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The Travel Imperative

At our Insider Journey retreat last week at Mii amo, in Sedona, I gave a talk on where to travel in 2020. I began by explaining that for me, one of the best parts of travel is not being a tourist (someone who follows a beaten path with many others), but being an explorer (someone who is open to learning new things about the world, the people in it and about themselves). But I am also conscious, as we enter a new decade, that travel anxiety is steadily building. Between the protests erupting around the world, the fires in California and Australia, growing concerns about climate change, the new coronavirus and rising tensions in the Middle East, who wouldn’t think twice about venturing out? Yet as I’ve continued to travel in these turbulent times, I am constantly reminded of why it is so essential that we not succumb to fear and instead embrace a new travel imperative.

This fall, just before I left for trips to Russia and Turkey, the news had been filled with stories on the rising tensions between our government and both the Russians and the Turkish. “Do you think it is a good idea to go?” People asked me before both trips. Friends in St. Petersburg and in Istanbul had assured me that all was calm in their cities. And as soon as I arrived in both cities, I was struck by how similar the energy felt to New York; the weather was warm and the streets were buzzing with people sitting at outdoor cafés and strolling in the streets, enjoying autumn. What a contrast the reality was to the perception conveyed in the news. Over meals, we met locals who expressed concern about their governments’ policies, as well as regional tensions, but we also talked about art, food, music, politics and family and what struck me most was how similar our worries, hopes, dreams and pleasures were and how much we had in common. Yes, I was reminded, it is imperative that we keep traveling, connecting, supporting each other.

One of the best ways to experience a place—to truly be an explorer—is to visit a place at a particular moment in time, like Berlin, when the Wall was just coming down, or Cuba when it was just opening up. I was able to go to South Africa right after the end of Apartheid and to Vietnam soon after it finally normalized relations with the West. Or sometimes it is just going to a place where nature is still so pure and unspoiled that it feels like winding back the clock; that’s how I felt the first time I went to Namibia and Bolivia. Sometimes it occurs because of geopolitical reasons and sometimes economic or cultural ones, but all of these places are exciting, because they offer an urgent sense of discovery. Part of this occurs because in these circumstances–of great change or emergence—the people are eager to engage and to share their stories, so you can get beneath the surface and to feel the soul of the place. It is people who open a culture and its secrets to others, which is why we have developed our Indagare Insider Journeys program to get people into the houses and the hearts of local residents. Over the past year we did just that in St. Petersburg, Lisbon, Rome, Istanbul, Mexico City, Napa and Beirut and the travelers who experienced those trips will tell you that it was the people that we met and how they shared their city’s unique histories and idiosyncrasies that gave them a real connection to the place.

Right after my trips to Russia and Turkey, as I headed to Napa for another Insider Journey, the nightly news was filled with talk of the climate crisis and images of California burning. “Should you really go?” my mother asked. Our partners on the ground insisted, we had no reason to worry. And, happily, we didn’t. Though from the Mondavi’s hilltop vineyard, we could see the haze from the Sonoma fires, and we found the power in much of St. Helena shut off. However, the beauty of Napa was in full bloom, and winemaker after winemaker thanked us for supporting the region. “Visitors are our lifeblood,” one said, “and their abandoning us will cause more harm than the fires.”

A few days later as I prepared to take another group to Ethiopia, protests broke out in Addis Ababa. Again, we checked with locals who reassured us and we arrived to find the city bustling with activity and no sign of unrest. We spent an incredible nine days visiting early Christian rock churches in the north and Lalibela, where we joined a holy festival before we headed south to the Omo Valley to stay in a camp with the Kara people. There we encountered customs very different from our own—scarification for beauty and initiation rites before marriage—but it was thrilling to bear witness to ancient tribal customs. As anthropologist Wade Davis, an ardent supporter of cultural diversity, has said, “the world in which you were born is just one reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” 

Since I have returned home, the news has continued to show protests in familiar cities—Bogotá, Beirut, Santiago, Hong Kong, La Paz, Tehran and Paris. The images depict distant violence and chaos, but when I speak to friends in those locations, they explain that, in many places like Hong Kong, Bogotá and Beirut, it is their children who are in the streets. They are marching for change, and they hope that their voices will influence policy. From the news you would think the cities are shut down, but life continues and people are eager to share their stories. In recent weeks, many of our members have called, worried about traveling to places like Egypt and Paris, and then emailed days later, saying “I don’t know why I considered canceling. It is wonderful here. I feel totally safe and am thrilled that I came.” Yes, I am reminded, it is imperative that we keep traveling, connecting, supporting each other.

In early January, one of our members was on Kangaroo Island at the Southern Ocean Lodge just before the property burned down. I had stayed with my family at the iconic ecolodge a few years before, so the loss felt intimate. One billion animals have died in the wildfires in Australia, dozens of people have perished and hundreds have lost their homes. But the owners of Southern Ocean Lodge reached out a few days later, committing to rebuilding and also pleading that we remind people to visit. “The bigger picture is that we need to rally together and present a positive picture of this incredible country and all it has to offer….Whilst it might seem from footage that Australia is on fire, there are many parts of the country that are unaffected and a host of incredible destinations are ready to welcome visitors from here and around the world.”

So what is the travel imperative? That we have to commit to being part of a global community and to keep venturing out, to engage, people-to-people. That we remember the news presents but one slice, often an exaggerated one, and rarely tells the complete story. And that we have to be our own witnesses and connect with people, so that places keep their human faces and personal stories and don’t get obscured by agendas.

I was lucky enough to travel to Iran a number of years ago, and now, when I think of that country, it is not the media portrayal—the rhetoric of governments or “Death to America” chants—but the individual people that I met on the streets, in the museums and in the parks: veiled women who talked about their families, fashion or love of poetry; young men who wanted to make films or took part in weekly wrestling; and older men who had studied our constitution or a doctor who raised honey bees. It is the people in Iran that make me hope that our governments don’t escalate tensions and can find a way to peacefully resolve our differences. Yes, it is imperative that we keep traveling, connecting, supporting each other.

 This week, one of the women who joined our group of 40 last week at Mii amo and attended my travel talk on where–and how—to go in 2020 sent me an email about what Indagare’s travel philosophy means to her: “It means that you have put the heart back into travel!” she wrote. “The word courage derives from coeur, the French for “heart.” When we are “brave and open”—courageous—we approach life with a full heart. It takes heart to “discover, explore, seek, scout,” and that is exactly why travel is so transformative. “You give people the opportunity to explore all that their hearts truly desire—an internal journey that is equally as transformative as what they are experiencing on the outside. I can’t think of more important peace work!” At Indagare, we couldn’t agree more.

– Melissa Biggs Bradley on January 24, 2020

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