Celebrating its 8th year, WorldHum recently republished a marvelous essay by Pico Iyer on Why We Travel. The essay explored the transformative nature of travel – breaking down prejudices and assumptions, self-discovery, connections, and other inner journey discoveries. Iyer painted wonderful imageries of how our souls are re-awakened and challenged and our minds opened. So many of his descriptions could equally be speaking about the heart and spirit of voluntourism.
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed.”
“Travel in that sense guides us toward a better balance of wisdom and compassion—of seeing the world clearly, and yet feeling it truly. For seeing without feeling can obviously be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.“
“Yet for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle. “
“If a Mongolian restaurant seems exotic to us in Evanston, Ill., it only follows that a McDonald’s would seem equally exotic in Ulan Bator—or, at least, equally far from everything expected. Though it’s fashionable nowadays to draw a distinction between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don’t.”
“But for the rest of us, the sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.”
“We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home.”
“Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.“
“And in the process, we also get saved from abstraction ourselves, and come to see how much we can bring to the places we visit, and how much we can become a kind of carrier pigeon—an anti-Federal Express, if you like—in transporting back and forth what every culture needs.”
“We carry values and beliefs and news to the places we go, and in many parts of the world, we become walking video screens and living newspapers, the only channels that can take people out of the censored limits of their homelands.“
“Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty.”
These are selected highlights from the essay that capture, we feel, the essence of travel (and volunteer travel) — and if you like these, you’ll really enjoy reading the whole essay!