14 Aug 2017

What have I learned after travel to over 100 countries?

I turned 48 today and figured that it's a good excuse to (finally) write up some thoughts on travel, culture and life. (If you just want to see photos, then go here.)

Last summer, I passed the 100 mark in terms of countries that I've visited in my life.* My first trip outside the US was a post-university "grand tour" of nine European countries.

Long ago, someone asked me what I'd learned after traveling for some time, and I replied that "people love their children." This seemingly trivial observation still stands as a good starting point, as it captures the similarity that dominates our differences in history, language, culture, etc.

I could tell you stories about the Iraqi who cried to me and my friend about their families when we met in Yemen in 1997. Or show you photos of the Mongolian father holding his tiny baby while he sat on his horse. Or of the Belgian kids playing in the fountains in the sunshine.

From this starting point, it is not so hard to see that most people are worried about themselves and their lives, not you. That fact makes it easier to travel to places, as most people don't care if you are there. Some may be curious (the more remote places), and some may be needy (the more touristy places), but most want to leave you alone as they want to be alone.

That said, there are many people who have a more difficult life than me (or any tourist), pretty much by the definition that I have the means to visit their country and they usually do not. That difference in means is usually no reason for them to be sad (I forbid my students from saying "poor and miserable"), as happiness is often a subjective emotion that combines current condition and future hope. Food, water, shelter and family in present circumstances and some hope for work, learning or advancement is often adequate for an average human to feel happy. It's the current deprivation or future hopelessness that gets people down -- as we see with people fleeing fascist or collapsing countries or Americans turning to crack or opiates to try to escape their poverty and helplessness.

What I enjoy about travel is exploring and understanding how different people address the various  problems and constraints arising from geography, history, culture or economy. How do they build their houses, get water, move, rest, play or worship? How do they live with their weather, flora and fauna? I've slept on the annoying pebbles on the shores of the Dead Sea, tossed and turned with cold and altitude sickness in Kenya, sweated through the night in India, and licked the salt walls of a salt hotel in Bolivia. I've eaten with my hands, chopsticks, hot bread and even out of the hands of beautiful Ethiopian scammer.

My main goal when traveling is not to uncover the exotic but to see -- and perhaps understand -- how different people make do and succeed in their lives. In most cases, this involves work, money, family and success, but the means and methods vary with the starting point, resources and expectations. The variety of these paths and intense energy with which people pursue them is truly fantastic to consider. One reason I liked going to Burning Man was that it captured a distilled essence of human curiosity, creativity and compassion -- energies that I have experienced hundreds of times in various squares, bus stations, markets and cafes.

I decided not to have children around 2000, as I felt that my life was complex and rewarding enough without them, but a childless life leaves you with the question of what else to do. After five years of continuous travel (1995-2000), I had decided that I had too much "consumption" and not enough "production," so I stopped and returned to work and eventually studied for a PhD. I had begun with a goal of understanding "development economics" (i.e., why some countries grow rich and others do not; what it means to be civilized, etc.) but turned to resource and environmental economics when I got into water. My early interest has not gone away but added to my study of the water and the influence of institutions, politics and society. My travels before, during and since graduate school have complemented book ideas with the reality of the road. I don't see any reason to stop traveling, learning and meeting new people.

What about climate change and travel?

We debate while the world burns (Science museum, Tokyo)
I would be pretty bullish on the future of humanity -- even with people like Trump and Putin around -- if it wasn't for climate change (CC), which promises to take away a number of really helpful "ecosystem services" that we have taken for granted. I doubt that CC will lead to human extinction, but it's definitely going to increase the cost (and thus reduce the quality) of our lives, no matter where we live or how rich we might be.

The real solution to CC is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but such mitigation will not happen voluntarily ("tragedy of the commons") and has not happened through a binding international agreement (The Kyoto Protocol was abandoned too early -- probably because its cap and trade mechanism depended on the politically-devisive need for rich world polluters to send money to poor world victims.) It's under these conditions that I have decided that there's nothing for me to do about my travels, meat eating, etc., as action on my part will not matter unless it is part of a group effort to overcome free-riding. Cooperation on a planetary scale is quite a challenge (we can't even fix daylight savings time), but I'm available if the Galactic Council asks for advice (short answer: carbon taxes).

How about some travel advice? What's changed over 27 years that you've been traveling?
  • Some people don't like to travel or want a beach resort. Others "go native" in a village for 4-5 years. Don't get bothered if someone's style is not yours (unless it's your partner!)
  • "Homesickness" depends on how long you plan to go. If you say 2 weeks, then you start to think of home after 10-12 days. If you say 4 months, then it's after 3.5 months. 
  • It's more fun to travel over land to appreciate the changing scenery and culture, rather than fly in and out. In my overland travels from Europe to Asia, I got a lot more accustomed to gradual changes than I did flying in and out of Latin America in 5 separate trips. (It's also cheaper not to fly, but most people lack the time...)
  • I began when communications were via expensive phone and slow mail. Now people have wifi and continuous status updates. In the old days, travelers would talk to each other and do things together. Now they are usually staring at screens and searching Yelp for restaurants. It's quite sad to see this "low intensity, low immersion" travel, but the locals are doing it too. 
  • As I get older, I prefer to have accommodation booked in advance, as that saves confusion on arrival and money/negotiation on costs. It's still best to travel with a back-pack (mine is a 70 liter water-everything-proof bag) rather than "wheelie" bag to (1) carry less and (2) carry easier.
  • The best way to see a city is to walk around and follow whatever is interesting. Guidebooks can be fun, but they take time to digest and sometimes mislead you with too many "well worth it" recommendations.
  • I find it's harder to revisit a place, as "we" have both changed and may not get along as well as  last time. That said, there are plenty of cities (and countries) that deserve to be explored in layers. Just don't get your hopes up that Paris will taste the same as it did when you were running down the Seine one dark night with a new friend and bottle of wine!
  • Personal recommendations are still the best way to find restaurants, fun neighborhoods, etc.
  • Everyone has their own risk-profile. Most risks are of the unknown, but some are foolish or dangerous. That said, your "nose for risk" will be keener when you've been in country for longer, know more locals, and have heard more stories. That said, most people are just as worried about you as you are about them, so chill out, trust your fear and take some chances.
  • When you're on the road for awhile -- backpacker style -- then you will meet lots of people. Some of them you talk with over tea; others may be travel or cuddle buddies. Many you will never see again. That's not a bug but a feature: it's handy to be friendly with strangers. You can have deeper relationships when you're likely to see the person multiple times per year (i.e., where you live).
  • The best part about talking with strangers is that you can take the time to understand them. People these days are too quick to criticize others because they use social media in a rush -- which sucks for understanding -- rather than talking face-to-face over a few drinks. Try the old school method. (If you do it in bar or cafe with a stranger, then make sure you remind them you're not a serial killer but actually in the place to chat with others!)
  • Travel in the countryside either involves walking (trekking in Nepal), transport (riding atop a Pakistani lorry), riding (to the Kyrgyz highlands), or driving a car (and getting stuck on the wrong road to the hotspring in California). I prefer cities (and walking) because there's more human density, but it's also nice to really get into nature some times.**
Bottom Line: I've enjoyed travel for the insights and knowledge it has given me about myself and the world we live in. People are amazing in their kaleidoscopic variety as well as their shared humanity. We could all live a little easier if we valued and respected people (and the environment that sustains us) as much as we value our lives at home.

* Here they are! Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Canada, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen

** It's not like Nature is trying to kill you, but "survival of the fittest" is a thing. As humans, we have the tendency to want to conquer Nature and kill everything that threatens us, but this intolerant "them or me" perspective has led to a lot of damage and kept us from taking a more benign path that would be better for us. Ecosystems produce a lot of life, beauty and value amidst all the killing :)

7 comments:

  1. Happy Birthday, David!

    I turned 40 in July and appreciate the opportunity to get some good travel perspective from someone who's been on the journey a little longer. Cheers!

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    1. Everyone follows a different path but there are some common pitfalls ;)

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  2. Happy Birthday, David! This is a great post with some incredible wisdom. I have never seen the value of travel so well articulated. The Galactic Council would be lucky to have your input.

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    1. Just buy my ticket, and I'm there! ;)

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  3. Nice post David. Have you ever wavered in your desire to have a kid enough to seriously consider it?

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    1. @Damian -- Nope, never. When I was in my 20s, I *wanted* 5 kids but only because I had some notion that it would perhaps be more fun than my childhood, as a single kid in a divorced household. But that childhood also gave me ZERO tools for raising a family (I later realized), so it was a fantasy. The decision to not have kids is something that I affirm weekly, if not more often, as I try to "do as much as I can" in my own life.

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