I love languages, including my own. There’s just something intrinsically fascinating to me about the nuances and quirks of how we communicate. This includes odd phrases and sayings that have been used for so long that we have long since forgotten their original meaning. As I was leaving Ireland the other day, my tour guide shared with me the meaning of ‘beyond the pale,’ used today to refer to something beyond acceptable limits. A pale referred to city walls, as one would find throughout Europe during medieval times. To go beyond the pale meant to go beyond what was safe and known, to venture into the great unknown and to test one’s luck. As I watched my fellow Americans meander through the airport in Dublin, unsure of what next steps to take and many of them on their first great adventure outside of their home country I began to think about how and why we travel beyond our own borders, beyond the pale, and why it is that we are so very bad at the very act of traveling.
First of, this is not meant to be an elitist post, wondering how it can be that more of my own countrymen don’t have passports and why they fumble when they finally do leave the country. No, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not a travel elitist and I applaud anyone who makes the effort to experience more of the world around them. No, what I want to say is much more broad and instead I want to know how we can train the next generation to not just be travelers, but great travelers who care about the places they visit.
Throughout my brief stay in Dublin I had the opportunity to watch a lot of my fellow Americans travel about, mostly in large groups and mostly fearfully. I say fearfully because they never tended to venture beyond the safe confines of the group, never took off their name badges and when it was finally time to process through the airport they were confused to the point of inaction. I then thought back to my experiences in other countries, including the U.S., and I don’t remember seeing this behavior on such a grand scale from European travelers. They may be nervous and they may be flustered, but I have never sensed the same spirit of fear that I get from American travelers. I believe that is because, in large part, most first time U.S. travelers overseas truly are venturing beyond the pale.
We’re an isolated country and throughout our history this geographic exile has had effects both positive and negative. More than anything though it has made us withdrawn not from the rest of the world, but from the cultures of the world. This is an important distinction. We may know the current events in Spain or Italy, but do we truly have a proper understanding of their cultures? No, we don’t and I believe it is this fundamental lack of cross-cultural awareness that not only keeps Americans from traveling abroad more often but also makes us bad travelers when we finally do go beyond the pale.
So how do we fix it? Well I think that there are a few changes that we need to make as a society to increase this awareness. We live in an interconnected world and for as much lip service as we pay to that concept, we have done precious little to actualize it. We haven’t taken the steps to really come out of our isolation and embrace the rest of the planet.
Education Starts Early
Starting on the first day of school, we must start an intense process of educating our kids about the world around them. From my own personal experience, this means the introduction of foreign language education as early as possible. Language is the best way to gain a better understanding of a foreign culture. As we learn words and phrases, grammar and verbs we also learn about the customs of the people. We learn about what they value, what they like to do and how they go about doing it. Of course this education can take place at any age, but the young brain is best able to quickly pick up on new languages and we can no long continue to waste this precious time in a young person’s life.
If kids start learning new languages, combined with education in international customs, countries and even current events, we erase a barrier of ‘otherness’ that exists in the absence of this education. This is key of course to promoting travel in the first place, but it’s also vitally important to understanding how to act once is in that foreign country. I believe that this education will help foster greater interest in independent travel and foster a culture of curiosity that exists to a certain degree now but which I think will only grow if we learn how to cultivate it.
It’s been my experience that people around the world are basically the same. We all have very similar motivations and we are all basically good. Simple facts, but ones that most people don’t know. Cross cultural projects have been going on forever, but we need to now take a look at our we foster these same interactions when we travel. It is imperative to find a way out of our tourist bubbles and to interact with the communities we visit in ways that goes beyond tours and eating out.
This doesn’t mean that every trip should be a form of voluntourism, far from it. Instead just by slightly altering our decisions we can create these all so important interactions and instead of detachment from the destination, we become enmeshed in it.
When I visited Cape Town, South Africa, I could’ve taken any number of standard, run of the mill tours and had a fine time. I would’ve learned a lot probably and enjoyed myself. But it would have been from inside a bubble. One day I took a biking tour of a nearby Township, Masiphumelele. The trip was guided by a local resident and for an entire afternoon she led us around the small city, introducing us to friends and family and sharing with us what their lives are like. Instead of just intellectually understanding the people there, I got to know them and those moments of sharing changed my trip to Cape Town forever.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying you should try to do experiential tours all the time, I take standard walking tours all the time and I love them. But at least once on every trip, try to do something like I did in Cape Town. Try to do something that brings you closer to the people. It will take away whatever fear you have and make you appreciate the trip so much more.
As I said at the start of this post, I’m not here to shame anyone or to advocate one style of travel above another. Instead I want to see people less afraid of the experience, I want them to go into it with the knowledge and appreciation that comes from a place of strength. Because that’s what knowledge ultimately gives us, the strength to delve headfirst into a new experience whether it’s on a coach bus or hiking through the jungle without fear and without prejudice and to enjoy the travel experience instead of just daring to go beyond the pale.
What are some other ways to make people better travelers?