Sunday, September 2, 2018

Growing through Travel

Typical night-time shot of central Jakarta
Jakarta is not my favourite city. It's a sprawling mass of over 10 million people, with all the associated grime, air pollution, and traffic. But it's also a fascinating and vibrant city, suffering through the growing pains of rapid development, melding eastern and western cultures. You find a stark juxtaposition - luxury and wealth side-by-side poverty and struggle - that make hard questions of power and justice up-close and personal. I've only ever been a passer-through, spending no more than a week at any given time, confronting the frenetic energy of the city. Yet, I think over the years, travel has built up my capacity to stomach - even sometimes crave - these challenging situations. This is a bit tardy, but feeds one of my favourite annual traditions of reflection on how travel contributes to one's development as a global citizen. 

I started writing this post in mid-July, the day I turned 32. While it doesn't seem like much has changed in the last ten years or so, comparing my current worldview and approach to life to that of 22-year-old me, we are so very different. I would attribute much of this moulding of a human being to travel and the kinds of experiences that certain types of travel engender. Perhaps travel is so apparent this birthday, because it took place en route. Or perhaps it is because the past twelve months have been so transient. Between Colombia, the US, Indonesia and Singapore (and not just once...), New Zealand, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Malaysia, not much time was left for good Ol' Brissie. But maybe the topic seems so salient in part due to witnessing the attitudes and political perspectives so visible these days, which might relate to a lack of interaction with different people and cultures (among other factors).
Countryside of North Java, about 90 minutes from Jakarta

Travel, I think, influences two elements of the human experience: insularity (and fear) and reality (including empathy). Insularity feels particularly close-to-home at the moment. These is a general sense of singularity - the particularly abrasive 'America First' mentality - evident in such failures in fostering multi-lingualism or developing geographic knowledge of the world. And while few Americans deign to leave the country for holidays, those that do remain within comfortable confines, most frequently visiting Mexico, Canada, and the UK. It's not just about how many people travel (a bit over 1/3 have passports...), but also the expectations that follow. There was an interesting article at the beginning of this year about the inequities in ability to travel internationally, just by virtue of one's nationality, and the expectation from westerners that they can and should be able to travel, safely and wherever. But further, while these expectations persist, countries close their borders to others. 

Removed from the chaos of Jakarta's street-level, rooftop bars
offer luxurious escape from reality
The second thing I think travel brings to one's world-view and general perspective, is a dose of reality - and perhaps addresses some of the lack of empathy that feeds our insularity. A recently-published interview with the late Anthony Bourdain really highlighted how travel cultivates this empathy, disabuses assumptions, and can humble. He argued, "... the more you travel the more you look inwards. Mark Twain said travel is fatal to prejudice. You try to put yourself in a place where you can see things, and let things happen. Where you’re not always in charge, you’re not in control, [you need a] willingness to go with the flow, and understand, you know, you’re in somebody else’s house, somebody else’s country. You’re not in charge ... when you see people, again and again, how much they can do with very little, how people struggle and persist, you know… Look, I believe in some basic virtues, you know? Mercy, humility, curiosity, empathy." Mr. Bourdain hit the nail on the head - travel that forces you to confront the stark realities of the world also helps you see the humanity. Going back to Jakarta, I think that the cumulative travel experiences have been important for acknowledging both the positives and negatives in such a city. Particularly, neither diminishing the hard parts nor letting fear win out (which, 22-year-old me probably would have done).

So I'll my musing on that. Just to clarify, I recognize that not everyone has the means, freedom, or inclination to travel. This post is not meant to disparage those who don't, but rather highlight the benefits I have found through such experiences. It's possible to stay open-minded and empathetic without globetrotting. Diversity and hardship are not necessarily a world-away, but often right on our doorsteps.

"To mistakes. To mistakes, because that’s the most important part of travel." - Anthony Bourdain