Does Travel Really Open Our Minds?

I have always believed that travel “opens our minds.” But George Stone, writing in a recent National Geographic Online newsletter contends otherwise

The idea that travel makes you a more open-minded person is rooted more in well-meaning fiction than in fact…But if travel truly were fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, wouldn’t more of the 1.4 billion annual international tourists (pre-pandemic) have made the world kinder and less biased by now? 

I really didn’t like reading these words because it is a direct assault on my primary working assumptions about travel. “Opening my mind” is one of the primary reasons I want to travel. But these words do give me pause. Admittedly, travel is something I do for myself. I’d be lying if I said that altruism and care for others was at the root of my travel. But I do want a self that is open to and learning from the world around me.

Travel takes different forms. There are many different reasons for taking a flight to a far off land or setting aside a month of my year for being away from my home. While I am hesitant to judge how others like to travel, I can recall personal travel experiences that I think have given me more empathy, more connection, and a more open mind.

As we spent time in Ireland and England this past fall, we had many different conversations about Brexit. An Irish pub owner gave us an analysis of British/Irish history and offered a prediction that Brexit would bring the collapse of the current positive relations between the two peoples. A Liverpool tour guide gave a much different perspective as he railed against the elites in his homeland and how the European Union had taken away both British identity and prosperity. In his view, Brexit would restore some of the greatness of England.

Nothing like the community (and beer) of an Irish pub.

While teaching English at a secondary school in Egypt in 1976, I lived in the dormitories along with my students. Though certainly I was at a remove from them—both because of our cultural differences and my role as their teacher—living together in a shared space gave us deeper insight into each other. I learned much about the small rural towns along the Nile where they were from and shared a bit about my life in the United States. Interestingly, at that stage of life I was not really much older than my students. I was 22 at the time, many of them were in their late teens.

Students and friends in Assyut, Egypt.

When visiting the Middle East in 2017, Lena and I stayed the night in the home of a Palestinian family in Beit Sahur, a town near the city of Bethlehem.  Our host gave us a tour of his orchard, walked us around his neighborhood and the new grocery store to be built there, and mused on how Israeli/Palestinian politics affect their life every day. We sat with him and his wife at their kitchen table, reflected on how parenting was challenging for us all, and shared simple and delicious meals with these kind people.

Friends from Beit Sahour.

Several of the albergues we stayed in while walking the Camino Frances in 2018 were small, family owned hostels in little Spanish towns. Each place gave us a window into village life, the particular family, and the customs of the region. It still warms my heart to think about the afternoon when Lena was called into action as a translator for an English speaking guest trying to make a reservation by phone with the Spanish speaking proprietor of the place we were staying. 

Each one of these occasions opened me more deeply to people and their cultures. Each of these experiences broadened my mind. Each happening took me to a place where I felt as if my world became a little bigger, to a place where my mind and heart had grown.

I’m sure there are ways of traveling that only focus on our personal experience and needs and insulate us from the culture and people of the land we are visiting. While international hotel chains, all-inclusive resorts, and large tour groups may make sense for many people—they are not really helpful if one of our primary travel goals is to grow in empathy and understanding for others.

Maybe the best we can say is that travel welcomes us into the possibility of a deeper openness to our world and its citizens. We are not required to take the opportunity. But for me, focusing only on myself would mean missing all the best parts of travel.

Spiritual Practice: Hold Hands With Strangers

I am a shy person. Truth be told—I really like to keep to myself. Yet I have learned that that is not always what is best for me. I have found that every time I travel away from my home—whether here in Sacramento, some other city in the United States, or in a village plaza halfway across the world—my life is better if I open up to others. I have never returned from a trip and thought, “I have had too many deep encounters with people.” Just the opposite is true.

In her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness, researcher, writer, and teacher Brené Brown encourages us, in the face of a difficult and divided world to:

move closer to each other, because people are hard to hate close up…

And to hold hands. With strangers.

As mantras go – that’s not a bad one. (As a Christian, I am reminded that this is a big part of what Jesus was talking about in his story of the “Good Samaritan.”)

Maybe that is what changes tourism into encounter. Maybe that is what makes an experience of travel life changing. Get close to someone whom we might only know as “the other.” So here is the practice: People are hard to hate close up—get close—whomever and wherever those people are.

Here’s one final window on these insights, a bit of a bonus. Aziz Abu Sarah—entrepreneur, speaker, peace builder and author—is the CEO and co-owner of Mejdi Tours. Just recently he wrote a book called Crossing Boundaries: A Traveler’s Guide to World Peace and he presented the following TED Talk in 2014 (It is worth 5 minutes of your time):

4 thoughts on “Does Travel Really Open Our Minds?

  1. Always enjoy your posts Jim. All due respect to Mr Stone, but my experience has been more akin to yours. I have come away from each travel experience changed in some way for the better. Your blog post reminded me of a Pico Iyer quote I love. He compares travel to love “mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed”.

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  2. I appreciate your zest for travel and learning about “others” with the hope of greater empathy and understanding. I am of two minds regarding travel and open mindedness. During the 90’s I was quite involved in the “Service Learning” wave that promoted engaging students, often of privilege, with other communities such as: elderly, low-income, people of color, etc. Some research suggests that interacting with various communities should be over time in order to develop relationships. When well-meaning projects involve a one time engagement, it can actually reinforce stereotypes rather than dilute or dispel them. I am reminded of a conservative brother-in-law who participated in a Habitat for Humanity project in South America and returned with little understanding or regard for the less fortunate community he encountered. Maybe he is not representative of most people who engage in Habitat for Humanity. I have travelled quite a bit and try not to be the ugly American. I try to demonstrate respect for the culture and do not expect to be treated as royalty. I also avoid Hilton Hotels and Starbucks. No doubt, I have room for growth in human interactions and respecting other traditions and cultures, but that is my intent. Generally, it seems that those who travel to truly learn about the world make for better world citizens. Foreign exchange students can learn so much if they haven’t succumbed to culture shock.

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    1. Paul, I appreciate your insights. We people of privilege (especially in churches) have been “parachuting” into cultures for a while now. We often feel good about our service – but are not always the kind of allies and support we need to be,—because we support communities in ways WE think they need. There is a great book that helped us at Faith Church as we thought together about “Mission Projects,” called “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.” It at least raised the issues for us.

      I am convinced that transformation really comes over time – which many of us cannot give to travel and living in other places. That being said, a listening and humble spirit goes a long ways we encounter other citizens of this amazing world.

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