This past year was an extraordinarily rich one for me in many ways, especially in the realm of travel.
I was on the road almost five months, with domestic trips to Washington, D.C., New York, Connecticut, and Florida, and international trips to Japan, Australia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Mexico, plus a cruise that took in Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Russia, Germany, and Denmark.
These travels included so many enriching adventures that it’s hard to choose just a few to focus on. But three especially important lessons emerged.
1. Travel brings history to life.
My career as a travel writer and editor began with the epiphany in Paris, some three decade ago, that the world was the classroom in which I wanted to study. Every journey since then has affirmed that I learn more, and more powerfully, in the world than in an ivy-cloaked lecture hall.
The related lesson that revealed itself this year was how travel can bring history to life. I wasn’t an inspired history student in high school and college, but I was inspired this year when I learned about the origins and evolution of Japanese religions while standing in Kyoto’s Tenryu-ji temple rock garden, Swedish seafaring traditions and tales while admiring the bow of a 17th-century ship in Stockholm’s Vasa Museum, and the range and riches of ancient Khmer kingdoms surrounded by Siem Reap bas-reliefs and towers.
The most moving lesson of all was bestowed in Berlin, when a guide named Sabine Mueller took my wife and me on a day tour of that poignant, pulsating city. Sabine was a 20-year-old living in Berlin in 1989, and she began our tour by taking us to the Brandenburg Gate and describing in detail what happened the night the Berlin Wall came down and people began rushing to and through the border.
“You can imagine the euphoria I felt, we all felt, the next morning when my friend and I raced to the Wall,” she said. “There were crowds of people drinking and dancing and celebrating. Some people had hopped on top of the Wall; others were chipping away parts of it. No one knew what the future would bring, but in that moment no one was thinking of the future—we were just intoxicated by the sense of history happening under our feet, in front of our eyes.”
As she said these words, goosebumps ran along my body and tears streamed into my eyes. Here was someone who had lived through this world-altering event, sharing it with us, drawing us into it as if we were actually there, too. That day changed my understanding of the Berlin Wall—and my sense of connection to Berlin’s history—forever. It pulses inside me now.
2. Discomfort can lead to enlightenment.
Discomfort comes in various guises on the road.
Sometimes it’s culinary: A wildly unfamiliar dish is placed before you in a back-alley restaurant—and you realize that everyone in the restaurant is looking at you expectantly.
Sometimes it’s cultural: Should I remove my shoes before I step over this threshold? Am I going to create an international incident if I bring my bath towel into the shared bath?
Sometimes it’s linguistic: I know you’ve just said something to me while holding out the beautiful carving you’ve made, but I don’t know if you’re offering it to me as a gift or if you’re asking how much I’d be willing to pay for it.
And sometimes it’s all three together, as it was for me last fall when I stayed with a family in a muddy-pathed, chicken-loud village in rural Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.
When I was first welcomed into the simple, two-story stilt house where I was to spend three nights, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. To begin with, it was hot and wet and steamy–rainy season was in full deluge—but much more intimidating was the fact that my hosts spoke perhaps a dozen words of English (and I spoke exactly one word of Khmer) and that I was completely unaccustomed to my setting: the bucket-flush family bathroom down the winding stairs from my second-floor bedroom, the muddy, puddled paths I had to navigate to get anywhere, the indecipherable dinner I would be invited to share.
I collapsed under my mosquito net and thought, How am I possibly going to survive my stay here?
Then the ensuing days brought one wonder-filled adventure after another—jungle ruins, breathtaking palm-and-paddy landscapes, exquisite weaving shops—and a cascade of waves and hellos from the compound’s kids, moms, teens, and dads whenever I walked to and from my home.
My home: After three days that’s the way it felt, and the time to leave came all too soon.
Embracing my discomfort, going with its flow, had been the key to the success of my visit. My homestay in Banteay Chhmar taught me once again that the world offers unexpected, irreplaceable rewards—if only we open ourselves to them.
3. Innocence is inexhaustible.
The journey that first taught me this truth was a metaphorical one. I spent much of the first four months of 2014 editing an anthology of original travel stories for Lonely Planet, recently published under the title An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers. The book’s premise, that innocence can be a tool for connection, discovery, and even transformation on the road, led nearly three dozen writers to send me wonderful tales that took me all around the world—an editor’s grand tour.
After I had finished with my editing work, I set out to write my introduction to the book, trying to sum up what the stories had taught me and what my own life adventures in innocence had taught me as well. In the course of that writing, I realized something that I’d never fully understood before.
“When I left Princeton for Paris,” I wrote, “I believed that innocence was something you lost once, never to be regained. But then I lost it again, and again, and again, as I have continued to do, across six continents, over the ensuing decades. Now I understand that innocence is inexhaustible: The more we lose, the more we gain. Each loss, whether through ignorance or idealism, misassumption or misinformation, burnishes and broadens our understanding of how much more remains.”
That lesson has threaded through all of my journeys this year, from Shikoku to St. Petersburg, Cambodia to Connecticut. Wherever I’ve found myself, whatever the situation I’ve stumbled into, I’ve discovered that the key to appreciative, fulfilling, self-expanding, world-connecting travel is to embrace the moment, open your arms to the unknown.
As I wrote by way of concluding my introduction, “As long as we continue to venture into unfamiliar situations, to open our hearts and minds to foreign ways, as long as we are able to keep losing our innocence abroad, that innocence will never end—and our appreciation of the world, our embrace of this unembraceable whole, will extend, and extend, and extend.”
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited several award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.