The Biggest Lesson You Learn When You Travel

Instagram: @baefieldtravels
Instagram: @baefieldtravels

A crowded metro full of sweaty Germans on one of the hottest days of the year isn’t exactly the ideal space for inspiration. It’s not an ideal space for anything, really. Unless you just like being in a cramped space with sweaty Germans. But hey, to each their own, I guess.

So, here I was, sitting in a metro in Frankfurt, Germany (where I’m living for the next year) when two families hop on board. One of the families were presumably of German heritage and the other of Middle Eastern heritage (I’m not sure of the exact country), but they didn’t know each other, and each couple had a baby, both around the same age. Each of them somehow managed to fit into the sweaty mass of humans and once the metro starts up, the absolute worst thing happens. One of the babies starts crying and screaming like he just heard a Donald Trump speech. Yeah great, just what I wanted! Adding a crying toddler to the sweaty German metro mixture was just perfect, ya know?

But then, as I was turning up the volume on the new Carly Rae Jepsen album and trying to block out the crying, the non-squealing baby starts giggling and smiling at the squealing baby. And all of a sudden, at the snap of a finger, the crying stopped. Both babies start smiling and giggling at each other, which was kind of cute, but also still kind of annoying because they were interrupting my Queen Jepsen time.

As the babies started laughing, the two couples started smiling and making eye contact with the each other. Even some strangers gave a little grin at the babies just doing their cute thing.

Now, the point of this article isn’t to talk about cute babies or how gross that sweaty metro ride was, even though I could easily do that. We all know the world pretty much seems like it’s going to complete and utter shit right now. When I hear the news, this is how I imagine the world:

In the U.S., you have the rise of Donald Trump and the “silent, not so silent, majority” (barf). Racial tensions are rising. Gun violence continues to be one of the biggest issues no one is dealing with. The economy is still kinda just “meh”. Outside of the country, the global refugee crisis is taking its toll on Europe. The civil war in Syria and many other conflicts around the world still rage. And North Korea’s still just being North Korea.

I’ve been thinking about what’s been happening in this dumpster fire we call planet Earth and there’s really one thing that underlies most of the big issues we’re facing. It’s something that humans have been grappling with ever since we started clumping together into hunting groups and villages. The fear of those people in the “bad part of town”. The fear of those people across the border. The fear of those people on the other side of an ocean. It’s the fear of “the other”.

If you’re a human being (if you’re not human, that’s cool too), you probably know some stereotypes about people from different countries or of different ethnicities. You might even succumb to those stereotypes sometimes –- I know that I do. You might even start to feel a little bit of anger or frustration towards these “other” people who aren’t exactly like you. And if you’re part of Donald Trump’s crew in the U.S., you might even feel hatred towards or fear of these people, just because they’re a little bit different on the outside.

But these feelings aren’t innately human. None of us are born with a gene that predisposes us to fear people with different skin tones. We don’t come into this world knowing the stereotypes that define much of our society. Like the babies on the metro, babies and young children don’t care whether you’re black or white, from Europe or the Middle East, gay or straight or transgender, blue eyed or green eyed. They love and laugh and cry with each other simply because they’re human and that’s how things should be. No, we are not born with this hatred inside our minds. We grow into the hatred and fear of indifference. As we mature, we start hearing things. Maybe it’s a parent using a derogatory comment to talk about Asians at the dinner table. Maybe it’s a TV clip of Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists and drug lords. Whatever it is, our environment shapes us and we learn to fear and to hate. And we don’t really have a choice.

I grew up in small town, rural North Carolina. Yeah, I can sense your jealousy. I can attest to what I said above. I grew up Lutheran (the boring version of Catholics) and a conservative Republican until I was about 16. I scoffed at the Latino population in my county because I thought they were stealing jobs and many couldn’t speak perfect English. I went to a school of 800 people where there was a grand total of five black students. I grew up thinking and believing that it was a sin to be gay. I had racist and stereotypical sentiments because the environment I grew up in didn’t appreciate, much less celebrate, the beauty of human difference.

So as babies and young children, if we don’t really have a choice about what we take in from the environment around us, what can we do about it now?

You can do what I did. You can travel to somewhere you’ve never thought of going. Book a ticket to Ghana or Nepal or Morocco. Pull out a globe, spin it around, and land your finger somewhere. Plan your next trip to wherever your finger lands. If you can’t afford that, go to somewhere new in your country. Expose yourself to the things you don’t know or aren’t aware of. Find a stranger in a café and strike up a conversation. Actively search for difference.

The biggest lesson you will learn when you travel is this: hate and fear are choices. You may not have had a choice regarding where you grew up or what you were told as a child, like me and most people. But you do a have a choice now. You can choose to look for and appreciate difference. Choose to experience new places and talk to new people. Choose appreciation over fear and love over hatred. Life’s just better that way.

Recent Racism Quiz - Answer Key