“The world is a book,
and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
I stood on the sidelines and cheered my younger son as he played soccer with the other boys. It was something I had done countless times before.
But this time was different…
We were in South Africa. And the boys he was playing with were orphans, playing without shoes. Before the game he chose to take his shoes off, as well.
I could see the redness on his feet as he dribbled the ball past me. Blood, in fact, where blisters had formed on feet not used to being without the protection of expensive cleats.
But I could also see the smile on his face, and the kinship he felt with these boys who understood little English. They understood even less about my son’s lifestyle, yet shared a love for “the beautiful game”. And they enjoyed the novelty of this white skinned boy who was willing to play with them, on their terms.
When the game was over, there was little talk about bloody feet.
He will never be the same.
In Rwanda, some years later, I watched a group of kids laugh hysterically as they willingly let my older son catch and tickle them in a game of chase. When he sat in the dirt, all the children instantly mobbed him, and this time he was the one laughing hysterically.
These children were offspring of those who had both endured and participated in the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. They lived with their parents and grandparents in a “reconciliation village” and, after the fun, we all sat down to hear their stories.
We heard from a woman who’s parents had been slaughtered by machete wielding thugs incited to “cleanse” the country. And we heard from a man who had wielded a machete, killing seven people during that horrific period in Rwandan history (where somewhere around 800,000 to 1.2 million were killed, mostly by machete, within a month).
I watched my son as the stories were told. He listened intently and expressed his horror and sympathies through the looks on his face. This was a story which was relatively new to him, told first-hand by those who participated in the events.
And he will never be the same.
These, and other experiences, have deeply impacted and, indeed, shaped my sons.
I believe traveling overseas is an irreplaceable experience that every young adult should pursue.
1. Traveling overseas changes your perspective.
It is impossible to understand what the rest of the world is like unless you actually go to the rest of the world. This is especially true if you travel to a developing country.
You simply can’t understand it by reading books, watching TV or seeing something online.
The smells, the sites, the sounds – they’re different. The look in people’s eyes, immersion into a foreign language, or the taste of foreign foods can’t be adequately described or duplicated.
And it changes you. It changes the way you think and relate to people. It changes the way you understand life. “Foreigners” become real people, with challenges you can never imagine. “Foreign culture” becomes real to you, not just something you vaguely recall from something you saw on TV.
You appreciate your way of life, and you come to appreciate their way of life. You fear less and embrace more.
And you realize it’s not all about you.
Your perspective changes.
Cultural intelligence is the ability to understand those who live in a culture different than your own. Global dexterity is the ability to operate in a culture different than your own.
Did you know that elephants often wander through villages in Malawi, and have been known to chase people? Or that Swaziland is the country with the highest percentage of aids?
Did you know that India is one of the fastest developing countries in the area of business and technology? Or that the traffic in Nairobi can cause you to take 3 hours to travel 5 miles?
Did you know that you can see Syrian tanks from just inside the border of Israel? Or that taking the subway in Moscow isn’t so difficult, even though nothing is written in English?
Did you know that people are generally friendly in any country you visit? But you need to keep your windows rolled up in that traffic in Kenya because thieves often will reach in and grab your phone or other valuables?
Did you know that time is viewed (and acted on) differently in most parts of the world than it is in the United States? Or did you know that the middle class is the fastest growing segments of population globally?
“Well” you say, “those aren’t exactly important things to know.” Well, you’re right (unless you are in a village in Malawi with elephants…just ask my son!).
But what knowing these types of things does do is cause you to think differently. You think bigger and with greater understanding. You think with less selfishness. You learn to be careful while at the same time becoming more adventurous. You relate better to people and to the world around you. Experiencing these things expands your world and your ability to grow and operate in that world.
3. Traveling overseas empowers you to take on greater challenges in life.
When I sent my son off to Malawi after we had visited Rwanda, I was one nervous Dad! He had to change planes in Nairobi and then find our friend once he arrived in Malawi.
But he did it. And he spent the next 4 months in Africa without any of his family. We allowed him to do this because we had already taken him to Africa twice, but we were still nervous. But his travel and experiences during those 4 months gave him confidence and understanding of who he was and what he could do that he never would have gained any other way.
So how do you get your young adult overseas?
I get it – travel is expensive, right?
Well, yes and no. It can be any of those things. In reality, however, it’s not as expensive or scary or dangerous as you might think. The key is to understand what you need to understand about the place you might be going. Perhaps I’ll write another post about how to research a travel destination (but here’s a place to start).
But here’s what I know about getting overseas:
- Usually we find a way to do what we really want to do, and traveling is no different. It’s a matter of prioritizing our time and money to make it happen. Eventually it will happen if it’s important enough to us and we’re willing to work toward that end.
- There are numerous opportunities for young people to travel. If it’s not a priority for their family, they can easily find opportunity through a missions program (my son went with Operation Mobilization, which offers numerous opportunities) or a secular humanitarian program (I have a friend who recently traveled to Tanzania to help in various programs, and while there climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro).
- In most cases, traveling overseas carries little more danger than many places in our own country. It’s simply a matter of being aware, being smart and being careful – just like here in the US.
And one more thing I know about young people traveling overseas: it will change their life – forever.