OPINION: In the artificial silence of transoceanic flights I often look at those around me and wonder: Who are the tourists and who are the travelers? There is a difference. Tourists go to seek a respite. Travelers go to experience and learn, and ultimately to open their minds and hearts to let different perceptions rush in.
Travel is not just being someplace. If that were the case, then crossing the street would be traveling. No, travel is immersing oneself in the sights, sounds, smells, and nitty-gritty of another locale. It is taking the time to learn why that place is so different from the one you came from. "Tourists don't know where they have been," wrote acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux, "and travelers don't know where they are going."
I have an ongoing dialogue with an old friend from America's Pacific Northwest who wanders there extensively but refuses to roam the world, as I do. He says he can "see" the world from his computer, his TV, or in books. I reply that to view a picture of a cake is hardly to experience the aroma, texture, taste, and delight of a real one.
While my friend can wax poetic about the romance of Venice, the grandeur of the Himalayas, or the serenity of the Serengeti, he is merely quoting what others have experienced. He does not know the excitement of stepping into a Venetian gondola or the thrill of carnival. He has never felt awe as the first rays of a sunrise strike the flank of a 24,000-foot peak. We need to turn off the TV, close the book, and step out the door. We need to stop window shopping and buy something.
Prejudice grows out of ignorance. We are told that particular places or people are a certain way, and we believe it because we saw it on the evening news or online. Such complacency is directly responsible for the stereotyping of places and races. Because some people who look or behave a certain way have committed a foul deed in the past, we find it easy to assume that all such people are capable of such deeds.
It is easy to judge others living on the opposite side of the world based on dispatches from reporters who are trying to compress thousands of years of history and culture into a two-minute story. Travelers can take time to investigate for themselves. They have the liberty and leisure to form their own opinions.
In a world that seems to be too dangerous to travel around, it is the very act of traveling that is needed to end the violence. It is travel that lets people see that, under our skin and native costumes, and despite our diverse languages, we all share the same core responses, and it is only minor cultural differences that separate us, differences that should be celebrated and not feared.
In my travels, I relish differences. I have come to see that ancient ways of living are no better or worse than my own, but simply another way. Travel has shown me that most of the world's inhabitants live in homes made of mud, dung, or cardboard. Most bathrooms are a hole in the ground. Most people have never seen a television. For many, an airplane must be either a bird or a spirit, because nothing else could possibly move across the sky that way.
But I have yet to meet a person from the humblest of these circumstances who would voluntarily trade places with me and my Western way of living. Travel has shown me that we all love our homes and our families for what they are, and not for what they could be.
Today's technology has shrunk the world, allowing us access to the most remote places, places that a mere half century ago required days or weeks of arduous travel to reach, places now attainable in the course of a single day's journey by jet. The more of these places we visit, the more we will understand. And the more we understand, the more we'll be able to peacefully coexist.