Is it possible that spending a lot of time in other countries can rewire your brain? Can it make you smarter–or at least more knowledgeable about the world?
As I write this I’m in the foreigner-loved city of San Miguel de Allende, where you’d have to search hard for a Texan transplant in order to hear a positive word about our angry orange president. Everyone wants to talk politics these days, but mainly to express their outrage. It’s the same story if you go talk to expats in Bangkok or Berlin, in Bali or Budapest. The people who sometimes leave comments on this blog implying that travel, immigration, and politics have nothing to do with each other have not talked to many actual travelers or emigrants.
In these times of “alternative facts,” closed-mindedness, and xenophobia, there’s a reason why frequent travelers are so perplexed and angry. We are literally seeing the world from a different perspective than those who have seldom set foot outside of their comfort zone.
Politicians on both sides travel the world, but you usually could have missed their foreign visit while you took an afternoon nap. Politicians are always on a very fast, very orchestrated visit that is set up to ensure a safe and predictable jaunt. They’re in an out with motorcades and security details. The only things they know about foreign cultures are what they read in reports—and that’s assuming you’re talking about one who bothers to read.
Anyone who has traveled the world for a few months or a few years–outside of the confines of the military–knows that you tend to see things differently after you have spent months in foreign countries. Once you get back home, people who see the world in terms of black and white suddenly seem like cartoon characters. The aggressive and gleefull materialism around you now seems disconcerting and childish. Religious fanatics on all sides start looking like the same clan, but with different chants and costumes.
Are travelers smarter? Are they superior to the bad-TV-news-watching, McMansion-buying, strip-mall cruising homebodies? No, we can’t say that without a properly conducted study, but travelers do seem to have their eyes, ears, and minds open wider. It’s a natural side effect of seeing other places through others’ eyes.
Once you’ve seen true poverty and a struggle to feed one’s family, people living on the government dole in the US, Canada, or Europe don’t seem to have it too bad. Once you’ve seen much of the world’s population using an outhouse, hauling water from a well, and cooking over wood coals, the struggle to buy a nicer BMW seems rather insignificant. The whining over “good jobs” moving to India or Indonesia seems preposterous when you see how those workers can do the same thing but for less than ten dollars a day.
But most importantly, by traveling you gain that broad liberal arts education that most schools aim for but seldom achieve. When you are moving from city to city and country to country, geography is not some esoteric concept represented by dots and lines on a world map. Geography is suddenly something you experience every week.
History is not some regurgitated set of facts to be forgotten once the test is finished. Instead it is a living breathing past that affects most of what you see and experience. Architecture is not some study of styles and building materials and dead people. It’s something you see and feel and walk inside to experience for yourself. You learn about linguistics, economics, world literature, and political science, all without even furrowing your brow.
You don’t learn about the religions of the world from some dry textbook. You hear the call to prayer from a mosque, you see Buddhist monks with begging bowls streaming to the temple at dawn, you see the Hindus bathing in the Ganges and sprinkling flower petals into the water. You learn what makes these religions what they are and see how they affect the lives of everyday people.
At some point you wonder about a profound question: What would happen if the fundamentalist Hindus had been born on a farm in Alabama? Or if the right-wing Christians of America had been born in the deserts of Algeria? Or if the Zionist Jews had been born in southern India instead of Eastern Europe? Would they believe that culture’s overriding faith just as strongly? Would they be just as brainwashed, but in a whole different faith?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but by being a traveler I recognize the questions in the first place. I’ve learned a lot from circling the globe multiiple times and taking other jaunts to places besides a package tour beach resort. Mostly I’ve learned that the world is far more complicated than most non-travelers think it is, and that no, we are not all alike on the inside. At a basic level yes, most of us want to survive, be happy, be healthy, and take care of our family. After that though, values diverge quickly As Russians continually show us, we don’t even “all want freedom.” Some people just want some stability they can count on. As fanatical Muslims show us, the desire to blow up someone of a slightly different form of the same religion can be stronger than the fundamental will to live.
So I guess if you like for things to be simple and predictable, stay put and complain about the people moving in who don’t look like you. If you want to fill your head with interesting ideas, knowledge, and experience, however, extended travel beats the hell out of college any day–-and it might even help you live longer.