There is a high likelihood that we – college educated adults – will have the opportunity during our lives to visit several of the world’s great cities. A business trip, family vacation, honeymoon or divorce getaway, midlife crisis or happy retirement – a majority of us will travel to foreign destinations. Standing beneath the Eiffel tower, drifting Venice by Gondola, or walking the Berlin Wall are no longer “once in a lifetime” opportunities as the challenge to create the most unique “bucket lists” becomes high fashion.
“Why do I travel?” is a question that I perpetually ponder. The common answers comprise a collage of clichés, mostly proffered up by travel salespersons to those people who don’t seek a tangible meaning to the activities they pursue. In the high school and college years, one is encouraged to travel “to become cultured”, “to become worldly”, “to discover themselves”, “find new experiences”, “gain new perspectives” – all these generic purposes are widely accepted and easily found in bulk on study abroad pamphlets.
The cliché motives for travel I deemed generic above are, ironically, also the ones I believe to be true. There have been no contributions to my education more meaningful than those experiences I have had traveling. I firmly believe there are no substitutes for first hand experience, and I apply that belief to all aspects of life. Travel gives a person the opportunity to discover new and vastly different realities from his or her own. And once internalized, hopefully, they’ll be better equipped to relate to others, communicate, and construct a more panoptic prism through which they will see and understand how the world operates.
Ideally, travel incubates more holistic and capable people. Ones who develop a greater capacity for empathy and appreciation, advanced social skills, as well as strong decision-making skills. But does it? And, more specifically, how does studying abroad assist a student in achieving such betterments?
My current home is London, along with approximately three hundred other American students on study abroad through Boston University. More so than other popular study abroad destinations, London is thought of as, “a launch point for the rest of Europe”. As far as I’ve observed, few come to London for the cultural experience. The students here are often falling asleep in class, too tired to stay awake after spending whole nights researching flight and train deals. Unlike the US, a dormitory security guard’s job is a breeze over the weekend. The reason being that most students scatter off to the airports and train stations as soon as classes surcease for the week.
Where do we go? Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Venice, Zurich, Madrid, Amsterdam, the list goes on. With cheap flights being offered by budget airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet, a round trip flight to mainland Europe can often cost less than purchasing a new T-shirt in London (not even a designer brand). In some cases, for less than £75 a head, groups of friends can catch a plane to most any European country for a weekend excursion. It is an invaluable privilege for us students participating because for the first time in history we are enjoying international travel as an affordable reality. However, what about the promised benefits of travel? The supposed gains bestowed upon the traveler? Can a person endure such travel experiences and gain the desired growth and wisdom when very little challenge or adversity is involved?
In the contemporary world, internationalism and multiculturalism have become creed to modern culture. Globalism is the goal, but homogenization is the unhappy result. In effect, my experiences in New York, Boston, or hometown of Miami differ very little from time spent in any of the world’s metropolises. Simply put, when I now visit major world cities, the world feels flat.
For the leisure traveler, this reality is un-alarming – maybe even exciting. No matter where a person travels to, as long as a star accompanies the name on maps, they are nearly guaranteed to find familiar luxuries, familiar people, and causally enjoy cultural relics at their leisure. My only hope is that such people are simply trying to kick start their travel engines, and their desire to really explore our world will be primed by such trips. However, for those who seek adventure, and more for their time and money, such destinations provide scant fulfillment and thwart the purpose.
While crossing the English Channel this past Sunday after spending a weekend in Paris, I once again was asking myself, “Why do I travel?” My weekend in Paris was spent at bars, restaurants, and clubs that served international cuisine to the beat of American music. My attempts to see Paris were spent fighting my way through tourist mobs at historical sights. The prominent retail district was lined with stores that may easily be found all over the planet. And as a result, my “Parisian experience” differed very little from my experiences in any other major world city. With the exception, of course, that the Parisians are unique in their rudeness.
I’m not saying a person cannot find and enjoy an authentic French experience such as a Parisian café; however, at this point in my travels, I’ve found that the charm of any authentic experience is severely diminished when my view includes a Starbucks across the street.
So, here I am approaching the White Cliffs of Dover, on my return trip to London, where I will likely spend the next week planning yet another trip. And I find myself thinking back on my various travel memories, and notice an obvious and common thread that has companioned every meaningful experience. These were the character building experiences, the memorable and life changing situations endured, the frightening and blissful moments shared with others, the treasures found while aimlessly wandering, the partners and friends acquired on the road, the hardships overcome and seemingly impossible feats conquered in the process – these are the adventures I will tell as MY stories for the rest of my life.
What was that common thread? It was when comfort, familiarity, and often safety, were of the least concern. Living with Tibetan monks in the Sichuan Valley of Tibet, road tripping the Dalmatian coast, catching sheruits in the middle of the night to Jerusalem, budget traveling by train through mainland Europe, kayaking off waterfalls along the United State’s west coast, hiking in the Swiss Alps, screaming into the mysteriously vast emptiness of the Scottish Highlands, whole nights spent romantically with strangers on Cycladic Island Beaches, and night climbing the Smokey Mountain’s sheer cliffs to witness a sunrise 1000 feet off the ground – these were the times that are imprinted in my memory and heart. They are the experiences that, in retrospect, I can attribute much of my personal growth to. Most importantly though, they are the stories I will remember, and the ones I will share.
Despite my strong bias, there is nothing wrong with large cities or being a leisure traveler. Having visited many major cities has provided both entertaining and educational experiences that in no way do I regret having. However, I find old wisdom such as what you put into something is what you get out of it to appropriately apply to making travel meaningful. And, in effect, when you commit to taking easy trips, the value of the experience may very well be equal to the trouble encountered when swiping your credit card – or worse, having to enter your card number manually.
If the words above tinder even the slightest spark in your adventurous spirit, I deeply recommend that you fan the fire. Even though the world is fully mapped, there are still more destination that have yet to become tourist destinations. Places of jaw dropping beauty that operate true to themselves and their environment, places where true adventure awaits you – places, where the wild things are.
Resources to Check Out:
– Airline Companies: There are many airlines offering amazing ticket prices (for both last minute and early bookers). The following are a few of my favorites:
– Search Sights: For flights I’ve found Edreams.net and Skyscanner.net to be the best search engines. The most unique feature of Skyscanner is that you can search flights without a destination in mind! Just type in your departure city, “everywhere” for a destination, and a list ordered by price will appear to reveal where you can go.
– Trains: Most private train companies have their own sites, but they are poorly updated and not easily understood. Www.Raildude.com does a good job of explaining train timetables – however, there are few things more fun or exciting than just showing up to a station and asking for “the next train to…”
– Boats and Ferry’s: I do not have any specific resources for sea travel. Each part of the world that offers ferry travel has their own region specific (and often terrible organized) resources. I felt obliged to mention it though, because maritime travel is still an affordable and exciting option, and in many cases the only way to reach certain parts of the world.
– Accommodations: Every rumor Americans have heard about hostels is wrong. Simple as that. Hostels are affordable accommodations where travelers meet new people, can partake in local social events, and have a blast. Www.hostelbookers.com is a great resource for finding hostels. However, if you are traveling with a group and want a more private experience, check out www.airbnb.com
– Alternative Accommodations: If you are more adventurous and interested in free housing, take some time to explore www.couchsurfing.com. In short it is a global network, on which people allow travelers to stay in their homes free of charge. It also hosts social events and meet-ups in most of the world’s towns and cities – most of which are also free of charge.
– And lastly, if you simply can’t imagine where in the world you would go besides major destinations, go to www.stumbleupon.com and “stumble” photography and travel. The pictures and experiences I’ve come across by doing this have truthfully inspired many of the trips I’ve taken, and will be taking.
If you have any questions or are interested in learning more about anything in the article, here is my personal email address: SebScholl@gmail.com (or use the comment section) I’d be more than happy to delve deeper into any subject I addressed in the article, or share more on any resources I mentioned.