Last night we watched the wonderful movie “Outsourced” and it got me thinking about the two types of travel I’ve already been fortunate enough to enjoy in my life.
Experiencing the Wonders of God and Man
I’ve been mock charged by a bull elephant in South Africa and swung down trees in the rainforest of Sao Tome. I have backpacked with my sons from the Philmont basecamp at 6,500′ across 60 miles of mountain trails including the 11,700′ summit of Mt. Philips. I have used snow shoes to climb up, cross country skis to go through the glades, and downhill skis to race down the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I have enjoyed the peaceful experience of sleeping under the stars in places as diverse as the desert of
Joshua Tree in California, the deep winter snows of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, and the lake shores of northern Ontario, Canada. I have enjoyed the sheer beauty of the world’s second largest coral reefs scuba diving off the coast of Puerto Adventuras, Mexico. I have hiked the meadows in the shadows of the Jungfrau, the Eiger, and the Monch in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. I have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and felt the sea spray of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I have also been awed by some of man’s great art and architecture in places like Florence
and Rome, Italy, Munich, Germany, and New York City. I have seen the marvel of man creating a glorious cities like Venice and New Orleans out of marshlands (and the slow rise of nature to reclaim those spaces). These and many more travels have allowed me to experience the rich wonders of God and man. I look forward to what I hope will be many more years of such travel!
But within minutes of beginning to watch “Outsourced” last night, I was reminded of another type of travel that I have been richly blessed to experience on several occasions. In these cases the travel has allowed me to slowly grow out of my biases and stereotypes by building relationships with the inhabitants of places different than my own. My first deep experience along these lines came when I spent 2 months traveling in Germany between my undergrad and graduate years of school. I spent three
weeks volunteering at the farm in Kassel where my Tante (Aunt) Ilsa worked and where I got to meet migrant workers. I spent two weeks staying with my cousin Helga and her then husband Christof just outside of Munich. Along the way, I got to know more closely my relatives, my heritage, and a different nation of people. I brought back with me a different understanding of myself and my own nation.
But even more striking has been my decade-long travel to East St. Louis, IL. This marginalized region is one of the most economically distressed in the Midwestern United States. I started traveling there in 1999 to address the digital divide. By rough estimate I have taken some 500 students there through my service-learning courses, and some 100 youth as part of youth mission trips. But it has been life-changing for me because of the deep relationships I have built up over the years. My entry into the community was not unlike that of Todd when he first arrives in Bombay, India. I was struck by the differences and disadvantages of the city. But now when I go there it is more like going to a second home. I have my favorite parks to walk and when the warm weather is here, work and read in. I have my favorite eateries and places where I go to just relax and play a few hands of Conquian, a variation of rummy that was historically played in East St. Louis and is still kept alive at Pirtle’s. Whether you see a city struggling to recover from the urban blight it suffered in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, or you see a hometown really depends on the depth of the relationships you have with the people who live there.
As Todd stepped out of the airport in India, I had an immediate flashback to my arrivals in Sao Tome
city in this West African nation. Again, while I was there professionally to address issues of technology disparity, personally I had an opportunity to build relationships and cross cultures in this developing nation. It’s hard not to find yourself questioning some of their ways of doing things at first just as Todd did in the movie. But ultimately it’s an opportunity to grow and learn that different does not have to mean inferior, and that resource poor does not have to mean poor in community. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Looking over my old travel posts, I came across one I called Laughing Readily. In it, I reflect on something that Elves Neves, a colleague and friend, remarked about his country: it is a great country because if someone found themselves stranded here with just $1, they would find that they will be fed, will have a place to stay, and will find friends to laugh with. This is no surprise in a nation where they have a saying that roughly translates everyone is my family.
Rick Steves in his book “Travel as Political Act” speaks of the many ways travel changes us, especially when we seize the opportunities to meet the locals and try to understand the world through their eyes. This in turn has the opportunity to change our own communities as we bring back home a greater understanding and tolerance for the many different ways of interpreting and addressing the global issues that face us today, even as we relax in and appreciate the familiarity and values of our own culture and ways of doing things.
Travel in all it’s different forms is an enriching experience. But I count myself truly blessed that I have not once or twice but three times had the opportunity to build friendships over weeks, months, and years through travel to regions and nations different, and yet ultimately in many ways strikingly similar, to mine.