Before the 1960s, running for fun and fitness was something done by crazy jogging nerds in New Zealand. Running a marathon, or even a 10k, was not on the standard life achievement list and no one had even dreamed of ‘Couch to 5k’. In 1897, the first Boston Marathon only attracted 18 entrants. In 1972, the number had only edged up to 1,081 participants. This year, 35,671 people ran the Boston marathon. And in 2013 the United States hosted 26,370 running events and apps like ‘Couch to 5k’ have become a national phenomenon. Over the decades something in our national culture changed. Running for fitness or training for a race is no longer something for the elite athlete–it is a goal that empowers the average person, an activity that builds dedication and perseverance as well as a healthy lifestyle, and something that we encourage in our children from a very young age. Once our kids learn how to walk, we can’t wait for them to run. When we need to sort out our life, we take a jog. This is how travel should be. I passionately believe traveling internationally is more than just a goofy hobby, it is an essential health and welfare activity. It broadens my mind, gives me character and compassion, and shows me a new meaning for world citizenship. Travelling is something that should drag us off the couch and an activity we should encourage in our children. I travel because I couldn’t dream of doing anything else and my best advice to anyone at any stage of life–jump on a plane.
Before I went to Slovenia and Hungary I received a lot ‘Why?’s. I know that Slovenia is not the first international travel destination that pops to mind (it used to be part of former Yugoslavia until 1990 and even my bank didn’t know where it was when I called to let them know I was going), but often there was often more behind that question. I am a mom, I have a full time job and am the primary breadwinner for our family. Why was I taking time from these more important things to (frivolously) travel?
Most Americans think one of three things when they think international travelers– honeymooners in the Bahamas, retirees on cruises, and college kids who ‘haven’t found a real job yet’. Only 30% of Americans hold a valid passport (compare to 70% of Canadians) and only an estimated 3.5% of Americans travel abroad (and this generously includes business travelers). By comparison, Canadians travel at a rate roughly more than twice that. Every non-American english speaker I met in Europe didn’t ask me why I was traveling, they asked me ‘Why only 10 days?’.
So why do I travel? Because nothing can overestimate the value of stepping outside your comfort zone. Trying a new language, a new mode of transportation, a funny-named food from a foreign grocery store. Like taking a cooking class, buying a knitting book or learning how to meditate, each experience builds and expands who I am as a person. It teaches me about who I am and how I think in relation to the rest of the globe. It helps me love the people who live half a world away. And, as the world gets smaller and crazier by the day, that love and understanding is becoming more and more important.
Broadening My World View
There is a distinct difference between being a tourist and traveling. Being a tourist is drinking Mai Tais on a beach before getting back on a cruise ship. Traveling is walking beyond the tourist section, meeting the locals, and finding out what sights and activities are important to them. I have accepted the fact that I will always look like a tourist and have no qualms about pulling out my maps and my tour books in the middle of the street, but I refuse to park myself in the gift shop for the entire trip. I try and learn a little bit of the language wherever I go (except Hungary– I sincerely apologize to the Hungarians, your language is crazy talk. I promise I will learn ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ by my next visit) and try not be visit McDonalds or Burger King unless it is to try the falafel or the Cornetto McFlurry. We Americans get a bad rap for having an American-centric world view but, as much as I hate to admit it, it is often true. There is more than one way to eat mayonnaise (like on Pizza) and more than one way to sit at a restaurant (like sharing long tables) and more than one, two, or even two dozen ways to accomplish just about anything. What comes naturally to one person is strange to another. And what can seem rude or even cruel when seen in the United States can seem perfectly natural when seen in the context of a foreign culture (like eating Guinea pigs in Latin America). And sometimes you see things abroad that you wonder why no one in America has discovered yet (like small umbrellas for baby strollers that clamp on the side of the stroller and can be adjusted to keep the sun off the child no matter which way you are walking–why the heck do we not have these yet?!?)
I am not a constant traveler; I have traveled abroad less than 100 days in my lifetime. But every single one of those days holds years of knowledge and experience. This knowledge informs my decisions about the world around me, a world view that I hope to pass on to my children as they grow older. There is nothing in America that can replace walking the streets of a foreign country.
Now, I understand that not everyone is a history nut like me and not everyone will geek out at the prospect of snooping around crumbling castles or strolling dusty history museums to learn about power plays of the 15th century. But understanding history is so much more than that. Understanding what happened and how people feel about the events of the past has everything to do with what is happening in our world today.
When I was in Budapest, Hungary I witnessed two things that left a deep impression on my mind. The first was a pile of grave markers, all marked with a death date of 1945, stacked haphazardly along a garden fence next to the Jewish synagogue in Budapest. A grave marker with no grave to put it on, something so common in Eastern Europe that no one really takes note. The second was a protest happening against the erection of a World War II monument in one of the main squares. The monument was planned to be an evil Eagle (Germany) attacking an angel (Hungary), however many Hungarians feel that this is yet another step by their government to downplay Hungary’s pro-Nazi role in the war. Along with the standard candles and posters scattered in protest along the sidewalk, Hungarian citizens had also laid down hundreds of books, neatly protected in plastic bags against the rain– testaments to Hungary’s involvement in World War II and the Holocaust. Those books were the most powerful form of protest I have ever seen and I would never have seen them if I hadn’t walked those streets. What we often forget in American is that we only learn one view, choice cuts from one side of the story. Our generation will hopefully never understand what it is like to be in the middle of a war, to watch our country change leaders and borders and currency from one day to the next. But if we never visit a place that has gone through those things how can we even try?
The planet is getting smaller. Our cars are made in five different countries and assembled in a sixth. Social networks align people around the globe for everything from protests to flash mobs. Scientific discoveries made in one country can help people halfway across the earth in an instant. We are facing droughts, famines, ice storms and hurricanes in increasing numbers. There has never been a more important time for everyone on earth to work together. And there has never been an easier time for Americans to travel. Frequent flyer flights are easy to come by, there are many, many countries we can enter without additional Visas, and English has become the default second language in many areas of the world. Many other countries see traveling as a standard pastime, a necessity to get to know the world we live in in order to make a positive impact on its future.
Yes traveling is fun, but why shouldn’t it be? Some people have a boat, some people get snow boarding passes, some people have spa days. I go traveling. And, call me biased, but I believe that traveling is the best and most fulfilling ‘hobby’ anyone can have—if I could give everyone in America one thing it would be a passport. I believe that an increase in the number of American’s traveling, even only once or twice in a lifetime, would do more good for world politics and the environment than any other single movement or political action campaign. Call me crazy, but this world is small and its time we met (and appreciated) our neighbors.