Learning Through Travel

Monotonous inevitability for some, a window into another world for me.

Whenever I travel to a foreign country, I make it a habit to get from A to B using public transport. Partly because I dont want to spend higher than usual prices on getting somewhere with Taxis, but also because it allows me to see and experience what the average person experiences on a day to day basis. Of course, I only recommend doing this if its safe to do so and you aren’t too overwhelmed by ins and outs of the local transportation system. It also helps that you don’t stick out like a sore thumb (the Hawaiian shirt and flip flops on the London Underground won’t win you any admirers in the hottest of times!).

By travelling the same way the average local does, you make a choice to integrate yourself – if only for a short period – into the local society and gain brief insight into day to day life. You actively decline segregating yourself from part of the reality of local lives experience by being privately shuttled everywhere.

But aside from the opportunity to observe a foreign culture, there is much more to gain.

I remember looking at people around me on trains in the Dubai, Tokyo and Zurich and having the feeling that the wall between myself and the ‘other’ was shorter and flimsier than I had thought. All of a sudden I wasnt the main character in the story anymore. The focal point of the narrative had shifted, no longer was I the native Londoner indifferent to the obvious tourists on the same train as me. The tables had turned, I was now the tourist occupying the periphery of the lives of the natives I was sharing the carriage with. As with most situations in life, this was a learning experience and I was sure there was a deeper lesson I could learn from it.

Perspective Shift

Back home, its easy to feel all too self-important when it comes to carrying out our daily routines. everything is familiar and known, so we prioritise. Things are given relevance and importance in reference to ourselves. Our external relationships are often prioritised in terms of the benefits we receive from them, everything is judged by how it helps us.

We can make the same journey daily in our home lands, share a carriage or bus with no less than 100 other people and yet we learn or feel nothing from it. There is no connection to these temporal neighbours of ours, as far as we are concerned, they are just necessary neighbours in a world of temporary, fast moving houses. This nurtures a feeling of self importance: “What do I need to care anything about these temporary, random people anyway? Within the next 20 minutes I’ll be finishing my journey and never have to see them again!”

When I switched roles and became the outsider, I was able to feel the shift in real time. I was aware of my insignificance in the eyes of the locals. I was aware of becoming the ‘other’, transforming from the main character to a forgettable extra with no lines, and this was humbling.

I became able to identify the different type of locals on the train, the office worker tired after a long day, the the labourer finishing a shift or the flustered Mother trying to keep her child entertained. No matter how different I may have physically looked from the locals, no matter how different my native language sounded from theirs or how far apart our cultures were, the thing uniquely common to both me and them was the sense of day to day normality. They got on the train every day as I did, either for work or leisure. They too found something to occupy themselves during the busy, monotonous train ride as I did when back home. The technicalities of our lives may have been worlds apart, but there are many aspects that seemed almost indistinguishable.

Empathy

As obvious as it might sound, it was then that I was truly able to appreciate that every single one of us, all 6 billion of us who live on this planet, have our own unique, individual lives, but the stage we perform on is the same. We all experience variations of the same situations, day in and day out. Recognising this inevitably leads to an increased sense of humility.

The same ingrained self-importance that builds after seeing yourself as the ‘Main Character’ of the world is humbled when becoming an ‘Extra’ in someone else’s.

This humility leads us to a greater awareness of other people and the struggles that they may be facing. Despite not speaking much of the local language (varying in proficiency depending on whether I was in the UAE, Turkey, Switzerland or Japan!), I was able to empathise and understand the human aspect of their lives. I was able to identify with the obvious boredom of some, the curiosity of others and the plain indifference of the rest. The same characters that populated the London Underground back home were the same characters that were crammed into train carriages in downtown Tokyo, albeit in a different body. I understood that the very people I was amongst were no doubt subject to the same happiness, worries and laughter and stresses that I would be back home. Despite the glaring differences in language and culture, our common humanity reigned supreme.

They were me, and I was them.

This must have been what the famous Author Mark Twain meant when he wrote:

“It liberates the vandal to travel — you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.”

Mark Twain

Having these thoughts and realisations, no matter how elementary they may seem, has definitely led me to be a lot more aware of the base fact that we all share this planet and experience many of the same worries and happiness together. The facade of the ‘other’ is a convenient mental tool to keep distant any feelings of empahy for our fellow human beings. The full, wholesome individual would do well to tear down this facade and to keep in the front of his mind that we share more in common than that in which we differ.

I find it fitting to finish off with another writing from Mark Twain, who captures the effect of travel on the curious mind in the most fitting manner.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain

So get out and about, it doesn’t have to be 4000 miles away in a Tokyo suburb, it could indeed be in a different city, or an area that you haven’t been to before.

Develop your sense of empathy.

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