Things are changing.
A few years ago, I was traveling so much that I was packing for two or three trips at a time, stopping back at home for just a couple days before hopping on a plane again. My passport became an appendage of sorts as I simply extended my arm to have it stamped over and over again.
A little over a year ago, though, I moved my home office to a different room in our house. I bought new furniture and painted the walls and turned it into an inspiring place. We also welcomed our first foreign exchange student our home. Though I loved my place of residency, I began to appreciate it more, and my frantic travel pace started to slow down as I took different types of assignments that didn’t keep me from jumping around the globe.
What I’ve discovered is that my definition of travel has changed. It’s not about where or how long you travel, but what you learn from the experience. In 2012, I took one overseas trip (a two-week vacation to Iceland with my family), and my domestic travel spiked dramatically. I spent time in Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, and I took road trips from the Midwest to the East Coast and throughout the Southwest. We introduced our first foreign exchange student and her friend to Disneyland, Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Ocean and camping, and we’re spending time introducing our second student to the Pacific Northwest and fantastic areas around the Southwest for outdoor recreation.
I only touched one new state this year (New Mexico), so the places I traveled weren’t necessarily new to me, but I’m traveling with a new sense of exploration and open-mindness. I love to travel abroad, but my sense of travel isn’t about collecting airline miles or passport stamps. Visiting familiar places with people who have never been there before has given me a different perspective, and it’s like I’m traveling to these places for the very first time.
The other thing I’m learning now that I’m not only a self-employed writer but also a stay-at-home parent to students from different parts of the world is how truly ignorant many people are. I’m sorry, but sometimes the truth hurts. I have nothing but admiration for these kids who pick up and move away from their parents for a semester or more to experience a different part of the world with a foreign culture, new language and unfamiliar habits and customs. These are kids who are stepping way out of their comfort zone to learn about themselves and the United States, and living with them has been a learning experience for me and my husband as well as our temporary kids.
Our students ask good questions about the decisions we make as an American society—questions about politics, healthcare, gun control, religion. When these conversations come up with their American friends or their friends’ parents, I am shocked at how inflexible people are when it comes to potentially having an awesome learning opportunity. Our students like to share what life is like “back home,” and we as a community and society have something to learn by really getting to know people from other parts of the world, but people refuse to listen to what they have to say. For Americans, there is one way of thinking—and that’s the American way.
Additionally, it surprises me how terrible people are at understanding world geography. They can’t place Denmark on a map. They have no idea where Slovakia is. They don’t know what the Euro is or that there is an advanced train system in Europe or what language either of our students might speak that isn’t English. Even more shocking to me is the fact that, quite frankly, most people don’t care.
My travel habits have changed in the last couple years for personal reasons, but they’ve changed in such a positive and profound way. I’ve always believed that traveling is an important tool for growth and understanding, and in 2013, I will recommit to traveling, but it won’t be for bragging rights or new passport pages. I may go abroad, but I’ll continue to stay in the United States as well, relishing and appreciating the opportunity to explore the many things that most Americans overlook in their own backyards.
We will continue to host high school students from other countries, giving us the opportunity to learn their customs, traditions and languages—and to welcome members into our extended and growing family with roots all over the world. Through these teenagers, I will continue to see the physical world and understand the mechanics that build a society in a way that wouldn’t be possible without their insightful observations.
That is travel—learning about myself through the exploration of place, however and wherever that exploration might happen. Becoming a better global citizen. Appreciating what the world has to offer, but also appreciating what greets me at home when I finally unpack my bags for more than a few days.