BY: LAURA ROJAS
I remember looking up into the Amazonian night – lungs filled with pure air, feet digging into cold earth, seeing the hazy violet dust of the Milky Way. I remember meeting people who knew the curves and creases of the land in a way I never would. I saw giggling children running barefoot through deep jungle. A man, eyes closed, playing Andean pan flute on the streets of Leticia. I bought a copy of his music for the equivalent of 25 cents, a CD in a flimsy paper sleeve he’d burnt at the Internet cafe down the street, and he could never guess I’m listening to it as I write this.
Travelling (and I mean, really traveling. Not splurging on a cruise or spending a night in a luxury resort somewhere warm – although those things are fun too) is such a vital thing to our development as decent human beings. It’s a broadening of horizons incomparable to reading a book or watching a documentary. Once you immerse yourself in a foreign culture, whether it is through sharing a meal with a local or getting directions to an off-the-path location not listed in your guidebook, you gain larger perspective on the world outside your head. It should be a right-of-passage, a mandatory exploration of humanity that must be done before you can truly claim to know yourself or your surroundings.
In 2011, I had a lucky admittance into Leticia – the southernmost city of Colombia bordering with Peru and making up part of the Amazonian region. One of my cousins was simultaneously completing a thesis project and working on a documentary, and was stationed in the jungle for a couple of years. Her love for the area was infectious and she had made friends with indigenous members of the community, giving me an exclusive look at Amazonian culture unseen by most. My experiences with the place and the people that lived there gave me a sense of belonging to a foreign land. Despite the fact that four years have past since I touched the Colombian soil, I have kept up-to-date with their current trials and fights for justice as if I had never left.
That’s exactly why travel is so vital. It gives you a newfound sensitivity into the lives of other people. The experience of being humbled before a landscape and standing vulnerable in the face of foreign culture allows one to truly appreciate diversity without the tinted lens of ethnocentrism. This means judging Colombia for Colombia, and not in comparison to the already understood suburbs of Toronto. The benefits of travel are endless.
Travel should be used by educators as a teaching tool more often than it is. The truth is that most cultural insensitivity is simply created out of a lack of understanding. In a documentary called THE ARYANS by Mo Asumang – a half-Ghanian, half-German woman – she explores this exact root of racism. Through speaking with white-power Neo-Nazis and KKK members, she aims to show them the real face of the “enemy” and its difference with their off-key preconceived notions of race. If travel were integrated as an equally important part of a person’s education as say mathematics, we would likely see a decline in the existence of racism and selfishness in our society.
Human beings are born out of experience, the best of us internalizing compassion, empathy and the appreciation of diversity. Travelling teaches all of that and additionally gives you a collection of stories that will inspire others. A true traveller realizes that all places hold unsaid value. Travelling allows you to see foreigners as human beings with names, dreams and families. So maybe if we embrace travelling as an important educational tool, then when we are confronted with a proposition to clear cut more of the Amazon, or disaster strikes in some far off corner of the globe, we can see other people as more than just a obstacle to a copper mine or as a statistic on a news report.