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How Travel Helps Cultivate Empathy In A Globalized World

by Kellie Jennar Oct 9, 2008
Engaged travel teaches humility and mutual understanding, key ingredients for world peace.

Australia, like most developed western countries, has had the world arrive at its doorstep.

Even in small country towns, you can’t walk down the street without a spattering of Mandarin spilling out to the sidewalk from the local Chinese take-away; Con the fruiter hawking his produce; passing worshipers on their way to a mosque, temple or synagogue.

Although we are living side by side, passing each other on a daily basis, how well do we really know our neighbors?

For instance, do we know we have given a great insult by not removing our shoes at the front door of our Japanese neighbor’s home; offended our Filipino host by zealously commenting on how wonderful the food was and shown our ignorance by calling our Mexican friend ‘amigo’ instead of by his name?

More importantly, do we care?

In the legal system, ignorance is not a valid defense – neither should it be in life, in this day and age of access to information, travel and freedom.

The Right To Understand

This is MY country, some say. They are foreigners, and they should assimilate to our way of life.

Says Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Well, if you had been forced to leave your homeland, your friends, your family, the only way of life you have ever known, wouldn’t YOU want to keep a little bit of your culture alive in a strange and frightening land?

Can we learn cultural awareness without leaving the comfort of our armchair? To an extent…perhaps. We can learn history and facts that we are able to rattle off when requested.

But is not until we travel – until we open ourselves up to that same level of vulnerability, relying on the most basic elements of communication and human nature, that we are able to look through their eyes.

When you open yourself to the world through engaged travel, you can better empathize with the immigrants for whom your native country is a foreign land.

Says Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”


To travel under this banner of seeking greater understanding and empathy of the people who live in this world requires a lot of sincere effort.

First of all, you must start with a least a basic understanding of yourself and humanity. To be aware of the fact that everyone and everything is connected in this world, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“I’m not above anybody. I’m, I’m not better than anybody. I am made of the same material that everybody else is and if somebody can be a saint, so can I and if somebody can be a torturer, so can I. So it’s really important to, for me, to be aware of that so that I can act against it.”

– Isabel Allendel , Enough Rope 2008

It is necessary to dismantle the idea that “real” travel must be dirty, dangerous, off the beaten track and done on a shoe-string budget. Of course, this can be part of the authentic experience of travel – but it is still only part of the whole.

If we maintain the ideal of “real” travel, we will be excluding a whole section of the community from our experiences.

It is foolish to believe that because someone is not living in “authentic” poverty they do not have an understanding of their country and their culture – that they have somehow become Westernized and corrupt and couldn’t possibly have anything of real value to share with you.

“I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.”

– Mahatma Gandhi, Prayer for Peace

Sense Of Adventure

Have a sense of adventure. This could involve trekking through the Amazon until you stumble upon an indigenous tribe, or simply accepting invitations to uncertain outcomes. Some simple tips to increase your spirit of adventure:

  • Don’t be tied to your itinerary
  • Accept random and unexpected invitations
  • Smile; you’ll be amazed at what happens
  • Try using only the local language for a day
  • Believe in the innate goodness of people
  • Leave your voice of reason at home

Believe In Yourself

Have an unwavering belief in yourself. Do not be deterred, by your friends, your family, or some guy who has just conned you out of your last $20.

Remember, you have not embarked on this journey to better your own life, or to regale your friends with outrageous stories over dinner parties, and you are not trying to save the world.

You are simply an individual, traveling the world in the hope of understanding your neighbors, friends, colleagues and even your enemies a little better and in turn, hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

“For my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways,
And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low;
I’m at home and at ease on a track that I know not,
And restless and lost on a road that I know.”

– Henry Lawson, The Wander-Light

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