What’s so great about travel?

I remember saying this to my friends one morning in Mexico. I’ve often taken pride in my travel experiences; the ones where I can return and somehow justify that I’ve become a better human being. These trips may have included several epiphanies where I had to confront myself, my biases and presuppositions I had about a culture. Yet, no one ever talks about the transformation that you experience through adverse experiences; this transformation no one talks about, where you become an instant expert in something you had no idea you ever become.

The worst moment

So back to the worst moment of my trip. When Hurricane Gustav hit the U.S. in 2008, there was a sense of panic. Much of the focus was on relief, which rightfully so, needed to be addressed. Yet, just as quickly Gustav hit, with the same quickness he disappeared. Little did many know that Gustav came back with all his vengeance to Mexico, specifically around Monterrey area. Houses, apartments, and towns were destroyed. During this time, I was in Monterrey getting ready, unknowingly, for my dissertation idea to reveal itself to me…and then, we were hit. I remember the shock, the numbness, and then turning around and seeing water cascade from all sides of the house. There was water pouring in from windows, rushing in through doors, and even the walls began to crack and allow some water slowly come in. I remember the first thought that crossed my mind, “I DON’T WANT DIE BY MYSELF IN MEXICO.” I placed my “precious” laptop high, ran upstairs, and walked outside on the balcony watching the horror in a state of impotence.

The morning after the hurricane, the counseling students in Mexico began to gather water and diapers for families to take them to remote communities. On our way up we were told to turn around because Los Zetas had blocked off the entrance into impoverished communities. We ended up turning around to visit another community; one where houses were built along the river. When we got there it was apparent that individuals had desperately made holes in their walls to climb out and save themselves.

Unwanted expertise

Unknowingly, in the midst of observing despair, I became aware of my prior idealistic mind of how the world worked.

Having the privilege of not having to be exposed to this amount of suffering, my blinders were taken off and I became aware that what might have been these individuals’ “everyday,” was my encounter of fragility.

I was flooded with sadness, anger, confusion, and surprise. At that moment I became an expert; an expert of experiencing true cultural sensitivity, an increase of empathy, and coming into awareness I had no idea was possible.

Birthing something new

In this moment I realized that there was no other way I could have acquired cultural sensitivity at this level of magnitude without an experiential component. No textbook could have prepared me for this. Then I noticed that I started to ask more questions, what is it that makes traveling so transformative? What is it that we’re seeking when we’re placed in situations where we encounter difference? Why does it feel that we are propelled into birthing new selves by stepping on foreign ground?

According to Merriam-Webster, the “simple” definition of transformation is the following: “a complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.” In my travel research, much of the description shared by participants has the component of “major change” and yet the experience was more than that.

If I had to boil down transformation into one sentence, the essence of transformation is the yearning to encounter difference, the want to connect with others, the unwavering search for something beyond themselves, and ultimately, seeking some shift or movement that allows us to come back different…shedding our old selves into something new.

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