Yes, someone actually asked this question, and it was my favorite moment of the day.
Non-travelers occasionally react with complete incredulity or even outright scorn at the notion that someone might spend significant amounts of time exploring the world around us, and they often ask some pretty stupid questions. But this one, and variations thereof, has got to be the stupidest travel-related question to ask oneself:
“Why visit other countries if I haven’t seen much of my own?”
It’s hard to know where to begin with this one, because there are so many good reasons to venture beyond your own borders that summing them up would be a disservice to adventurers everywhere.
But if you’re a stupid American living in a sheltered bubble with no understanding of the outside world, you might not know any better.
In fact, you might even double down, as this person did, with something like this:
“There’s nothing I can do there that I can’t do at home.”
Except there is.
As any long-term traveler will tell you, whether it’s solo backpacking or living abroad, travel changes who you are, and only for the better. It forces you to confront your prejudices and assumptions, about society, culture, people, and yourself, answering questions you never even thought to ask.
It can’t be done at home, and it can’t be done nearby. And, like it or not, you are a lesser person for never having tried it.
And I bet you’ll see just exactly how stupid it is if we replace your country with someone else’s:
“Why would I visit the United States if I haven’t seen all of Belgium? There are all sorts of places here that I’ve never seen. Why would I bother learning about anyone else’s country while there are still more Belgian villages I can visit?”
Perhaps you’re starting to see the problem.
Travel, especially the immersive, challenging, culturally distinct experiences that can only happen far from home, actually make you a better person.
Here’s what you’re missing:
1) Travel makes you more creative
It’s hard to think outside the box when you spend your life living inside of one. Even if it’s a big box, you’re still stuck in it.
An increasingly broad range of research studies (like this one and this one) are confirming what wanderers have been saying for centuries: Traveling to other countries expands your range of experiences, challenges your assumptions, and opens the door to more creative thinking.
The more you open yourself up to new possibilities, the more you see them elsewhere, in your life, your work, and your interactions with other people. Everything from artistic creativity to problem solving stands to benefit from international experiences.
And no, it’s not just people who want to travel who are more creative; it’s the travel itself. Among three groups of students (those who studied abroad, those who planned to study abroad, and those who did not), the ones who actually traveled to another country outperformed their peers in creative problem solving. And guess what comes in handy in the job market?
2) Travel makes you less suspicious of others
Another tried-and-true aphorism from the adventurous: Though cultural differences are endlessly diverse and fascinating, beneath it all, people are fundamentally the same, all over the world.
American, Australian, Korean, Egyptian, you name it…people want a future for their kids, a decent life, and some quality time to spend with their friends and family, in every nation on Earth.
You might not know this if you live in a box and listen only to warmongering politicians who keep trying to convince you how different you are from your neighbors, but if you ever get out there, you’d see just how true it is, everywhere you go.
Marjane Satrapi, author of the absolute-must-read Persepolis, puts it best:
The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly. The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you.
And our governments are very much the same.
The research is in, and it shows that meeting people from other countries only makes you more trustworthy of others…possibly because you end up seeing them for who they really are: People, just like you.
3) Travel makes you realize your politicians are lying to you
This is especially true if you live in the United States, and you refuse to leave, having convinced yourself and others that you live in the greatest country in the world, and you know this, because you’ve never bothered going anywhere else.
You may think we have the greatest healthcare system in the world…but not if you go to Canada. You may think we have more freedom than any other nation…but not if you go to the Netherlands. You might think we have the world’s greatest education system…but not if you go to Finland.
In fact if you go anywhere else among the industrialized world, you’d realize just how far we’ve fallen. And if we’re ever going to claw our way out of this mess, it would be immeasurably helpful to have a population that could see right through the lies that convince hundreds of millions of Americans of their fake achievements…and, sometimes, all it takes is a study abroad semester or two.
But it’s not all bad news:
4) Travel makes you happier, in so many ways…
Travel has so many psychological benefits that you’d need half a dozen pages of bullet-pointed lists to cover them all. Like this one, from the US Travel Association. If you think travel is merely a pointless diversion, I’d urge you to read the whole thing.
Highlights include the fact that travel re-energizes employees, who subsequently perform better at their jobs; that it strengthens the bonds between family and loved ones; that it makes people feel more satisfied with their lives; that it reduces stress; that it increases employee morale, reduces turnover, and boosts productivity; that an annual vacation reduces the risk of heart attack by 50%.
Fifty f*%$ing percent!!!
What kind of stupid moron denounces travel when it makes you die less often?! You, that’s who.
5) Travel is exactly what our globalized world desperately needs
We live in an intimately interconnected global network of international trade, cross-cultural cooperation, mutually dependent resource extraction and manufacturing, and you want to stay an ignorant moron who knows nothing about the world around you?!
That is dumb. And it’s especially dumb when more and more countries are developing economically and sending more of their students overseas to gain exactly the kind of creative problem-solving skills that travel has to offer, and that globally competitive businesses demand.
And while ‘Murica was busy flag waving and bro-chanting its own name, the rest of the world has long since emerged from the ashes of war, poverty, dictatorship, and colonialism that marked much of the 20th century, and is rapidly catching up with…and, in some cases, has already overtaken…your beloved “greatest country in the world.”
This is a bigger problem than you might think.
How you’re contributing to the downfall of civilization
To illustrate just how big of a deal this is, I’d like to highlight the decisions of one man in particular: the Hongxi Emperor, 4th ruler of the Ming Dynasty, who presided over Imperial China through one of the most shimmeringly resplendent golden ages the Earth has ever known.
China in the 15th century was busy dancing on the laurels of having invented all sorts of contraptions thousands of years before the West, with everything from paper money, blast furnaces, compasses, movable type, multi-stage exploding rockets, and beer debuting in the Far East long before appearances elsewhere. Many Chinese dynasties pursued a policy of closing their doors to the outside world, simply because they didn’t need anything.
The Ming, however, got into the business of expansion, and, just like everything else at the time, China did it bigger and better than anyone else: They built a fleet of 300 ships, with flagships twice the length of anything Europe could manage at the time, with a crew of 1600 people, led by Admiral Zheng He. Throughout his seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, he led his crew throughout Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa, dazzling everyone who set their eyes on the fleet with a stunning display of technological wizardry from what was clearly the world’s greatest imperial power.
During these expeditions, China came immeasurably close to discovering their only potential rivals, whose own forays into global exploration would soon bring them unimaginable wealth, power, and prestige, sparking a rarely-interrupted 500 years of global dominance that culminated in outright ownership of much of the world by a small subset of pale humans that didn’t even value bathing: The Europeans.
If only Zheng He had gone past Africa, he might have found them…and their guns. China was on the brink of a discovery more significant than any of them could have imagined.
And then one man, making one fateful decision, set in motion a series of events that would bring this invulnerable empire to its knees, dragging a nation of hundreds of millions into a stifling new dark age, and leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion and economic exploitation for centuries, in what turned out to be one of the most short-sighted and monumentally catastrophic errors in judgement in the history of human civilization.
The Hongxi Emperor ordered the voyages to cease. The fleet was left to rot in the harbor, and was eventually burned to ashes. China’s days of sailing the high seas came to a close. By the next century, all ocean-going vessels had been destroyed.
You can probably see where this is going. By the time the Qing Dynasty ruled over China in the 19th century, European imperial ambitions and military advancements had reached an insurmountable zenith. When China attempted to resist foreign interference during the first Opium War, the British obliterated them and forced them to acquiesce to a series of demands that were literally called “unequal treaties,” leading to a period of Chinese history now known as the Century of Humiliation, during which China lost every war it fought, and the ruling Qing had to agree to trade and territorial concessions against its will.
What was arguably the world’s greatest civilization for thousands of years was trampled under the boots of European upstarts, all because they didn’t explore the damn world when they had the chance.
As for what might have happened if Zheng He had rounded the coast of Africa, we’ll never know. Maybe he’d have returned with tales of technological marvels on the other side of the world. Maybe he’d have warned his master of this potential new military threat. Maybe he’d have welcomed the Europeans as cultural equals, and spurred a new era of international exchange. Maybe he’d have found the Americas before Columbus. Some say he did.
But whatever might have happened, it’s hard to imagine global and Chinese history not looking completely different if it weren’t for the damn Hongxi Emperor essentially ordering the end of China’s understanding of the surrounding world.
Perhaps it wasn’t his fault. He just didn’t know what was out there. For all he knew, the whole rest of the world was populated with stupid barbarians. But you know what’s even stupider? Not bothering to check.
I bet it went something like this:
“Hey guys! You know what we should do? Not know what the f*#$ is going on!!!”
What a stupid thing to do.
And no, I’m not talking about the Hongxi Emperor anymore. I’m talking about you.
Whenever you close yourself off to expansive multicultural experiences, you are burning down your own metaphorical fleet of global and personal discovery. You are setting ablaze the only way to expand your mind beyond the horizons of your own meager experiences, and you are leaving you, and everyone around you, vulnerable to getting addicted to opium at the hands of the British Empire.
And I only mean that slightly metaphorically, because whenever you close yourself off to the world around you and spend your existence stuck in a bubble of comforting experiences, you might as well be addicted to opium and doing nothing with your life.
Your brain is rotting, you’re contributing little or nothing to those around you, and you are dragging your society gradually into a dark age in which it will become a mere shadow of its former self.
Whenever you denounce visiting other countries in favor of your own, you are the Hongxi Emperor, in all his short-sighted and poor-judgment non-glory, and you are dragging your country toward the dustbin of history, one ill-fated lazy vacation at a time.
“Hongxi,” by the way, means “vastly bright.” I’ll leave the ironic implications to you.
Don’t cancel the voyages. Don’t burn down the fleet. Don’t get addicted to opium.
Sail the Seven Seas. Round the coast of Africa. Discover Europe. See the world.