When it comes to traveling both abroad and domestically, it’s best to “leave a place better than you found it.” This comment is often made in regards to cleanliness, community service, supporting local businesses, or eco-tourism/sustainability efforts; and in my opinion, is one of the most important things a traveler should remember. After all, it is one thing to visit a place and another to respect it.
But there is another goal of equal importance, which is to “leave a place as a better person than when you arrived.” I have yet to visit a new place without leaving a little more enlightened or changed for the better, and I hope that continues to be a common theme throughout my travels.
The United States
“Don’t take anything for granted and risk missing out on what is right in front of you.”
Being from New York, it’s very easy to fall into a mindset that you are living in the center of the universe. For the longest time my primary goal was traveling internationally as much as I possibly could. Fortunately, between spontaneous road trips and East Coast adventures, I have fallen in love with so many corners of my own country.
I remember a time when I swore I could live in no other state but New York, but then I spent a week in the mountains of Vermont. I used to think the most worthwhile part of the south was Florida, but then I spent a weekend exploring Savannah, Georgia and went on an eleven hour road trip to Myrtle Beach with six people squashed into an economy sized car. My must-visit list of places has only grown throughout the years, only now there are a few more spots from my own backyard.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” – Seneca
After overestimating both how much I needed to pack for Paris and my own strength, I decided to give up on my idea of taking the RER to Charles de Gaulle and request an Uber. My driver was hands-down one of the most accommodating drivers I had during my entire stay, offering water bottles, mints, and attempting conversation despite my super-broken French and his broken English. We went back and forth; him asking how I enjoyed Paris and where I was headed to next, and me asking how long he had lived here. But the part of our conversation that really made my stomach churn came when I asked where he was originally from.
“I’m from Lebanon, but it’s okay! I’m Christian, it’s okay!”
What bothered me the most about this proclamation was the series of could-be scenarios that played in my head; those of close-minded people who may have made a remark, or did something that made this man feel a need to ensure me or anyone of his religion. I wanted to tell him that he never had to explain himself, his origin, or his beliefs to anyone. I wanted to tell him about how awesome yet absurdly diverse my family was in terms of background and religion. Instead, I told him about a friend I had who was currently spending part of the summer visiting family in Lebanon, and how she had described how beautiful a country it was; this led to him excitedly telling me more about Lebanon with as much enthusiasm as when I talk about New York City to those who have never been there.
“You may not have everything that you want but you have everything that you need.”
There are certain moments and places that not only make you and your problems feel minuscule, but also challenge the traditional “more is best” mindset. One of my favorite parts of my trip to Nicaragua was our time spent with families, community leaders, and activists who gave us insight on certain community issues, such as the lack of school supplies in low-economic schools, to controversial issues like the building of the Nicaraguan Canal.
What amazed me about a majority of the people we met was their level of generosity, not only in tangible items, but in time. Whether it was offering a mango, or a meal, wisdom, or a learning experience, there was no shortage even from those who may have felt they have less to offer. It is said commonly, but this trip was easily one of the most humbling experiences, and taught me that material goods don’t always lighten the burden on your shoulders but can often just make for a heavier load.
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke
Being that a portion of my family background traces back to Ireland, I immediately felt a connection to the country. Our first full day was spent touring the Jeanie Johnston, one of the ships that brought approximately 2,500 emigrants to the New World during the mid-1800s; and exploring EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum of Dublin. While Dublin isn’t as small a city as many may think, we ended up having the same taxi driver, Patrick, three different times during our stay. We had a succession of great conversations with Patrick, but the most memorable was when he spoke about the first time he visited New York City during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. He had the displeasure of overhearing a group of young Americans, who repeatedly bragged about their Irish roots, making derogatory terms towards other folks enjoying the parade.
“It almost seemed as if they thought they were more Irish than the Irish; But hearing them jeer at people the way we were once jeered at, you can tell they don’t know much about their history at all.”
Throughout history, we have seen great strides both socially and politically; but how often do we experience or read about an event, debate, or conflict that seems oddly similar to those of the past? While a group of close-minded kids may not seem like a significant enough problem to warrant fear , we cannot forget that those same kids will eventually be the adults whose actions could potentially have a negative effect on society.
“Spread positivity everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
Being from New York, there can be a very noticeable shift in outward friendliness when visiting new places. This isn’t to say that New Yorkers aren’t kind and amiable, but it can often be overshadowed by our fast-paced walking and eyes set on the closest coffee spot.
Canada has always been synonymous with the term “friendly.” Obviously, one shouldn’t rely on stereotypes as “friendly” isn’t a characteristic exclusive to a country’s population; but in my experience across the border, Canada is home to some of the most casually kind people. Coming to intersections, we were almost always greeted by a smiling driver waving us to go on first, which is definitely not the type of road manners seen elsewhere. I have lost count of how many times a friend has responded to “How was your trip?” with “The people are so nice.” However, spending the holiday season in a place where many people greet you or smile when passing, or dining at a restaurant where the host tries to make actual conversation during a wait truly was an added benefit to our trip. There is something about beginning each day greeted by kindness, that set us on the right track for the rest of the day, and made us want to spread the positivity as well.
“Joy comes to us in ordinary moments. We risk missing out when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.” – Brene Brown
Being the Type-A traveler that I am, I generally have a pretty detailed day-to-day itinerary planned out months before I even leave for a trip. And still, the most memorable day of my time in London was the second half of our final day, where we toned down on our New York walking pace and strolled slowly along the River Thames without a final destination. By this point in our trip we had passed the Palace of Westminster at least a dozen times, even making numerous photography stops. But that afternoon, the sky was streaked in gold and the silhouette of the Elizabeth Tower looked more spectacular than it had our entire stay.
In retrospect, none of these lessons are mind-blowing realizations; And I would like to believe many are ideals that most people hold. However, coming to a realization in the midst of a real-life situation can really put things into perspective and catapult you into actively making changes in your life. These changes may be life changing, or they may urge you to put a focus on something you already make an effort to do, like treating everybody with kindness and understanding.
There are a multitude of reasons why people travel; some are superficial, some people just want to be as far away from their cubicle as they possibly can. But others, myself included, travel to grow and to learn a bit more about ourselves as well as the world and people around us. It may just be a pipe dream, but I’d like to think that this new era of young people traveling more often will lead to the most open-minded, self-realized generation yet.