I can point to the moment I was first cursed with the travel bug. It was 1979 and my whole family traveled to New Zealand to spend a year. It was an odd arrangement that seemed perfectly natural to me. My father was a Presbyterian minister and had managed to exchange pulpits with a minister in Auckland, New Zealand. So the whole family packed up and traded homes, cars and churches for a year.
We landed in Auckland and my life was never the same. I went to Mount Roskill Grammar school. I learned to play rugby, cricket and tennis. I discovered BBC comedies and ate new and delicious food. We went to the beach and I learned to body surf, we traveled the entire country of New Zealand and I didn’t want to leave when the year was over. When I came back to the US, I was changed. I could no longer view the world from a strictly American viewpoint. When I watched the news I wondered what was happening in New Zealand (a country at that time that was hardly known in the US.) The internet did not exist and I felt like I was living in a world with blinders on. I hadn’t yet read Plato’s allegory of the cave, but if I had, I might have felt like someone else understood me. Sure, there was Mork and Mindy but I missed Faulty Towers and rugby and cricket and the beach and climbing Mount Eden and the slower pace of life in the South Pacific.
These were thoughts I knew I should not utter aloud. As an American, I had a duty to believe that my country was the greatest country ever established on the face of the Earth and if I didn’t believe that then I should march on off to Russia and live in a gulag. I had trouble swallowing this because New Zealand had damaged my brain. I could no longer see the world as the US and then a bunch of moron countries that survived simply because we decided to allow them to exist.
Travel has a way of damaging your brain. Travel is a Pandora’s Box. Once the spirits of travel are let free you cannot put them back. Which brings me to one factoid that is troubling to me: In 2011 only 30% of Americans held passports. (Good thing we don’t need passports to invade countries. Cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.) As a comparison, 60% of Canadians and 75% of UK citizens have passports. The US certainly has a lot to see, but if 70% of Americans never leave the country there is a problem.
I began thinking about this the other day when my son and daughter started to talk about missing Europe. We are not a wealthy family, but we have traveled to Europe as a family twice. I’m sure there are people who think it was a complete waste of our hard earned money, but I have always believed in investing in memories instead of things. I also believe that there is no better learning experience than traveling. You can always read about places or watch Youtube videos, but travel brings more meaning to what you read and how you think.
Would the US be a better country if more Americans traveled? I believe so. Would the world be a better place if more Americans traveled? I believe so. We misunderstand a good portion of the world and the world misunderstands us. Americans might be more willing to change their perspectives on education, health care, transportation and military spending if we traveled more. Ignorance of the world only breeds fear and fear makes us reluctant to change. I am proposing that we take the money Newt Gingrich wants to spend on a moon base and instead of sending 1,300 Americans to the moon, we send 13 million Americans to another country for a month. It couldn’t hurt.