Does Travel Really Change Us?
Travel Philosophy

Does travel really change us?

Travel allows for the opportunity for change and self-improvement. But that depends on a person's attitude.

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The short answer is yes. The long answer is, yeeesssss. Well. It depends. The nature of travel lends itself to the notion of change, be it a person’s new wider outlook, perspective, confidence, independence, tolerance, adaptability, acceptance, focus on the present – there’s a whole plethora of possible personal developments and realisations on the path to self-improvement. But any such change is determined by a number of varying factors.  

How can you change if you’re the same sad as before?

Being away from home and on a trip doesn’t automatically mean there will be some kind of positive personal transfiguration. In Adam Sandler’s Romano Tours sketch he explains that, ‘If you are sad where you are, and then you get on a plane to Italy, then you in Italy will be the same sad you as before, just in a new place.’ 

There’s also a danger here that something that we don’t like within ourselves will be highlighted when we are of out of our comfort zone. A fear of heights causing us to normally avoid tall buildings for instance, will not serve us well if we position ourselves in a cable car in the Alps. 

That said, a situation like this provides an opportunity for growth, to overcome a fear that we safely ignored at home. One of the benefits of travel is that it’s exciting, and sometimes through the excitement you unintentionally become fearless.  

Fear of snakes
Overcoming a fear of snakes in Argentina

Travel in effect forces experience, and with experience comes learning, and that generally brings about a more positive enhancement as opposed to reinforcing negative traits. By doing something you become someone who can rather than someone who can’t

Travel therefore, provides an amplification of the good things in our present selves. But it is this learning-through-experience that can also bring about something completely new in us.

The experience of place

The nature of the trip coupled with the places visited has a big part to play in initiating change. A relaxing beach holiday at one of the all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic may or may not provide as much scope for change as hiking the Camino in Spain. Our purpose at the beach is to relax in one place, in itself a worthy activity. A pilgrimage however, is something completely different: it allows us to be exposed to a bigger range of experiences along the journey. To challenge ourselves to explore different places and to do so with a receptive state of mind opens us up further to the possibility of change.

The experience of people

Wherever we visit though, a big change-influencer are the people we experience on our journey. When immersed in a foreign culture we reflect on that culture. Both the locals and indeed the other travellers we encounter can have an impact. The difference we find in them may highlight a change we want to adopt in ourselves. It could also do the opposite; we see in them something we share and perhaps want to eradicate from our lives.

To illustrate this, I can recount an incident I witnessed while waiting for a boat in Indonesia from the Gili islands to Bali. There was a postponement for a non-specified reason and most of the locals and foreigners occupied themselves on the beach. One foreigner however, got very upset with one of the boat hands. The local was exposed to the common western annoyance at time delays in the form of a raised voice in a language he could not understand. I admired the grace and humility in his reaction to the outraged traveller. It transpired that the delay was due to high waves; as demonstrated by the arm actions of the calm, smiley boatman. Eventually caving in to the pressure, the captain was summoned and then after more hand waving the engines were turned on. Everyone boarded the boat and we left on the rough seas.

My personal adaptation to Indonesian island life meant my skills in acclimatisation and acceptance were enhanced, and this put me at odds with the rigidity of Mr Shouty Man, who through unacceptable behaviour got his own way. On the boat journey there was karmic intervention however, when his red face turned green. He remained with his head bent over the boat’s stern puking for the rest of the trip. Here was his moment of change, from Mr Shouty Man to Sir Vomitus. 

The waves
The waves of Sir Vomitus

A willingness to change

Most travellers are primed for some sort of change, which is often why we travel in the first place, and return home travel-altered. The person arriving in Italy sad may finish the trip happy. Maybe even Mr Shouty Man/Sir Vomitus learned a lesson. Maybe not. There is an old English proverb that says, ‘Even if an ass goes travelling he’ll not come back a horse.’ What it comes down to is the intention and willingness to change for the better, and that is what the majority of us aim for.  

In Sean and David’s Long Drive by Sean Condon (Lonely Planet), the two fantastically caustic travellers journeying around Australia have a conversation that describes travel-induced change in a nutshell:  

‘“Do you think travelling is just doing what you’d normally do at home but with different food?”

“Don’t be ridiculous – it’s the opportunity to see life and people and cities, all completely removed from your own.”

“Yeah you see it, but your own life is still the same. You have to go back to it. You’re still you.”

“Well of course, but travelling can help change you and teach you.”

“If you let it.”

“Yes if you let it.”

“What if you don’t want to let it?”

“Then you might as well stay at home.”’

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