I believe in the transformative powers of travel. But seven months into a year-long trip around the world, I was weary. Tired of plodding through another 90 degree morning, in yet another malaria-infected country. That’s when I found myself standing on the sidewalk in Siem Reap, Cambodia, outside a restaurant where my husband, eight-year old daughter and I had just dined on what passed as local-fusion cuisine. We had sought the place out as a respite from the heat, dirt and noise of our surroundings.
“Why?” I asked myself repeatedly. Why had we given up a house, job, cars and belongings to travel? Given that most of the time I was thoroughly miserable, where did my zealous desire to keep traveling come from? The answer was simple: despite the discomfort, I believe that traveling is the best way to appreciate the glory of the Pyramids or to understand the rise and fall of ancient cities, including Angkor Wat. Travel gives me cerebral pleasures—it supplements my quest for knowledge—and in turn, it is transformative.
And then she was tugging at my pants. She couldn’t have been more than three or four, an emaciated slip of a girl. Before I had time to really take in her semi-dressed body, or even look to see if she had a parent nearby, I was distracted by what she was carrying. Impossibly tiny, the baby had to be a newborn, but never in my life have I seen a baby this naked, this exposed; casually held while her big sister begged. I pulled out a few grimy bills from my pocket and handed them to the child. In the time it took for me to turn to my husband and exclaim “Did you see that?” seven more children were pulling on my shirt holding their hands out for a pittance.
Of all the breathtaking sites we visited, of all the human drama we witnessed, this moment—a nanosecond for them, an eternity for me—seared itself into my memory more than anything I had seen on our trip. Humbled, I realized there were limits to my devotion—I could sail in and out of whatever landscape I saw fit. My wealth, their poverty; were separated by the thinnest veneer of happenstance. While I could feed their bellies and shore them up physically, at that moment I truly understood what it meant to be powerless. Powerless to change much for them, but nonetheless powerful enough to escape, as I had tried to do in that café.
This is when I truly understood that travel is my religion. I must travel: to understand the plight of others, to realize my limitations and prejudices and to confirm my belief that people are inherently good. The only way I know that I can grow is to force myself out of my comfort zone, to a place where I must recalibrate everything I understand in the world in order to thrive.