The value of travel: being a citizen of the world

By GABI SWISTARA | September 26, 2019

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COURTESY OF GABI SWISTARA Swistara’s trip to Jordan was one of her most memorable journeys abroad.

“If men could only know each other, they would neither idolize nor hate,” Elbert Hubbard once said.

Since I was a little girl, I have always loved to travel. The excitement of waking up in the middle of the night, taking a taxi with the windows down to feel the 4 a.m. wind, eating cookies in the airport. Watching movies until you touch down somewhere you have never even heard of — feeling different climates, watching different people. The hiking. The lying by the beach. The cities filled with workers. Every country being a little different, and every country being a lot the same. 

Sometimes there are major differences. Sitting in a Messiah house when I was young, a local man asked if I was married. My mom said, “No! She’s just 11,” to which he replied, “Then she should be long married by now.” But no matter how seemingly different in cultural practice, all people want to be happy, all people feel love, laughter, family, jealousy and sadness.  

It was not until recently that I realized how much travel has impacted my life. I truly believe that travel has given me an incredibly fortunate amount of an essential element in our world: empathy. It is through learning about different cultures that you learn about your own. I started to see different ways people lived their lives, how different people view the world. But every view was valid. Every way to do something worked, and ultimately people are the same. The kids in Tanzania would smile and wave at us as we walked by, and so did the children in Jordan and in Japan. Even waving is, for a brief moment, acknowledging the humanness in someone else (as my friend Michelle once said). 

I remember grocery shopping for breakfast in Japan. My friend Ricci and I were in a small grocery store, and none of the products had English lettering. Considering I am vegan and she celiac, we couldn’t pick and choose a random item to try. As such, we started asking an old woman, who spoke no English, for help. We tried pointing at the rice balls we wanted to buy and then pointing to other things, like vegetables, and nodding — or bread, and shaking our heads. We must have looked ridiculous. But this woman, although initially confused, took time out of her day to help us find something which we could both eat. It helped both Ricci and I feel more comfortable. Even in an incredibly foreign place, we were able to connect with someone so very different from us.  

I’ve shared a Bulmers Cider in Ireland and gotten close and personal with North Indian tigers (Noori was my favorite). I’ve carried concrete water filters through the Amazon and flown a water plane in the Maldives. I’ve ridden camels through the Jordanian desert. I’m a certified elephant keeper in Thailand and have also worked a corporate job in Manhattan. I hiked the paths to Petra and have been skiing in the Alps. I grew up in the heart of Europe. Sang karaoke in Japan. Got a face mask in Korea. Learned German from a German. A woman living in a South African favela took my family on a tour of her home and her farm; she showed us where her kids played soccer. I’ve walked the Galapagos trails of Charles Darwin and tucked a wish into the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve peed in front of a wildebeest herd in Tanzania and crawled through Viet Kong trenches. Gone sandboarding in Oman. And there is so much more I’ve yet to explore. 

One of my favorite travel stories, though — at least, one which always makes me laugh — is when a man on the Seoul subway tried to marry my friend off to a stranger. He was very persistent. In the moment I mostly had fun watching my friend try to refuse this old man. Upon reflection, though, this man who didn’t know us at all — we were just two foreign, white, blonde people on the subway train — tried to make us feel welcome in his country, and there’s something wonderful about that. 

Travelling alone in Edinburgh, I ended up making connections with a friendly couple in a pub on Saturday night. They were celebrating their eighth anniversary, saw me sitting alone and joined me. They bought me a drink and we ended up talking for a couple hours. After that I ended up pub crawling with a group of Brits celebrating a stag party. These older, mostly married, from-the-middle-of-nowhere England guys started hanging out with me and were sweet and protective all night long. It all made me a lot less scared of being alone. 

Sure, when you travel you learn about geography, different climates, cultures and animals. Jordan’s entire population is one-third immigrants (mostly Syrian refugees) — that fact always gives me hope. But you learn mostly social elements; when you interact with such different people and actually connect with them, you learn in a weird way how similar everyone is. You learn empathy. And the more you understand others and have empathy for them, the less fear and hate you have. There is so much more of the world to see, and there is so much more I have yet to learn.

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