The Unexpected Benefits of Travel
When I think of “how travel changed me,” most of what comes to mind is fairly typical. I learned more about the world, I gained a wider worldview, I felt more creative, and so on.
I don’t mean to dismiss those things at all. They are real benefits! They matter.
Still, if I think about the unexpected benefits of world travel, specifically my eleven-year quest to visit every country, two things stand out more than any other.
These benefits affect me every day, even now that I’m not traveling as far afield and as often. They are: increased empathy for others, and increased confidence in myself.
Empathy for Others
Simply put, until I gained experience through living and working abroad, my perspective was pretty limited. It’s one thing to read about how people live in China or the Middle East, for example. It’s quite another to experience it first-hand.
My understanding of religion came mostly through my own beliefs and a series of churches I’d been brought up in. I had a degree in sociology and was fairly open-minded, but still: reading about other cultures is different than experiencing them.
In Damascus, Beirut, and Abu Dhabi, I visited mosques, often accompanied by a local friend or guide who explained the history and significance of each location. Wow! All of a sudden I understood Islam much more than before. Of course, you could argue that was still a surface-level understanding, but the change wasn’t so much about knowledge as it was about respect and empathy.
In some ways, knowing that you don’t know so much is an important key for cross-cultural understanding. It unlocks a pathway to learning more, or if nothing else, towards having fewer preconceived ideas about a topic.
Similar stories played out elsewhere, as I toured temples in Burma and Bali, visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and saw Coptic ruins in Egypt.
I’m sure it’s possible to experience such things and go away without being changed, but it seems difficult. Over and over, travel has the ability to humble you, to make you realize that whatever you thought you knew or believed at one time was largely a product of your surroundings.
You could say the same about physical attractions as well: it’s one thing to see images of the moai on Easter Island, it’s another to visit and go on hikes where you see them up close and personal. The Pyramids … are big! The Taj Mahal … is impressive! And so on. For the rest of your life, whenever you see a picture or video of one of these iconic sites, you’ll remember the time you were there.
Perhaps most of all, the conversations I had with people around the world had the effect of making me feel both enlightened and ignorant.
In Mumbai I toured Dharavi, one of the largest slum areas, in cooperation with a local organization that works in the area. At that point I’d already lived on a hospital ship deployed to West Africa for several years, so I was pretty familiar with poorer cities, but of course, India was different in its own way.
Taxi drivers everywhere were a bountiful source of information and insight. Many of them were helpful and I learned how to ask questions about the local government and economy without sounding too intrusive. (A good starting point: “So how are things in _____?”)
In short, I learned to be much more respectful, less judgmental, and overall more interested in cultures that were different from my own. This never would have happened, at least not without the same level of depth, had I stayed at home or just stuck to traditional routes and adventures.
The second unexpected benefit of travel for me is self-confidence, specifically an internalized belief that I can overcome challenges that come up along the way—in both travel and life.
I think I was always inclined towards this belief, having a childhood that consisted of many unusual adventures (living in the Philippines from age 6-8, getting arrested more than once as a teenager, dropping out of high school while simultaneously enrolling in college, etc.). Still, my travels as a young adult took this belief to a new level.
Like I wrote in The Happiness of Pursuit, the missteps and misadventures I experienced proved far more memorable than all the times where everything went as expected. I’ll never forget sweating it out in the Riyadh airport, wondering if the authorities would let me enter the country without a visa. (They did, although they kept my passport the whole time and kept calling my hotel to check on me.)
The time I misjudged the timing of the flight out of the Seychelles (missing the only option to get to Barcelona where I was speaking the next day), leaving Libya a few days before Gaddafi’s regime was toppled and other foreigners were evacuated by sea, the time I lost a Land Rover in Spain—all of these memories and more are deeply embedded.
Together, they helped me trust myself, and to believe that most of the time, I could find my way out of situations that would have intimidated me years earlier.
These days I’m traveling less, and I feel—wait for it—less confident! Or maybe it’s just less decisive. When I flew 300,000+ miles a year, I didn’t hesitate when booking plane tickets. Now I sometimes find myself second-guessing while refreshing the options, wondering if I’m choosing the right days, flights, seat assignments, and so on.
On the ground, I don’t take many taxis because Uber and Lyft are in most cities I visit. They’re much better in terms of price and convenience, but I do sometimes miss the random taxi conversations that don’t happen the same way now.
It’s also a world that feels less safe in some ways. There are a bunch of countries I simply wouldn’t go to these days. Some lack basic law and order, which is hardly a “new” feature of countries, but it just feels different to me than it once did. Other countries are so tightly controlled by the government that the state itself can be a threat to visitors. (Again, not new, but feels different than it once did. Maybe it’s just that the stakes feel higher now that my quest to visit every country is over.)
These skills, empathy and self-confidence, aren’t one-and-done. On the contrary, I think it’s important to keep them activated. I haven’t been anywhere terribly excited recently, but last year when I went to Vietnam for my birthday, I sensed the reemergence of “travel mode.”
Oh, right, I remembered: things are different in Japan (even in Narita airport, where I passed through en route to Saigon). And if I happen to show up in Vietnam without the required visa, well, what’s the worst that can happen? Surely I can figure it out … and of course, I did.
Then I went on a series of long walks through the city, stopping more than once for delicious iced coffee, and occasionally visiting with people as much as the language barrier permitted. I should do this more often, I thought. And I was thankful for everything I’d been able to do so far.
What have you learned through traveling? What unexpected benefits have emerged?