I’m sitting in a dentist’s office in Ireland, because crowns and caramel can’t get along.
The room, on the second-floor of the converted row home, resembles most American offices, save the molding skirting the ceiling. It comprises all the standard accoutrements facilitating a paint-by-numbers experience. Videos selling orthodontic services and warning of the dangers of poor self-maintenance. Bright magazines boasting headlines commonplace on Redbook and Travel and Leisure. A water cooler, which, as expected, a set of six-year old triplets commandeer for games.
A woman takes a seat adjacent to me, smiles, and makes small talk. We’ll call her Shirley. Her face makes me happy, a moon filled with smaller moons. Eyes, cheeks, nose, even her chin, bounce around with her facial expressions. A feature I notice on many of the Irish.
Conversation takes the course it usually has this last year. A question about how long I’m visiting the area. My response of the length of time elicits another question and requires an explanation of my job and life of traveling.
And then the answer. Normally a variation of, “I could never do that—is that safe—the world is so dangerous—I’d be too scared—wow, you’re so brave.”
She’s a fixture in that camp, citing all of these, nearly verbatim.
Naturally, I push for specifics. “Oh, why do you think that?” “Did something bad happen to you or someone you know?” Etc.
As a professional traveler, I’m always curious to hear what’s keeping others back from something that defines a great portion of my life. I want to understand, because I can’t empathize with not having constant desire to “Go.” Preferably to exotic cultures with curry.
It comes down to the fact that I’d love everyone to experience how amazing this world is. Really, I feel compelled to sway them. Like encouraging them to rethink it is the most important thing I could ever tell them. That I’m sharing a secret that would literally change their lives for the better.
She cites several generic stereotypes. Her only specific touches on the scam that is the prices of NYC taxis.
“Oh, that’s not a scam,” I laugh. “That’s just New York.”
At this point, I usually go into encouraging mode, noting it being easier than they think, that anyone really could do it, and all that. She’s not someone I’ll win over in five minutes. Maybe never. I can tell from her curled mouth and squinting eyes that she can’t hear me beyond the limiting talk reverberating in the canyons of her etched beliefs.
Other than the taxi scams, she can’t give me a detailed foundation upon which she’d set her entire world view. Not that she doesn’t know it. Perhaps she’s like me, often thinking of better responses 10 minutes post conversation. Or maybe she really just doesn’t want to engage me further, though she seems genuinely committed to the conversation. I can’t be sure of any of it, except to say her fears remain a mystery.
The Walls We Build
What I can say is it’s painful to hear.
It makes me sad for this woman. Not that I feel life inside her walls isn’t wonderful or fulfilling. It’s just heartbreaking to think of Shirley, home alone, watching TV, thinking that’s the world. That this informs her reality, leaving no room left in her mind for other options. Other ways of thinking. Freer ways of living.
Essentially, this woman accepts hiding within borders built of fear and ignorance.
I want to be understanding. I want to communicate that I respect her position.
But I also want to urge her with every fiber of my being that she has only a small part of the story. I want to urge her that she can’t rely on a source whose platform rests on sensationalism and feeds off ratings. A fear-propagating machine. She needs to get the facts, in person.
And she isn’t alone.
More than a few Irish have mentioned being afraid to travel to America, like our country is one big back alley. I don’t blame them, for the news cycles through shootings, race tensions, rapes, and supposed trigger-happy cops.
That’s not the home life I know. That’s not the world I grew up in. (Fortunately.)
But hey, isn’t that what so many Americans think of the rest of the world? Even Europe, with all its recent unrest, has lost favor with more than one of my friends.
What that just proves is anything outside of home, beyond one’s comfort zone, poses more potential to be dangerous than enjoyable. At least in the thinking of those afraid to venture out. Even white sand islands like Aruba stirred comments when it hit my itinerary. All because of one story that happened years ago.
With that logic, none of us would go anywhere.
Our world, built on and sustained by connections formed with “outsiders” (read foreigners), wouldn’t even exist as it does.
Yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that society now kneels at the altar of fear, which keeps many from collecting passport stamps and seeking out the truth firsthand. People worldwide act as if three men are waiting in a white van beyond homeland boundaries, ready to call in a ransom.
We humans safeguard our lives with as much bubblewrap as possible: routines providing measured amounts of predictability and control. Then we kick off our shoes and lounge into this false sense of security. For some, simply eating ethnic takeout stresses the system. Forget flying 19 hours to try the real deal. There’s too many unknowns there.
That’s simply misguided and overcautious.
Anything can happen at any minute to anyone.
Do you ditch grocery shopping for fear of a hostage situation? Do you stop going to the bank? Do you give up driving to avoid an accident? Talk about making life impossible, right? No. You go about your day.
The same logic extends to travel. It’s not all danger and certain death.
In fact, most of the time it’s really neither of these.
No one can deny our world possesses concerning areas, but that isn’t an argument for clinging to fence posts. In fact, I’d contest now, more than ever, is the time to step outside the lines and shake up our beliefs about other people, environments, cultures, and religions.
The Truth We Need to Accept
On the one hand, I get where Shirley is coming from. She’s been conditioned to trust the news. However, we have to accept personal responsibility for our convictions and actions (or lack of).
We believe whatever we consume most and to which we have the highest emotional response. Combined, this formidable pair can wield great power over our lives. And if allowed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to be controlled by outside forces…well, we know what happens. We see it with Shirley. It’s why we’re having this conversation.
Watching and reading content only tallying life’s darknesses leads you to unfairly stack the scales, believing malevolence outweighs benevolence. Each story acts like a brick for the wall you build around yourself to keep the world out. You’ll spend precious time constantly looking over your shoulder. A different, and I’d offer smaller, approach to life from exercising smart choices and remaining vigilant.
Rather than accepting a spoon-fed perspective, let’s decide for ourselves. Let’s go for a ride. Let’s have ten-minute conversations with an Italian baker before the rest of town stirs. Let’s stand inside ancient ruins sans light and feel the same cold coming off of the stones that filled the air 5,000 years ago.
And let’s encourage others to do the same.
Aside from the obvious, these moments give way to broader perspective. Often trailing close behind, you’ll find understanding, tolerance, and problem solving stretching into new reaches.
When we step into a different box with a different set of rules, for however long—be it a weekend or year, we adjust in ways we didn’t know we could move. The intention and commitment to finding new thresholds of discomfort birth evolved versions of ourselves.
This is really what we should claim at customs. This wealth of knowledge and growth.
A voice calls my name before I can relay to this adorable gnome lookalike that travel transformed my life. In every possible way.
I don’t have time to tell her any of my lessons learned while nomading over the last year and a half.
I don’t have time to tell her how many of my priorities changed, and those that remained only found deeper ground.
I don’t have the chance to tell her about this intense level of clarity I’ve found between airports and train stations.
The opportunity comes and goes.
The Why for Travel
The assistant guides me by the crook of my elbow away from Shirley, not realizing the gravity of the moment. Me, mid-sermon, preaching the good Travel word, trying to reach this woman and save her from years of continued ignorance.
Though I hope otherwise, I suspect sweet Shirley will never find a way off her island.
That’s why it’s so important for travelers and the industry to share their experiences. Stories help us to see that though there are many cultural differences, differences do not have to equate a divide. Each story shared is another bridge laid down.
We need to communicate what the real world looks like.
We need to tell stories about whitewater rafting through Patagonia from Argentina to Chile.
We need to share stories about an 85-year old shopkeeper, who tells you after only having a few conversations 3 months before, she remembers your eyes.
We need to tell stories about a New Zealand hostel owner saying, as he’s stoking the fire he made us, “If you want to pay, just leave some money on the table, there. If not, no worries.”
With every story and every contribution, you’re basically saying, “Hey there. We’re a nice bunch of people. Not everyone in our country is crazy. In fact, most of us are quite normal and would love to share great moments with you. We have a lot of cool things to see and do. Come on over.”
I close the office door behind me and step out into Sligo, raining again. This sparks thoughts of my upcoming relocation to Spain, and I give the anticipation room to build. I can’t wait for the sun, kiteboarding, Flamenco, and tapas. I love hearing the Spanish guitar lead long nights into early mornings.
Then, I think about Shirley again, juxtaposed to all my time traveling. All the countries that I’ve been to, all the experiences that I’ve had, and all the friends I’ve made. Her world seems so shortsighted, so limited, like she’s only experienced a minuscule fraction of what exists.
On top of everything else touched on here, traveling assures me that I’m really experiencing life. That I seek to know its details in a very personal way. Not to read about it, but to know what it smells like to ride my bike through an Irish town. To taste fresh empanadas in Bariloche. To hear a choir of kids singing in a church in Italy. I’ve done all these things and more and it’s made me feel like I’m part of the world, rather than a witness.
I wish that for Shirley, and I wish that for you.