Why Travel Matters
From Ibn Battuta to Anthony Bourdain, the world's great travelers understand the transformative power of exploring, observing, listening, and seeing. Why travel matters.
Anthony Bourdain: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
As we approach the third anniversary of the death of Anthony Bourdain, one of the greatest broadcast journalists of our era (note: I didn’t say food or specialty journalist; he was simply and consistently producing the best journalism on television with his Parts Unknown program), I dug up the quote above that I had read recently.
I dug it up partly because I was thinking a lot about travel these days. Bourdain — one of the great international road warriors — captures the essence of travel so well with that quote. It’s not Hallmark “travel broadens your horizons” stuff. It’s real and insightful and powerful - like Bourdain himself.
Of the many tragedies that Covid-19 has wrought — death, destruction of jobs, rising inequality, cratering businesses — one more casualty should be noted: the strangling of international travel. I have written elsewhere of how vital the travel and tourism industry is to our global economy - more than 10% of global GDP, 1 out of 10 jobs globally, 28% of total services exports worldwide.
But beyond those numbers lies something just as important: the role that travel plays for the international affairs professional, the analyst, the reporter, the business leader, the non-profit executive, the student, and others in our business of understanding the world, regions, sectors, and more (people like those of you reading this article).
Another travel quote I like comes from the great 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta who famously said: “Travel - it leaves you speechless, and then it makes you into a storyteller.” I like the bit about being “speechless,” because when you visit a place for the first time, listening, observing, questioning, reserving judgement, letting others talk, you’re engaged in the best sort of exploratory travel. You may not be speechless in awe, but of bit of speechlessness in curiosity will serve you well.
When students or early career professionals seek out my advice on careers in international affairs, my response is usually a familiar one: “Go, Just go!” No, I’m not telling them to go away or leave my office. I’m telling them to simply go somewhere, anywhere, far from their home country, out of their comfort zone.
I want them to travel and come back - Ibn Battuta-esque — with stories, insights, anecdotes, friendships, and a deeper understanding (not expertise; that takes decades) of a region or a sector that can only come with seeing it up close. In those conversations, I usually say something like this: “Yes….well, you can possibly apply for that research associate job at XYZ think tank or do that entry-level job at ABC Corp or… better yet, you could teach English in East Asia or work for an English language newspaper in the Middle East (as I did just out of college) or join a start-up in East Africa, learn Mandarin in Beijing, or maybe work on a cattle farm in South America, or even a vineyard in France. Really, it doesn’t matter. Just go! Go off, young woman or man, and find your way.”
In my first Friday column in these pages — Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai or Goodbye — I wrote about my own experiences as a fresh-from-college reporter, thrust into unknown environments in Jeddah, Riyadh, Lahore, and Islamabad — coming back with my own Ibn Battuta-esque treasure of stories, but also a better understanding of the places I visited - and, not to be minimized, a better understanding of myself.
After all, when you travel and you are learning something new about a place, you are also learning something new about yourself — things like your tolerance for uncertainty, your inherent biases and certainties (travel is a great breaker of biases and certainties), and also something else: the limits of your bookshelf.
I don’t mean that you need to grow your bookshelf. What I mean is that often your books don’t tell you the real or full story. While Aldous Huxley may have gone a bit too far when he said that “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries,” I’ve often found myself scratching my head at the discrepancy between what I see and hear on the ground in places and the received wisdom of the high establishment percolating in that swamp of conventional wisdom.
I was fortunate to do my early travels in the Middle East and North Africa before the smartphone. When I went somewhere, I was really there, not fragmented between where I was visiting and instant email or phone access or social media. When I was studying Arabic in Cairo in 1997, sans social media or mobile phone, I had no idea what my friends were eating that night, or what a colleague thought about a new article, or where my cousin was vacationing - and the thought that I should know all of those things instantly were the furthest thing from my mind.
Yes, I’d check in with home and friends and colleagues periodically at internet cafe visits (remember those? I remember one in Damascus, Syria, in the early 2000s that asked me to sign in by listing all internet sites I planned to visit; and another in Tehran in the late 1990s attached to a bowling alley that served the best coffee in town - not an exotic brew, it was old-fashioned Nescafe sprinkled with Cardamom).
Note to aspiring screenwriters or television serial makers: think internet cafe, late 1990s, in an authoritarian state, and the cast of characters that frequent the place. It’s a story ripe with drama, waiting to be told. But I digress, but so be it, this is a column about travel, and the best travel is full of digressions.
And while I’m digressing, remind me to tell you the story of the time I was enlisted as a Persian carpet salesman in Isfahan, or the time I went undercover for an assignment as an Afghan shoe cobbler in Jeddah, or simply those times when I sat in park benches and watched scenes unfold around me: one, in Rabat, always stays with me of an elderly grandfather, barely able to walk, buying an ice cream cone for his granddaughter.
I reflected on travel - especially pre hyper-connected travel — recently during a conversation I had with Andrew Parasiliti, the President of Al-Monitor and an insightful thinker on the Middle East and North Africa region. I was a guest on his “On the Middle East” podcast and we were Zoom chatting ahead of the official taping, lamenting the fact that we haven’t traveled internationally in more than a year.
We were also reminiscing about our early travels in the Middle East or Asia, and he said something that stuck with me: “We would go to these places and not know anyone, and have little or no connection with home, and we’d just figure it out.” He reflected on visiting a bus station in Aleppo, early in his Arabic language studies, and no one spoke English. “With my broken Arabic, I just sort of figured it out, because that’s what you did.”
Yes, you just sort of figure it out. As I look back on my professional travels (tourism is different; your mind-set is different going in) I think of those quiet meetings or episodes far from the lights and cameras of tourist attractions that jolt you or scare you or enrich you or give you a flicker of an insight that you did not have before, or bonded you to someone that will become a part of your life, or helped you see just a little farther into the future than you would have had you stayed home.
From Dubai to Delhi, Rabat to Riyadh, I can recall moments, episodes, vignettes, conversations that changed the way I see the world. To be sure, I’ve never been one of the legendary road warriors, the ones who routinely hit hundreds of thousands of miles per year, the consultants constantly on the road, or the development bankers whirling between world capitals. In fact, sometimes too much travel can lessen the impact of what you are seeing, and cities and regions begin to blur into one commodified business class cocoon.
But I can’t imagine doing what I do without the quarter century or so of travel behind me. There’s an intensity in exploratory, purposeful travel. Perhaps that’s why I can recall moments from a trip I took 15 years ago, while I sometimes have a hard time remembering what I did 15 days ago.
So, while Covid-19 understandably limited our travel, I look forward to the day when we are back to the BC (Before Coronavirus) world of travel. Yes, Zoom has its uses, but it does not make you speechless, and certainly will not make you a storyteller.
Cheers and have a great weekend and week ahead
Note to fellow travelers: this Friday column barely made the Friday US EST deadline because of, well, life. But we made it nonetheless, though if you are a subscriber, you’ll get it on Saturday morning US EST as I don’t want to violate the inboxes of our US East Coast subscribers so late at night. If I figured out a way to stagger it to those of you in Asia or the Middle East, I would, but until then, I’m aiming to be in your inbox mostly during business hours. All of our inboxes are already too full!
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There’s lot of schmaltzy travel quotes out there, but here are some of the ones I like and that seem to ring true.
Send us your favorite ones over at email@example.com
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign” Robert Louis Stevenson
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Saint Augustine
“Travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” Paulo Coelho
What Fellow Travelers Are Reading, Watching, etc…
Fellow traveler Monty Simus is one of the great, thoughtful international road warriors. Back in the pre-Covid days, he logged hundreds of thousands of miles per year. If it's Tuesday, he might be in Kabul where he led a historic power project in Afghanistan, and if it's Thursday, he may be somewhere in southeast Asia or Europe delivering a talk on water politics (his blog, Water Politics, is excellent), and yet he may be back by Monday to the US West coast where he is based. He travels more than a spy, so it's appropriate that he loves spy thrillers. When he is not immersed in non-fiction and history, he tells us he is currently reading Red Widow by Alma Katsu and The Beirut Protocol by Joel C. Rosenberg.
Fellow traveler, fellow SAIS alum, insightful policy thinker, and president of Al-Monitor Andrew Parasiliti is reading about 7 books at once (a habit he says he still retains from graduate school!). Among the books he’s reading today that caught our eye: The World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology by Toby Wilkinson, and Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia by Fouad Ajami.
Fellow traveler and researcher Rick Twelves is reading Roger Ford's Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East. He also recently discovered the classic "Al Resala" (The Message) on Netflix, and strongly recommends it as a masterclass in both epic filmmaking and Islamic storytelling. “The movie had an absolutely insane production, filming in the Moroccan and Libyan deserts while funded in part by Muammar al-Gaddafi!” he says).
What We’re Also Reading…
We’re also reading the always astute Jonathan Fulton on Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the Middle East, entitled Mr. Yang Goes to the Middle East published by the Atlantic Council.
Fellow traveler and always insightful analyst Elana Delozier also has penned a smart strategy paper for the Washington Institute on the Red Sea region. The Case for a Holistic U.S Policy Toward the Red Sea Region is a must-read.
Note to Fellow Travelers:
Tell us what fellow travelers on this list ought to be reading and watching - something that just transformed your thinking or is just super entertaining. And please don’t be shy or modest about your latest papers or books or movies. We’ll find a lot of them but we won’t see them all, and we want to spread the word. Send a note to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Wonderful writing from someone who truly understands the essence of traveling. Thank you for sharing this piece.