I’m under no illusion that walking the streets of Bangkok means that I understand the divisions in Thai society. Drinking with someone in Spain doesn’t mean I know what ‘real people are like’ in Southern Europe.
It’s easy to say that ‘travel promotes understanding’ but travel can also promote a false sense of understanding.
I like to say that travel alone doesn’t give you knowledge of a place. But you can’t have knowledge of a place without travel. You need to develop a framework that comes from seeing, tasting, smelling a place along with which you can integrate what you read, what people tell you, and your own frameworks for understanding the world.
At the same time, there’s another reason that travel promotes understanding that I hadn’t considered. In this clip Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska talks about the importance of travel for understanding where you’ve come from. He explains that a fish can’t understand water, having never been outside the water. By the same token he says he never really understood English until he studied Spanish and had a different framework of grammar against which to compare what he already knew.
Either way there’s a tacit knowledge that comes from spending time in a place that you cannot get reading about a place. It’s not a total understanding that you gain in a short time, but important holes that you plug.
And at the same time you’re changed by spending time with people, you begin to think of them as people and that makes it difficult to other them. It may seem obvious, but you realize that you’re interacting with real people, with moral worth, who aren’t simply a means to your own end. And in that way travel promotes peace and empathy. (It’s ironic then that as Delta ‘others’ Middle Easterners, they’re a global airline.)