Chances are good that if you ask someone why they travel, they will come up with multiple reasons. So far, some of the reasons we’ve shared each week are the importance of travel for perspectives, to bring normalcy to blended family situations, traveling to enrich children, travel as food for the soul just to name a few. This week, Paige tells why she believes in travel to learn.
Paige Conner Totaro is a co-founder of All Over the Map, a website about family experiential travel. She recently took an 11-month trip around the world with her husband and twin daughters. Her latest ebook, co-written with Veronique Autphenne, is Brussels with Kids, a guide to Europe’s capital city for families.
The answer to “Why I Travel” has evolved over the years but, to put it in the simplest terms, it is always about learning. Sometimes it is learning about other cultures, and sometimes it is learning about myself. And on this particular trip, it has been learning about how my family functions when we exist as our own little isolated unit of four for 11 months.
I can still remember the first time I traveled outside of the United States. I was 13 years old and my parents sent me on an organized whirlwind bus tour of Europe. I remember that it felt like layers of film were being peeled from my eyes with each place we visited. I had new ways of understanding how things could work, from public transportation to fashion to food.
The food was the most elemental difference for me at that age, as I wasn’t yet thinking so much about urban planning or politics or any of the other differences I would notice later. Beans on toast for breakfast in England. Fresh butter in Switzerland. Coke served with lemon and no ice in France. And each new thing brought the question: “Why do they do that?” Which led to “Why do we do things the way we do them at home?” Which I think is the greatest gift you can give to a person: the ability to question their own assumptions.
My parents had never left the U.S. themselves, but they had always fed my imagination with National Geographic specials on TV and travelogues at the local theater. But I had led a sheltered life, attending a small private girls’ school with the same 40 girls for 8 years. So even meeting students from other parts of the US on my trip was a great blessing. I got a glimpse of not just cultural differences outside my home country, but within my home country.
Each subsequent trip brought more and greater revelations. As I got older, I could appreciate more complex differences about gender roles, politics, public transportation, fashion. Even now, as I travel around the world with my kids, I sometimes see things that knock the foundations out from under my assumptions.
In Vietnam, I was surprised to find that many small business owners live and work in the same place. And I’m not talking about an apartment above the shop, I mean IN the shop. Even in the hotel where we stayed in Saigon, if we came home late we might find the staff asleep on mats on the lobby floor. The concept of private space, even private property, in this communist country gave me a shock that I’m still processing. So yes, this old lady can still learn a few things from travel.
But the most surprising thing I learned from traveling around the world with my twin 13-year-old daughters this year had nothing to do with what we saw, it was about how we related to each other when each other was all we had.
I’ve noticed this before, even when we’ve taken short trips as a family: the opportunity to spend time all together, without the distractions of daily life, gives us a chance to really get to know each other, and appreciate things in each other that we don’t normally see. The memory of the four of us facing each other in a train car, joking and talking and playing cards is one that makes my heart happy whenever I think of it.
I will always treasure having had this year of travel to bond with my daughters at 13, just as they are crossing into adolescence. I know things will change over the next few years, and probably drastically when we return home to old friends and a new school, so I am very conscious of every moment that we can be our own little solid family unit, and I can be the mommy for just a little bit longer.
What about you? Do you travel to learn?