Travel, Stories and a World of Understanding
On a solo road trip, driving at night from New York City to Cape Cod, I was listening to the fantastic National Public Radio available in the U.S. I’m not sure what the program was but I was sure to note the person being interviewed. Chimamanda Adichie was speaking about the danger of a single story. (You can view her presentation on the topic in the TED Talk video on the right.)
She explained that when we are inundated with one story about a people via the media, those people become one-dimensional. They are all poor or uneducated or radical or, or, or… In fact, this is not possible. All cultures have their challenges and joys if we take the time to look.
It got me thinking about what Mark Twain said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
Why does travel strike a fatal blow to such problems? I believe it’s because it forces us to observe and integrate multiple stories about the people/nations we encounter.
The value of the many stories I gather as a traveler – not travel tales but the stories of the people I meet — inform my understanding of the world.
Next month, Meet Plan Go, an event to inspire and encourage long term travel (the type of travel that could never produce one single dangerous story) will be held on September 14th in 13 cities across North America. I’ve already written once on why this is such an important event in the post Should I Stay or Should I Go. The opportunity to gather a rich understanding of the world is another reason to attend Meet Plan Go and prepare for your trip of a lifetime.
To give you examples of how long term travel challenges the danger of the single story, I asked my fellow MPG hosts to give a short example of their own. I asked what surprises they encountered along the way. And how did travel produce multiple stories to round out their understanding of the world. Here are the responses.
Mike Cooney, Cooney World Adventure and host of MPG host of Orlando
During an around the world trek that ended in 2009, my family and I arrived in Vietnam with a predetermined view of communism, and left with a completely different opinion.
Vietnam’s form of capitalism would give any Western version a run for its money. The sheer number of “mom and pop” shops at the markets and along the streets is overwhelming. It proves that if given enough time, politics, ideology and overall quality of life can and does reach equilibrium. Vietnam is a great example of this phenomenon, which is powered by the human spirit, determination and patients. You can more at This is Not Your Father’s Communist Country.
Kirk Horsted, BreakAway and host of MPG Minneapolis
Whenever I return, folks ask, “What was the best thing about your big trip?” They don’t get it. They want only the “single story.” (Or—more likely—they just want me to shut up!)
Several weeks on the island of Grenada in three distinctly different locations inspires endless stories. Grenada is third-world, but the residents are rich with food, history, wisdom, and love.
In my mind’s eye, I see a colorful blur of fishing, swimming, sailing. Eating giant starfruit, armadillo, and stews. Lounging with locals, sailors, and Europeans. Being white on a black island yet feeling no fear. Finding new friends, rhythms, and bliss.
Jeff Jung, Career Break Secrets and host of MPG Austin. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube
I arrived to my eco-camp in the Ecuadorean Amazon after the three-hour boat trip down the Napo river. This wasn’t a must-do trip for me but I found a cheap last-minute deal and decided, why not? At that point of my trip, I hadn’t been on the road very long and the thought of communing with the Amazon rainforest and its spiders, snakes and who knew what else did not thrill me. But, I also felt I needed to step out of my comfort zone.
Despite being welcomed by a large tarantula hanging out above my bed, I didn’t want to leave the camp on my fourth and final day. When the tarantula was escorted out of my cabin, so too was my squeamishness. Not only did I commune with nature, I marveled at it. Being surrounded by ants, monkeys, birds, butterflies, caiman and pirana renewed me rather than intimidated me. I learned that many of the assumptions I carry around are irrational and I’ll never know which ones are unless I challenge them head on.
Michaela Potter, Briefcase to Backpack and co-host of MPG New York City.
“I knew very little about Laos before venturing there on my 2007 career break. But having spent time in the chaotic-ness of Cambodia and Vietnam in previous travels, I didn’t expect to find the people of Laos so warm, funny, laid-back, and intelligent. Because it is not a popular destination in SE Asia, I was surprised by how many people we interacted with who had a great grasp of the English language – even better than most people in tourist-rich Thailand. Even tribe people, whose first language wasn’t even Lao, not only understood English, but also understood our sense of humor, which is often lost in translation. And waiters/students whose yearly income was $25 understood US economic policies better than I ever would. Just goes to show that you don’t have to be rich (or come from a rich nation) to strive for better education and global understanding. How many Americans even know where Laos is, or that it is the most bombed nation in the world to have never been at war because of America?
Sherry Ott, Briefcase to Backpack and co-host of MPG New York City. Blog – Ottsworld + Global Photography On Twitter @Ottsworld
First of all I think that long term travel really only challenges the danger of the single story if you are willing to get open up your mind to accepting the alternate stories. It takes traveling slowly; having your stereotypes be challenged; being observant. I still remember the first time I traveled in a Muslim country and I went into a Mosque and thinking, how could all of these people be ‘wrong’; whole countries can’t be ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. The same thought struck me when I went to Asia and saw all of the Buddhists. It made me really start to think about religion and what the core beliefs are. Here’s the kicker…we all really want the same thing; happiness, safety, family, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.
My biggest surprise in uncovering a culture and breaking down stereotypes was when I was in China. I had been traveling there for about 3 weeks, and it finally dawned on me – I never saw anyone eating a fortune cookie, nor selling one, nor referring to one. I asked my guide why I never saw fortune cookies thinking maybe they were only seen in certain provinces of China. He then told me that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese! Wait a minute…they have to be Chinese…right? Not so – most of the research actually tracks their creation back to the US and San Francisco to be exact.
Travel is the best education possible. In the 4 years I’ve been doing it, I feel like my brain is a sponge, taking in new sites, smells, rituals that I never even knew about.
Lisa Lubin, LLWorldTour and host of MPG Chicago
One of my travel stories is not location specific. It affects all societies. Homelessness. While traveling in London, I volunteered for a week between Christmas and New Years with Crisis Christmas, an amazing program that not only shelters people in need during the holidays, but also provides fun, medical attention, and just simple human contact. I loved it. We often think of the homeless as drunk or destitute people that just don’t try hard enough. By spending a week with ‘these people’ I could see for myself that they were truly from all walks of life, all kinds, and going through all different kinds of struggles. In just a few days, I knew many by name and they were now my friends. It was an amazing experience, one I will never forget and the main reason thousands of volunteers go back every single year. You can read more in Lisa’s post “The True Meaning of Christmas”.
Alisha, Small World Pursuits and co-host of MPG Dallas. Twitter: @alishaamr
I wanted to find out for myself about a part of the world I had never explored. I made my decision to go to South America. Chimamanda Adichie speaks about hearing how poor a family was, and that it was impossible for her to see them as anything but poor. I felt the same way here in The States. Always, I had heard only stories of poverty and misfortune in South America. I only had single stories. I soon realized that all we have are merely notions of what we think about others when there is no experience. I was surprised by the hospitality, education level, willingness to learn, the quality of life that most were able to live. It’s a pity that for so long I had misperceived notions. I have stories of people, of religions, of holidays, of truth. This is the reason I travel. For freedom, for understanding, to constantly round out my understanding of the world.
Elizabeth Pagano, Your Sabbatical and co-host of MPG Atlanta
“I sailed away on a small boat with my mother at age 31, looking for answers to my life’s questions at the time – Should I marry? What work am I called to do? Will children add joy? We sailed for six months, and I never found the answers. In fact, I returned to land life with more questions than I’d left with. But I also returned with a widened and deeper perspective of the world, as well as greater self-confidence. And that’s really what I needed all along.” Read more.
Lillie Marshall, AroundTheWorldL.com and host of MPG Boston.
I’m a Boston Public Schools teacher of 6 years, and Boston schools and students were all I knew. Then I took a leave of absence from BPS to travel around the world for 9 months, and spent 3 of those months volunteer teaching in Ghana. What an eye-opener as an educator and an American! The students and teachers I worked with in Ghana were the best I’ve encountered in my life: hard-working, respectful, kind, and incredibly sincere. I returned to Boston with new, sky-high standards for what excellence in learning and teaching looks like.
For those dreaming about long term travel, Meet Plan Go is an opportunity to MEET inspirational speakers and like-minded travelers; get motivation, contacts and resources to PLAN the trip of a lifetime; and start taking concrete steps forward to GO on that global adventure. It’s a free event. Please go to Meet Plan Go to find an MPG event near you. Though it is free, registration is required.