Saturday, January 6, 2018

Travel Lessons

I didn't grow up as an adventurous traveler. As a child my primary travel experiences consisted of long car rides from Ohio to South Carolina for week-long summer vacations, all seven members of my family crammed into the station wagon or the van.  One year we made it all the way to Florida.  But many years we drove just an hour west of Cleveland to stay in small cabins on Lake Erie, returning to the same location year after year. My first plane ride occurred when I was in high school, and my father took me to visit Duke University for a campus tour.

None of those trips gave me any special love for travel; if I enjoyed them, which I did, it was for the usual reason that a child loves travel--the break in routines, the opportunity to see one's parents fall into more relaxed versions of themselves, nights playing board games with my siblings.

In the late 1990s I took my first journey outside of the US, and began my recent decades of travel with a wallop.  I boarded a plane in Chicago that took me first to London, and then to Cairo, where I was met by my older brother, who was at that time teaching at the American University of Cairo. I approached this trip with nothing but anxiety and fear; I had a wife and two small children at home, and was terrified of the many ways in which a trip to the Middle East could part me from them forever.  Still, some part of me must have been so intrigued by my brother's invitation to visit, and give a presentation at his university, that it pushed away the fears just enough to get me on that plane.

I can remember more details of that trip than many journeys I have taken since: I can still see the massive crowds of people trying to pass through customs, and the university driver who hustled me to the front of the line and pushed me through; I can picture the walk my brother and I took through the warren of lanes and alleyways in a Cairo bazaar; I can feel my back aching as we descended, hunched beneath the low ceiling of the tunnel, into the deep chamber of a Giza pyramid.

Every experience on that trip--from the food my brother and his wife prepared for our lunches to the belly dancing show we watched on a Nile river boat cruise--set off little fireworks of wonder and awe in my mind. The world contains places and people like this?  In spite of the intensive reading I had done in graduate school, where I passed Ph.D. exams in contemporary international fiction, I was astonished to see the world come to life in such startling new clarity.

From that moment on, I was hooked on travel.  In the two decades since that trip I have boarded hundreds of planes and trains, visited close to twenty countries, and set foot in dozens of new US states.  Much of this travel has occurred as a result of the books I have written about higher education, which have earned me invitations to speak with faculty in many parts of the world.  But in recent years my wife and I have made travel a high priority in our lives, both ourselves and for our children.  When we get a financial windfall of any kind, or manage to squirrel away money for a while, we inevitably blow it on travel.

We do so in part because I have come to recognize travel as one of the most powerful ways to inspire new learning in 21st-century humans, especially when we leave formal education behind. Travel has the potential to engage every part of us that connects to learning, and can do so in ways that far exceed the kinds of learning we do in classrooms. I want my children, when they have finished their schooling, to feel regularly the itch to get out and re-kindle their sense of wonder, to meet strangers on the road and hear their stories, and to discover that other places exist where they do things differently.

Hydra, Greece. 2017
"The point of travel is knowledge, not information.
Its purpose is to create new thoughts."
Russell Banks, Voyager
Travel, of course, can be done in ways that expand our perceptions, our empathy, our wonder at the created world; it can also be done in ways that are at best oblivious and at worst damaging to ourselves and the places we visit.  Over the past few years I have been thinking a lot about the lessons of travel, both what we can learn from travel, and how we can learn to travel in ways that take advantage of the best it has to offer our hearts and minds.

Those reflections are coalescing into the next book project, which will return me to my roots as a writer of memoir and personal essays.  But they will also tie a thread to my more recent work in education, as I hope in the book to consider especially the connection between travel and learning. That thread will be a loose one, as this book will remain more in the realm of literary nonfiction than the kind of researched books I have written in recent years.

I have been immersed in the literature of travel in recent months as a result of this project, and gathering lots of excellent quotes from writers throughout history.  To help launch the writing of the book, I've created an Instagram account where I will post regular photos from my travels, both past and present, captioned with some of those quotes on travel, like the one you see pictured above.  If you wish to join me for the ride--and you are most welcome--you can find me on Instagram at @jimlang7