It was in Paradise Lost that John Milton introduced the notion that Adam and Eve ate an apple from the tree of knowledge (thus explaining why your “knowledgeable” elementary school teachers may have had the infamous symbol sitting on their desks). The writers of Genesis left the forbidden fruit unspecified, but scholars have since claimed it could’ve been a grape, possibly a fig, even a pomegranate. Whatever it was exactly, the first Biblical book is clear that its consumption was the ultimate sin — and ever since the Western world has equated knowledge with a loss of innocence. Banned from Eden, the original sinners were also the original knowledge seekers, and the idea that understanding means corruption is widespread, often seen in dubious platitudes like “ignorance is bliss.”
Throughout history, innocence has been lost when new knowledge is gained, and the most common way for that to happen is by leaving home. By temporarily or permanently saying goodbye to what she knows best, the traveler willfully treks out from the light into the dark, plucking an apple from the tree of knowledge on her way.
The realm of the unknown is perhaps humankind’s greatest fear, but as the philosopher Spinoza said, “There can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope.” To travel is to hope, but it’s also to confront one’s fears. To stay in your tiny corner of the globe is to stay ignorant, and, indeed, it can be blissful. Yet what a warped perspective this blind contentment gives. Prejudices and naïve thoughts bask in restfulness and immobility.
The first time I left the United States, I went to Romania, Hungary, and Moldova, where my family did charity work in orphanages and hospitals with a local organization. At the time, there was a travel alert from the US government cautioning Americans not to go to Moldova. No one in my family spoke Romanian or Hungarian, nor did we have any relationship with those countries. The reason we traveled there — going against our own government’s wishes — was straightforward to my parents: My brother and I needed to see a harsher side of the world. Budapest and Bucharest are essentially first-world cities, but the rural areas where we worked, mainly populated by Roma, were derelict and, at least from the perspective of a middle-class American, dangerous.
Later, my brother and I were taken to Athens at a time that coincided with the riots of the extremist Golden Dawn party, where we witnessed a great deal of violence. And, for every spring vacation in high school, we were taken to politically tumultuous areas of the world, like Tijuana, Mexico, where drug cartels still maintain a strong presence, and to Skid Row in Los Angeles, a struggling downtown area infamous for its drug addicts and prostitutes.
While their friends back home applauded my parents for showing my brother and me the harsher sides of the world early on, there are serious questions about travel at stake. How much innocence should be preserved in children? How does white privilege and “poverty tourism” factor into the decision to travel? Should we take traveling so lightly? How much power does travel really have?
To explore these questions, I think it’s necessary to point out that there are two ways to travel: for pleasure or for understanding. Sauntering down, say, the Promenade de la Croisette in Cannes, stopping to shop at a boutique, and sunbathing on a particularly sun-filled patch of beach is a “pleasurable” way of traveling. Travel for “understanding,” however, would be to perhaps explore Africa’s longest coastline in Somalia, to climb Mount Everest, or to visit politically turbulent cities. Traveling for “understanding” entails neither easy nor safe pursuits, but one would presume they have the greater potential for enlightenment.
Yet the idea that exposure to danger allows for a more complex understanding of the world is a fallacy. The world in which we live has danger at every turn, even in seemingly safe places. Myanmar, whose tourism office seems to have unlimited funds (I feel I see an advert in every magazine), is a country that’s still a thinly veiled dictatorship. The picturesque, seemingly stable Christchurch, New Zealand, was flattened by an unexpected earthquake not so long ago. Even tried-and-true locales like the beaches of Waikiki or the museums of Paris are subject to pickpockets and thieves. To leave home is to expose yourself to the unknown no matter where you go.
More importantly, every time we travel, we’re transformed, so it doesn’t matter so much where we go — if it’s somewhere as dangerous as Afghanistan or as safe as the Amalfi Coast — it simply matters that we go at all.
A loss of innocence is usually depicted in popular culture as occurring after a tragedy, perhaps a first sexual encounter, or any time someone must undertake responsibilities disproportionate to their age and experience. Although the etymology is sometimes challenged, many believe the word “innocent” comes from the Latin noscere, meaning “to know” or “to learn” (the prefix in- meaning “not”). “Innocence” is to “not know” or “not learn.” When one travels, especially to places like riotous Greece, inner-city Los Angeles, or off-limits Moldova, one learns, and thus loses innocence.
Of course there’s nothing inherently immoral or wrong about traveling. In fact, a recent multi-million-dollar research campaign called Travel Effect found a litany of reasons why traveling is a healthy activity. Among other benefits it reported are these: that students who study abroad tend to have higher lifelong incomes, that one-third of leisure travelers have more sex while traveling, and that workers report slightly higher productivity and morale when given time to travel.
These are all respectable reasons to travel, but often we look only at the positive side. We enjoy fetishizing travel as the romantic pastime of the freethinker and wandering soul, but it’s also an incredibly formative, powerful, and far more jarring pursuit than it’s often given credit for.
Globetrotting guru Anthony Bourdain admitted that his passion for travel led to falling out of love with and eventually divorcing his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. He explained it by saying, “I knew that [travel] had changed me, altered the way I would look at things. And the first time I went back to America, I found I was right. Everything was flat. Everything.”
The perspective-altering effects of travel are common — in fact, they’re what many people like most about leaving home. But these effects can also lead to relationship failures, disappointment with careers, a change or loss of ideology, and an irreversible loss of innocence. Indeed, travel sleeps close to corruption.
I do believe my brother and I are better off having traveled to developing nations and politically unstable areas despite our young age. But often, travel, even to more typical destinations with the idea of ‘gaining new perspectives,’ can inadvertently cause people to become scared of the world. A traveler can clam up and fall out of love with both his home, which is now dull and tamed, and with the world, which is too different and unpredictable. Travel is still a worthwhile experience, of course, but loss of innocence and disenchantment with the world are high potential costs to pay.
Near the end of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield tells his little sister, Phoebe, that when he grows up he wants to be a “catcher in the rye.” Taking a cue from Robert Burns’ poetry, Holden says, “I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.” Saving people from maturation, from a loss of innocence, is an honorable quest, and there’s something to be said for sheltering young people from the transformations that result from travel.
And yet, in the words of Holden describing his sister riding a carousel, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off.” As much as the god of Genesis wanted to be a catcher in the rye for Adam and Eve, they still decided to plunge over the cliff into a world of knowledge and adulthood. To go to Gypsy camps, to experience extremist politics in Greece, to be thrown into the middle of a drug cartel’s stronghold, indeed to leave home and travel at all — these pursuits only help one grow up faster. The decision to travel is simply to choose to grow up quickly. And just like you can’t return an apple to its tree, once you begin to explore the world, there’s no going back.
This post originally appeared at delistraty.com and is republished here with permission.