• Melissa Wade

Why the Travel Matters

“Should your anchorman be on top of a big story, or is his place in the studio? I was then and am now dedicated to the idea of being there, seeing, hearing, touching, sniffing the story.” —The Camera Never Blinks Twice by Dan Rather

I didn’t travel much as a kid. Maybe that grew my current wanderer spirit, always dreaming of worlds beyond. Yet, as I traveled throughout the states as a young adult, I became jaded by the tourist traps: the adult stuffed animals forcing hugs in Times Square, the overpriced everything in Disneyland, the trash left behind by cruise attendees, the all-inclusive gluttony. I wanted something else. I found myself looking for the real New York, the real Chicago, the real Phoenix. When I won a travel grant that allowed me to travel to Europe, I feared being a tourist, looking like a tourist, sounding like a tourist, acting like a tourist.

Even though I was trying to digest two countries in three weeks, I didn’t want to just float through them.

In Paris, I walked the catacombs, treading lightly between the neatly stacked skulls of the ancient mass ossuary. I stopped and read each marker, contemplating what place I occupied among the millions of bones shaped into walls and columns. I stood in front of a stack of femurs, its cross label reading “Ossements du Cimetiere des Innocents deposes la 2 Juillet 1809.” Bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents, deposited July 2, 1809. I heard yelling up ahead, near a bend in the tunnel. American voices. A mother yelling for her relatives to crowd together for a picture. Complaining and hustling and the lightning flash of a camera, followed by them scattering like mice twenty meters underground.

I’ve told that story twenty times, as an anecdote of annoying American tourists, but I feel bad telling it again, as if I hold myself above them. As if I am something more than a tourist. I mean, I want to be. What I want to be is present. Present and a part of the conversation. That’s the purpose of travel. Not just to see, but to interact, right? Otherwise, it’s just another breakfast at a cafe in another time zone. Just another street. Another cramped flight followed by jet lag and a missed train and a heavy bag lugged down fourteen blocks and up four flights to just say you stood in Paris. We travel for more than that.

Travel is a basic human desire. We are a curious, migratory species, with a yearning to put distance between us and what we’ve settled into, all the better to experience progression and novelty. There is joy in pushing beyond what you already know. Yet, several science papers suggest that the benefit of travel isn’t just pleasure.

Travel is an essential habit of effective thinking.

Think about a common reaction to facing a problem: stand up, and walk away. You’re stumped, you’re going in circles, getting nowhere, so you escape. You take a stroll. You get some air. You need the space. You see, when we sit too close to a problem, whether in place, time, or memory, we cognitively process it in a more concrete manner. Imagination can be hindered, our thinking more linear. We know that taking a step away gives us a new perspective, a new way to interact with the issue we were facing before we left. No matter how far, the distance can lead us to a new perspective.

Think of this scenario: You are standing on a mountain made of trash. (We do this in episode three.) The trash is hidden, piled up and covered by a beautiful park, so that you can’t imagine the landfill that was there before. You see the grassy knoll, the dogs running up and down the embankment, the kites flown by happy children up above. While walking a well-manicured path around the largest peak, you witness a toddler tumble down a slide in the playground area, others hanging monkey-like on metal bars scattered throughout. You know this as a park. You like it. But then, you leave. You go back to the city, to the dozens of shops and restaurants, the crowds and traffic. You see the bags of trash lined up on the sidewalks for sanitation, the to-go cups discarded curbside. You think back to the park and this time focus on the heaps underneath. You worry about where the plastic clamshell from your organic blueberries will end up. You imagine it underneath the feet of happy, playing children at a landfill-turned-park. Your brain floods with other associations: Thompson’s rubbish theory, the Green Deal, the European Union urging companies to design products that last longer and can be more easily repaired. You contemplate microplastics and fast fashion. You think about John Wilson struggling to recycle a box of batteries in his docuseries How To and that teenager who held up a jar in her TED Talk that held all the trash she produced in a single year. You think about the iPhone 4 and 6 collecting dust in your closet and about the man down the street from your grandmother who burns his trash in barrels. The mountain of trash is now a web of connections with broader avenues to investigate. You moved off its manicured lawn and saw it from a different perspective.

This is probably not how most people think about travel. They think about escaping to a beach somewhere to not think, to relax and experience. However, it could be that, with your feet in the sand and a Mai Tai on the way, your mind in a more relaxed state of cognition, you are best capable of reevaluating those managerial issues at work or the domestic troubles at home.

Let me share a psychological experiment with you. It’s called the Duncker problem. In it, you’re given a task: attach a candle to a piece of cork board on a wall so that it burns without dripping wax on the floor. You are given supplies: a wax candle, a cardboard box of drawing pins, and some matches. In facing this challenge, 90% of participants attempt one of two popular methods. They either attach the candle to the wall with the pins and end up breaking it, or they melt part of the candle to try adhering it with the wax, but it ends up falling to the floor. After that, those 90% are then stumped and frustrated. The small minority of subjects that pass the test–often fewer than 25%–use the box. They attach the candle to the cardboard and then pin the box to the cork board. Unless subjects realize that they can use the box, that it has a greater purpose than holding the pins, they just keep repeating the same idea they first came up with, failing again and again. Psychologists call this “functional fixedness,” which blocks people’s ability to use a tool in a new way, to see multiple purposes for a given object. It’s only through an open-minded approach that they can succeed.

What does that have to do with travel? Well, researchers out of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago found that students who had studied abroad were 20% more likely to solve the problem. Because of travel, they had that open-mindset; they had a greater capacity to consider an item with more than one purpose. Since travel allows us to witness other cultural norms and experience a greater variety of options, it teaches us that there are many valid ways of interpreting the world.

Still, it is not enough to get off a plane in another land, to take a picture in a catacomb in order to say you were there. We must contemplate the culture we step into; we must question our own habits and perspectives; we must allow ourselves to be disorientated by something new so that we can grow by learning about it.

For We’re Here, we travel because we need to. As journalists, we need to be on the ground. We need to talk to the people who are at home in the place we are visiting, to understand it fully. And when we get back to our homes, we can then use our changed minds, our encouraged creativity, to see the world a little bit differently. We need to travel to gather the truth firsthand and then investigate all the ideas connected to the place visited.

Anthony Bourdain wrote in No Reservations that “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

That’s it. That’s how we see travel. That’s why it matters. And we absolutely hope we are leaving something good behind in doing it.

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