A post by Lucky entitled The Hypocrisy Of The “I’m Cultured And You’re Not” Crowd caught my attention this week. It is an issue I struggle with not because I need to justify my travel patterns to anyone, but because the more I travel and interact with other cultures, the more I realize I am just scraping the surface of true understanding of the world we live in.
Lucky’s blog is a source of inspiration and his careful attention to detail, wit, and extensive collection of tips, tricks, and trip reports is an amazing resource. His travel patterns require no justification and frankly I have no time for those who wish to quibble over what it means to have actually visited a country or the manner in which one chooses to travel.
But that doesn’t stop me from realizing, as my country list continues to grow (it now stands at 117), that the more I explore, the more I find out how little I actually know about the world. And yet each time I set foot in a new land I am learning more about this world, more about humanity, and more about myself. You can appreciate that paradox, right?
Lucky’s conclusion is that we should not judge others and that wealth is not correlated to happiness. He’s right – money does not buy happiness and two hours in a country may be far more revealing and educational than six weeks: each person is different and each experience we have in a place far from home is a unique apex of the people and events that surround us, sometimes in most unexpected ways.
I do not mean to imply that true knowledge (is there any other?) is reserved for learned PhDs and policy wonks, for knowledge still percolates even as we realize just how little we actually know.
An unplanned extra two days in Brunei a couple months ago led to a much greater understanding of the economy, culture, and politics of that small Islamic Sultanate. Am I an expert on Brunei now? Not even close.
I journeyed to Afghanistan in late 2012 as a political scientist attempting to ascertain a better understanding of the geopolitical situation on the ground. I can claim success, but I realized my notion of Afghanistan was even more limited and skewered by pre-conceived ideas and prejudices than I could have ever imagined.
> Read More: The Afghanistan Dilemma
So I continue to travel, realizing that we live in a large world full of intrigue, but one of my greatest joys has been going beyond my comfort zone and finding treasure at the end of the rainbow. Leafing through my bulging passport, my most treasured earthly possession, I can trace my own history and intellectual development, now seeing the big picture rather than the hundreds of passport stamp puzzle pieces. And yet the puzzle is not complete.
Is travel always worthwhile? In my experience, yes without a doubt. St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” and he is right. But many who never leave their homeland find fulfillment just in that single page – so I cannot go as far as claiming that travel is necessary.
Do I think people miss out when they only stay in five star hotels and eat in hotel lounges?
Actually not, at least not necessarily.
Because I do that too, at least when I can.
To be sure, I have no trouble flying economy class or staying in youth hostels or tents, but that is more an economic reality than a carefully deliberated choice. But that’s actually not the point here.
Those who choose to jet around the globe in first class and stay at western chain hotels certainly encounter a different experience, but it is not a better or worse experience, just a different one. And even hotel lounges can be a great source of cultural learning.
When I was in Singapore last, I dined each night in the lounge of the Grand Hyatt. It was convenient, included in the room rate, and the food and drink selection was perfectly satisfactory. Did I miss out on genuine Singapore hawker centre food? No, I got that too for lunch – but it was not there that I had an hour-long conversation with a local about the history and sustainability of the Singaporean economy – it was in the lounge. I count that conversation as much more valuable than visiting the botanical gardens, a local restaurant, or even the history museum (I did all three).
And even if that conversation had never taken place, the Singaporean hospitality at the hotel just blew me away. That counts for something.
In short, I refuse to judge the travel patterns of others as better or worse even while gladly tickling your ear with my own personal thoughts on the sort of travel I find most fulfilling.
When we realize that in most travel instances, no matter what we do and no matter how far we go, we will only chip away the tip of the iceberg of understanding, we can more humbly approach the issue of who is well-traveled and who is not.