Saturday, May 08, 2010

Travel a reminder of how much we all have in common

Being able to travel isn’t always an option for people, for all kinds of reasons. It costs money and time, after all, two things that most of us never have enough of to begin with.
My early adulthood was like that. I missed the chance to be one of those adventurous young people I see all the time out there in the world, mixing it up joyously with young wanderers from around the globe while discovering what a big, big world this truly is. Regrets, I’ve had a few, and that’s one of them.
Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege over these last 15 or so years to be in a place in my life where I could do some of that travelling that never came my way as a young person. I learned I could start out easy and take it from there. I could buy a good guide book and find ways to travel inexpensively.
Since then, travel has become one of the most important aspects of my life. I’ve concluded that it’s such a profound and essential thing to experience, we should just find ways to make travel happen more often for everybody. What the world needs now isn’t love, it’s understanding.
This last trip, March 20 to May 1, was six glorious weeks. My partner and I travelled through parts of Thailand, Malaysia and Australia, then spent more than three weeks in Vietnam. I could have kept going.
The two of us are too old for the hostels and the all-night parties awaiting younger travellers; we’ll just have to catch that experience in the next lifetime. Happily, the world is full of one- and two-star hotels that are just fine for middle-aged, economy-minded travellers who like to be in bed by 11 p.m. and would rather not share their bathroom.
The gift of travel is that it’s both familiar and deeply strange at the same time. You visit countries where they’ve got all kinds of peculiar governance styles and punishing laws and different ways of doing things, but the people you meet on the ground are essentially just trying to get through their lives like anybody else.
Wherever we end up living in this world, we’ll spend our lives in search of food, work and purpose. We’ll help our kids grow up. We’ll eat, we’ll love. We’ll shape the world at hand to suit our needs, and sometimes the result will be a beautiful thing to behold and other times, it won’t.
The government, the police, “the state” - they come in all shapes and sizes, and are capable at any point in time of great good as well as unbelievable evil, often both at the same time. But down at the people level, life at its most basic goes on. People always find ways to carry on.
If you read a textbook on Vietnam, you’d learn that it’s a socialist country where traffic is strictly controlled through low speed limits and tough laws for the country’s tens of millions of scooter-riders. It’s against the law to go without a helmet or carry more than one passenger, both offences carrying crippling fines and licence suspensions.
The reality is a seething, swerving sea of scooters doing whatever the heck they want. In Hanoi, it’s common to see mom, dad and at least a couple of children stacked onto a scooter for the slow morning weave through traffic. Until Hanoi, I never would have believed that one person could carry dozens of water-filled bags of goldfish on a single motor scooter, let alone hundreds of pomelos and an antique dresser.
The Vietnamese are not an unlawful people, mind you. They’re just doing what humans anywhere would do if they found themselves needing to get around - they’re figuring it out. If that means stacking the two youngest babies length-wise on top of each other so the five of you fit on the scooter, so be it. Police look the other way for the most part.
Things are different in our society, where you really would get in big trouble for riding helmetless up the sidewalk with three generations of relatives and a queen-size mattress on your scooter. Then again, our poor in Canada can’t even afford scooters. They’re just stuck in place. Is that better?
That’s what travel does for you. It’s about things that make you go, “Hmm.” Our similarities and differences are most obvious in poorer countries, where so many people end up living where everybody can see them. But anywhere is interesting.
You’ll make your own decisions about travel, of course. But if I were you, I’d seize the day. The world awaits.

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