For me, travel is all about the experience of getting outside your comfort zone and into the rest of the world.
The sheer cultural diversity of a place like Europe alone is, frankly, amazing to me. In the US, I can travel 3000 miles from Washington DC to San Francisco and stop off in 40 places along the way, and meet more or less the same types of people who are eating (mostly) the same things day-in-day-out, living the same American lifestyle, using (mostly) the same language, and shopping at the same chain stores. In Europe, however, if I choose to take the Eurostar from London to Paris, I will find myself immersed in a new culture, in a new country with its own regional differences, a new language, and potentially a completely different way of life.
And then there’s the history. The world outside the United States has so much history, everywhere. There is so much of the past alive and commingled with the present. There are cities, markets, buildings, locations, sculptures, paintings, and families that pre-date the world I live in every day by hundreds or even THOUSANDS of years. Wrap your head around that for a second. Amazing.
The thing about travel is, it changes you fundamentally. Almost as when taking some sort of psychedelic, you are suddenly able to view your traditional world from the outside, and able to view this world you are used to being on the outside of from the inside. Perceptions and perspectives are flipped on their heads. Things just seem different. This is why, at the end of a trip, I always feel sort of like Frodo or Bilbo, not quite fitting into The Shire anymore when I return. Home seems small, and the rest of the world seems so big.
If there’s one thing I truly believe, it’s that completely immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture can lead to unprecedented personal growth. Senses are heightened. You notice little things that you wouldn’t notice at home – smells, sights, sounds. Emotions are in high-gear. Simple things like navigating public transport and ordering food in a language you barely speak invoke anxiety or even fear. This makes you vulnerable to change.
I fully believe that a task you can complete with virtually no thought on a day-to-day basis can be transformed from mundane to magnificent if performed sufficiently outside your comfort zone. Experiences like this put you in a position where you must behave differently in order to even have your basic needs met. I would venture to say that true and complete cultural immersion can be a great example of the Buddhist idea of “mindfulness,” wherein one becomes acutely aware of his surroundings, thus being able to fully appreciate them in the present. While I do not claim to be a Buddhist, or claim to be an expert on the subject, I do know this much: previous travel experience has alerted me to the fact that I crave this type of full cultural immersion. The craving is persistent, and it comes from a place deep inside me — and that is why I love to travel.