You’ve heard it from every 20-something fresh home from their gap year.
“Travel is just the greatest thing for broadening the mind,” they say while smearing their useless herbal ointment on their insect bites and sunburn.
Well, I call bullshit.
It might surprise you to learn that most 20-somethings are both narcissists and full of shit, but trust me, I’m right on this one, and it’s not just young travelers peddling this myth.
In all my travels, I’ve met plenty of people (young and old) who have seen the world, but have minds as broad as the eye of the needle. Many of these people flutter from one hotspot to the next, seeing the big sights from National Geographic and nothing else, trusting their guide to direct them onwards. Others walk foreign cities while clutching copies of Lonely Planet, seeking out the best pizza in town. When the third world waiter doesn’t deliver the ketchup with the fries, they freak out.
Some go as far as getting off-road, but still subconsciously stick with the familiar. They ditch their Lonely Planets, only to dive into the first dive with a photocopied owl sticker on the door. They get their feet wet in protests, but make sure to only hang with the rich, westernized student activists that worship their liberal Western icons by stealing Grey Goose from their parents’ liquor cabinets and reading The Wealth of Nations over a bong and Snickers. None of these people will ever broaden their minds. Their travels will simply reinforce everything they already know.
So what does broaden one’s mind? The answer is actually pretty simple: other people. Or to be more precise, the Other.
Actually engaging with people who are different and diverse is what broadens the mind. Sticking with your tour group won’t broaden shit. Even solo backpackers – the ascetics of the traveler world – will never broaden their minds outwards without other people. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned a lot about myself solo backpacking. I’ve learned a lot about camping by sleeping in the wild. But I’ve learned nothing about other people. In fact, travel devoid of serious interaction with others can be one of the most closed-minded, narcissistic experiences possible. The world flattens into two dimensions, like those cheesy backgrounds used in driving scenes in old Hollywood flicks. The background moves, but there’s no sense of motion. The frame remains focused on you, because you’re the only constant. What could possibly be more narcissistic?
The only times I’ve ever truly broadened by mind are those moments of understanding someone I previously didn’t understand. I understand why someone would strap C4 around their belly and cruise into a crowded market. Obviously I don’t agree it’s ever a good idea, but I get why it’s popular in some circles. There’s plenty more I don’t get. I don’t quite get Taoism, but maybe one day I will. I certainly won’t learn shit if I check out Lonely Planet’s top picks, then drown myself at the top recommended Trip Advisor bar.
I’m not arguing travel in itself isn’t closed-minded; if anything, I’m arguing the opposite. When travel leads to an understanding of different people, it can be enriching in a way nothing else is. But when travel leads to the front door of a Taco Bell in Guatemala, you’re better off staying at home. Travel done right is good. Travel done bad is worse than never leaving your front door.
At this point, you may be wondering what right I have to pass judgement on travel. Well, I have credentials.
I’ve seen the best and worst of the international backpacking scene. I’ve backpacked solo, with friends, with my partner and with randoms on the road. I’ve done all-inclusive tours while rubbing shoulders with the children of Russian oligarchs, and hitchhiked with Spanish stoners. I’ve lived with Imazighen goat herders, and traveled across the steppe with Mongolian nomads. I’ve bunked with Taoist monks and drunk with killers. I’ve slept on the cold floor of a room packed with refugees, and camped on Andean peaks with no company but my own. I’ve pissed in Shanghai’s best hotels and stared down the barrels of AK-47s (yeah, old-school ones with rotten timber stocks). I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of travel. The road has inspired me, left me jaded, cultivated me and scarred me.
And (in case it’s not yet obvious) I’m a slightly narcissistic 20-something year old, so trust me: I know a little something about bullshit.