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A Trip to the Faraway Land of New York City
I was riding on the train on one of my last days commuting to NYC before quitting my day job. It was the week of July 4th, so the train had fewer commuters and more tourists than usual. I squeezed into a middle seat, while a man who had boarded the train behind me sat across from a mother and her two boys, my guess would be seven and nine years of age.
The oldest boy looked very seriously at his new traveling companion and said, “We come from Milford!” He said it slowly and loudly, as though speaking to someone who is hard of hearing or possibly an alien.
The man, who was clearly a commuter in a Monday morning daze, nodded slightly and, trying to be polite, managed a weak “Ahhhhh.”
“We’re traveling to the Museum of Natural History!” [the] boy continued deliberately, again speaking to the man like he might have a hard time understanding.
The man chuckled very slightly, quite obviously experiencing a mixture of amusement and annoyance. The boy went back to his own world, asking his mother all manner of questions and singing to his brother, all while blissfully unaware that he was sitting in a designated quiet car. At some point during the journey, I noticed that the man had gotten up to sit somewhere else.
Of course, it should have been the mother’s responsibility to seat herself and her sons in an appropriate train car. I’m not suggesting that it was the boy’s fault. But it struck me that this boy, with his inexperience of the world, unawareness of the culture of the train, and assumption that everyone must be as inexperienced as he, was not that dissimilar from some adult tourists I’ve seen.
They come in packs on their big tour busses to the lifeless landmarks of any given city, chatting with their compatriots and swarming the sidewalks with little awareness about the fact that there are local residents who might actually have someplace to be. They snap a few selfies with said landmarks to show their friends and family back home. Then they leave, having learned very little about the place they visited or the people who live there.
Tourism vs. Travel
Full Disclosure: We were given a copy of this book for free in exchange for our honest review.
In Why Travel Matters: a Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel, Craig Storti examines the difference between tourism and travel. Tourism, he says, is “a highly sanitized, worry-free kind of travel, carefully scrubbed of any experiences that might unsettle, disturb, or confuse the tourists or otherwise strike them dumb.” In contrast, he defines travel as “journeying to a foreign country and encountering a different culture for the purpose of personal growth and self-improvement.”
Storti has put into words and closely examined things that lurk in the depths of many travelers’ subconsciouses. He goes in-depth on what happens in the brain when we experience something that had previously been completely unimaginable to us. He talks about how encountering new places and cultures can give us a deeper understanding of our own place and culture. He examines the fact that the more effort a traveler makes to really get to know a place and its people, the more profoundly they will be changed.
Many of the great travel writers are quoted in the book. When I first began reading, I was a bit confused by Storti’s liberal use of quotes. As the book went on, I actually appreciated his use of the quoted passages to illustrate his points. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, he did it for a reason.
One story in particular that really stood out to me was from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Two North African men had left their country for the first time and were traveling in the French Alps. Their guide brought them to a waterfall, and the men lingered staring at it for hours, waiting to see when the water would stop flowing, which of course it never did. After a while, the men came to understand that they lived in a desert. Having never experienced plentiful water before that moment, they’d had no idea that such a thing could exist.
My Take as an American Traveler
The United States is obviously a very large country, and although I don’t know the exact statistics, I would venture to say that there are many people who go their whole lives without ever leaving it. Of those people, I would also guess that many are also quite patriotic, which is certainly not a bad thing.
However, I’ve increasingly wondered over the past few years, especially with the climate of political hostility being what it is, whether people ever stop to think why they are patriotic. Is it just because life is a sporting event and they want to be on the winning team? Or is there a real understanding of the ways in which the United States is unique? What are those special constructs and why should we be proud of them?
Those lucky enough to be able to embark on a life-changing journey will return with more knowledge of the culture they encountered. With knowledge comes understanding, and being able to understand differences will help to eradicate fear. Making decisions rationally, rather than from a place of fear, is a key component of individual happiness. It also happens to be a key component of being a good citizen and an informed voter.
It may seem that I’m suggesting that we need to understand how other countries and cultures operate in order to become more like them. That’s actually not what I’m saying at all. You can understand someone’s thought process and still disagree with them. Ideally, disagreeing with them will cause you to become more clear on your own thought process. That, in turn, will allow you to engage in a civilized discourse.
I believe that’s part of the self-improvement Storti is referring to. Travel is an opportunity for self-reflection and expansion of knowledge. Travel is a chance to pull back the lens on your worldview and see the bigger picture.
Making the Most of Your Travels
A good example that’s given in the book of how to begin to understand cultural difference is a discussion of the tendency of Europeans to have a wary attitude toward strangers. The typical American view is, as many of you probably know, quite different. Storti cites European views on privacy and their tendency to live close to their birthplaces, along with a history of disease and war, as examples of why European cultures may have adopted that attitude.
The book even contains a fantastic chart called “The Building Blocks of Worldview” that breaks down certain cultural traits and can provide travelers with a frame of reference when encountering the behaviors of a different culture.
There’s also a very helpful list of action items for someone who is interested in learning more about a culture but doesn’t know where to begin. I’ll be employing as many of the ideas as I can in future travels.
A Little Self-Reflection
Those of you who’ve been following our posts thus far should be quick to point out that we aren’t in any position to lecture on avoiding the traps of tourism. Our upcoming Disney Global Tour is about as touristy as it gets.
We’ve both had a range of travel experiences in our lives, from selfies at tourist traps to spending months living among the locals in a foreign country. I think what’s important is to be mindful of which is which and always strive to delve a little deeper into the place you’re visiting. Rest assured that we will be spending a least a little time soaking in the local cultures on our trip.
I found Why Travel Matters fascinating, and I’d suggest that anyone who has traveled or is interested in traveling in the future read it. As Storti says in the book, “If human beings truly are the sum of their experiences, then the traveler has added immeasurably to himself.”
A Q&A with Craig Storti, Author of Why Travel Matters: a Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel
Why did you write this book?
I had to. Travel increases our understanding of our self and the world in ways no other human activity can. What could be more important than advancing such a noble cause?
But don’t people already know this? That travel changes your life?
Experienced travelers certainly do, and would-be travelers are hoping that will be true. But few people can articulate exactly how travel produces its changes or describe what those changes are in any detail. That’s the contribution of this book.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
I want people to be excited by travel, to put down this book and say: I’ve got to go somewhere. I want them to be so inspired by the opportunities for personal development the book describes that they can’t wait to take a trip—and grow.
What qualifies you to write this book?
Forty years of reading travel narratives and almost forty years working in the field of intercultural communication which has taught me what it means to encounter people unlike oneself.
Hasn’t this been done before? What makes this book original?
You would think it had been done before, and in fact I waited twenty-five plus years for someone else to do this, one of the usual suspects (the great living travel writers such as Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Jonathan Raban, William Least-Heat Moon or some of the Brits) but none of them ever did. So I stepped, not unwillingly, into the breach. What’s original about the book is that it is about the consequences of travel, not about The Trip but the meaning of The Trip; it’s not about the places but the impact of the places on the traveler. The other thing that makes it original is the more than 150 quotations from the great travelers and travel writers, from Homer and Gilgamesh on down.
If you could only say one thing about this book to prompt someone to buy it, what would it be?
Easy: There’s nothing out there remotely like it! It’s sui generis, a real original.
Do you talk about your own personal travel experiences in this book?
I do include a few personal anecdotes (from Morocco, India, and Nepal) but to be honest I have chosen to draw more upon the fabulous anecdotes from any number of brilliant travel narratives. I know readers always like to know a bit about the author, so I have added a few bits. But in the end this book is not about any particular traveler or journey; it’s about the effects of the journey.
If you had to pick three messages you are trying to convey what would they be?
That travel is synonymous with personal growth.
That travel undermines ethnocentrism, the origin of intolerance.
That if you’re not careful you will be a tourist and miss out on the life-changing effects of travel. Be a traveler, not a tourist.