“People from all over the world have passed through this village, son,” said his father. “They come in search of new things, but when they leave they are basically the same people they were when they arrived. They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking that the past was better than what we have now.”
-Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
Soulful eyes framed by an expressionless face popped up everywhere: Facebook, Instagram, my newsfeed, and email. Successfully over a week, I avoided clicking on the picture to follow a trail to an article. My avoidance came from a purposeful root. Similar pictures led to heartbreak and a cracking in my own shamefully apathetic nature. Cracking is painful and I like to avoid pain. But, that night, the same picture popped up through my languid browsing. This time, instead of scrolling past it, I ran my cursor over it and clicked.
Omran Daqneesh, a Syrian boy with haunting eyes sitting in the back of an ambulance as his world collapsed around him is a familiar image. Just as I predicted, reading the article attached on the bombing of his apartment building shattered my heart. I spent the night in tears, soaking up article after article on the conflict, the history, the stories of the heroes of the emergency response force, and how far anyone was from stopping the war.
It took a picture of a boy’s world being destroyed for me to learn anything about the Syrian war. It took a picture for my heart to break over the world, but it wasn’t the first time. My heart cracked over stories from the U.S. of the slaying of people for nothing more than the pigmentation of their skin. It chipped when it learned of the thousands of elderly Korean women, both living and passed, who had been used as comfort women for the occupying Japanese army. It shattered over the testimonies of limbless survivors of the Boston bombing and the anonymous secret-senders of Postsecret. My heart cannot stop splintering, it seems, but even as it splinters, it seems to grow.
Hurts are one of the defining elements of the human condition. Everyone, everywhere experiences hurt: physical, emotional, mental. We hurt in America, in Brazil, in South Africa, France, Germany, Japan, China, Hungary, Turkey, Antartica. The shapes and sizes of our pains can be eerily similar or dramatically different. The girl from Russia who had her heart broken by a boy might be more relatable to me than the child unable to buy food in a day. But, the differences in our hurting hearts and bodies shouldn’t put immeasurable gaps between us, but instead lay foundations for us to grow closer together.
Visiting travel forums recently has made me wonder how often we travelers slip into apathy like a comfortable pair of sneakers. A single post stuck out to me while I was researching an upcoming trip. A man or woman had three weeks off work and wanted to see as much of Southeast Asia as could possibly be stretched into twenty-one days. This person wanted to go hard from morning to night and use every minute to see important sights before moving on to the next. The question had to do with what countries and how many days would be needed in each, and he already had several flights booked for the trip. One commenter advised picking two countries to experience, but the original poster said they didn’t care to slow down in a country.
Slowing down seems to be something of beach vacations, not for world travel. The appeal of traveling fast and seeing as much as possible is understandable and appeals to me. Traveling abroad is a luxury that doesn’t come often (even if you live abroad). The idea of spending a small fortune to get to a country, only later to find out that you missed something can be devastating. However, how much more devastating could a trip be than if you come back having learned nothing about the country you could have learned from a history book? Traveling needs to be more than just a checklist. Eiffel Tower. Check. The Louvre. Check. Mona Lisa. Check. Picture. Picture. Flight home.
George Santayana (later quoted by Winston Churchill), stated, “Those who don’t know the past are condemned to repeat it.” Traveling without learning anything about the people or culture whom shape it are condemned to never know what shapes a country. If traveling does nothing to open our eyes and soften our hearts to the hurts of the world, then, quite possibly, we aren’t doing travel right. For as you travel, you begin to see that yes, there are huge cultural differences between people, but more than that, we are all human.
In the beginning quote from The Alchemist, Santiago’s father tells him that the travelers that come to their region of Spain climb the hill, look at the sites, see the history, then leave completely unchanged by it all. The concern of these tourists is with the destination, not the road to get there. How does this translate into the life of the average 20-something traveler in real life? Social media-worthy photographs of decrepit castles that ignore the path that leads up to it. I’m just as guilty of anyone else. I want the picture at Disney with the castle and the Mickey ears that looks magical enough to put on the homepage. But, during these times, I forget that the path that leads to the mountain isn’t more sights, but people, customs, culture, and hurts that make a place unique.
Back to The Alchemist. Ironically, Santiago wants to go see the pyramids because he believes there is treasure there. He wants to see something new and strange. But, through the book, a strange phenomena occurs. As he gets closer and closer to his destination, he is changed completely. He’s not changed by the sights he sees, but the people he interacts with. He never plans on staying in northern Africa forever, but he still manages to become part of the culture. He befriends a glass-seller, an Englishman, and various tribespeople. Before he traveled, he thought of the people who lived there as frightening infidels. After, his vision of who the people were grew and expanded until they became people with hopes and dreams just like himself.
In an odd blessing-in-disguise, a few years ago, I had no camera in South Africa. Disposable cameras were available, but they were miles away from my mind. I went on a safari, had the opportunity to see where Nelson Mandela lived, visited museums and other wildlife sanctuaries. I enjoyed these things and the history they taught me, but even more, I remember the laughter with new friends. I remember late night heart-to-heart conversations, hearing about dreams and aspirations and sharing my own. I saw where their hearts were broken: family members suffering from AIDS or HIV, the townships in which their families lived, how hard they studied. I also remember how well-dressed everyone on the college campus, the spirit of communication, working out together. People are never the sum of what we think we know on a surface level. Without traveling that goes deeper than just seeing major historical sights, we fall into the danger of thinking of people as stereotypes without accounting fro their raw, relatable humanness.
Travel should broaden our horizons towards people, and cultural highlights do shed light on the history that shapes a culture. This is not a manifesto to say that you should spend all your time meeting people or that going to see a UNESCO World Heritage site is an awful thing. In my example, I had many end destinations (safaris, museums, etc). And they were very helpful for understanding how history has shaped a country and a people. Even more, they were very enjoyable experiences. (And, to be clear, I love beach vacations). But, I can’t help but feel that there is a need in the world right now that we see people as they are, not as we assume them to be.
Let your hearts be broken for people who are suffering around the world as you travel. Allow yourself to be changed and morphed by your travels. Don’t leave a place thinking that it is exactly what you expected it to be. Sometimes, there is simply no means through which we can help people physically. But, what we can do is not to shove the sufferings of people aside, but rather learn to think of people as people. It’s hard to hurt for people and be unable to do anything to fix it, but better to hurt than to remain a statue, perhaps.
There are some ways that we can increase our heart for people, while traveling and while seated at home.
-Ask why. Many things might be a little different or very different. An easy way to start to understand differences is simply to ask someone about them. Maybe there is no one around that will be able to answer your questions in your language, but we have a powerful tool with millions of answers called google that can be of service.
-Visit some sight that has historical context. For example, I would recommend a DMZ tour to the North Korea border in South Korea. In South Africa, the Nelson Mandela museum is particularly hard-hitting. I’ve heard wonderful things about the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Go somewhere that’s not going to just have a pretty view of history.
-Try to do something a local recommended. It could be a restaurant, an area, anything. Ask a hotel concierge or a hostel owner for something they would recommend doing that might not be standard tourist affairs.
-Read the international section of a newspaper. See what’s happening in the world and maybe it will lead you to do more research. Look at how the happenings in your country and the happenings in other countries correlate.
-Make international friends. Step out of your comfort zone. Could be from anywhere, things will be different. It might be awkward to try to start friendships out of thin air, but isn’t that how most friendships start? You can ask the same why questions as before, but the answers will be deeper and the conversations more rich.
–Volunteer. There are hundreds upon hundreds of programs in cities and surrounding areas that help people. When I lived in Indianapolis, there were various organizations that helped Burmese refugees integrate into American society. Nothing will help you understand the world more than speaking to and learning from people who are part of it.
Perhaps, most importantly, don’t chase feelings. Don’t read about the world only when you feel a certain way. Don’t think about people as a way to rouse sadness or pity in you. Feelings change and feelings fail. That’s not the point of this broken-heartedness. Learn something new, understand the world as it is not as you wish it to be, and take yourself out of your shoes.
How has travel changed you? Are there any other ways that you can increase your heart for the world? Or, do you disagree completely?