Traveling has quickly become a very developed industry over the past half century. Advances in technology and aviation have not only made it incredibly easy to see the world, they have also brought to light the reasons to travel – the fun you can have, the beautiful places you can see, and the wonderful experiences that can enrich your life in many ways.
But in all of this, traveling has also changed dramatically. As more and more people have decided to explore foreign lands, a billion dollar industry has developed in a very short amount of time. It is quite different to travel today, when you can rest assured you will be greeted with McDonald's and every other first world amenity you left at home, than it was 50 years ago.
Now, on one hand, it’s nice to have a safe haven while abroad. It’s nice to be able to occasionally taste good pizza, beer, or whatever else you have a hankering for from the motherland. It’s nice to be able to hide among friends who share your nationality and speak your native language. I will be the first to admit these truths.
However, when you hear people talking about the benefits of traveling, about how it made them stronger, how it opened their eyes, how it allowed them to grow as a person, let me assure you, they are NOT talking about the time they escaped the busy streets of Bangkok by running into a Starbucks. They are not talking about the time they saw the Eiffel Tower. They are not even talking about the time they haggled with a street vendor in Shang Hai and bought a watch for 4 dollars.
What they are talking about, is when they were invited to a local’s home for dinner. When they met school children and did volunteer work. They are talking about the times they had when no more than a few fellow travelers were within hundreds of miles.
The biggest favor you can do yourself while traveling is to get off the beaten path and really experience the country you are in. Now this can be a bit difficult, and is definitely intimidating at first, but exploring on your own will not only give you a new view of the country you are in, it will invigorate you with a renewed sense of yourself and the world around you. Stepping beyond the seemingly all-encompassing reach of the enterprising western world – nary a country is untouched – can be a very gratifying experience, especially if you choose to stay awhile and acclimate yourself.
The best way to do this is by working in a foreign country. Visiting a friend who lives in the area is also a good idea when and where it is possible. For those of us who don’t have good pals in every corner of the earth, there are options. One of the most popular methods is to become an English teacher. Contrary to popular belief, you can find paying work in many countries without even so much as a TEFL certificate, although they help. WWOOFing it is another good option, a term that has come to mean working on a farm in exchange for a room and 3 meals a day. Working at a hostel or as a guide for a travel company is also a good idea, but these options are less likely to lead you out into the ‘real’ part of the country.
The tourism industry, for all its merits, has bred a generation of travelers who don’t really know what they’re doing. Hopping from one tourist attraction to another, staying within the lovely confines of people who speak the same language and have the same skin tone, and rarely or possibly never interacting with a local beyond their taxi driver and doorman. Upon returning home these people bring little more than passport stamps and Facebook photo albums.
Venturing out into the unknown is scary. What if you get lost, what if you get hurt, what if, what if, what if. Well, guys, doing things that make you shake a little bit can be good for you, you might even find yourself becoming a better person for it, and realizing there really was nothing to be scared of after all. If you worry too much about the ‘what ifs,’ your life may just pass you by before you even know it. So next time you find yourself on the road, ask yourself ‘do I really want to eat a cheeseburger tonight, or should I explore the city until I find a restaurant whose owners eyes will pop when they see me walk in the front door?’ Trust me, there will be plenty of cheeseburgers waiting for you when you get home.