Believe it or not, but even during this terrible time around the world there have been many reasons to smile. As is always the case during times of tragedy and hardship, individuals emerge who act as unlikely heroes or just people who make others smile. It has warmed my heart to hear and read of these experiences, renewing my faith in humanity and proving once again that no matter our faults, most of us are warm and kind-hearted. I think that has been the most important life lesson gained from a life of travel. It’s not a factoid or some skillset, it’s been the realization that not only are most people amazing, but they have a lot to share. Whether it’s a life lesson from a waitress in Israel or a better way to think of the world from a guide in Thailand, people in all corners of the world have changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. Today I want to share some of those lessons as well as tell you about some amazing people I’ve met traveling the world. Use this as an opportunity to think about your own life and the remarkable people who have made you the person you are today. In this time of hardship, it’s more important than ever to maintain and strengthen our ties to other human beings, whether we can be with them or not.
In a world where I can be on the other side of the planet in a matter of hours or FaceTime with someone in Outer Mongolia, how is it even possible that in recent decades we’ve become less emotionally interconnected instead of the reverse? That’s really the key of course, emotional interconnectivity, not just economic or political, but feeling connected with people from other places on very personal levels. Technology is in large part to blame for our loss of personal understanding. Watching other tourists travel the world, I see a group of people more interested in getting a dramatic looking selfie to put on Instagram instead of looking around them and actually understanding a new place. I see people tethered to phones when they eat or when they’re in a foreign bar, instead of looking around and striking up a conversation. I’m part of that group too, I’m most certainly to blame, but it’s this subtle shift in the way that we travel that is also in part to blame. We must do better and we must remember that travel is all about the connections we make, little else is important.
Mama Lily lives in Kayamandi Township in Stellenbosch, South Africa as she has for much of her life. During the apartheid era black people were evicted from properties that were in areas designated as “white only” and forced to move into segregated townships. These areas were underdeveloped and the living conditions were, and are, not adequate for the needs of the residents. They still exist today, communities that have been around for a long time and home to many walks of life from the extreme poor to the middle class in some cases. Still, visiting a township is a powerful reminder that life isn’t all wine and chocolates, but Lily brought a different spirit to the exploration. Living in a house where every brick has been paid for, living debt-free as she says, Lily has always tried hard to provide for her family. From working as a debt collector to eventually baking scones out of an impossibly small oven, Lily now serves as guide and cooking instructor to those who wish to visit. More than that, she never once let life knock her down. Has she gone through some rough patches, yes, of course. But once I saw the twinkling spirit in her eyes I knew that she had won; that she had beat down whatever tried to get to her first and Lily came out on top. Looking at my life and what has brought me down before I was ashamed. Ashamed because what events and trivialities have affected me immediately seemed so silly and so frivolous. I saw in Lily a determination and I knew that if she can win at this game called life, so can I.
Travel is almost by definition a selfish act, and that’s fine. We travel to relax and enjoy ourselves, but we also travel to grow and evolve as human beings. At least, that’s the goal. While travel is a selfish act, we shouldn’t travel selfishly. That may sound like semantics, but there is a clear distinction between the two concepts. It is our duty to travel in a way that is respectful and which does no harm. I don’t necessarily mean sustainable travel, although that would be nice, no, instead I mean that is imperative to open your eyes, ears and heart when you travel. Talk to other people, learn from them and in turn, share your own thoughts and background. There are many instances of very irresponsible tourists, but had they practiced this mindset they never would disrespect a local culture again. Had they spent time chatting with a local resident, taking a moment to learn about what they value, then their experiences would have been much different. Instead, they travel in a bubble of their own construction, selfish in almost every way and without thought or concern for other people. That’s not why we spend time and money to see the world, that’s not what travel should be about. It’s not about capturing the best pool selfie, it should always be about personal growth and education but also in an even exchange of ideas. It’s very much a give and take and an all too rare instance when we can affect real and positive change in the modern world.
A trek through the jungles of Taiwan’s mountains was the last place I expected to meet someone who would make a very personal impact on me, yet that’s exactly what happened when I met Aliman Madiklan. Madiklan is a reformed journalist (his words); having spent decades covering the news for large papers around Taiwan he gave it all up a few years ago when a chance of a lifetime arose. There are 14 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan and Mr. Madiklan is of the Bunun people, who at one time called the jungles of the Central Mountain Range in Taiwan home. A huge swath of his people’s traditional lands had come up for sale and the government wanted to buy it to build a new rest stop for drivers traveling through the area. Shocked by the plan, Madiklan developed his own and bought the land outright, preventing the construction of the rest stop. Instead of paving over his people’s past, he wanted to find a way to showcase it, which he does every day through his unique Luanshan Tribal Village experience. The goal is to introduce visitors to Bunun customs and to hopefully impart a respect for a lifestyle that is all but lost today. It wasn’t just the education I received that day that was important, it was something Madiklan said to me as we left. “We don’t want to own nature, we just want to be a part of it.” That’s an important statement and one that many of us should keep in mind as we travel the world.
Connect with yourself
If any continent lures travelers with the promise of special moments, it’s Antarctica. Hard to reach, hard to travel around it’s one of the last few truly adventurous trips still available to us in the modern era. And my own trip to Antarctica did indeed deliver those unique moments in spades. Aside from the impossibly cute (and slightly dirty) penguins though, it’s the seemingly impenetrable landscapes that impressed me the most. After hiking up a snowy switchback path to the top of a hill, I was met with one of the most impressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The icy waters extended into the horizon and all I could see were vast quantities of rock, ice and water. It seemed to go on forever and I have never felt smaller in my entire life. Standing there on the bottom of the world, it was an important moment to help quantify the immensity of the planet. It’s a fact that we modern travelers tend to forget. In an age when I can hop on a nonstop flight and be in Hong Kong tomorrow, it seems as if the world has never been smaller. But we forget just how massive this beautiful planet is and how many unique experiences there are to be had. We forget about the small inlets and villages forgotten to time. It was an important moment as it put into context what I do now for a living and how it isn’t just part of my life – it IS my life. This quest to seek new answers and discover new things will never end, just as that horizon in Antarctica seemed to have no boundaries.
Time is fleeting
I guess it’s just part of getting older, but losing close friends and family members never gets any easier. But what it has done is teach me just how very fragile life is. Not to be morbid, but none of us knows how long we have on this earth and as the famous quote goes, life isn’t a dress rehearsal. We owe it to ourselves to make the most out of each and every day and most importantly, we owe it to ourselves to lead a life that makes us and by extension those we care about happy.
People are everything
The real power of travel is I think the sharing that happens between people. Whether we like it or not, we’re all citizen ambassadors when we leave the country but it’s not a one-sided relationship. Meeting new people, learning about their stories and lives, that is I think the most important part of the travel experience. Through them we begin to better understand their culture and country, most times erasing misconceptions and wrong impressions in the process. While there are certainly outliers, I’ve learned that people are genuinely great almost everywhere in the world and that there is so much more that unites us as humans than what divides us along political lines.
Look around and you see a world in turmoil. I’m frightened by the dramatic increase in far right-wing politics in many Western nations, not only because I disagree with the intellectual policy positions they take, but because of the emotional basis of these policies. They are taking advantage of the fear and misunderstanding of huge swathes of the public, preying on us for their own personal gain. The way to combat this isn’t by arguing or yelling, but through education. By taking someone we’re related to or know and sharing with them our life experiences and what we’ve learned from people in other countries. Unless we address the core underpinnings of where our fears are coming from, then nothing will improve. Unless we as a civilization understand that more connects us than separates us, then nothing will improve. Regardless of our own politics or stances, this is all of our collective fault. We have failed each other but luckily there’s still time to correct that mistake. To take our fellow citizens and not try to change their minds about any one thing, but to open them to a world that’s not nearly as small and scary as they may think.