Does Travel Promote Real Understanding? How?

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.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “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.”

    Best line from a nice piece.

  2. Another good way of getting a grip on a new place is to avoid booking into a US chain hotel. Go for an independent, even family run hotel for a more authentic stay. There are many gems out there if you can be bothered to do a little on-line research. You may even save money too.

  3. Its true you won’t totally understand another culture by visiting for a short period of time or even living in a foreign country for a few months, but in that brief period of time you certainly get a perspective of their viewpoints, especially compared to people who don’t travel to other countries at all. This is all premised on the idea that you don’t spend all your time at fancy resorts and actually get out and interact with the local people.

  4. Who got you on your high horse to blurt out a headline of your own making? Promotes doesn’t mean “convinces” or “guarantees” or any other certainty, and the rest of what you write even admits travel promotes actually does promote understanding as much as the other things you mentioned — as long as one keeps an open mind and balance them. Just stick to fighting the airlines, please, so we can keep traveling.

  5. I don’t think there’s much cultural exchange or introspection from your Park Hyatt suites.

  6. @Ramblin’ Cowboy (a well-deserved handle, to be sure):

    “Who got you on your high horse to blurt out a headline of your own making?”

    Please explain whose making Gary’s headlines should be, please.

  7. The Internet: yelling at people for what they want to use their own space for since 2001.

    Good article, and definitely my experience.

    I went to Nicaragua about seven (oh god…) years ago and had the same guy drive me around for four days. I arranged that with him because he told me that the tourist-catering hotels charge drivers a pretty big commission for access, and he had a family who I eventually, briefly, met. My Spanish was really limited (and has only gotten worse) but in that interaction I got to see how people who lived there lived, how arrangements get made, how seemingly hippy dippy eco-stops end up in business arrangements with locals, &c.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be Nicaraguan, but I have a glimpse of it because I went there and got past the US default of “tiny country involved in thirty year old presidential scandal”.

  8. Well, I enjoy travel for what it is. Nothing more.

    I’m not sure that it promotes understanding or just the illusion of understanding. How staying in fancy resorts and fancy U.S. based hotel chains contributes to the former is uncertain.

    I disagree with your assertion that it is impossible to have knowledge and understand a place without travel, though I appreciate the sentiment. I can understand the horrors of pre-war Nazi Germany without, thankfully, having been there.

    To really understand a place requires time, immersion, and lots of interaction.

  9. We traveled in northern India for two weeks, mostly on train, mostly the lowest class, “sleeper”, which most Indians travel. The things we learned experientially and the connections we made with people on the trains, sometimes sitting on the floor, and while waiting for hours in stations, and the contrast with travel in developed countries, was life changing. Not to mention young children, many blind or disabled, singing and begging in the aisles, and the man with withered legs who crawled down the aisle on his knees at one stop with a small broom and bag sweeping out the trash between the seats in exchange for coins. There is almost no institutional support system for people with disabilities, but what we saw again and again was that even the poorest people traveling on the train would have a rupee or two for those in even greater need. You can’t learn that without traveling and being there…

  10. The sociology degree that is allegedly vested with travel is horribly overrated. Unless you consider a shallow cultural immersion as being “local”.

  11. You want to understand the vibes of a place? Surf with the people! Here are some of my impressions, after surfing around the globe for decades:

    California: aggressive almost to the point of violence. Expect everybody to play by the rules, but do not hesitate to break them when it suits them best. However, superficial friendliness is common, and everybody in the line-up is talking with everybody else.

    Hawaii: localistic, very friendly with each other but rude toward Haolis (non Hawaiians). Aggression implied, but rarely overt.

    Puerto Rico: the nicest and most sharing of all surfers. Will get out of their way to be friendly to you, and will not hesitate to direct you to the best local spot, inviting you to share their waves.

    Australia: restrained friendliness. Will not get out of their way to engage you in a conversation, but will not shy away if approached. Expect you to play by the rules, but do not get bent out of shape if you don’t. Very rarely rude.

    Israel: ridiculously friendly. Once you start a conversation, it is hard to get them to shut up. Stick to the rules almost to the point of obsession, probably because of how crowded the line-up can be. Can be pretty rude on land, but leave all the rudeness behind when they hit the water.

    France: absolutely no attention to rules and to etiquette, to the point of being dangerous. Will take off in front of you regardless of where you may be on the wave. However, they will be totally understanding if you take off in front of them. Not very friendly.

  12. Unfortunately, having traveled literally millions of miles, I believe more firmly than ever that there are people who just don’t change,don’t learn, and are an embarrassment when traveling. Travel will widen further those whose scope is already wide, yet does little for narrow minded individuals, as does the simplest conversation give you a hint of the nature of the person, but none should have the arrogance we believe we truly have a grasp of other people’s lives. Guess, to summarize, travel makes good people better.

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