On this coming Christmas Day, it will really be 20 years. It was December 25th, 1999 when I boarded a flight from the US to Bangkok and, without knowing it at the time, began my life of travel.
Two crazy decades ago. Two unbelievable decades.
I still have an extremely difficult time believing everything I’ve experienced in every corner of the world over those past 7,300 days. I have a difficult time simply coming to terms with how my life has played out so far. It’s turned into something that I could never have anticipated no matter how wild I might have allowed my imagination to be.
Over the next few months, I’m going to share several blog posts about these 20 years of travel. I’ll open up and talk about as many aspects as I can that have shaped my life and who I am. I’ll also dive deep into each powerful travel lesson learned, the range of destinations I’ve visited, the endless people I’ve encountered and the infinite moments that are responsible for keeping me on the road for so long.
Today, however, I’m going to keep it simple.
An Important Travel Lesson
With only a couple of weeks left in 2019, I thought about what I wanted to share at this time of the year.
What I came up with is a small, but vital, lesson I’ve learned during my travels near and far.
I kindly ask you to stop and listen.
That’s the lesson. To stop and listen.
You see, I get frustrated with the world, just like most people. I get angry when I reflect on the direction things seem to be headed in when it comes to politics, travel and more. I get mighty upset when I read about hatred and nastiness and a lack of basic decency towards our fellow human beings.
Even writing that sentence, the muscles in my upper arm, those very same muscles that I rely on to tell me exactly when something is bothering me, instantly tense up.
It really pisses me off.
But at the end of the day, I know that no matter how upset I am, I still need to stop and listen.
When it comes to my blog, newsletter and social media, I’ve never been one to tackle ‘the issues’. Behind the scenes I most certainly do follow global politics and I most certainly care about many important issues that we face today. But my life has always been about travel and so, I’ve always focused on my actual travels and my travels only.
Besides, I honestly struggle at times to make sense of the gap between what I’ve learned during those travels and what I often read or hear in this vast, insane online media world that surrounds us every day.
Travel lesson #2: My travels have taught me that listening to others is the single most important thing we can do to solve issues.
Not to hate or scream or call people names or refuse to hear what others say.
The reason I’ve reached this conclusion is clear. We actually don’t have a full understanding of anything most of the time. So how can we claim to have the perfect answers?
The only way to have a more complete understanding of any topic or issue is to talk to other people who think differently than we do.
Stop and listen.
It breaks down barriers, fosters understanding, builds respect and teaches lessons, and ultimately, all of that is very necessary for figuring out the world’s problems.
Of course, I get it. It’s beyond difficult at times to do this. Some things we see and hear sound so horrible to us that we can’t imagine listening to another side. I’m personally appalled by many things I read about today and about particular people who simply refuse to treat others with respect.
And so, I can fall into the trap myself.
At times, I start doing the same thing I don’t like. I start classifying and labeling people, both those I read about and those I meet, all based on my own frustration at their attempts to classify others.
What a terrible cycle to be a part of. It results in me not wanting to meet people at all, sticking with only those who think like I do, becoming more close-minded and bringing other people down as well, all due to my own negative and narrow outlook.
I temporarily forget my own valuable lesson. Stop and listen.
Luckily, I realize my mistake when it does happen and I work on breaking out of that pattern as soon as possible.
Nobody is Right and Nobody is Wrong
When I’m thinking clearly, my brain doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend the idea that there is only one way to do something…‘our way‘.
The idea that anyone who doesn’t think or act ‘our way’ is so wrong that we need to tear them apart, is a disturbing one to me.
Such a mindset ends up putting us inside of a bubble.
It’s a bubble filled only with like-minded folk who hold like-minded beliefs and who all follow like-minded media outlets. It’s safe and it helps us avoid facing other perspectives that we are not comfortable with. When that happens though, our willingness to genuinely listen to others and enter into constructive discussions disappears almost instantly.
As I mentioned above, we then tend to use our own like-minded bubble to convince us that ‘our way’ is even more right and ‘their way’ is even more wrong.
Travel lesson #3: If travel has taught me something else, it’s this… Nobody is right. And nobody is wrong.
What we think is obvious, others think is crazy. What others think is ‘right’, we may think of as evil.
Everyone is just a different human being with a different set of life circumstances. There are ALWAYS very real and unignorable reasons why we all think and behave the way we do.
We don’t have to agree. But we do have to acknowledge the above. Only then can we stop and listen, debate with true purpose and create an inclusive framework for improving and protecting our lives, our countries, our communities, our planet and so on.
The Benefits of Such a Travel Lesson
Twenty years of travel…
Over that time, I’ve spoken with Buddhist monks in Cambodia and Taliban fighters in Pakistan, shop owners in Quito and taxi drivers in Nairobi, cafe workers in Playa del Carmen and dancers on cruise ships, rabbis in Cyprus and wine makers in Romania, farmers in New Zealand and musicians in Varanasi, the homeless and wealthy, the educated and uneducated and every kind of person in between.
Yes, try sitting on a patch of grass at 11:00pm in the mountains of Pakistan, talking with a group of young, heavily armed Taliban fighters who start off by saying that they hate Americans and Jews.
What if I told you that by the end of our encounter, we were all laughing as if we had been friends for years? What if I told you that we actually made some kind of attempt to discuss their believes and mine, in a respectful way?
Believe me, that will teach you a few life lessons quite quickly. When I learned exactly where their beliefs come from and when I saw their faces as they tried to understand why I didn’t believe the same things, I’d say that night was worthwhile for everyone involved. It ended in mutual understanding and an absurd amount of hugs and handshakes.
We can fight wars and bomb the hell out of people but to me, stopping and listening is where it’s at. It’s where the solution can be found.
All the travel experiences I’ve had since 1999 have shaped my life and who I am. I am me because of the infinite perspectives that I’ve encountered, all the fascinating circumstances I’ve learned about, all of the different (and sometimes difficult) views that I’ve been forced to try and understand and all of the genuine human beings who have been willing to share their little corner of the world with me.
Had I been in some kind of small bubble over those past 20 years instead, I have no doubt that I would think quite differently about the world and about myself.
As far as I’m concerned, thank goodness I got on that plane back in 1999.
Travel lesson #4: Here’s the beauty of it all…those twenty years of travel have shown me that we all really need each other.
Trust me on that.
To make progress, everyone needs everyone else, even those we don’t agree with. It’s the only way to take a serious problem, find some common ground and turn it around.
So, with the end of the year and the end of the decade now upon us, let’s see if we can focus on popping the bubbles and melting the walls that divide us. The result will be greater understanding, greater unity and a greater desire to work together to actually get stuff done so that we can all (planet Earth included) live better lives.
That shall be the focus of my 2020. Stop and listen.