How Traveling Shatters Your Rigid Mental Frameworks
“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective."
When's the last time you looked down and admired the tiles on the floor of a new place you were visiting? Yeah, me neither.
But my grandfather did.
My 70-year-old grandfather visited the United States for the first time two weeks ago. When we were exploring New York City, he paused in the middle of Brookfield Place and looked down.
He pointed to the tiles and proceeded to wonder who did the flooring, marveled at how long it probably took them to complete the project, and explained to me why these particular tiles were so remarkable.
Travel guru Rick Steves says traveling “wallops your ethnocentricity,” “carbonates your experience,” and “rearranges your cultural furniture.”
In the last year, our cultural furniture has been collecting dust and remained fairly untouched as we've dealt with the suffocating feeling of quarantining on the couch. As things begin to open up, I was extremely excited about exploring new places with a newfound sense of appreciation and wonder.
There’s a book I love called “The Geography of Bliss,” in which a longtime foreign correspondent for NPR travels to some of the world’s happiest places. He explains how travel has the capacity to shake us up, to jostle our souls. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“I believe, now more than ever, in the transformative promise of geography. Change your location, and you just may change yourself. It’s not that distant lands contain some special ‘energy’ or that their inhabitants possess secret knowledge (though they may) but rather something more fundamental: By relocating ourselves, reorienting ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place, we give ourselves permission to be different people.”
We're currently traveling, and like my grandfather, I'm finding joy in the tiniest things — cheese pastries, outdoor cafes, and lively streets after a year of lockdowns.
For me, travel has always been a completely immersive experience. You’re alert, your senses are engaged, and you find yourself looking at the world with fresh eyes. But my favorite part of traveling has nothing to do with cheese pastries or cafes. It has to do with something much more abstract: The realization that "normal" is just an illusion.
Steves once said that people who don’t travel often think their way of life is the norm (ie: Americans say the British drive on the "wrong" side of the road. No, they just drive on the other side of the road). In the United States, sitting on the toilet is normal. In other cultures, squatting over a hole is the norm.
"Americans are experts at thinking they're normal," Steves says. "But ethnocentrism isn't just an American thing. Big cultures tend to be ethnocentric."
There is no "right" or "normal" way to do anything in this life, and that is so liberating. "I am changed when I recognize that," he says. "I'm humbled. It's pretty nice to travel with a mindset where you're humbled."
That’s why leaving your home country for a few days or weeks can act as a reset, allowing you to get a more wide view of the world beyond the rigid mental walls you’ve built over the years.
“Travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective," Steves says.
Approach travel with a lens of curiosity rather than fear. Develop a "traveler's mindset." Aim to experience culture shock. Break bread with the locals. And of course, don't forget to marvel at the simplest things like the tiles you're walking on.
I'll leave you with the words of the late renegade chef Anthony Bourdain: "Travel isn't always pretty. It isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's OK. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."