This I Believe

Betsa - Cincinnati, Ohio
Entered on February 28, 2007

I believe that travel is a powerful, personal catalyst for change.

Even when I clutch a round-trip ticket in my hand, I know my best travel is a one-way path, a transformation that brings me home a different person.

I know it’s good for me to be knocked off-kilter now and then, to go away one person and return another.

In Churchill, Manitoba, I fell asleep under the Northern Lights, sparking in giant arcs of turquoise and peach, with polar bears roaming outside my trailer window. I spent a week, falling in love with these magnificent creatures, watching them play-fight and wait for the ice to freeze so they could hunt—and it freezes later every year. Soon, the mothers may be too thin to get themselves and their cubs through the winter.

In the Caribbean, instead of the underwater rainbows I remember, I’m diving on reefs bleached as pale as old ivory, lucky to see a fish bigger than my hand.

In Peru, I’ve seen entire metropolises built upon garbage dumps, thousands of people down from the hill towns trying to survive on the scraps of the city.

In Scandinavia, I’ve sailed among glittering archipelagoes and brooding fjords, marveling at clean skies, healthy people and clockwork cities. “USA! USA!” If only the people in the stadiums could see this world.

Remembering those bears and reefs and garbage towns, I send a few dollars and hope it’s not too late. Remembering other cultures I’ve seen at work, I cast votes, hoping we can evolve past jingoism into a genuinely caring country.

The endlessly quotable Mark Twain told us “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

This is the man who followed the Mississippi and the Equator, the man always curious about what was around the next bend. He would be thrilled that Americans now need passports to re-enter our borders—maybe we’ll use them to go beyond Canada and Mexico.

Twain knew that getting off the block is one of the best ways to shake up our comfortable preconceptions. Are the 22 minutes of network news really all I need to know? When I’m in Europe or Asia or Africa, their 22 minutes show me an entirely different world.

Now, when I get out my atlas for another trip, excited, surrounded by passport and maps and guidebooks, I like to take a second and ponder: W W M T D– What Would Mark Twain Do?