My first international travel experience came in a form familiar to many recent college graduates in the United States – taking ‘time off’ between completing one’s education and whatever was to come next. Like others before and since, I would use this opportunity to backpack across Europe for as long as my meager savings could carry me. I recall staring at my airline ticket in anticipation as though it were some secret key to another world, and I would excitedly mark off the days leading up to my first transatlantic flight. Date of travel: September 12, 2001.
The devastating and tragic events of the previous day gave way to an unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety in the U.S. and around the world, and, despite mass airport closures and flight cancellations, my own plans were delayed just eight days. Now several years later, and having been fortunate enough to continue traveling throughout my adult life, I have countless incredible experiences and wonderful memories to be thankful for. Somehow, though, those eight days at home affected me more – and have informed my perspective on travel more significantly – than any of my journeys or adventures.
It was a time of massive speculation imbued with fear, and differing opinions on travel safety ran rampant. Friends and family protested my departure as rumors about the ‘dangers of being American’ abroad were circulating wildly. I had to decide: stay home amidst a culture of fear and wait for the unknown to happen, or seek out and embrace the unknown in an attempt toward a greater understanding. In the maelstrom of emotion that informed that time, and in assessing my own feelings and the feelings of my loved ones, while closely monitoring world events as they unfolded each day, I committed myself to a simple travel philosophy that I follow to this day: 1. Be as informed as possible; 2. Don’t be afraid of the world.
In the end, I took that trip and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The experience was life-changing and I encountered sights and sounds beyond my imagination as I made my way to over 30 countries in 10 months. More importantly, I met people – lots of people – many of whom have become lifelong friends. We communicated across cultures, ate and laughed together, exchanged ideas, and shared our fears and hopes for the future during troubled times. Far from cultural prejudice or feelings of anxiety surrounding global politics, what I overwhelmingly found in each new destination was warmth, acceptance and a mutual curiosity.
Such opportunities for genuine cultural exchange are more than good fun, more than ‘travel stories’ to be retold. They are precious moments in time where knowledge and understanding can embolden us against fear, against hate. There is a transcendent confidence born of these interactions that stays with you, pushing you on to each new adventure and perpetually challenging you to ask new questions of yourself and of the world. In some small way these moments not only change us as individuals, but can more broadly challenge social and cultural stereotypes and ultimately subvert misinformation and biases, be they interpersonal or global in scale.
Now, like then, times are uncertain. Now, perhaps more than ever, being an informed and responsible traveler is a necessity. No matter how well researched and meticulously planned my subsequent journeys have been, I have nevertheless encountered situations that required me to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, to think on my feet and to remain hyper aware of my surroundings. I’m hardly a thrill seeker and I don’t take unnecessary risks, but I also want to live vibrantly, to trust myself and my own experience, and to attempt to understand challenging places and situations firsthand whenever possible.
Ultimately, each person must negotiate their own level of comfort when it comes to choosing a travel destination. While I’d personally love to go everywhere, there are inevitably certain places at certain times that I will not venture to. However, there are other places and times where certain dangers are more perceived than actual, where the risks may be smaller than we are led to believe from a distance, but where the rewards can be immeasurable.
Economies particularly reliant on tourism, such as Turkey’s in the current historical moment, are often those most negatively affected by perceptions of danger. Egypt, too, has suffered of late as anxieties surrounding travel in that country have kept many potential adventurers from experiencing its awe-inspiring monuments and artifacts, as well as its rich and cosmopolitan contemporary culture.
Destinations such as these need the rest of the world to engage, to experience what they offer and to share what we as travelers can bring to them ourselves. Perhaps most crucially, they need us to share the entirety of our experience upon our return home with as many others as we can reach, be it in person in our own communities or through the global discourse online.
Options such as small group travel can often provide a support structure for travelers who, while perhaps not lacking in self-assuredness, may wish to navigate a destination with the social and logistical benefits of like-minded travelers and local leaders. Whether you choose to explore in a group or on your own, the important thing is to GO.
Fear is tempered by education, refined by experience and managed through confidence. There are times when the world’s trajectory makes this difficult to remember and there are times when the world would seemingly keep us apart from one another. These are also, often, the times when it is most important to leave home.
Break down barriers and go explore our big, beautiful world. Try a small group adventure with Intrepid Travel.