Why Americans should travel more

Why American should travel more

AKA “Why patriotism perplexes me”

Years ago I met an elderly man, extraordinarily proud of being American, and eager to announce it. Pride of nationality often makes me curious, so I asked why. His answer astounded me.

Hauling supplies up the mountain to the bar.
There’s clearly something very “special” about being a Slovakian too.

“There’s something very special about being an American.”

Again I asked why, to which he answered “we have created a system in which a person can go from the very bottom to the very top.” When I asked him if he was aware this is true of Canada as well, he responded by saying he didn’t know, and was unfit to comment.

My silence was my only response for a moment, perplexed as I was at the inherent hypocrisy of his simultaneous declaration of knowledge and ignorance. “How can you say we have greater social mobility if you don’t know what it’s like in other countries?”

He couldn’t respond.

So are morals drawn by lines in the sand?

To my unapologetically rational point of view, the United States is much like any other country on Earth, an arbitrary border finalized by historical accident, whose citizens have no claim to superiority due to coincidental birth locale. Our rights do not make us better, nor do the actions of tyrants make mistreated citizens inferior. Ever hear anyone claim America is the greatest country in the world? I doubt they can even pronounce the competition.

Pula amphitheater, Croatia
They have CONCERTS here.

Nor has our country ever been the only frontier worth discovering, as many Americans seem to believe. “But there’s so much to see here!” is a common refrain.

The United States has no shortage of intrigue, of course. But to say this is a reason not to explore further is short-sighted and unfortunate. It’s the ones who go abroad who experience first-hand the difference between the United States and other countries, the ones who return either with an appreciation for what we have, or an understanding of what we don’t. Would we suggest to a Belgian he only explore his Belgian homeland? Or to Swede that there’s no purpose in seeing anything more? Is there any reason Americans should be limited to our four walls?

But don’t we all love cubicles?

It makes me sad that only 10% of Americans have passports, and even fewer use them. Among hostels all over the world we are outnumbered by citizens of smaller countries. Those who stay at home watch American movies and television, speak English to their American friends, and listen to the politicians talk about how great we are. They spend their lives smitten with their situation, blissfully ignorant of how wonderful the outside world has always been. Those who express their desire to go abroad are often discouraged, asked when they will get on with “real” life, settle down, get a job, and deny themselves the opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted.

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Life goes on.

Are Americans so dispassionate that we don’t yearn to ride a boat down the Amazon, climb the Eiffel Tower, hike up to Machu Picchu, visit the Pyramids, or walk along the Great Wall? Would we rather look back on our lives, fondly recalling our favorite blue-grey cubic habitat, our extra Saturday hours and deadline-fueled overtime? I certainly don’t. I’ve lived that life, and I can’t imagine wanting to go back.

Our world offers far more than anyone can fully appreciate, and it is often the most well-traveled veterans of the backpacking circuit who deny having seen enough. There are too many awe-inspiring ancient and modern monuments, natural wonders and tranquil villages to bore even the most jaded traveler, and human experience has been infinite since it first began. The backpackers are the ones who play cards and trade magic tricks in a Chinese night market, get invited to be the photographer at a Kazakh wedding festival, get put up in a Belarussian home having met the family the day before, get invited to a private graduation party in Estonia, or paddle a Kayak down an Ecuadorian jungle river for a week. If you don’t call that “real” life, you don’t know what living is. You owe it to yourself to find out.

It’s not a vacation

It’s more than just fun. As ingrained as these memories will always be, what really stays with me is the invaluable understanding that comes with experiencing other cultures. It’s the backpackers who learn that people are people, all over the world. The more we see cultures

Island of Crete, Greece.
Here, fishy fishy.

entirely unlike our own, the more we understand what makes us similar, and it turns out to be what’s most important to most people. They want to love their loved ones, raise their children, laugh with them, and look back upon a rich and satisfying life. Nice doesn’t know borders, and there’s no better way to know this than to live it. And couldn’t the world use a little more understanding?

I’ve known for a long time what kind of life I’ve wanted, and it’s the one with snowball fights in Istanbul, jaguar tracking in the Amazon, desert oases in the Sahara, and lasting friendships all over the world. I’d never take it back, and neither would anyone else who’s done it. I just want to bring all the cubicle drones along for the ride.

It’s a beautiful world we live in. Hope to see you out there.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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18 Comments on “Why Americans should travel more”

  1. Very nicely written. As an American traveler I am always astounded that others don’t share the same passion for the world. People often ask me why more Americans don’t travel and I think there are many reasons. For one, we usually only have 2 weeks of vacation a year making traveling very far more difficult (but of course, not impossible). For another, much like the Chinese, we live in a very big and diverse country with so much to do and see. While in China the majority of tourists are Chinese and this reminded me of home.
    But there have been a few times that I have been blown over by the absolute ignorance of a fellow American. Once I was flying from Chicago to Anchorage and the woman next to me was from Kansas and this was the first time out of her state. She was flying to Alaska to meet her boyfriend. Of course I brought up traveling and how much I love it (we were on a plane after all) and I told her of the time I lived in Berlin, Germany for 3 years. I started to talk about how much I love discovering new things and new ways of doing things, but then admitted that there were also things I missed about home. She then piped in and said, “like the freedoms”.
    I had no idea how to respond to such an ignorant comment. Where the hell did she think I went?! I told her that no, I did not miss the “freedoms” and in fact, other countries had more freedom than the US, exemplifying Canada for their same-sex marriage. This was the first time I had actually come across an American who actually believed the crap that was spoonfed us elementary school.
    So I tried to get her excited about traveling and exploring the world now that her kids were out of the house. I asked her if she could go anywhere in the world she wanted to, where she would go and after thinking about it for awhile, she came up with “Hawaii”. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Hawaii twice and had a great time on both trips but really? Hawaii is as far as her brain would allow her to go.
    It also astounds me that living in an immigrant such as the USA, learning about other cultures wouldn’t be more of a priority. The truth is that traveling is seen as a decoration of our lives, something that is not necessary but nice if it happens. We, as a culture, don’t seem to see it as a learning tool and a vital part, perhaps the most important part, of our lives. I can’t even imagine who I would be if I had done all the traveling I have done.
    Wow, my comment is turning into a post of its own! Clearly I enjoyed the subject matter. It was also very nicely written. Thanks for posting it! :)

  2. Foreign travel is good and Americans should travel (if affordable) to other countries but to suggest that would enlighten Americans is also misguided. Many nations have severe racism and various forms of intolerance. Also, while one cannot be extremely afraid and paranoid when traveling, remember it was an disabled American who was shot on a ship almost 30 years ago. There are very few nationalities who would have had that treatment inflicted upon them and then Americans are castigated as “ugly” ( to be fair there are bad American (like many nationalities) tourists).

    1. Sorry, I don’t really understand Margot. Are you saying that the man was shot 30 years ago for being an American? And that we can’t blame Americans for not travelling?

      I could be wrong, so excuse my own mis-understanding/ignorance. But please put me right if I am wrong.

      Now for my two pennies worth: the nicest Americans I’ve met are the ones who’ve travelled extensively. And it’s becoming more visable now than in the past. I blame the educational brainwashing and foreign policy of the country: patriotism taken to the extreme and the insinuation that you should not want to go anywhere – why bother when your own country is so ‘great’?

      Each country has its own greatness, and no one country is better than the other.

    2. This is the weirdest comment ever. You do realise that the US has a more serious problem with racism than a lot of countries in the world? And that it’s a heck of a lot more intolerant towards gay people than a lot of countries in the world? I’m British and what I read in the papers about gun crime, racism and homophobia in the US shocks me. I’m not saying there’s no racism in my own country or that the US is the worst place on the planet, but a lot of Americans seem to be really ignorant of how their own country is seen as pretty intolerant in several respects to citizens in other countries.

      And even if it were true that other countries are worse (and it IS true, I’m not denying that)- do you not think that seeing this intolerance is worth something? To me, seeing the intolerance in Italy when I lived there definitely enlightened me. Seeing the way women are treated in the Middle East definitely enlightened me. “Enlighten” doesn’t mean “improve” in this context, it means “educate”.

      And to address your nonsense about “a disabled American getting shot on a boat 30 years ago”. Just under 50 years ago, black Americans were segregated from their white countrymen. Less than 50 years ago, a black American wasn’t guaranteed the vote. Thirty years ago, a Chinese American man was killed in the US for “looking like a Jap”. 15 years ago, a young man was murdered for being gay. You want to talk about isolated incidents of intolerance? Look in your own back yard before you start looking abroad.

      1. I was waiting for someone to write something like this. The US, in general, is a terrible place to be if you’re black, gay, poor, Hispanic, or female. And there are quite a few of those. And bringing up a 30 year old incident seems like quite a reach.

  3. Wonderful post… I’m an Aussie married to American so I can relate, though I met my hubby in a hostel in Belgium over a decade ago! I couldn’t agree more that travel teaches you that people are people, absolutely no matter where you are people want a good life for their friends and family… it transcends everything else!!

    For the commenter above life can be dangerous, particularly if you live say in Syria, it’s not specific to Americans! It’s pretty safe for pretty much anyone to travel to many places… and given the choice I’d rather die living and traveling in this beautiful world then be killed in car accident at home.

    1. Best comment so far: “I’d rather die living and traveling in this beautiful world than be killed in a car accident at home.”

  4. As an American who has lived abroad and/or been in motion for about 10 years now I am no stranger to inquisitive looks and sometimes light-hearted ridicule when I announce my country of origin. While I agree that Americans would benefit hugely from travel abroad (and not just in the Caribbean) I also find myself often very relieved to NOT run into my countrymen abroad. Often I find myself liking those Americans that I meet in places like SE Asia and India (though they are few and far between), but in my extensive experience in Central America I found myself with a new understanding of why people the world over might not be so fond of us as a nationality…. The problem is that as a general rule, Americans will carry that fiercely unwarranted patriotism with them to new places and in many cases it blocks people’s ability to experience or appreciate new things. I find that this is especially true of those Americans traveling with a budget of a decent size. I am often frustrated with my American customers’ inability to see things in a new way or to change their pre-exsisting opinions of things they know nothing about!

    1. I feel exactly the same way. I run into Americans (though not so many, because I’m not friends with weirdos) that are so thoroughly stuck in a certain frame of mind that they can’t possibly escape. They think the US is the only democracy on the planet, and other nonsense. Issues of safety are the most bizarre. They’re afraid to travel to other countries, even if they have a substantially lower crime rate than ours.

  5. I’m an American who was born in and grew up (17 years) in Southeast Asia. This June will make 10 years that I’ve lived in the States. Out of those 10 years, I’ve traveled to every state except Alaska, New Jersey, Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island. And the 17 years I spent in Southeast Asia were spent in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

    I LOVE to travel, my whole family does (and luckily, my parents were keen to have my siblings and I experience as much as we could). This summer, for three weeks, I’m taking a trip to 9 countries in Europe and I’m about to bust with the excitement. I really can’t imagine someone not wanting to see/experience new things. Life should be an adventure, we should live, not just exist.

    1. I thoroughly agree. Europe should be a lot of fun. I’m jealous of their walkable cities, mass transit, and nice architecture. Sigh.

  6. I completely disagree with this premise that Americans “don’t travel” enough. This premise needs qualification. What you mean to say is that Americans don’t travel abroad enough. The United States is an enormous country. We are also the 3rd most populous nation in the world. A drive from one state to the next can take perhaps four or five hours – or more, and one is just going from one state to the next. If one were to drive for four or five hours in Europe, for example, one would be in another country, another language, and another culture. This is not the case in the U.S.. We don’t have the density that Europe has, and to compare American travel habits to that of Europeans is simply a case of comparing apples to oranges. Yeah, it’s easy to be well-traveled when everything is close by.

    The real reasons Americans don’t travel abroad enough? Traveling abroad, i.e., Europe, is really expensive. I just checked on plane tickets to Norway a couple of months ago, and although I really wanted to go, there was no way I could pay for it. It was about $1,000. While I have been to Europe, Africa, Mexico, and Canada, I haven’t been able to do any traveling for the past 10 years because it is just too expensive. While the wealthy, upper middle class Americans can stick their noses up in the air at those of us who “don’t travel,” the vast lot of us don’ t do so because we have families to take care of and bills to pay. We simply can’t afford it. Sure, most of us have been to Mexico or Canada, but I’d say the percentage of Americans that have traveled to Europe or elsewhere is much smaller, and the cost is the biggest reason why.

    There are so many myths about Americans, who we are, and what motivates us. If anything, it’s the rest of the world that is truly ignorant of Americans. Most Europeans I’ve talked to -relatives included – just don’t grasp how big the U.S. is until they travel and or live and work here. They also don’ realize that the way Americans are depicted on T.V. and in movies is not how the vast majority of us truly are. They don’t realize that most Americans don’t wear cowboy hats in most parts of the country nor do they eat fast food every day. As one relative from Europe said to me after living here for a couple of years, “I was surprised to learn that there really are some intelligent people living in the U.S..” No, really? You don’t say? Could it be because in a nation of 320 million there are bound to be some smart people, and could it also be because so many smart people from around the world come here to attend school and or live and work?

    Maybe more “Citizens of the World” need to travel around America to help dispel their ignorant stereotypes of Americans.

    1. I agree with you on the points of Americans traveling within America quite a bit, and it’s diverse enough that it’s worth visiting quite a few places, and you can have all sorts of experiences. People outside of the States have some pretty weird misconceptions about Americans too. I would say that Canada is outperforming us in terms of travel though, and it’s just as expensive for them to buy a ticket as it is for us. But if you go to a cheaper country, you can travel quite a bit without spending way too much.

      Also, check out this article for a snazzy cost-saving technique for flights to Europe.

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