There is a high likelihood that we - Generation Y youth – will have the opportunity during our lives to visit at least several of the world’s great cities. A business trip, family vacation, divorce getaway, midlife crisis or happy retirement – the majority of us will travel. Because of this, standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, drifting through Venice by Gondola, or walking along the Berlin Wall are no longer once in a lifetime experiences, but instead fairly common opportunities.
“Why do I travel?” is a question that I always ponder. The common answers come as a collage of clichés, mostly from travel salespersons or school study abroad pamphlets. In my high school and college years, I've been encouraged to travel “to become cultured”, “to become worldly”, “to discover myself”, “find new experiences”, “gain new perspectives” – all these generic purposes are widely accepted and easily found in bulk.
The cliché reasons to travel I call generic are, ironically, also the ones I believe are true. There have been no contributions to my education more meaningful than those experiences I have had traveling. There are no substitutes for first hand experience, and travel gives a person the opportunity to discover new and vastly different realities from his or her own. Once internalized, hopefully, individuals will be better equipped to relate to others, communicate, and have a new ability to see and understand how the world operates.
Ideally, travel incubates more well-rounded and capable people. People with a greater capacity for empathy and appreciation, advanced social skills, as well as strong decision-making skills. But does it?
My current home is London, along with approximately three hundred other American students who are studying abroad. As far as I’ve observed, few come to London for the cultural experience. Students here are falling asleep in class, too tired to stay awake after spending whole nights researching flight and train deals. Unlike in 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 class ends for the week.
Where should we go? Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Venice, Zurich, Madrid, Amsterdam, Stockholm, the list goes on. With cheap flights being offered by budget airlines like 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 one at that.)
It is amazing for us participating because for the first time in history international travel is an affordable reality. However, are we still getting the supposed gains associated with traveling? Can a person endure travel experiences and gain the desired growth and wisdom when very little challenge or adversity is involved?
In our modern culture internationalism and multiculturalism have become very fashionable. Globalism is the goal, but homogenization is the unhappy result. In effect, my experiences in New York, Boston, or hometown, 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 leisure travelers, this 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 and people, and causally enjoy culture at their leisure. However, for those who seek adventure - and more for their time and money - such destinations prove unfulfilling and thwart the purpose.
While crossing the English Channel last Sunday after spending a weekend in Paris, I asked myself, “Why do I travel?” My weekend in Paris was spent at bars, restaurants, and clubs that served international food to the tune of American music. My attempts to see Paris were spent fighting through tourist mobs at historical sights.
The prominent retail district was lined with stores that can be found all over the planet. And as a result, my Parisian experience differed very little from my experience in any other major world city. With the exception, of course, that Parisians are really rude.
I’m not saying a person cannot find and enjoy an authentic French experience such as eating at a Parisian café. What I am saying though is 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. I find myself thinking back on my many experiences traveling, and notice a common thread that has been apart of every meaningful experience. These were the character building experiences, the memorable and life changing situations, 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, entire nights spent romantically with strangers on Cycladic Island Beaches, and night climbing the Smokey Mountains’ 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 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 stubborn opinion, there is nothing wrong with large cities or being a leisure traveler. I love cities and dream of moving to NYC. However, the saying, “What you put into something is what you get out of it” applies to making travel meaningful too. If you commit to taking easy trips, the value of the experience may very well be equal to the trouble you suffered when swiping your credit card – or worse, having to enter your card number manually.
If the words above ignite your dreams for adventure, good. Even though the world is fully mapped, there are still many destinations that have yet to become tourist hot spots. There are places of jaw dropping beauty that operate true to themselves and their environment, places where there really is adventure. Places, where the wild things are.