Invariably the conversation comes up as much as I try to avoid it – what I do for a living. I tell people I’ve been traveling and blogging for the past 5 years, visited over 60 countries, and am fortunate to have seen more human cultures firsthand than most will in their lifetime. As I try not to sound like a pompous hippie, they look for insight from this experience, and I’m glad I have at least one to share.
As recently as my travels around southern Mexico with Wandering Earl and his tour group, this question comes up frequently – what have you learned from seeing so much? And one thing always pops into my mind: that people are, at the core, good, noble creatures who are vastly similar to one another.
We’re Damn Sure Not Perfect
Yes, I’ve been a stiff kick to the chest away from being abducted in India, had a camera stolen in Argentina, and come across my share of aggressive touts in Egypt. At the same time I have met Indian engineers running thriving IT companies out of glamorous huts in Mysore, had shots of unknown spirits with my cab driver and his buddies at a stand in Buenos Aires, and felt sorry for the lonely camel touts struggling to survive in the wake of Egypt’s revolution.
For the most part, the walls between us are created when we lack compassion for another; sharing stress has been shown to reduce anxiety, increase sympathy, and promote bonding in men in one example. The vast majority of homo sapiens crave connections with others of our kind – a drive so important to our biology that simply joining a group can reduce your risk of dying by half, over the next year. Humanity begins in childhood, as kids often show us the best humankind has to offer and a common vantage point from which we all arose. Like the ultimate explorers, children, we want to understand the world around us. The more we carry this trait into adulthood, the less impaired our cognitive abilities become as as age. We absolutely love our families. Food, our food, means something intimate to us.
Where we differ is how each culture defines “us” and “them”, what parts of the universe we want to understand, the ways in which we show love, and what makes for a damn good breakfast. If we even eat breakfast at all, that is.
Traveling Has Made Me An Optimist
We live in the safest time in human history, in a wondrous age where more people are in the sky right now than live in Iceland [PDF]. In 1980, only 17% of the world’s children received the necessary vaccines required to reduce the risk of premature death. That number today is over 75%. Such change in the world today is not despite people but because of us.
I am often lost in my travels but my bewildered look has commonly evoked sympathy from those around me. I once scared the living hell out of a middle-aged Bulgarian woman when I stopped to ask for directions. I was able to charm a (toothless) smile from her and she invited me in for tea once she realized I wasn’t going to rob her. She told me of her life during Communism, an era of Bulgarian history I now feel some small connection with. Studies performed at the University of Texas also demonstrate that compassion reduces stress, fear, and anxiety. And it doesn’t take much, even a bit of compassion for an idiot with a map who can’t figure out a grid-layout may be enough to open travel doors.
There Is No Single Ideal Culture
One more thing I’ve realized and witnessed in between layovers and serendipity in Azerbaijan, is there is no one way to be happy. There is no one right or proper culture despite what some ignorant minds think. Hell, we can’t even agree how to nod our heads yes or no. Whether it’s eating, laughing, or listening to Wu Tang Clan, most of us homo sapiens prefer to do so with others. Even the introverts, like myself. The real barrier to humanity is when we draw lines as to what’s “human” and what’s not. However, a few friendly smiles, an honest story, or shared snacks over drinks tends to seep through any artificial barriers we create. We all go about it in different ways, but we are all loyal the same things in life.
If you’re at all pessimistic about the future of our species, travel far and wide, talk to people. Listen. Learn. Laugh, have the local drink of choice. Share an embarrassing story about yourself and you’ll find you may just get one back. You’re now not so different than a completely random person from across the globe – and to me – that can only be a good thing.