I have a friend that recently told me, “I have seen the third world. One time; our driver; in Mexico; took us through it on the way to the resort in Cancun. I didn’t like it.”
My friend is a person that many would consider “well-traveled” and she has many stamps in her passport to prove it. From closely guided, comfortably cushioned, climate controlled comfort she has journeyed to many locations in the world. She is the envy of many and I suppose, in a lot of ways, she is “living the dream”. I am proud of her because she has overcome inertia and seen more of the world than many of her friends who are too busy, too incurious, or (more likely) too scared to do what she has done. Yet, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for her, because she is missing out on many of the most valuable aspects of travel.
Places matter. Location, not so much.
A place is defined by its attitudes and culture. A location is defined by GPS coordinates or a dot on a map. Location is about orientation. Place is about seeing where you are and how you fit. Rarely do people spend their lives trying to get a sense of location, but you often see people trying to get a sense of place.
It is hard to know a place without having some affinity toward it. Taking the time to be a part of a place — if even for a little while — is an opportunity to learn and grow. Immersing oneself, without reservation, in the culture of a place creates understanding and makes for a richer experience. Remaining detached and merely observing the world at arm’s length, wherever one travels, keeps people apart and our world divided.
Participatory travel, and seeing places, is more difficult than just going to different locations because it requires leaving your comfort zones — mental and physical — and making an effort to abandon your preferences and prejudices, and trust that there are lessons and value in other cultures. If you are just interested in seeing different locations and traveling in a style that keeps you isolated from everyone but your doppelgangers, or only seeing locales so similar to home as to be indistinguishable from it, you are missing out on much of the richness, adventure, and benefit of travel.