I remember a statement by a man from Israel I met on a bus ride en route to the Dead Sea. He told me, “Travel makes you smarter but less happy.” It seems somewhat eccentric now that I needed to experience so many places, iconic places, to know the world and find enlightenment. Traveling became my purpose, my inspiration, my destiny. I was a traveler in search of the truth. I had to know the Far East and the Middle East. I had to see the Amazon and Outback. I was incomplete without Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa. I needed Madrid, Paris and Rome. Certainly I couldn’t omit North America.
"I had been seduced by the vastness of global knowledge and at the same time deeply concerned through personal exposure to the complexity and magnitude of today’s global issues"
And so I ran to the arms of the world, trusting that the more I knew, the more I would enjoy life. The first ten countries I approached romantically, with enthusiasm and optimism. At this point my great expectations were fulfilled. I was seeing the world, having fun, and living my dream of travel.
With the next ten countries things got more serious and I was driven to continue the quest. I had been seduced by the vastness of global knowledge and at the same time deeply concerned through personal exposure to the complexity and magnitude of today’s global issues. My hopes for personal fulfillment had turned into a dilemma.
Beyond thirty countries lurked the twilight zone, a place where fantasy and reality coincide. My enthusiasm for travel was muddy with concern, confusion and frustration. While in pursuit of my colorful dream, I had directly encountered social exclusion, human suffering, and injustice among race and religion. Adding environmental concerns to this experience, there was also a war on nature in every corner of our world. Retrospectively, I had more questions than answers.
Had I become a cynic? What were the real reasons behind social, racial and religious conflict and war? And most importantly, who was I? I felt somewhat bewildered and innominate, a blip on the radar screen of life.
I had seen DDT and pesticides sold with bare hands in Ecuador and discovered gold and oil companies spilling mercury and lead into Amazon tributaries. I had witnessed organized religion tearing apart a Holy Land. I had endured air pollution in China so thick that I could actually feel my life expectancy drop with each breath. I had encountered aggression, violence, and immeasurable queries regarding health and hunger in India and Africa. I had seen unthinkable things dumped into our seas and oceans in nearly every country. These were a few of the serious global issues that were hard to ignore.
Travel has taught me that I must, as far as possible and without surrender, be tolerant and amenable toward a great many things, whether I really like it or not. It has shown me that when people believe strongly in race, religion or politics, they may indeed harbor dangerously vested interests, bigotries or intolerance. I’ve come to realize the troubles of others are actually troubles of my own.
Albert Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Do you want to comprehend the current state of our world? If your answer is yes, then you’re destined to carry the burden of your knowledge. When directly faced with the social, political, economic or environmental misfortune of others, I inevitably feel concerned and accountable, as if the more I know — the more I owe.
I recall the final flight home from my first trip around the world, gazing through the small oval airplane window, and reflecting on my cherished travels abroad. I had explored a grand total of forty countries in my life and knew the tones of as many languages. I realized that at the very least, the limits of my language were the limits of my world, and while I had received a priceless education, it had been profoundly sobering. As my eyes fixed below on the puffy white clouds that blanketed the earth, I grew serious and aged by the ways of the world. Perhaps the jewel of travel had come at an infinite price.♦
The Jewel of Travel guides us through a true account of a journalist's personal life experience, identifying how the romance and enthusiasm of travel matches up with the reality of global awareness.
A revised version of this article is available at StevenAndrewMartin.com | Jewel of Travel
Dr. Steven Martin with Study Abroad Journal and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on expedition to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the western Amazon
The Jewel of Travel was originally published as “Great Expectations,” winning top honors in the 1999 Hawaii Community College Literary Competition, the 1999 State of Hawaii League for Innovation Literary Competition, and the 1999 International Honor Society Academic Publication Nota Bene International Honor Society Anthology.