I am a traveler. I state this because of the vast difference between traveling and migration. Traveling is an opportunity afforded to few to wander and explore; migration is a movement of necessity and often urgent purpose. Almost a cliché, I am one of the privileged travelers, a young, educated, white male on a semester-long journey. Despite this, the fact that I am not a migrant does not detract from the truth that to travel is to learn. Traveling is learning about the unseen past and present as well as the unrealized future. In its purest form, to travel is to engage in reflection and projection.
Traveling wipes out the ingrained sensory adaptation to our environment, the process of tuning out repeated and normal events in order to keep the brain from overheating. While that filtering is often useful, much is lost in the process. Travel directs our eyes to see the same things from a different perspective. Paulo Friere, in We Make the Road by Walking, calls this destruction of the filter “ruptura”, noting that “there is no creativity without [it], without a break from the old” (38). Ruptura, facilitated by travel, can be a mirror for the unnoticed past and present.
My first time traveling was to Malawi in the summer of 2009 and it was there that I experienced ruptura. I worked at a rural hospital in Namitete, a small village an hour from the capital city of Lilongwe, on a variety of projects ranging from teaching the cleaning staff in the post-op ward basic physical therapy to helping design a low-cost incubator out of basic materials. Every day, I interacted with people who had a small but vital role in their community. It took a journey across an ocean to realize simple truth: everything counts. The previous fall I had enthusiastically volunteered in the 2008 presidential election for then Senator Obama, but I questioned whether what I did really mattered. Upon reflection in Malawi, I concluded that those small actions add up to something much larger. I had discovered the power of collective action.
Ruptura isn’t just about rethinking the past; the break also provides a contrast that illuminates the present. In the fall of 2012, I threw my energy yet again at the American political process, taking on a student leadership role in Obama’s reelection campaign . Months after another landmark experience, I arrived in Doha to hear no one talking about political activism. I have yet to meet a student in Education City who is as excited as I am about the possibility of public service in government. In Malawi, traveling taught me the importance of small, collective community action. In Doha, traveling revealed something I have undervalued my whole life: the invigorating opportunity to be part of government and politics.
Political activism is a form of expression. Again in Doha, travel unearthed something I’ve missed in my acceptance of what’s normal: the power of expression and freedom of speech. I came to this revelation while listening to hip-hop during a long lunch on a day off from classes, when I realized that one element I hadn’t seen in Doha was anger and discontent freely expressed. I’m not an angry person, but listening to music fueled by discontent - artists like Macklemore, Lupe Fiasco, and Talib Kweli - made me pause and regard anger’s power. Friere goes further, tying knowledge to emotion, stating that “knowing for me is not a neutral act, not only from the political point of view, but from the point of my body… it is full of feelings, of emotions, of tastes.” (23). It’s only when we have the full range of emotion available to us as a tool of expression that we can truly say something profound, that we can we really know something.
The forced mirror that traveling creates is not not necessarily always a good thing. We travel with our own prejudices and judgement is prejudice’s close companion. Myles Horton, thinking through his attempts at community education, reflected that “I couldn’t see how this was part of anything that I knew anything about and couldn’t quite bring myself to think there were ways of doing things outside the system” (50). Perhaps the lack of political activism and freedom of expression is not an issue in Qatar and the people are happy with current state of affairs and I’m stuck in the American mindset. Thinking through these contrasts - democracy versus absolute monarchy, free versus limited speech - is a valuable exercise thrust upon the traveler. Through these exercises, travelers can begin to have an idea of the future they want to project for themselves and others.
Sorting out the prescription for self is the easier endeavor and relies heavily on curiosity. Friere, elevating curiosity as “absolutely indispensable for us to continue to be or become”, gives it an important place in self-growth. Without curiosity, the contrasts encountered through travel would never be explored. I cannot imagine a world for where I cannot fully express myself. The differences between Qatar and the United States has solidified my appreciation of the freedom of speech and my commitment to that right being part of my own life. Disparity offers a simple choice for the individual: which do I prefer?
Extending prescription beyond self becomes much more difficult. As I travel and collect experiences to compare and contrast, I have to not just consider what I would prefer, but what would be best for others. This thought process is not about a contrast between existing communities but for the one we want to see. Freire calls this projection of the future a “dream with a different society” (58). Like John Rawl’s famous thought experiment, the original position, this community of dreams must be built keeping everyone’s interests in mind. In the case of freedom of speech, I cannot dream of a society without it. My short time in Doha has already shown an opportunity for discontent to find voice in the plight of the country’s migrant workers.
Traveling gives us a chance to think with a blank slate as movement shifts perspective and shakes the mind free from its complacency. With that temporary tabula rasa, the traveler begins to see things he may have overlooked. More important than that reflection, though, is the opportunity that traveling presents to dreamers. I travel to collect the stuff of my dreams, for myself and for others. I bump into contrast, brainstorm blueprints for the future I want to see and continue the construction of a better world in my mind. When I return from my travels, I can only hope that the dreaming continues while the hands get to work.