Did I ever tell you about that one time in Egypt … ?
What’s that? You’ve heard that one already? Well did I tell you about the time in Peru when we rode on reed boats and spent the night on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca? Or how about the time in Belize when we camped on a paradise island in the middle of a tropical storm? Surely I haven’t told you about crawling through Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam?
As a frequent traveler and now an expat, I have acquired a lifetime’s worth of interesting stories to tell from my adventures around the world.
But do people really want to hear about all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited? Do they really care if I’ve been to Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, the Mayan city of Tikal, and the Great Pyramids? They may find it interesting that I have visited all of these places, but are these stories, these experiences, really all that life-changing for anyone other than me? Do they just make people angry and jealous? Do they really inspire others to get out there and see the world for themselves? And if not, what long-term benefit is there to my travels?
As I continue to cross item after item off of my bucket list, I find myself feeling more and more empty; less and less impressed. This has led me to wonder “What exactly is it that makes a story worth re-telling?”
For me, a story worth re-telling is one in which lives are changed — the lives of others, as well as my own.
Travel is certainly integral to my story. It has allowed me to experience cultures that are very different from my own and has even served as a living history lesson. But the stories I want to tell from my travels are not the ones where I cross something off of the bucket list; instead, they are the ones in which I engage with people and form relationships along the way; they are the ones that leave me changed and the ones that lead me to affect change.
These are the moments that make my story worth re-telling.
Responsible travel means more than just reducing your carbon footprint or taking caution not to exploit vulnerable communities. Responsible travel requires engagement and warrants action.
Traveling is a privilege; a privilege that brings us face-to-face with the staggering injustices facing our fellow citizens of the world. Extreme, debilitating poverty. Human trafficking. Street children. Widespread, preventable disease. Systemic corruption. Natural disasters. Violent conflicts. I have seen with my own eyes what others are lucky if they ever even see on CNN.
I want my story to reflect that I have been a good steward of the privilege I have been given to travel. I want my story to show that I traveled for more than just my own self-interest. I cannot simply photograph what I see; I must respond to it.
I know I cannot solve all the world’s problems, but I do believe that my travels should not just be about my own pleasure; they should also lead me to affect change. I don’t believe I’m being unrealistic, nor am I naively idealistic. But I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and as such, I believe I can do nothing less than to respond to the injustices I witness occurring around the world.
Truly responsible travel is travel that is responsive; engaging.
I try to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of each place I visit, which usually involves engaging with the local community on some level. One of the most effective ways to engage with the world (though certainly not the only way) is by volunteering with impoverished or vulnerable communities both at home and abroad.
I believe that cross-cultural relationship building through volunteering is beneficial for three reasons:
1.) It puts a human face on issues of injustice such as poverty or human trafficking that we would otherwise only hear about on the news
2.) It allows us to get to know people who experience these injustices, seeing them as real people rather than simply “issues”
3.) It provides us with the opportunity to give back to these communities, rather than just visiting them as tourists and “taking” from them
Over the years, I have volunteered in under-resourced communities all along the East Coast of the United States, as well as in countries like Egypt, Uganda, and Myanmar. This summer, I’ll be heading back to Cambodia to work with children who have been or are at risk of being trafficked into sex slavery and to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees.
To say that these experiences have been life-changing would actually trivialize them. They have done more than change my life; they have given me life.
They have breathed life into my Christian faith, which so often seems constrained by the walls of my local church or the walls of my own heart. The people I have met while volunteering have taught me how to live out my faith.
I do not volunteer under the assumption that I am some wealthy, white Westerner with the solution to all the world’s problems; that I am the hero who has come to save the day. No, I volunteer because I believe that in order to change the world, we must know the people of the world. Not that I must know them or that they must know me, but that we must know each other. I do not come to bless them, but rather for us to be mutually blessed.
My actions today determine the story people will tell about me in the end. I have seen some of the world’s most impressive places; I have met people from dozens of nations. For all intents and purposes, I have seen the world.
But that is not so important.
At the end of my life, it will not matter where I have been, who I have met, or what I have seen. All that will matter is what I did with what I saw.
I don’t want people to reflect upon my life and say, “Wow, she had so many adventures! She traveled to so many places!” Those are just snapshots of my life; they are not the full story. I want people to say she made a difference; she sought reconciliation; she pursued justice; she loved people well.
I want to leave them with a story that is worth re-telling.