I recently returned from three weeks in southern Africa. Though we have always been a traveling family, we had a specific purpose for this trip: to spend time with our son serving in the Peace Corps in Namibia.
After traveling through Zambia and Namibia, we ended in Cape Town, South Africa. There, I was struck by a message on a tourist bus: “Go places. Prosper.” And at the airport, Mark Twain’s famous quote that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” was displayed at the British Airways gate.
These messages, of course, were to promote tourism. But to prosper not only relates to financial success, but includes engaging in activities that open minds and hearts. The words that Twain wrote in “The Innocents Abroad,” published in 1869, are more relevant today than ever before.
The good news is that Americans travel internationally more than we often think. Nearly 40 percent of Americans have passports, and international travel continues to increase — especially among millennials. But unfortunately, the destinations tend be places where we are not challenged by differences in culture or lifestyle: 55 percent travel to Canada or Mexico (I suspect much of it to Cancun and Acapulco), while less than 1 percent go to Africa.
Why Americans don’t travel to distant places is a matter of debate. Certainly, finances play a big factor: driving across the U.S. border may be the extent of what many can afford. Also, since Americans have less vacation time than others, there often is not enough time to take a long trip where two to three days on the front and back ends may be needed just to get there and back. Another reason is that the diversity within the U.S. is vast. One can experience travel but still have all the amenities of home.
So why then should Americans travel internationally? Probably the most significant benefit to travel is learning about others’ culture and daily lives. Today, with the popularity of Airbnb and Uber, you can get a window on the lives of others, and come to better understand your own experiences.
Our Airbnbs were arranged by our globe-trotting son (who would have been fine couchsurfing). In Cape Town, we stayed at a couple’s home in an avant-garde part of the city. Living in their home gave us insight into their day-to-day lives. Their books and decor revealed their religious background, language (Afrikaans) and interests. Because Cape Town has been undergoing a dire water shortage, we were kindly reminded that as good visitors we should also be mindful of our usage. The neighborhood we stayed in was vibrant, yet still grappling with racial divisions post-apartheid. One of our Uber drivers was from Zimbabwe and shared about his struggles to make ends meet in his country, which has faced economic challenges as well as political corruption and violence, and his hopes of making a life in South Africa. While in Namibia we spent an afternoon with our son’s host family (as is the practice in the Peace Corps, every volunteer is adopted by a local family). His Namibian parents are both educators, with several children, and they have become close to our son. We partook in “braai” — traditional Namibian (and South African) grilled meat — and shared about our hopes for the future (as well some mutual kidding of our son).
Our travels not only allowed for cultural learning and exposure, but allowed us to experience geography and nature that was new to us including Victoria Falls, the wildlife of Etosha National Park in Namibia, the sand dunes and salt pans of the Namib Desert, and the panoramic coast of South Africa. Following local media, we learned about the political anxieties that exist in South Africa (Americans are not the only ones dealing with political turmoil) as well as the importance of graduation scores for high school students, and how regions in South Africa compete to have the highest ones. And we went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and were guided by a former political prisoner who now lives on the island with his family along with former prison guards as a means to reconciliation. This serves as an important lesson in building peace.
We prospered for sure. Every day we experienced new dialects, aromas, and trials and tribulations (including two flat tires, travel sickness and getting stuck in the sand). In the end, we came to understand not only the differences we have with others, but more importantly the humanity that connects us: the importance of family, the aspirations for a peaceful and safe future, and the mutual goodwill we shared with those we encountered.
David J. Smith is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. and the author of “Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace.” He is based in Rockville, Md., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.