One of the hallmarks of western people traveling is that by and large, we only “befriend” service workers. That is to say, our only local interactions of any length involve the exchange of currency. Of course I think we should support local businesses as much as possible, but think about your life back home–is it dominated by people who are with you because they are paid to be? How much would you really know about your city or country if you only went to the top ten tourist destinations and spoke only with cab drivers, tour guides, bartenders, waitstaff and hotel/hostel staff? I understand that this level of engagement is fine or even optimal for many people, but to me it is severely lacking. Luckily, that is starting to change.
People ask a lot of questions if you travel, and one of the absolute best was by one of my dad’s cousins a couple of years ago. “So if we were in Cuba right now, if we were just two Cuban guys, what would we be doing? What would our day be like?” If I asked a variation on this question at most travel meetups, or sadly after many study abroad programs, the response would be crickets. Or worse, when someone fills in the blanks with stereotypes or takes one small thing they saw once and applies it to an entire city, country, or region.
Traveling to other countries, for me, is not about getting as many different passport stamps as possible, or crossing off everything in a guide book or 1,001 places to see before you die. Other people’s lives and communities are not playgrounds for me, set pieces and props for my story, devices to teach me and other western people valuable lessons in navel-gazing. They are human beings, whole and entire. They are not merely sad and pitiable, noble in the face of their immense struggles, nor are they just inspiring in their happiness, ignorant to how much better life is with iPhones and DVR. They have a full range of emotions and experiences, just like us. Other people exist for themselves and their own goals, struggles, and desires, not for our profile pics, poverty porn, and Eat, Pray, Love-style enlightenment.
If I’ve learned anything while traveling, it’s that our world is full of millions of other small worlds, each one fascinating and full of its own truth. If I am patient, kind, polite, and sit by very quietly, occasionally I can learn something from these worlds as I encounter them. If I am able to stay somewhere long enough, sometimes these worlds let me in so I can be a part of their community for a little while. All of my best memories abroad (and at home–because travel is not an escape from real life) come from getting to know people and places well enough that they trust me with some very real part of their existence. Some of the most interesting things that have ever happened to me are the things that have re-aligned my view of people or a place, clarifying some generalization or misunderstanding I have previously held. There is more to this world and this life than 7 billion people and 196 countries at the service of me. My travel, no matter how exciting to me, is still just somebody else’s Wednesday, their day job, their ride home. And to me, that is the most exciting part of all–not the bungee jumping or the skydiving or the tattoos or the scuba diving; getting to see what somebody else’s Wednesday can be.