year, thousands of tourists from all over the world spend enormous amounts of time and money traipsing from one end of the globe to the other, with little to show for their adventures beyond a cell phone full of instagram-worthy photos, a suitcase full of cheap souvenirs, and the fading memory of some very nice meals. Rather than becoming more open-minded and self-aware, many people return home even more exhausted than before, feeling the need for a vacation from their vacation. For the economically and culturally privileged, travel has become an increasingly competitive consumption practice and a marker of prestige. Predominantly-white "expats" from Western countries can now make a full-time living off of SEO-optimized travel blogs, in which they take pride checking off their bucket lists, while the travel experiences of immigrants and refugees from the Global South continue to be treated with suspicion and prejudice.

Many people miss out on the transformative potential of their travel experiences precisely because they fail to bring with them a willingness to truly engage with, and be changed by, the people and places they encounter. As Thoreau writes, "It is not what you look at that matters; it's what you see." Nowadays anyone with money can travel to far-flung places in relative comfort, collecting their selfies at World Heritage sites. But real transformation requires that we make ourselves vulnerable to the world around us. And vulnerability, by its very nature, is uncomfortable.

The word "travel" comes from the Middle English "travail," which means "to make a journey" but also "to toil, labor." The kinds of travel experiences that truly invite us to grow, learn, find ourselves, and better understand the world around us, are difficult in some sense. And no, I do not just mean the difficulty of making your flight connection on time, or finding the nearest internet cafe. For those who want to truly deepen their experience of travel, consider some of the following tips: 

 

1. Make an effort to learn the language. Whenever possible, make an attempt to communicate with locals in their own language rather than just expecting everyone around you to speak English. They will probably do so anyway, but the effort goes a long way in conveying respect, and you will also learn something in the process about humility, and grace. 

 

2. Figure out where locals live, eat, and shop. Spend some time walking around residential neighborhoods, and spend money at restaurants and other businesses that do not necessarily cater to tourists (this is where knowing a little bit of the language can come in handy!). Go into a regular grocery store or convenience market, and take a look around. What do you see? What don't you see? 

 

3. Stay with locals. Instead of staying at a regular hotel or a corporate hostel filled with other travelers like yourself, why not stay with a local family, or a monastery community that rents out its rooms to guests? Many people offer this now as a way of making extra income, and AirBnB has made it easier than ever to locate these kinds of opportunities. It's a great way to meet local people and get some perspective. 

 

4. Get to know people. Talk to local people (and not just the ones trying to sell you stuff!). Don't let the only local person you meet on your trip be your tour guide. Tour guides are paid to tell very specific stories about places that probably don't reflect the full reality of where you are. Talk to folks sitting near you at restaurants, bars, and park benches. Get to know the folks who are begging on the streets. What's their story? Why do the locals enjoy living here? What frustrates them about it? What are their hopes and concerns for their community?

 

5. Study up on your history. Learn as much as you can about the history and culture of a place before you visit. Then be prepared to have your entire concept of what you thought you knew about it completely obliterated by the experience of actually being there.

 

6. Eat foods that you wouldn't normally try. Don't go to Starbucks. 

 

7. Don't romanticize the "other." When others seem so "exotic," or seem to have all the answers about life, the universe, and everything, remember that people are just people. As the philosopher Dagobert R. Runes once rightly observed, "People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home." Try not to let your newfound appreciation turn into objectification and appropriation. Especially for those looking to "the East" for enlightenment, be sure to check out Edward Said's classic book Orientalism for some good perspective. 

 

8. If you have a bad experience, learn from it. If you end up in a conflict with someone, or if something goes terribly wrong (unless you are in mortal danger), roll with it. Improvise. Rather than deciding that your entire trip is ruined, ask yourself what you might have learned from the experience. Try to avoid stereotyping everyone in the country based on one negative encounter. 

If you travel in this way, pay close attention, and are lucky enough, you will meet people all along your path who because of lack of money, lack of opportunity, or just plain lack of interest, have never ventured beyond their own hometown or village. And that's when you will learn the most important lesson of all - that for all your travels, you are no more or less wise than they are. They, too, are on a journey.

The word "journey" comes from the Latin root for "day," and it simply means "a day's portion" or "a day's work." All of us are on a journey, every single day of our lives. To journey well is an art. It requires no passport or visa, only the eyes to see what is right in front of you. "Without going out of your door," said George Harrison, "you can know all things on earth. Without looking out of your window, you could know the ways of heaven. The farther one travels, the less one really knows."

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©2021 by Kristen Leigh Mitchell