Despite the fact that I live right next to Mexico, my first time out of the country was on a mission/volunteer trip to South Africa, where I helped out in a small school in Willowvale of the Eastern Cape. I was fairly young at the time; it was before I went to high school. So, not only was I completely ignorant of the world outside of my home country, but I was immature as well. Together, these things made my time in South Africa my most difficult trip. It also opened my eyes to what being an outsider felt like, what other cultures were like, and, to some extent, what living in another part of the world was. While I will not claim to have some deep understanding of other cultures, the people that I met in Willowvale opened my eyes to the fact that my understanding of the world was not singular or necessarily correct.

This formative experience also sparked my interest in traveling, and has shaped my opinions about the potential for tourism around the world and its importance to us as individuals. What I mean to say here, is that I think immersive, international travel can help us empathize with people from other countries. I don’t believe that you have to travel internationally in order to do this, nor do I think that traveling is guaranteed to do this. However, from my experience in South Africa and since, I think that living with people from another country/culture (rather than holing up in a resort or on a cruise) can change a person’s understanding of the world.

Looking at some of the struggles that I see us facing today as a global community, and in my own country, I think that this sort of experience has more potential now than ever before. Of course, I think sharing experiences with one another has always been a way to forge friendships and bridge cultures. But the world today is obviously more connected now than it ever has been. For English, Spanish, and French speakers (among others) there are also a variety of countries that share languages. Technological advancements are furthering this, allowing us to communicate without sharing a language through things like Google Translate. Traveling is the most accessible that it has ever been, and more and more distant locations are now linked to the rest of the world via planes.

For those of us in the United States (and probably Canada, China and Russia, although I don’t live there, so I can’t say for sure), I really think that the experience of international travel is even more important. Unlike much of the rest of the world, we live in countries that are large enough for us to live in cultural isolation for our entire lives, even if we participate in travel. However, living a life with only a good understanding of one culture is problematic. On a personal level, I think we are missing out on something fulfilling and beautiful if we isolate ourselves from other ways of seeing the world around us. As a global community, cultural understanding is essential to peace, negotiations, and growth. I can’t say for sure, because tourism is rife with problems, but I think there’s a chance that allowing ourselves to explore, and on the other side, showing travelers our homes and sharing our cultures with one another, can improve our relations with one another. We have to go into these things with the right mindset, open and willing to learn, to face things we don’t understand and may be entirely new to. It can be difficult, but I think it is worth it. Something to think about in the new year.