As Julie and I slow down on our international waterfall endeavors, we looked back at our experiences and realized that we are far different people now than we were when we started this website (when we went nuts with traveling internationally) or even further back when we started to visit waterfalls together.
Prior to our international travels, we had aspirations of running through a checklist of things to achieve the so-called “American Dream” such as owning a home, making lots of money, and raising a family among other things.
But along the way we discovered travel, and with each trip to far flung places, we became wiser, healthier, and closer to who we are than ever before.
So as we re-examined our lives and the decisions we’ve made to get here, we wondered what it was about travel that has changed us in so many ways.
That was when a conversation with a Caucasian cousin-in-law’s mother at a family gathering pretty much hit the nail on the head when she told us (upon learning that we had been all over the world) that travel is the best education you can get.
Even though Julie and I had already suspected this was the case, here we had someone who actually lived it and confirmed our suspicions.
She then went on to say, “I have memories that are still with me since I traveled in the 60’s, and friends who still keep in touch. I’ve seen so much and learned so much about things you’d never learn about in school or watch on TV. Keep traveling while you still have your legs. I congratulate you.”
And with those words of wisdom in mind, we’re digging deep into our personal experiences to explain why travel is the best education you can get.
DEEP IMPRESSIONS = DEEP IMPACT
It’s one thing to see something on TV or read about it in the newspaper (or internet or books or whatever your media of choice is), but it’s another thing to see and experience those things in person.
More often than not, when you’re told about something, you’re unlikely to appreciate its message and more likely to react (or not) briefly and then forget about it not long thereafter.
But if you’ve witnessed a bombing or were confronted with beggars firsthand, these moments stick with you and you start to wonder why these things happen.
For example, in school, you can try to teach students about revolutions by regurgitating what’s in the history textbooks citing such factors like say the population had a 95% illiteracy rate, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer, and the populace was oppressed with no opportunities to break out of poverty.
Sure the students might memorize some dates and some key figures in history, but it’s forgotten after the test or class is over and the implications of the cause and effect of the conditions leading to the revolution are lost.
But if those students perhaps visited (or better yet stayed with) a family with no running water, no electricity, no schools, and lack of food while working real hard to survive; all the while harboring deep resentment at the government for accepting bribes, hoarding most of the country’s wealth, and even coming in and building dams or deforesting to mine for coal (thereby putting more pressure on their own lands and impacting their own means of survival), then perhaps those students would be so deeply moved by the experience that they can better understand why the people want to act and revolt to improve their situation.
That is the essence of why deep impressions, which you can only get by experiencing things firsthand through travel, is one main reason why travel is the best education you can get.
Perhaps more importantly, such impressions stick with you to the extent that you’re more inclined to want to take action to change things for the better.
We can vouch for this aspect of travel as we’ve been fortunate to experience a variety of things in our escapades while learning in the process.
Among the things we’ve seen and experienced firsthand (and this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination) are:
- The Japanese work ethic and efficiency
- How little people get paid (if they get paid at all) in India
- Deforestation that was happening in Thailand and India
Regarding the Japanese work ethic and efficiency, this was manifested in their very efficient and accurate train system.
We also saw how much pride and honor they take in their work and their demeanor, which was very evident in the care they take when wrapping purchased goods.
And their discipline was exhibited in their by-the-book behavior, which also frustrated us in one instance when we had a little bit of a misunderstanding at a train/bus station where we thought they were ripping us off for bus/train fare when in fact we were penalized for deviating from a set itinerary that otherwise would have saved us money.
As for the miniscule pay in India, we learned that our drivers were getting paid less than Rs 200 per day (which was about less than $5 USD). This explained why our drivers would sleep in their cars and turn down accommodations. It was also why the locals relied so much on tips.
Of course, this has implications for why jobs would get outsourced here as any developed country wouldn’t be able to compete with the pay disparity as companies try to squeeze every bit of profit margin possible.
In a way, it was rewarding overpopulation and poverty as under such circumstances, there will always be someone willing to work for less in an attempt to get out of their situation. And this fact really hit us deeply after we witnessed for ourselves how confronting the poverty was everywhere we went in India.
As for deforestation that we witnessed, we saw the degree of damage from slash-and-burn practices being employed by local tries in the once forested areas along the Death Highway in Western Thailand. We also saw Burmese refugee camps along the way.
In India, we saw deforestation as a means to extract coal in the Cherrapunjee area of Northeast India in the country’s accelerated pace of industralism.
Based on this sampling, it became much easier to appreciate how consumptive our lifestyles are in developed countries and how difficult it is to solve Global Warming when you start to consider how such practices are commonplace elsewhere in the world like Indonesia, the Amazon, and even our dwindling forests in the USA!
TESTING THEORIES -> BREAKING THROUGH THE CYCLE OF IGNORANCE
We always believed that reality is the fastest and most effective teacher.
This is especially true when we might have a belief or notion gained through hearsay. And nothing tests these theories out quite like seeing for yourself whether you were right or wrong for holding such beliefs or notions.
For example, when you buy some knock-off at a deeply discounted price at some street market only to have the knock-off fall apart on you when you get home, you learn never to look at knock-offs at street markets the same way again.
But until you’ve had the bitter taste of being ripped off, you’ll always be looking for the next great deal no matter how dodgy the vendor is.
In other words, you never learn the lesson until reality bites. And that’s essentially what travel does.
When we’re out there traveling, we witnessed places where socialism has been successful (and not as evil as gung-ho pro-capitalists and industrialists would have you believe).
We also observed and appreciated how other people around the world (especially in Europe) don’t worry as much about health insurance and health care.
And we even saw how locals in rural villages have found ways to adapt and live with their environment rather than trying to force arbitrary and detrimental changes against the very environment that sustains them.
Without travel, we may have never learned lessons.
As a result, we would have been more likely to be swayed by bias from the media or from peers, which is not unlike kids learning bad habits from undisciplined peers (i.e. the so-called “bad influences”).
After all, with insufficient life lessons, we wouldn’t have enough information needed to make wiser decisions.
So it’s with this in mind that we think travel has a way of testing our theories and pre-conceived beliefs.
Indeed, we were bound to run into different people, different cultures, different ways of doing things, different beliefs, and different environments.
Often times, what we witnessed ran contrary to what we were used to thinking. In that way, travel expanded our horizons and made us more open to the tremendous diversity and variety on the planet and its peoples.
And by keeping an open mind about things, we are more apt to learn from these differences and apply them in ways that would improve our own lives (and hopefully others as well).
And in the process, we developed greater respect for other people while embracing differences instead of alienating people who are different.
Here are some more examples of how travel managed to change our pre-conceived notions in much the same way a lyric in a U2 song said, “The more you see, the less you know. Unless you find out as you go. I knew much more then, than I do now…”
First, we witnessed how China seemed to be doing more to combat Global Warming than the US. Sure we came in thinking that China had a bad rap for being the biggest polluter by volume along with monumental environmental problems, but if you consider much of that pollution is for the manufacture of goods that developed there to be consumed cheaply back at home, then we realized that we were the drivers of an unsustainable cradle-to-grave consumer-heavy economy.
We also realized that China’s per capita carbon footprint was remarkably average compared to developed countries like the US, Canada, Japan, and Britain among others. So perhaps that reputation wasn’t fair.
We also witnessed firsthand how the Chinese were building more trains and subways in cities like Xi’an and Shanghai while Beijing’s system was already completed. Compare that to Los Angeles where we have a very dodgy Metro system that is only useful for a minority of Angelinos while still spending resources on expanding roads.
Even the failing high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco is plagued with cost overruns, poor routes, and seemingly faced with certain failure.
A second example of how our travels have tested our pre-conceived notions revolves around the misuse of charity resources in Africa.
We once thought if you passively donate to charities that they’d be put to good use.
That was until we went to Africa (specifically Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya among others) and noticed charity organizations driving brand new SUVs with workers staying in their own luxury rooms at 4- or 5-star hotels.
A Zambian local even told us that she could think of better uses of donations where designer clothes could be pawned off for money, which in turn could be used to buy more generic brand clothes (so the donation could be useful to more people). Unfortunately, most charities would just squander such donations.
Third, we witnessed some socialist success stories in India and Europe.
Growing up in the US, we were led to believe that socialism doesn’t work and that problems in Russia, Cuba, and China are frequently cited.
But when we visited the state of Kerala and saw firsthand that there’s strikingly less poverty there than other Indian states along with a 90% literacy rate (where the rest of the country was more in the 50% range), then we witnessed for ourselves something that ran contrary to what we were told.
It was even more amazing that Kerala managed to pull off this feat in a country where the gap between rich and poor is amongst the highest in the world.
So perhaps there’s some positives to take from this system after all. I never was a believer in absolutes.
Furthermore, the more socialized countries in Europe seem to live a healthier and happier life than we do.
Sure, they’re taxed a lot, aren’t generally filthy rich, and have problems of their own. However, based on the Europeans we’ve met, they average more than a month a year of vacations, they seem to know how to enjoy life, and they know how to make do with less.
All of these things are lessons we could certainly take back home and integrate into our own lives.
PERSPECTIVE -> UNDERSTANDING
Perhaps one of the most important things that travel has done for us is give us a greater sense of perspective.
For when you travel, you’re exposed to a greater range of experiences. Thus, you have a more extensive library of memories along with the knowledge to call upon when you’re confronted with a new situation or issue.
Since Julie and I tend to visit waterfalls wherever we go, we also better appreciated the environments that locals had to adapt to. Indeed, we were able to figure out why people eat what they do, why they build what they build, and why they behave the way they do.
It was all to survive and thrive, and we definitely learned a thing or two about adapting and rolling with the punches as we get through this thing called life.
Anyways, given our expanded library of experiences, we have the confidence to see the big picture, solve problems, not sweat the small stuff, believe in ourselves and what we know, understand people better, judge character better, and look at things more objectively.
And through this awareness and self-belief, we feel that we’ve broken through barriers (many of which were self-imposed) regarding what we once thought was not possible.
Travel in general (at least the more enlightening independent types) is expensive, logistically difficult, and requires a lot of time, health, and energy to pull off.
However, we’ve learned to overcome these barriers while becoming richly rewarded with the knowledge acquired as a result.
And it was through our own time put into trip preparation and execution that we broke through those mental barriers that typically keep people from getting out there in the first place; coming up with such excuses like it’s too expensive, too difficult, too much time to plan, etc.
In a way, travel forced us to overcome the inertia of complacency, step out into the real world, and acquire the intangibles that made us better people as a whole.
Through what we’ve learned, we are more able to filter and process information (so we’re no longer slaved to what the media pushes or says), we are better positioned to align our work (and consequently our lives) to our core values (my personal ethic is a sustainable future), we’re less inclined to give into hot air and hypocrisy when it comes to political issues, and we’re more apt to be respectful of different people with different backgrounds (you never know what you can learn from them).
Indeed, travel has given us the tools we need (through exposure, education, and perspective) to take steps necessary to improve not only our lives, but that of our children as well. We don’t proclaim to know everything, but at least we can put things in perspective and act accordingly.
Even though we’re saying that travel is the best education you can get, we’re not suggesting that you should forego a formal education nor does it mean it’s the answer to all of our problems.
We’re just saying that travel will educate you in a way that will bring you closer to a more meaningful, healthier, and happier life if you go in with an open mind and the right attitude.
However, there are different kinds of traveling and we should point out that not all of them are conducive to learning.
In fact, if you travel just to consume (like only chill out at resorts, go golfing, or do watersports [not that I condemn these activities]; all without interacting with locals or experiencing what the place has to offer in terms of authentic experiences), then you’ll only learn about consuming and little about local cultures, environments, and peoples.
You won’t be able to expand your own horizons and acquiring travel’s educational benefits.
Speaking of consumption, we acknowledge that travel is not environmentally sustainable (what with the greenhouse gases [GHGs] spewed into the upper atmosphere by flying, planes being as close to energy efficient as they’re going to get, and the environmental damage caused by wasting water at resorts not to mention all the plastic bottle waste).
However, we think if more people traveled to learn and see or experience genuinely different things, they’d be more understanding, better able to put things in perspective, and take steps to make the world a better place as well as more sustainable.
So with that said, perhaps these same people would be more willing to find a way to make travel (let alone their own lifestyle) less impactful while still benefiting society (especially the education you don’t get in school) as a whole.
And regarding school, I think travel can do wonders if you complement your education with worldly experiences.
That way, you get the skills needed to earn a living through school, but you retain more of what you learn (or even question some of it) through your experiences and observations while traveling.
Besides, it’d also cause you to vote more intelligently thereby producing better leaders, or even become such a leader themselves.
I dare say that people who haven’t expanded their horizons and don’t have an open mind have been unable to stem the tide of corruption and poor leadership, which has resulted in much of the big problems we see around the world today.
So is travel the best education you can get? As far as we’re concerned, you bet!
Even though our travels have caused us to dip well into our savings thereby delaying that home purchase that everyone (including our government through its twisted tax laws) pushes for, we wouldn’t trade it for the world.
We’re not materially rich, but we have a lifetime of memories and moments as well as a few friends we’ve met along the way.
We rekindled a deep urge to constantly discover new places using waterfalls as the excuse to see places both far and near.
We hope we can keep it going. For we never want to stop learning, improving ourselves, and making a difference in the world.