Why travel sucks — but why we need it more than ever

Leaving home isn’t easy, but it is our best chance to make the world a more understanding place

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“The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

In all of my life, I have never found a quote or passage so relatable. I first discovered these words while reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho on a crowded bus to Cuenca, Ecuador. Trying to block out the extremely loud sound of the Spanish-dubbed Tom Cruise movie blaring from the television at the front, I read the line again and again, trying to soak up its meaning.

To me, those drops of oil represent people, and I have learned the hard way that it is extremely difficult to balance seeing all of the marvels of the world — traveling, if you will — while still taking attentive care of the relationships you have elsewhere on the planet. After all, you cannot enjoy being fully present while on the road if you are constantly glued to your phone. But on the other hand, you won’t have much of a coming-home party if you forget about everyone while you’re away, either.

While this balance may be fairly easy to strike during a two-week vacation, it becomes increasingly difficult the longer you are away from home. Whether you are gone for a semester, a year or even longer, you are faced with the tough decision of how deeply to engage with your two different worlds — the world right in front of you and the world that is only one click away.

To illustrate the extremes on either end of the spectrum, let me share two stories.

While traveling last winter, I was lucky enough to befriend three girls from Hippie Island, Canada — a new name I have just created — but a scarily accurate one based on their stories. They lived some of the most intriguing lives I had ever heard of. Basically, each of them spent about half of their year working either on a boat or at a polar bear lodge and then spent a good chunk of the other half vagabonding around different parts of the world. Sounds pretty cool, right?

What struck me most about the three of them — outside of their cool gigs, of course — was how detached they were from the rest of the world. They were rarely on their phones and very seldom used social media. In fact, one of them just made an Instagram for the first time! While they were traveling, they wanted a full-on, immersive experience free of distractions. They preferred to enjoy the marvels of the world and didn’t really mind if the oil or perhaps even the spoon itself slipped from their grasp.

On the other hand, I have another friend who chose to give up the opportunity to spend a year gazing at the world’s wonders in order to fully focus on the drops of oil in her spoon. She was accepted to a program at her school that would have enabled her to take classes while touring a number of Asian countries for a year, but she decided that — given where she was in life — she would rather focus on continuing to build a community in her new home at school. She hopes and plans to travel later in life, but at the time of her decision she felt her drops of oil calling her more strongly than the Great Wall or the Angkor Wat.

Ultimately, there is no right answer as to how to balance these two things. While these two stories exemplify the two extremes, most people will fall somewhere in the middle. Everyone allocates their time and energy differently and there is nothing wrong with that. But no matter what you choose, there are tradeoffs you will have to live with, and that sucks.

Yes, that is right. Travel sucks.

Travel sucks because it forces you to make the tough decision to extricate yourself from your own community and jump into the global one. Travel sucks because it adds a new element into your life that you need to balance with all of the rest. Travel sucks because it challenges you in ways you may have never even considered possible. Travel sucks because it is hard.

But even though travel sucks, we need it now more than ever.

While I was down in Peru over winter break, I met an older American couple. Both now retired, they spend three months of the year traveling internationally much like a college student would do — staying in hostels and roaming wherever the wind blows them. After my accent gave me away, they were shocked to discover that I was from the U.S. They said they don’t meet many fellow Americans on the road.

We sat and talked about a number of topics, but eventually our conversation settled on the general state of the world as well as our country more specifically. Our meeting came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s comments regarding the “s—thole” countries of the world, so this concept weighed heavily on our minds as we lamented about how few people actually leave America’s borders and dispel their irrational fear of humans who simply speak another language or worship without a Christmas tree.

Before parting, the woman reached over and placed her hand on my shoulder, clutching tightly. With tears in her eyes and emotion in her voice, she told me she wanted to say one more thing before leaving — “Thank you.” She thanked me for nothing more than taking the time to travel, seeing the world and encouraging others to do the same.

I was taken aback. To be quite honest, I have always viewed — and still do view — travel as a selfish activity. Travel is such a privilege! How lucky are we that we can pick a point thousands of miles away on a map and go there with little to no hassle? I believe that it is so important to recognize how rare that opportunity is and how advantaged we are for having the ability to do so.

However, through her gratitude, this woman challenged me to see another side of travel — a more altruistic angle. Though travel forces us to sacrifice time with friends and family, it inserts us into a global community — sparking interactions with people and ideas that we never would have otherwise encountered. And given recent news headlines all around the world, those interactions are more vital now than ever.

Ultimately, travel is the gift that keeps on giving — when done well. Though we cannot all hop on a plane and leave our responsibilities for extended periods of time, travelers can use their experiences to give meaning to others by sharing stories, inspiring others to embark on adventures of their own and — most importantly — dispelling the dangerous misconceptions that Americans have of various groups of people around the world.

Given the state of our country, we need travel now more than ever.

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