Posted on January 4, 2018
Growing up in a working-class family in Waltham, the only people in the neighborhood who traveled and had been outside the U.S. were the unlucky older brothers and cousins whose draft number had come up and were sent off to Vietnam. The closest thing to a vacation we ever had was a trip back across the border to Canada to visit relatives, often for a wedding or funeral. The dream trip, to the extent that anyone talked about travel, was to get to Disneyland (there was no Disney World yet). No one we knew had been to Paris or London or Singapore. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I developed a fascination for all places foreign. Perhaps it was in the transporting flights of imagination that came with reading, which I did fairly constantly, and few classes captivated me more fully than Mr. Bolduc’s 9th grade Geography class. Later, my favorite high school teacher, Miss Collins, herself a passionate traveler, thrilled me with stories of her travels and now long retired, she still sends me pictures of her adventures.
When Pat and I were just first dating, we stood on the Mass Ave. bridge one night, leaning against the balustrade and watching the moon come up over the Charles, I asserted that we’d see the world someday, even if we were poor as church mice at the time. I’m not sure how convinced she was. Now, decades later, I sit here in remote Patagonia, near the bottom of the world, up early before today’s hike and looking out over a stunning landscape.
We’ve been incredibly lucky that that original aspiration, informed by neither a budget, a plan, nor much actual knowledge, has been realized and we’ve covered a fair bit of the globe. We’ve done it on the cheap when we had few resources, once scalping theater tickets in London to eat on our final night of the trip, and now at a place in our lives and careers where we can afford it, we have been able to treat our daughters and husbands to this trip of a lifetime.
There are places to which we have often returned – Italy calls out to us every two or three years – and places that don’t exist as we once experienced them, such as the USSR and Syria. There are places of which I daydream, like the beach in Zanzibar, and places and scenes that haunt, such as the refugee camp in Rwanda (where SNHU now does such good work) or the small girl on her knees begging in a torrential rainstorm, perilously close to speeding cars and trucks on a highway outside Mumbai. The age of our girls at the time, she gave vivid testimony to the gross inequities of this world and my heart still breaks for her.
It’s not uncommon to mention a place visited and for someone to respond, “Oh, you should it have seen it when I first went there, before it changed.” People who knew southern California in the 1950s, when you could ski in the morning at Big Bear and be on the beach for dinner and when Orange County was really just endless orange groves, get misty eyed over it. I feel like we visited Luang Prabang in Laos just as it was being discovered and people who have been more recently describe a place already given over to tour buses and resort hotels. As someone who has mostly reveled in museums, culture, and history in our past travels, I find myself these days drawn more to nature, with a sense that it is slipping away from us. That there are fewer wild places and that climate change and the ever-encroaching creep of human beings are often altering and even destroying places of great beauty and the animals that inhabit them. I fear that we will be the ones someday saying to grandchildren, “You should have seen the orcas that once swam off the Olympic Peninsula” or “We were once able to hike up and see highland gorillas in Volcanos National Park in Rwanda.” Driving through Glacier National Park last year, we stopped at a “glacier photo spot” and there was only bare and rocky ground where a glacier had been just some ten years earlier. It was a sad photo.
Yesterday, we spent a day on a boat, the only way to see many of the glaciers here, and while we were thrilled and humbled at the magnitude and power of the glaciers, we were sadly reminded of their retreat. The tree line here shows where the glacier used to extend.
Tourism plays a complicated role in the fate of the world’s special places. It can overcome them and drown out their charm, either by crass commercialism or overwhelmed infrastructure or forever altering the ways of the place. We’ve also seen experiments in harnessing tourism to save a place, turning Rwandan villagers into tour guides and trackers instead of gorilla poachers, or to reinvigorate a dying place, such as remote Fogo Island in Newfoundland. In all these cases, there are troubling questions of inequity and who gets to afford the experience of travel, but it is encouraging to see thoughtful attempts to reclaim or at least protect what is in danger of being lost.
On a happier note, what remains unchanged is that travel remains life-changing for young people. We dragged our kids everywhere when they were little and later they went off on their own to places like Ghana and India and Syria. People sometimes asked me if I worried about them and the answer was “Of course.” I worry about them when they run an errand to the grocery store. But I remind myself that the universe does not make guarantees (ask the parents of children who perished at Virginia Tech or even at an elementary school in CT) and that if we want our children to live big lives, full of curiosity and growth, it includes engaging in the world. I thus find sheer delight in hearing the accounts of SNHU students returning from study abroad, describing the way the world has opened up for them. I am convinced that travel develops empathy, a sense of wonder and curiosity, a better grasp of the world’s complexities. It invites us to examine the ways we live our lives. It might be the single best educational opportunity we provide students, especially the way we design study abroad to force engagement with the people and culture of the host country. Unfortunately, the expense of travel is too often out of reach of students with modest means.
For the student coming from small-town New England or a modest background like mine, these experiences can be the most powerful. I’m not talking about a beach resort in Aruba or Bermuda, though those have their place too, especially in this winter from Hell back home (we have an impeccable sense of timing, getting out just in time). I am talking about travel into the unfamiliar, grappling with a language and way of thinking not your own, places and cultures that don’t mimic our own. Such travel allows us to see our own lives at home in a new light, reaffirming much of what we know or like and challenging the too common myths of American exceptionalism. We become more thoughtful citizens of our society and, I hope, the world.
That’s one of the reasons Pat and I have created, with the help of additional funding from the Trustees, a special scholarship fund for SNHU students, one that helps our poorest students study abroad. We do it for those take-your-breath-away experiences, such as the moment yesterday when the late afternoon sun rendered a vivid pink flock of flamingos taking flight from a nearby lagoon, and the moments when you feel you are standing in a sacred place. Those are the moments we want to provide all our students. It’s a small way I can pay back the gift of curiosity that Mr. Bolduc and Miss Collins gave me many years ago, inviting me to live a bigger life in a bigger world full of beauty and wonder.