Earlier today I walked off a boat and onto land. There is nothing particularly special about that other than this was, for me, a special step. For I was stepping on land in my 100th country—The Gambia in West Africa.
It seems a natural time to reflect on what all these miles and experiences over my 53 and a half years have meant. First of all, it strikes me, “Is this is an achievement at all…or simply the result of a man with too much disposable income and too much free time?”
So very few people in this world have the opportunity to travel. My travels have taught me that. Through travel I have been exposed to the plight of the destitute in Calcutta and Kabul and of the oppressed in today’s North Korea and yesterday’s Romania.
The utter grandeur of our natural world has left me breathless. None more so than the overwhelming assault on the senses that occurs upon being next to Iguazu Falls in South America—the deafening noise, the heavy mist, the sun, the butterflies, and the multiple rainbows in the mist. Talk about feeling small and insignificant.
I have marveled at a lioness and her cubs under the puffy clouds of Kenya; floated in the salty, smelly water of the Dead Sea in Israel; flown over the majestic mountains of New Zealand’s South Island; and felt compelled to stop and get out of the car along a busy section of Interstate 70 one late afternoon with my father in my native Kansas to drink in a magnificent double rainbow.
Travel has taught me grit, especially in my younger days when travelling on the cheap meant staying in crowded hostels and enduring bumpy and dusty bus rides. Eating the free food on planes was a luxury.
I’ve had to figure out how to communicate when languages didn’t mesh, how to avoid being ripped off on the canals of Bangkok, where to sleep at midnight in Tulsa when the town was full, and how to get my weary, out-of-shape body to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
To travel is to trust. In most of my 100 countries I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the customs and was there in a time before the resources of the internet were available on your phone. I was like a baby—completely reliant on others.
Some dozen years ago, my girlfriend and I were driving on a dirt road in a very remote part of Costa Rica. We were unsure of our path and I was relieved to come upon an old man walking on the side of the road. I knew he would not speak English so I simply pronounced, as best I could, the name of our desired village. The gentleman pointed in a direction; I said a heartfelt “Gracias,”; we went on our way.
My girlfriend then asked me something that had never crossed my mind, “How do you know he didn’t purposely point us in the wrong direction?” After a long pause all I could mutter was, “To travel is to trust.” My trust was deep-seated and powerful—built on having heeded directions all over the world from so many people just like this poor, uneducated man. Ten minutes later we arrived in our desired village. To travel is to trust.
My travels have convinced me that it is human nature to want to help. Hundreds of times I have been helped by strangers who I will never see again and who will receive no financial benefit. They have recommended restaurants, warned me of potential hazards, changed my flat tire, and provided insights into their culture. The few times I have run into those wishing to take advantage of me, it has been those who approached me. I have never been led astray by just going up to someone and asking for help. After our interaction, I often sense their pleasure in having helped a person in need.
Obviously, I love to dream about, plan, and go on trips to destinations near and far. Nonetheless, it has been through travel that I have come to appreciate the subtle, yet ultimately more satisfying joys of home. Home, it’s where the food is familiar, the language flows, people know you, and the bed is comfortable. So it is both understandable and ironic that this traveler’s favorite saying, only able to be whispered quietly to himself on certain special mornings, whether he’s been away two days or six months is, “Today, I’m going home.”
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