Saturday, December 10, 2011

Travel Teaches

Travel can teach you a lot, if you let it.

When you're sitting on a plane or train that's late and you're going to miss your connection, there's no point getting all worked up, you might as well learn to stay calm. When your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, you might as well break out the snacks and enjoy the scenery.

When the way things are done in a new place annoy you, you need to be tolerant. It seldom gets you anywhere to yell or get upset. No matter how homogenized the world becomes, or how much you think the way they do things at home is the "right" way, the fact is other people do things differently.

An area where I struggle is with my overdeveloped sense of fairness. (Research indicates this is hard-wired into our brains.) When someone does something like cut in line in front of me, it really pisses me off. But things aren't always fair, and there's often nothing you can do about it. Might as well get over it.

One of the most important things travel can teach you is simply to see, to look at what is around us. At home, we don't really pay attention, everything is familiar, and we're too busy anyway. Traveling, especially long trips by train or bus, supplies plenty of time when there's nothing to do but look around.

Last, but not least, travel gives you time to think. Time we often don't have in our hectic home lives. And it supplies plenty of material to think about. Sometimes I think we unconsciously get afraid to listen to our own thoughts, afraid of what they might tell us. So we pack our lives with distractions - cell phones, music, chatter. But how can you ever be at peace if you're afraid of your own thoughts? Travel can be a form of meditation if you are open to it.

You can learn all these things at home, but travel tends to present a lot more learning opportunities. And because things are new and different, we may be more willing and likely to think we need to learn. Travel can bump us out of the ruts of our comfort zones. That can be stressful, but it can also open you to learning new things.

But all travel is not equal. You won't get much of this kind of learning on a tour of umpteen countries in 7 days, with a guide organizing everything so you don't need to think, rushing you from place to place and yammering in your ear the whole time. Nor will you learn much by lying in the sun in some homogenized resort. If you want to grow, it helps to get off the beaten path.

Of course, like any kind of teaching you have to be willing to learn. You can refuse to learn during travel just like you can refuse to learn in school.

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