I have never been a checklist traveler.
While I’ve seen the sun rise over Ankor Wat, I remember more vividly the young Cambodian driver who invited my companion and me to his home outside Siem Reap. In India, I passed up a side trip to the Taj Mahal to hang with a bunch of international runners who also were doing a 100-mile race in the Himalayas. I’ve visited the bridge on the River Kwai but paid more attention to the conversation with my Thai tour guide.
Seeing photos of historic sites are often enough for me. I look for experiences with humans.
When I was in sixth grade, my family spent a half year traveling around Europe during my father’s sabbatical. What I remember most is accompanying the Portuguese maid at our Parisienne pensione to get morning baguettes and hearing about her life.
At 17, on a program to restore a historic chateau in the south of France, I snagged a French boyfriend and listened to American kids spin out over college admissions. My desire to attend Yale was a result solely of that time in the haute Loire. Being in France meant mostly that I grew to love apricot yogurt and still know the words to the 1979 hit, “Je l’aime a mourir.”
The summer after sophomore year in college, I lucked into a chic apartment in the sixieme and savored feeling like a local. I’d stroll down the Boulevard St. German to nurse a café au lait at Les Deux Magots, where I’d mentally insert myself into the lineage of writers who’d sipped there before me.
Then I’d head to Shakespeare and Co, where George Whitman, the owner, had offered me a place to stay. Whitman had, I later learned, a long tradition of making the dingy beds scattered around the store available to young travelers in exchange for a couple of hours of work. I wonder which now-famous writers I might have encountered if I’d become one of the bookstore’s “Tumbleweeds.”
Many days I strolled across the Pont au Double to Notre Dame. I’d learned in classes about rib vaults and flying buttresses, but walking down that church’s apse and into the nave, I felt small, humbled. At night, I’d talk about it with my Turkish boyfriend. He would pick up wine cheaper than bottled water, and we’d lay on the banks of the Seine. From him I heard what it was like to be an immigrant in France, about discrimination, about chauvinism in the country that gave us the word.
When the great cathedral burned last year, I thought about how much I’d loved Paris.
Then I thought about recent natural disasters in Indonesia and Puerto Rico. And in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, which, at the time Notre Dame was burning, were still under water from the cyclone that had hit less than a month before. Hundreds of people dead, thousands displaced, cholera spreading like gossip.
And then, acts of terrorism in Pittsburgh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
When tragedy strikes, we look for ways to connect personally. I felt the impact of the tsunami in Thailand because I’d been to Phuket years before. Everyone who’s ever lived in New York City has a 9/11 memory. I think often of the people who worked in the World Trade Towers but rarely about the 260 who perished when a plane bound for the Dominican Republic crashed after taking off from JFK two months later. At the time, I knew no one from the DR. After hurricanes anywhere in the U.S., I recall living in North Carolina through Andrew and Fran.
Once your disaster is off the front page, life for the rest of the world else goes on, and you’re still digging out.
When I read of catastrophes in places to which I am not connected, I think, that’s terrible, and I move along. We need a tether to disasters to feel them. And when we find that link, we reach out to tragedy and draw it close. We feel it.
The immediate outpouring of support and money to rebuild Notre Dame was largely because it’s a place many have visited and feel a connection.
Mozambique? Not so much.
And perhaps that’s the real value of travel. It doesn’t just broaden our minds – it expands our empathy for fellow humans.
Last month I went to China. Friends had given me lists of must-sees, must-eats, must-dos. I saw, ate and did almost none of them.
I will remember not the view from the top of Canton Tower or walking around Tiananmen Square, but the millennial who told me that he follows Donald Trump on Twitter for amusement and said that “everyone” knows his government’s “news” is mere propaganda. I’ll remember the young woman who, when I mentioned a book banned in China, searched for it on her phone and said “This one?” ready to click to buy it.
Most of what friends had told me to expect from China turned out to be wrong. I learned this only by talking to people who lived there.
I’ll worry about the those folks if the protests in Hong Kong jump to the mainland or if there’s a natural disaster in China.
I travel to connect to people, not to see sights.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.