Taming the travel monsters

Travel is about allowing the world to challenge our assumptions; the amazing adventures and intriguing people trump any ephemeral discomforts.

As an avid traveler, I encourage people to tour the world. Yet time and again they offer excuses that are more bogeyman than fact, more monster than truth.

Monster No. 1: I want to see the United States first.

This country has many natural, historic, and cultural treasures, but of the wonders listed in "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" by Patricia Schultz, only 190 are in the US. Traveling is more than visiting famous sites. It's about allowing the world to challenge our assumptions.

I rode a cable car up Cape Town's Table Mountain, but was more awed by a woman in a South African township who bragged that now that she had a spigot in her front yard, she no longer had to carry water a mile. In Malaysia I visited a headhunter village, but felt more cultural disconnect when a soft-spoken Muslim asked why Americans thought money, not children, made them rich. Such moments remind me that the best journeys go beyond seeing famous places, and the most indelible memories are made by ordinary people.

Monster No. 2: The world is anti-American.

Since 9/11, I've traveled on five continents, and I've never been the victim of anti-Americanism. Many disagree with our government's policies, but most like individual Americans. We're regarded as cheerful, inquisitive, and generous.

Because American movies and television programs are shown worldwide, people often want to clarify their media-colored perceptions of our country. I've been asked how many people I've shot and if I've ever driven on a gravel road. These queries provide openings for me to ask questions, and sometimes the conversations become magical as we two strangers venture beyond nationality and ethnicity to touch upon our shared humanity.

Monster No. 3: I'll get lost.

If you travel – even within the US – you will get lost. Most of the times I've been lost abroad have been momentarily frustrating, but resulted in wonderful memories of confused language and laughing strangers. Getting lost means I loosen my mental grip on my self-imposed schedule of places to visit and things to do. It forces me to change my perspective from destination to journey. So relax, I tell myself. Get lost!

Monster No. 4: I have a narrow comfort zone.

There is no one right way to travel. I'll never ride trains through China with Paul Theroux or roam developing countries, like Rita Goldman Gelman. Instead, I travel where time, budget, interest, and opportunity allow.

My most exhausting trip was a three-week camping safari in Southern Africa. But I've also luxuriated in bed-and-breakfasts in Australia, monasteries in Italy, and beach resorts in Malaysia. When I've unwittingly booked a dump, I remind myself that one night's bad sleep is not the end of the world.

"Try it. You might like it!" applies to exotic foods. In Botswana mopani worms – long, fat caterpillars that have been dried and smoked – were not my favorite. But warthog was sweet and succulent. Plus, our guide gave me kudos for sampling both. If you have special dietary needs, tour with a company that caters to them or rent an apartment and cook for yourself. A friend who's on a restricted diet is planning a trip to South Africa's Kruger National Park. While she's there, her meals may end up being monotonous, but she's willing to trade that for watching elephants and baboons in their natural habitats.

Travel stretches body and mind, but the memories of amazing adventures and intriguing people trump ephemeral discomforts.

Monster No. 5: I can't afford to travel.

Whenever someone says this, I think of my friend Joe. While working in Australia, he invited his parents to visit. Too expensive, they said. Then Joe's father bought a used Mercedes. He admitted he didn't need the car, but couldn't resist the low price. That Mercedes cost more than the trip Joe's parents couldn't afford.

Americans have more disposable income than anyone in the history of the planet. Not only can we afford to travel, we should make it a priority. If we want to succeed in this complex, integrated world, we must witness how other people live and work, celebrate and worship. A great nation cannot be an ignorant nation.

These five monsters, and any others you might imagine, are no more ferocious than the nightmare in your closet. So book that trip. When you journey beyond America's borders and meet people of other nations, you'll find the travel monsters easily tamed.

Kay Jordan is freelance writer and frequent world traveler.

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