I saw this open letter (all italicized portions of this post) from Henry Rollins on Facebook the other day.
I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and to to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya…
I was reminded of the value of travel when young — how my own experiences tore me open and changed me — made me realize that I was a tiny microcosm in a big world full of people and wonder and sorrow and challenge. I saw how my passport — just showing the cover of an American passport — allowed me free passage from country to country in Europe when those with darker skin or less desirable places of origin had their belongings torn apart with obvious suspicion.
Granted the ease with which I traveled may be due to the fact that it was thirty years ago. Pre-Lockerbie and underwear bombers and the generalized rage that has grown like a cancer around the globe. But even then, I saw life on earth completely differently as a result of seeing how different people were treated or mistreated. I started to care about human rights, women’s rights, politics, and social problems. I started to see that not every woman was as fortunate or blessed as I was.
Have your mind blown, eat interesting food, dig some interesting people, have an adventure, be careful.
And I realize now, that traveling the world at the age of 18 was one of the best things I ever did for myself.
Instead of starting college wide-eyed and fresh from high school, I got a job waiting tables and saved my tips for six months. Then I got on a Pan Am jet and flew to London where I lived for four and a half months. After that, I traveled throughout Britain for a month, and then crossed the channel and went to Western Europe. From the southern tip of Italy, I took a ferry to Greece. After a week there, I boarded a train through Yugoslavia into Venice, Italy. I finally trekked back to London through the Port of Calais to fly back to the States two weeks later.
Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is.
I was in London when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. I was there as garbage piled up and petrol workers went out on strike. I was there while IRA bombs routinely went off in tube stations. I saw how desperate people were — for work, for dignity, for a chance at a better life.
Music, culture, food, water.
I stayed in a YWCA in central London for $35 a week. There was a communal bathroom with a claw foot tub. Showering involved standing in a few lukewarm streams of water. There was a small heater in my room. It cost five pence to turn it on for five minutes. If I was cold — which I was a lot that winter — I had to go to a common room (where there was one old TV and some chairs) and sit there — or pay to heat up my little room. It was about 5 feet across and ten feet long. It had a twin bed and a wooden chair. I ate too much white bread and butter. Too much fried food. Too much dessert. But I was happy — living with girls from Australia and New Zealand and Nigeria and South Africa. There were girls from the north of England, from France, from Germany.
Your showers will become shorter. You’re going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. It’s not what Tom Friedman writes about, I’m sorry.
I loved looking into the faces of those young women and asking them questions about life. They, in turn, asked me if people in the U.S. still used covered wagons. I told them they needed to stop watching so much Little House on the Prairie. We ate crisps and drank orange shandy. They knew much more about the American political system than I did. Those girls — those worldly young women — made me value education. In lots of ways, my journey toward teaching for a living began at Goldsmith House in Regents Park, Mornington Crescent, London all those years ago.
You’re going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking for 12 miles for four buckets of water.
I remember being thirsty for hours because I boarded a train in Athens without changing any of my currency. I had no Yugoslavian money, so I had to get by with bread, cheese, a few oranges and warm mineral water. When the train pulled into Belgrade twenty eight hours later, I got off to fill that empty bottle with water. A young man helped me. For that, he expected sexual favors. Luckily, several women wearing dark head scarves and dresses pulled me into their train compartment when I re-boarded the train for Venice. Six of us — four older women from Yugoslavia, a young Swiss woman with pigtails, and I — shared the compartment. Those women screamed at that young man and shooed him away. Again and again on that trip, I experienced the kindness and protection of total strangers.
And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of the flight. A lot of people — Americans and Europeans — come back and go, “Ohhhhhhhh.” And the light bulb goes on.
Yes, for me that light went on thirty years ago. Travel. Funky-walk-about-get-your-hands-dirty-experience-the-local-color kind of travel should be a prerequisite for life as an adult. Once you see those faces and hear their stories, you are changed. Once you experience the profound kindness, strangeness, hopefulness, and even the understandable fears of the “other,” you can never again think about any living person as being less important than you are. You know they are just like you.
© 2012 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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