Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What We Learn From Traveling Extensively

A few nights ago, I listened to a speaker who was introduced as having "traveled extensively". Very interesting phrase, I thought, and a phrase that I do not think has ever applied to me. It's not that I have never been away from home, but more like I "moved extensively" instead of traveled. And now I realize I have not moved for 19 years since I lived in this house, and before that I lived one block over for another thirteen years. Looks like my days of extensive moving are ended.

But now about the extensive travel. There is something about extensive travel that does not appeal to me, but I could never put my finger on it until I read this blog. "Left Turn at Albuquerque", the entry titled "Europe Eon".

A quick read through the blog and all my worst nightmares of travel are made real. Waking up at 6:00 AM every morning to get in a bus with a class full of teenagers to see another tourist sight. Being herded around in a group all day long until you are wiped out. It's like having a job, except you don't get paid.

Don't get me wrong, the person who is on the tour actually loved it. But as for me, I would rather go for a walk through Kitchener (25 minutes from my house) than spend two weeks on a tour of Europe like the one described in the blog. You may call it apples and oranges, but objectively, what is the difference between Paris and Kitchener? I have actually talked to people from Paris visiting Kitchener, so it can't be all that bad here. Frankly I don't know what attracted them to Kitchener. They stopped me on the street (many years ago) to ask if I could recommend a good restaurant. Back then, Kitchener didn't have any good restaurants, so I could only suggest they try some other town. I am generally not the most helpful person to ask for directions, because I don't think fast enough respond to the strange questions you often get from tourists. I am more the type of person who would give up and say "You can't get there from here".

The mind can be broadened from travel but often it doesn't happen in the rush. There is a very interesting quote from the author's mother. Upon being told it took 200 years to construct Notre Dame cathedral, she said "How do you care after 200 years?". Exactly the right question. Our present governments (Canada and the USA, I mean) are facing the prospect of climate change and running out of oil over the next 200 years. And really, why are we doing practically nothing? The real truth is because we don't care about anything that goes on for that long. Parisians, many years ago were willing to take 200 years to build a cathedral that none of the designers would ever live to see completed. Today, we are willing to let our entire planet be ruined through our wasteful use of fossil fuels, and climate change, because 200 years is too long for us to even care. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I don't think it is getting through to most people, even the ones who travel extensively.

You would think that the lesson best learned from visiting Europe might be to appreciate that human civilization was not built in a day, and that one short-sighted generation does not have the right to put an end to it. It is no excuse that 200 years is apparently inconceivable to us. The lesson is there, in every cathedral, in every building dated before 1800 A.D. But was anything learned from this travel experience? I don't think so. Instead they were more concerned about their asses going numb sitting in the bus.

Well so much for the joys of learning from traveling extensively. The author notes, possibly with thinly veiled irony,
"...from the second we landed in our first destination, Paris, every spare second was completely scheduled.) Traveling with this company is about achievement, not appreciation-—you must have completed as many tasks as possible, who cares if you remember them. If you ask me, you want to see more stuff? Come back. Many times. Lots."
When I was 22 years old, I spent a week in Paris pretty much on my own, and simply wandered around the streets whole time. Forty years later, what do I remember? That there were five flights of stairs to my cheap hotel room, and a standing toilet with raised foot islands and a hole in the middle. And I remember asking for coffee and getting "cafe au lait" which I never heard of before. I was corrected a few times for saying things in French with a French Canadian accent. I learned that Parisians are very fussy about the pronunciation of French. I climbed the steps to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower, which was free, but the trap door was closed at the top, so that was disappointing, but at least I got the view. My other most exciting experience was trying to cross the traffic roundabout to get to L'Arc de Triomphe. Afterward I found out there was a safer underground passage.

Picture: Imagine running across all that traffic. I got the pic from this website because you need to see it from high up to appreciate the wonder that I am still alive:

1 comment:

  1. They say that, 'Travel is broadening.' By this, I assume they mean that travel expands one's mind in terms of understanding other cultures.

    However, I would venture to say that, if one's idea of 'travel' consists of a week or two on a tour bus, cramming in as many 'sights' as possible, the only part of one's anatomy that gets broadened is one's posterior.

    I'm pleased you describe your own experience of Paris as, 'on my own, and simply wandered around the streets whole time.'

    That, I suggest, is a much more legitimate experience than being herded from the Louvre to Notre Dame to the Champs-Elysées, crossing items off one's 'must see' list.

    The essential element in the travel experience is encounters with the people in the culture (and, no, that local tour guide, fluent in English, does not count as 'local people').

    I set out on my European travels, also on my own, with no itinerary or specific objectives in mind (nor funds in my pocket). It afforded me the opportunity, over the next year and a half, to meet people, to eat with them, to work with them, to accept accommodation from them, to learn about their concerns and aspirations.

    I may not have seen as many sights as I might have had I had a tour bus under my posterior, but I believe my understanding of the world was broadened by the experience.