I think I must have been eleven, and my entire family — Dad, Mom, three little sisters and one little brother — were cramped and sweating in our beat up blue Toyota minivan, tan vinyl seats and panels, and blue painted steel everywhere the vinyl wasn’t. We were on the 8-10 hour drive from Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, to its main port (and our home), Chittagong. The highway was a single lane of pock-marked pavement with a yard or two of dirt shoulder on either side, and then a deep, swift drop-off to the water-logged rice-paddies that filled the floodplains ten feet below.
I sat in the front seat, next to my dad, and could see the rising water through a small hole in the blue metal floor. This was monsoon season, when every year about two-thirds of the country are submerged in water. Today, that two-thirds included the stretch of highway ahead of us. It was hard to tell whether the highway had eroded down to meet the water, or the water had risen to meet the highway, but either way, for the few hundred metres in front of us, there was nothing but the muddy calm of floodwaters. There was no way to tell where the roadway’s steep edges were, but we had to cross and get home. Since there wasn’t much current, other cars were crossing, with passengers getting out to walk ahead and around the cars to test the road as they went.
Since I was the eldest son, my dad did something I’ll always thank him for. He asked me to get out and walk. As my knobby little lily-white knees waded out through the thick brown slurry, feeling out the edges of the road, I was filled with exhilaration by the unknown dangers in front of me, and proud of the responsibility I’d been given to guide my entire family to safety.
My parents showed a lot of bravery dragging their five young kids off to live in a country with a military dictatorship and Guinness-record poverty and corruption rates. I admired the guts it must have taken to stay there through a war where foreigners were targeted, and for not losing their cool when a house across the street was torched by a mob. I admired them for taking their five kids trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas for New Years, and to the Taj Mahal for Christmas, instead of sitting at home on a couch by the TV. Sometimes all we had to eat was rice and lentils (which I hated), and sometimes I couldn’t go outside because I was too much a target for kidnappers or lynch mobs. But though I might have complained about things at the time, looking back, it was worth it.
In 2008, I walked out into the hills and jungle forests of northern Nicaragua with friends, talking to coffee farmers, to workers in the fields, to coffee mill executives in the towns. AK-47s guarded plantation gates while corralled farm-workers sleeping in tiny stalls like so many KFC chickens. Since coming back from there, I’ve slowly been working toward a goal to build a better way for people to buy coffee and understand the story and the real people behind their beans. Where, as a teen, I used to hack with ResEdit and Macromedia Director in the evenings building software for fun, I’m now hacking international trade systems. My project at Ethical Coffee may never amount to anything, but at least I’m still plunging forward. Many days I don’t leave my desk, but I’m risking more and reaching further than I would have in 10 trips to a resort in the Caribbean.
Looking at the best-seller lists on Amazon (or, preferably, the shelves your local bookstore, if it still exists), there’s a world of self-help out there for people struggling to make their lives better. It’s often said, both in and out of those books, that travel is a wonderful way to refresh yourself, to reset your habits, to rekindle energy and interest once you’re called back to the demands of “regular life”.
Though physically moving your body to another part of the world is a wonderful experience, not all of us can do it very much. Something around 95% of this planet’s population have never taken an airplane ride, so if you can’t globe-trot, you’re in good company. (Some first worlders purposefully do this, in environmental and social solidarity with the large majority of the world.) But, having travelled frequently for large portions of my life, and then having not travelled much through the years following high-school, I can tell you, it’s not the distance that makes the experience.
I’ve chosen to start thinking of travelling as more than “seeing the world” and encompassing much more than “vacation”. Travel can be a mindset. The transformative effect of travel is mostly that it makes it easy for you to look outward and forward, exploring and welcoming the unknown — whether it’s on the other side of the ocean or someplace closer to home.The benefits of travel might be found in hitting up that place in that corner of your hometown you always felt a bit leery of buying a drink in. Or maybe it’s in getting out of your comfortable habits/places and learning to code. It could be in corners of Wikipedia you never thought to look, or on Tor, or in random conversations with strangers on IRC. It’s in the little details of experiences and knowledge, both fantastic and mundane.
Travel is moving beyond yourself. In it, you can stop constantly worrying about what happened to you, or where you are headed in life, or who said what, and instead look into anywhere you’re not. What you do once your head is out of your habit bubble is your choice. My advice: look for your muddy floodwaters, and walk out into them, trusting that whether you lose your footing or not, you’ll still have gone, and given, and just maybe, you’ll find the other side wasn’t as far away as it seemed.