Why you should leave the country every once in awhile

 

    Formal education, family, mentors and work experience can serve us up to a point. However, if you have spent your entire life without ever leaving the comfort of your hometown, routine or language, you are  missing out on a great opportunity to better understand both the world, and yourself. And I don’t simply mean taking a weekend road trip out of town, I mean get yourself a passport and really see something new. While the benefits of travel are extensive, here are four reasons I recommend you leave the country:

 

1) You open your eyes to new ways of seeing the world

 

In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The mind, once stretched by new experiences, can never return to it’s old dimensions.” Simply put, there are millions of ways to experience life on this planet, and getting outside the country is a great way to discover what you’ve been missing. In French, to travel abroad or ‘a l’etranger’ translates loosely to traveling to a strange place. Travel allows you to experience vastly different views, foods, music, climates, languages, cultures, religions, art, historical relics, architecture, fashion, sports and pastimes. You discover that what occurs as a novelty to you is actually a way of life for others, and slowly begin to understand how such rituals and routines make sense given the places these people live. While staying with families in a remote village in the Amazon, we spent our days harvesting plantains and catching river fish to then eat at night, followed by community gatherings and dance performances. I also learned the importance of tucking the mosquito net firmly under the edges of my mattress at night after awakening to golf ball-sized insects clinging to every square foot of fabric. This was quite the shift from teaching skiing by day, eating a microwave pizza for dinner and sleeping with the window open at home in Colorado. You may even begin to find new things that you appreciate and even choose to incorporate into your own life upon returning home. Among my favorite take home souvenirs I had never formerly appreciated are hot wine, salsa dancing, acupuncture and quinoa.

 

2) You discover your resourcefulness.

 

The simple fact of leaving the familiar is that you have to draw upon all of your life skills to survive in a foreign environment. This means navigation, communication, time management, problem-solving and critical thinking, just to name a few. Additionally, you will at some point invariably have to utilize others such as patience, stress-management and courage, whether dealing with transportation breakdowns, lost or stolen belongings, or even questionable cuisine. When leading a group of college students on a semester abroad through South America, I learned of a fast approaching transportation strike in which trains in Bolivia were scheduled to shut down and buses were already meeting roadblocks of protesters, boulders and flaming furniture. It took some quick thinking and communication to get the group packed and rolling to our next destination on short notice so we didn’t get holed up in a tiny town for an extra week. When navigating foreign worlds, you are plucked from the comfortable convenience of your life in which you know your way across town, communicate with ease, enjoy your favorite foods in the fridge or at the local grocery store, find free WiFi at every corner, and consult your smart phone for any questions about the universe. Stripped from all of these common comforts, you will likely discover just how resourceful you are.

 

3) You cultivate empathy for other humans

 

    It follows #2, then, that as you begin to better understand the ways in which other people live in environments and cultures that are vastly different to our own, you also start to appreciate how they’ve come to be that way and why they hold those values dear. You may even become more open to reworking some of your own beliefs. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” You may have strong and seemingly justified opinions about how humans should live their lives until you actually spend time living in their world and getting what it’s like on the other side of the fence. Perhaps they don’t have access to the same resources. Perhaps their government or religious leaders don’t permit the same freedoms or forms of self-expression. Maybe the cultural wounds of war or poverty are so deep that survival is prioritized over professional ambitions or Youtube stardom. Spending time not just in foreign places, but sharing a meal with the locals and hearing their stories will help you understand that their truths about how life should be lived may be just as valid as yours. Over dinner with our host in Dubrovnik, Croatia, he pointed to bullet holes in the outer wall and explained what ten years of war was like during the dismantling of former Yugoslavia. He drove us across the border into Bosnia the next day, past the remnants of many mortar-shelled homes and landmine-ridden pastures on which we were told not to walk. It slowly became more clear to my American friend and I the ways in which the fractured history of the region had not only reshaped the landscape, but also people’s views of their neighbors.
The empathy we develop doesn’t just reside in memory after returning from a foreign land, but continues to manifest in the ways we interact with the others new to our country, whether immigrants, visitors or non-native English speakers. We have a little better sense of the hardships of being out of our element, and are actually more inclined to lend a helping hand to those who look, speak and live differently than us. After spending time as guests in others’ countries, we actually become better ambassadors to our own nation.

4) You develop a new appreciation for your hometown

 

    Absence makes the heart grow fonder. After so many years of routine and familiarity with our home lives, it is easy to take basic creature comforts for granted. Thus, while traveling or upon returning home, we’re often reminded of the many simple pleasures and blessings in our lives. It could be the sense of belonging and connection as we greet friendly and familiar faces in our community, being close to family, reliable electricity and potable tap water, a healthy economy with ample employment opportunities, local cuisine, or easy access to your favorite forms of recreation and entertainment. After spending a month in China’s most bustling metropolises where millions of people shuffled shoulder to shoulder like cattle, and high pollution days produced a haze so thick as to obscure buildings a block away, returning home to the open space and fresh air of Colorado never felt so good. It could be as simple as getting a good night’s sleep in your own bed, or enjoying the smells of local flora in bloom. The point is, we often never realize how good we had it until being gone. Mom’s homemade brownies never tasted so sweet around the holidays.
Traveling to far-flung destinations is an opportunity to zoom out from your own life and experience the gift of reexamining it in a whole new way relative to the other 8 billion people who also call this planet home. You will likely find a greater appreciation for your own life and home, the lives of other humans, and a desire to take better care of both. Bon voyage.