Perhaps Travel is Not the Key to Broader Horizons

Growing up in California in the 70s and 80s, one of the refrains that I occasionally heard was that travel outside your home will expand your horizons. But does it?

We all have our cultural idiosyncrasies that are a result of where we grew up and who we grew up with. The challenge, then, is what do we do with that. As a young person, I was very much a product of California, a state so vast and independent–almost as if it were its own country–that one could live a full and varied life and never once leave the state. (Some people live a crabbed and limited life and never once leave the state, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Anyway, I have family in New York and traveled a bit in high school, so I was not as parochial as some. But I had a lot to learn, and still do.

Which brings me back to my original point: does travel open doors to greater understanding? My gut reaction is yes, it does. It seems to me that once you see that there are different ways to achieve the same or similar results, you begin to understand that there is not (with some exceptions) one right way to do things.

And if there isn’t one right way to do things, that means that there are multiple ways of being that are just fine. With an open mind, one will see, at the very least, that one’s preferred (or accustomed) way of doing things may not be the best way.

Growing up, I was acquainted with a elderly couple, Frank and Helen Hitchens. The Hitchens were devout Christians and had spent a significant amount of time doing missionary work in other countries to evangelize the message of Jesus. They had spent time in Peru and later in Tunisia. There may be other countries that I am not aware of.

In my memory, the Hitchens were stodgy and dull, despite all of their worldly travels. This may be explained by the fact that they were old and I was young. But my grandparents were also old and did not seem nearly as stodgy and dull as the Hitchens.

Photo: Amitav Ghosh

I have a copy of a letter from the Hitchens that I recently obtained. My mother and I were sorting through some of her papers and we came across this letter, written to my parents in 1979 when the Hitchens were doing missionary work in Tunisia.

Most of the letter shows very little in the way of compassion for the Tunisians. Rather, it it strikes me as condescending and tone deaf. It belittles the Muslims for being impractical and bound by tradition. It asks us to be thankful that we are not camel herders and complains that there is no good sharp cheddar cheese to be had. It says with a regretful tone that all the newspapers in Tunis are in either French or Arabic, and the Hitchens cannot therefore read them.

It on the one hand says, disdainfully, that the Muslims can be “fiercely loyal” to their faith and on the other hand says that serving the Christian God is a “privilege” that is welcome despite hardship. It also seems reluctant to call Islam a religion.

And finally there’s this: “Frank just commented that sometimes he feels like [the apostle] Paul — in our rented apartment, a ‘prisoner’ of the Gospel….”

This makes me ask: why were they even there? Did Tunisia leave any impression on them, other than that they were glad to be Americans? How could their missionary work have been effective if they didn’t speak the language, and showed little interest in the Tunisian people’s lives?

So perhaps cross-cultural understanding is not automatic. As much as I’d like to think that stepping outside one’s American existence to learn something new will expand one’s horizons, maybe that’s an illusion.

Or at least debatable. Some argue that the saying that travel opens one’s mind is a false adage. ‚ÄúTravel does not automatically make you a better person,” says Travis Levius, a travel journalist and hospitality consultant. This appears to be true of Mr. and Mrs. Hitchens. I’m not saying that they weren’t good people, whatever that means in the long run. But their travel in the name of Jesus did not, evidently, make them more compassionate towards people of cultures that were different from their own.

True compassion transcends differences in culture, age, language, or religion. And compassion, I would argue, was one of the main teaching points of Jesus. But more on that some other time.

Epilogue: Mr. Hitchens claimed that he would not die before the Second Coming of Jesus. He died around 1987. Make of that what you will.